In the December of 2016, I gave my first competitive speech on the Rohingya Muslims, a people I had only found out about myself 30 minutes before. As I stood there, informing a singular judge about the brutalization of an entire ethnic group, I was horrified at my own apathy. Why was I only just finding out now about the Rohingyas? More importantly, why was their name so unfamiliar to the average citizen?
When I gave that speech in 2016, the American media had sorely neglected what was right in front of them. By the August of 2017, the large scale and explicit persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was well underway. However, articles covering the ongoing human rights crisis were few, and far between. And when it was time for me to write my outline for my speech, I found myself struggling to find an adequate source to cite. I had to rely almost solely on the sparse reporting of The New York Times. The media silence continued well into the Fall of 2017.
Suddenly, sometime around September, there was an outbreak of articles detailing the atrocities of Myanmar. The New York Times no longer relegated the plight of the Rohingya to singular articles every few weeks; instead, entire spreads were devoted to the topic and their daily briefings began with multifaceted depictions/analyses of the genocide.
Other publications, such as The Washington Post and BBC appeared equally conscious. The Rohingya Muslims were no longer unfamiliar to the mainstream flow of information, and the world was engaged. So for an entire spring and summer, I watched as the world pretended they cared about the hundreds of thousands of forced migrants fleeing the devastation of Myanmar’s troops.
Just as suddenly as coverage began, it ended. Sometime around June of this year, the seemingly continuous flow of articles became, once again, the pathetic trickle it had been at the start of the crisis. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a marker of the persecution’s end. Journalists simply no longer cared, at least not publicly, about what was happening to the almost 800,000 men, women, and children who had been ripped from their homes. The few articles that did continue to speckle our newsstands, reported the Rohingyas continued suspension of existence, as they roamed the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, denied safe entry to either nation. As of today, the Rohingya are being forced to return to the so called “killing-grounds” where they will continue to be persecuted as an unwanted race; and it seems as if the media has failed to find this particular horror relevant enough for front pages.
In light of the media’s willful blindness, the United Nations has been able to push the issue to the side. World leaders have been wrongfully relieved from pressure to accept the displaced Rohingyas into their respective countries. As a result, the Rohingyas are either living in poorly-built camps, where they exist in a state of unrelenting degradation, or they are being sent back to Myanmar to face more death and destruction. In the past year, nothing has been done to relieve the situation, and yet it seems to be completely irrelevant to a world that claimed it cared.
There’s no concrete explanation for why the media decided to care at the point, or for the period, that they did. But it is undeniable that in the time the Rohingya crisis was relevant to the media, it was relevant to the people. Rohingya was a word people could, and wanted to pronounce. There were people petitioning to strip Aung San Suu Kyi of her Nobel Prize, and her de facto leadership. There were even groups putting pressure on their nations to accept the refugees. On the surface, it appeared as if the world genuinely wanted to make a change.
A history riddled with genocide such as that of Rwanda, and the more commonly known Holocaust, prompts the expectation of a more conscious public; one with the general understanding of how quickly these events spiral completely out of control. Yet we continue to live riding the waves the media creates, and we forget the words we read on our screens shape the reality of a people.
In America especially, we obsess over being the good guy. Politicians are able to push policies by promising the public that the effort will help in the spread of democracy, and in the end of tyranny. But when faced with a choice of being on the right or wrong side of history, we find ourselves susceptible to repeatedly making the wrong decisions.
The media may be the blood that runs through the veins of the world, but blood inevitably must run through a heart. It is our moral obligation as individuals, and as nations, to be the hearts that make a change.