Understanding the Conditions that Lead to “Ethnic Cleansing"


In 2017, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in majority Buddhist Myanmar, have been attacked, driven from their homes, and often killed by the military as part of what observers are calling a campaign of ethnic cleansing. This lesson will help students understand the news from Myanmar by asking them to read and analyze a September 2017 article from the New York Times. The article will introduce them to key concepts such as nation and self-determination and explain the relationship of these ideas to the conditions that make ethnic cleansing possible.

For additional background on the history of the Rohingya and the events leading up to the 2017 crisis, read The “Ethnic Cleansing” of the Rohingya from the Washington Post. Look for additional lessons from Facing History about the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya in coming weeks. Also, teachers might need to pre-teach the following terms if students have not yet been exposed to them in previous lessons or units: alien, disenfranchise, genocide, nation vs. state, self-determination, and sovereign.



  1. The Responsibility of Knowledge: A Journal Response
    Have students respond to the following prompt in their journals. Tell them that they will be discussing the first question as a class and do not have to share their personal stories with others.

    What responsibility comes with knowledge? Write about a time when learning about an issue, event, or struggle impacted your understanding of yourself and/or your world. The issue, event, or struggle might be something you learned about from your family or in school or something more personal, like a friend’s struggle. 

    To debrief, students might volunteer to share their ideas about the relationship between knowledge and responsibility. Or each student might underline a phrase or sentence from his or her journal response. Do a Wraparound where each person shares the underlined section so that everyone’s voice is heard.
  2. Annotating a Nonfiction Article With Intent
    Distribute copies of the article Myanmar Follows Global Pattern in How Ethnic Cleansing Begins. Depending on the group’s reading level, background knowledge, and available time, students can take turns doing a Read Aloud as a class, with a partner or small group, or silently to themselves. You might distribute copies of the United Nations Map of Myanmar for students to reference as they read or save the map work for the Extension activity.

    As students read the article, ask them to keep track of their understanding using the following key:1
    • Write an explanation mark (!) in the margin alongside information that surprises them.
    • Write a question mark (?) in the margin alongside passages in which the author assumes they know or understand something that they don’t.
    • Write a “C” in the margin alongside information that confirms, changes, or challenges their thinking.

    Before moving to the next activity, you might have students share their annotations with a small group or in a whole class discussion. Each category of response could be recorded on the board or chart paper so that the class can return to them later in the lesson.
  3. Making Broader Connections
    After students have read and annotated the article carefully, use the following questions to check students’ comprehension and then help them make Text-to-Text, Text-to-Self, Text-to-World connections. You might ask students to respond to the questions individually, in their journals, or in pairs. Then have them share their thoughts in a larger Fishbowl discussion.
  • What is national self-determination? Why do you think this idea is so highly valued in international law and the United Nations Charter?
  • According to scholars, what problems can make self-determination “an enemy of the freedoms it is intended to protect”?
  • How can the way a nation is defined exacerbate conflict between majority and minority groups? What examples does the article cite to illustrate the potential dangers of these conflicts?
  • Who are the Rohingya? How has their place in Myanmar society been contested over the years?
  • Explain what the article means when it states that excluding Rohingya from of Myanmar has been “part of the process of defining the nation.” How is it that excluding or persecuting others can strengthen a group’s sense of identity? Can you think of other examples of this happening?
  • Kate Cronin-Furman, a scholar who studies mass atrocities, observes that “when nations are defined around a majority ethnic group, that can lead to a sense of siege—a belief that the majority status needs to be protected, because if it shrinks, the claim of the majority on the nation could as well.”
    • In your own words, summarize what Cronin-Furman might mean by a “sense of siege.”
    • Where else in the past or recent history that you have studied has a majority felt a “sense of siege” and acted upon that feeling?
    • What can you learn from studying events such as the attacks on the Rohingya?
  • Look back at your journal response and discuss what responsibility comes with the knowledge of learning about ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar.


  • 1 This key is adapted from Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst’s annotation strategy in Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters.


For more activities and resources on Myanmar and the Rohingya, view the lesson Responding to the Rohingya Crisis

  1. Introduce the concept universe of obligation using this lesson called Understanding Universe of Obligation. Then ask students to consider the following questions:
    • Who is inside Myanmar’s universe of obligation, and who is outside it?
    • What responsibility does the international community have when it recognizes that human rights violations are occurring? In other words, where do the Rohingya fall in the international community’s universe of obligation?
  2. Provide each student with a copy of a blank map of the Myanmar region. Have students label regions and countries referenced in the article and write 1-3 sentence labels that explain the significance of each location.
  3. Research one of the ethnic groups referenced in the New York Times article in order to investigate similarities and differences to the Rohingyas’ plight and the ethnic cleansing crisis in Myanmar.
  4. Research organizations that are working to help the Rohingya through humanitarian aid and education. Create a visual or Powerpoint presentation to educate others in your community about the current crisis.

This lesson was created in response to the 2017 and 2018 events in Myanmar. For more teaching ideas on the Rohingya, view the lesson Responding to the Rohingya Crisis.

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