Lesson

Responding to the Rohingya Crisis

Overview

Since late August 2017, the Rohingya, a minority Muslim group in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, have been under attack by the country’s military. As of fall 2017, over 500,000 refugees are thought to have fled Myanmar, most to neighboring Bangladesh. In this lesson about the Rohingya, students will put this crisis in historical context, view footage from one of the refugee camps, and hear a survivor’s testimony. They will also have the opportunity to reflect upon and discuss both the role individual stories play in the telling of history and the international community’s obligation in the face of what the United Nations’ top human rights official has called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”

The firsthand accounts of individuals who were targeted by or witnessed genocide and other atrocities humanize these events by allowing individual stories and voices to give shape and nuance to news articles’ facts and figures. Testimonies are never easy to hear, but they are an important part of bearing witness—of honoring those victimized by violence, their experiences, their stories, their losses, their perseverance, and their courage.

While we believe it is important to create space in the classroom to hear and respond to survivors’ voices, most of the Rohingyas’ testimonies, especially those told by women and young girls who have been subjected to beatings and systematized rape, are too graphic to use in a classroom context. For this lesson, we have selected a video from a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh that includes the testimony of an elderly woman whose story, while horrific, does not necessarily represent the severity of violence and atrocity many survivors of this crisis have faced. Still, it is important that you view and read the materials for this lesson before deciding whether or not they are appropriate for your students.

Context

After a group from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacked military posts in the Rakhine state of east Myanmar on August 25, 2017, the Myanmar military responded with systemic and violent attacks on Rohingya civilians, their villages, and their land. It was estimated that by fall 2017, at least 500,000 Rohingya—about one half of the total population of this ethnic Muslim minority—have fled Myanmar, formerly Burma, many to makeshift refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Nongovernmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee, and the United National Relief Agency have been on the ground assisting with relief efforts to feed, house, and provide additional support to the refugees. Testimonies from victims who have escaped the massacres speak of violent atrocities committed against Rohingya women, men, and children. While systematic violence by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya escalated in fall 2017, the origins of the conflict date back to World War II. According to the UNHRC, the Rohingya “were not formally recognized as one of the country’s official national groups when the country gained independence in 1947, and they were excluded from both full and associate citizenship when these categories were introduced by the 1982 Citizenship Act.”1 They are a “stateless” people who have been denied civil rights by the leaders of Myanmar for over half a century.

Should you wish to learn more about the history of the Rohingya and the roots of the conflict before teaching this lesson, the articles The “Ethnic Cleansing” of the Rohingya and Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi can provide this additional context.

It is important to note that the contents of this lesson reflect the Rohingya crisis in the fall of 2017, and as the conflict has not yet been resolved, statistics and information may change as events continue to unfold in the future.

Citations

  • 1 : United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, States of denial: A review of UNHCR's response to the protracted situation of stateless Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, December 2011, UNHCR website, accessed October 15, 2017.

Materials

Activities

  1. Analyze an Image of Refugees
    • To open the lesson, project or distribute copies of the image Rohingya Refugees Arriving by Boat, 2017 to students. To provide students the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about the image, do not provide any context at this time, including the title of the image.
    • Lead students through a See, Think, Wonder activity, pausing after each prompt to give them time to record their thoughts. Consider asking students to add 1–2 more ideas to each response before moving to the next question. This step can push students to examine the image more closely, perhaps making a new observation or inference or posing a new question.
    • Ask students to debrief with a partner using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Alternatively, if you projected the image, you might invite students one at a time to the board to share their “sees” and “thinks,” having them point to details in the image as they present. You might also list some of their “wonders” on the board or chart paper to refer to later in the lesson.
  2. Place the Rohingya in Historical Context

    Before transitioning to the refugee crisis, it is important for students to understand a bit about the Myanmar region, its history, and its current political system.

    • Show the five-minute video from Vox The "Ethnic Cleansing" of Myanmar's Muslims, Explained which provides an overview that places the current events in historical context. Students can complete a S-I-T response to the video as a means of tracking their understanding and questions.
    • Ask students to share their ideas from their S-I-T responses. You might return to the list of “wonders” from the first activity by asking:

      • Were any of your questions answered in this video?
      • What new questions emerged as a result of watching this video?
  3. Glimpse Life Inside a Refugee Camp

    Now that students have analyzed an image and placed the Rohingya in historical context, tell them that they will watch a short video filmed inside one of the refugee camps. It is important for students to know that this video was published in late September 2017 and describes the situation at that moment in time. Despite what was reported in the video, the Rohingya continued to be targeted by the Myanmar military and forced to flee from their villages in large numbers in late 2017.

    • Show the three-minute New York Times video Inside a Rohingya Refugee Camp. Students might complete another S-I-T response to this video as a means of tracking their understanding and questions.

    • Ask students to share their ideas from their S-I-T responses. You might again return to the list of “wonders” from Activity 1 by asking:

    • Ask students to respond in their journals to the following question:

      How did hearing the elderly woman’s testimony help you understand the Rohingya crisis in a new, different, or deeper way than watching the first Vox video in Activity 2 did?

      Depending on time, you might ask students to share their responses with a partner. Alternatively, to include more voices, you might ask students to underline a phrase in their journal responses to share in a Wraparound and then discuss as a class any ideas that were repeated or that students would like to explore in more depth.

  4. Make Connections and Dig Deeper

    To help students synthesize the information from the image and two videos, ask them to discuss the following three questions with a partner, small group, or in a class discussion. For a more structured conversation, consider having students participate in a Fishbowl discussion.

    • How should the international community respond when it becomes aware of targeted violence and ethnic cleansing committed against a group of people within a foreign country?
    • Jeffrey Gettleman, a New York Times correspondent who spent time in a Bangladesh refugee camp reporting on the crisis and interviewing Rohingya survivors to gather their testimonies, reflected on an interview with a Rohingya refugee woman named Rajuma. Gettleman described a moment in the interview where Rajuma paused and became quiet. Then she went on to describe how she was beaten, raped, and left in a burning building by the Myanmar military. Gettleman observed, “I felt bad for asking for more information, but I felt it was important to document.”

      • What dilemma did Gettleman face in this moment?
      • Why do you think he thought it was important to press Rajuma for more information? Do you agree with him?
    • What connections can you make between the crisis in Myanmar and other historical events you may have studied? How does learning about the Rohingya and Myanmar’s history educate us about our responsibilities and the power of our individual and collective choices today?
  5. Closing Activity

    While you might end the lesson with the class discussion, if you would like to capture each student’s voice in a brief reflection, consider having them write a phrase or sentence that responds to the following question:

    What idea in today’s class—from the image analysis, a video, the survivor’s testimony, or class discussion—resonated with you today?

    Ask students to share their phrases or sentences (no more than one sentence per student) in a Wraparound to end class.

Extensions

  1. Revisit See, Think, Wonder

    If you have time to add an additional activity to the lesson, you might ask students after the class discussion to revisit the opening image and their initial See, Think, Wonder responses.

    Project the image Rohingya Refugees Arriving by Boat, 2017 again or ask students to take it out and then reread their See, Think, Wonder responses. Ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals:

    • Can you see anything new in the image that you missed the first time?
    • How has your thinking about the image changed as a result of today’s lesson?
    • What wonders have been answered? What new wonders do you now have?

    As a formative assessment, you might collect the students’ journals. If you do so, it is important to let them know at the outset of the lesson. Alternatively, you might assign this activity as an Exit Card; however, you will not be able to see students’ initial See, Think, Wonders, which might be interesting to compare.

  2. Dig Deeper into the Crisis

    If you would like to devote more time in the upcoming days or weeks to the ongoing Rohingya crisis, consider the following two options:

    If your class has access to computers or for a homework assignment, assign students the BBC News article Myanmar Rohingya: What You Need to Know about the Crisis. This resource has an excellent and varied array of images, from maps to overhead drone shots of Rohingya villages, as well as text that is already broken into manageable chunks. Ask students to read the article and study the images. Then ask them to complete a Connect, Extend, Challenge in their journals. Students could also complete this exercise on separate paper and submit it as an assessment.

    For more advanced readers, our lesson Understanding the Conditions that Lead to “Ethnic Cleansing” explores the idea of self-determination in the context of Myanmar and other countries where recent genocides have occurred.

  3. Choosing to Participate: A Classroom Project

    Teenagers oftentimes feel powerless in the face of global crises. They are not financially independent, they haven’t settled into a career, and many choices such as what books they will read and what classes they will take are made by the adults in their lives. However, teenagers can become involved in their local and global communities, even if they are too young to vote or intern.

    • Ask students to brainstorm ways that they, from such a long distance, can support the Rohingya. How might they raise awareness of the attacks on the Rohingya in their own community and convince others that they should respond? What concrete actions can they suggest to people?
    • You can also introduce students to organizations that are already working to address the Rohingya crisis. Pass out the New York Times article Helping the Rohingya and read aloud as a class or in small groups.
    • If your class has access to computers, ask the students to complete the following activities after they have finished reading:

      • Choose four organizations to learn about in greater depth. Explore their websites. What is the mission statement? What kind of work are they doing to support the Rohingya? What have they accomplished so far? Where else in the world do they have a presence? What percent of each dollar donated goes to fulfilling the organization’s mission versus other costs?
      • Explore each organization’s career page to get a sense of what kind of jobs and skill sets are needed for this kind of work. Many organizations also list internships.

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