The rhetoric surrounding the Rohingya | By Lauren Matarazzo

The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state who have continually faced persecution due to their ethnic and religious differences with the majority Buddhist population of the country. Though the situation worsened in 2012 after a group of Rohingya men were accused of raping a Buddhist woman, it is not to say that conditions were good beforehand for the Rohingya; on the contrary, the minority group has consistently been denied basic human rights, government services, and their very identity.

Recent protests in Thailand, Indonesia and Bangladesh have brought the situation of the Rohingya people to the mainstream media. Articles in CNN, NY Times, and the Independent have covered this issue in the last week. Throughout all of the articles, it is evident that a clear picture of the Rohingya people has been painted in Myanmar, both by the government and citizens, in an attempt to justify the violent and unjust acts against the Muslim minority.

“Myanmar’s government has denied reports of human rights abuses in Rakhine, claiming that the military is carrying out ‘clearance operations’ targeting suspected ‘violent attackers.’” (CNN)

The accusations that the Rohingya are a violent people that are being cleared out in order to protect the society at large, ring familiar to the rhetoric used by Donald Trump in reference to immigrants and refugees throughout his campaign. Among other things, Trump referred to Syrian refugees as “terrorists” (NPR) and blamed them for violent attacks in the U.S. These commonalities should not be overlooked as coincidence, however, and should be recognized for their intended effect to dehumanize migrants and refugees to the rest of the world—a dehumanization that allows for the continued denial of their basic rights and freedoms.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s first democratically elected leader since 1962, has contributed to the plight of the Rohingya people with her inaction and condonation of the horrific acts against them, such as torture, rape, and murder. Of the Rohingya, Suu Kyi has referred to them as “Bengalis,” reinforcing the common belief that they are foreigners and living illegally in Myanmar. As stated in the NY Times, Suu Kyi has argued that the government’s response to attacks on the Rohingya are “based on ‘the rule of law.’” These comments, as pointed out in The Independent, are in line with the prevailing belief of the Buddhist majority in Myanmar that the Rohingya are “illegal immigrants.”

In Myanmar, the term Rohingya is not even used by the government, as expressed by U Kyaw Zay Ya, a Foreign Ministry official:

“We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups…our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems,” (NY Times).

The continued denial of the Rohingya identity contributes to the injustices that many look away from. The rhetoric and language used to discuss migrants, especially in the media, is of extreme importance and has a huge impact on the way that society views them. When general terms such as ‘illegal,’ ‘violent,’ and ‘foreign,’ are used to describe a whole people, we dehumanize them and allow for treatment that is intolerable for any person.


CNN. Wright, R. ‘They will kill us’: The Rohingya Refugees fleeing torture and rape in Myanmar. (2016, November 28).

Independent. Khan, S. Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi accused of ‘legitimising genocide of Rohingya Muslims.’ (2016, November 26).

NPR. For Refugees and Advocates, An Anxious Wait For Clarity On Trump’s Policy. (2016, November 15). Myanmar’s War on the Rohingya. (2016, November 21). Aung San Suu Kyi Asks U.S. Not to Refer to ‘Rohingya.’ (2016, May 6).


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