Regional Media and the Plight of the Rohingya

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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The Rohingya people, a Muslim ethnic-minority group residing in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, have increasingly been in the news due to their desperate attempts to flee persecution. Facing hardship and discrimination at home, where they are not legally recognized, thousands of Rohingya have attempted to illegally enter other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. The plight of the “boat people,” as they are often referred, has attracted the attention of the Middle Eastern media, many of whom have taken their leaders to task for staying silent in the face of the unspeakable suffering of their coreligionists, amid world apathy.

The plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and in neighboring countries is made evident in a report by the Daily Times’ (Pakistan) Muhammad Zafar Khan Safdar, who points out that “The Rohingya people’s plight is further exacerbated by their statelessness…As non-citizens, the Rohingya can only possess Foreign Registration Cards, which are rejected by a number of schools and employers. The government has also restricted their rights to marry, own property and move freely, which are guaranteed to non-citizens under international law. Human rights violations continue till today despite the election of a civilian government in March 2011….The religious intolerance is directed toward the Rohingya Muslim population. The UN has long characterized the Rohingya Muslims as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim sentiment has long tainted the state’s political and social spheres. The escalating violence recently has not only exacerbated the humanitarian crisis of the Rohingyas, but has also threatened to undermine Myanmar’s transition from military rule to democratic governance.”

The problem, according to Daily Sabah’s Tahir Iqbal, is that the Burmese government has, at best, been completely unresponsive to the needs of the Rohingya, and at worst has been complicit in their suffering: “Unfortunately, human rights are at a crossroads in the country. The mass killings of Muslims have prompted calls of genocide in some sections of the government and the mentality of neighboring states is extremely troubling and bleak. Prime Minister Haseena Wajid, of Bangladesh made a harsh proclamation that Myanmar’s Muslims are disturbed individuals and mentally sick. Madam prime minister, if one witnesses the enormous scale of brutal killings of old and young, men, women and innocent children, nobody could remain sane….Human rights in Myanmar are in an even worse state, as a huge number of internally displaces people are escaping to neighboring states and, lamentably, the neighboring states are hesitant to welcome them. The champions of human rights are remaining silent over this genuine danger to humankind.”

In a recent op-ed for the Saudi Gazette, Ali Al-Ghamdi expresses his disappointment that Myanmar’s most famous dissident — 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi — has, many believe, turned her back on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims: “Despite thousands of Rohingya fleeing on harrowing boat journeys to Southeast Asia to escape a wave of deadly attacks and discriminatory treatment, Suu Kyi has yet to speak out against their plight. Even the continuous persecution of these hapless people has not prompted Suu Kyi to break her long silence over the issue….According to some analysts, she is now working for politics and not for peace for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her position on the issue was evident during her visit to Europe when the Rohingya crisis was thrown into the international spotlight in 2012. She kept silent about the miserable life of Rohingya Muslims. Even the winning of the Nobel Prize has not made her come out in defense of basic human rights and morality.”

In an op-ed for the Pakistani daily The News, Aijaz Zaka Syed notes his concern that given the vulnerability of the population, the group could become prey of Taliban recruitment strategies, though there are no indications the Rohingyas Muslim community is giving heed to their calls: “Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Taliban… has urged Muslims in Myanmar to ‘rise up and fight’ the country’s rulers, saying their resources and training facilities were available to help them ‘take up the sword’. The TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan says the Taliban ‘share the grief’ of the beleaguered Muslim minority in Burma.’…Deprived of citizenship, voting rights and their very identity as a people with basic rights – the junta insists on calling them ‘Bengalis’ – the Rohingyas are a lost lot with no champions and guardian angels among Hollywood celebrities and world powers…. And no matter what the Pakistani Taliban think of ‘taking up the sword’, not many Rohingya find themselves up to the task….Fleeing becomes the only option, no matter how dangerous that might be, the choice being between certain death and a small chance of survival.”

Meanwhile, the Arab News editorial staff points out the fact that the international community has failed to draw the needed attention to the situation and has done very little to improve it: “These people have been subjected to treatment that is little short of genocide. There are some 900,000 to a million Rohingyas in Myanmar. They have been denied their civic rights on the basis that they are not Burmese citizens. Even though there have been Rohingyas living in Myanmar for many generations, they have been branded as ‘non-people’…. The Myanmar government bears direct responsibility for the unfolding tragedy of the Rohingyas. Yet who is calling it to account? UN and NGO reports, specifying the persecution and officially sanctioned brutality go unheeded. Myanmar is no longer being treated as a pariah state. Foreign investors are flooding in. Visiting political leaders glad-hand Thein and his cronies and praise the move toward democracy. But the photo opportunity they all want to have is with opposition leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.” 

No wonder then, that The News’ Mohsin Raza Malik urges the world community to do more: “Although the UN has acknowledged the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in the Rakhine province of Burma (Myanmar), as ‘the most persecuted minority in the world’, yet the world community has hardly made any significant endeavors to minimize the miseries of these long-suffering people of Southeast Asia. The way they are being treated and persecuted is simply unprecedented….Giving rise to one of the worst refugee crisis in the world, the governments of these Southeast Asian countries have denied the entry of the Rohingyas into their territory terming them economic migrants. Sadly, these countries are now playing a game of international ping pong vis-à-vis these helpless migrants.”

The fear is that should the current status quo continue for much longer, the Rohingyas’ situation will become more dire, which is why the Khaleej Times’ editorial calls for specific action to be taken on behalf of the Rohingya Muslims: “The Rohingya people, who are scrambled in Bangladesh and Myanmar, are subject to international law, as their host governments contest their national identity. Some 1.5 million Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state of Myanmar are clueless as to where they belong as Bangladesh shuns them and Myanmar refuses to accept them as citizens….This issue can be addressed in a two-pronged manner: First, all the migrants who have launched themselves in a troublesome journey should be accounted for and rehabilitated. Second, an international commission under the UN should help find a permanent home for them after talks with the governments of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. If they are not settled early and discussions are delayed, more people will die at sea, at the hands of traffickers and in camps.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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