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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This lesson was created in response to the 2017 and 2018 events in Myanmar. For more teaching ideas on the Rohingya, view the lesson Understanding The Conditions That Lead to "Ethnic Cleansing".