Pulitzer Center Update

Beyond War: The Rohingya: A Genocide On Our Watch?

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Pulitzer Center grantee Nahal Toosi explains her investigative process while writing her extended piece for POLITICO documenting the United States' involvement with the Myanmar government amid the persecution of the Rohingya. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

Pulitzer Center grantee Nahal Toosi explains her investigative process while writing her extended piece for POLITICO documenting the United States' involvement with the Myanmar government amid the persecution of the Rohingya. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

“The buzz word for today is complexity,” moderator Rebecca Hamilton, assistant professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law and journalist, said. “There are two narratives: the hopeful democratization narrative… the other is the genocide story of the Rohingya. The problem is that we can’t find interaction between the two narratives.”

In the panel, “The Rohingya: A Genocide On Our Watch?” Hamilton led a discussion on the complex relationships behind the causes and effects of the Rohingya persecution and displacement.

The panelists included former Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell, a senior advisor to both the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Albright Stonebridge Group; Jason Motlagh, a writer, broadcast journalist, and filmmaker whose work focuses on conflict and human rights; and Nahal Toosi, a foreign affairs correspondent at POLITICO. Hamilton, Motlagh, and Toosi are all Pulitzer Center grantees.

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Panel moderator Rebecca Hamilton explains the conflicting narratives the media presents to the general public. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

Panel moderator Rebecca Hamilton explains the conflicting narratives the media presents to the general public. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

The varied backgrounds and work of the panelists helped link the narratives Hamilton introduced. Mitchell was heavily involved on behalf of the Obama administration’s push to open up diplomatic efforts to Myanmar, and Toosi has written a number of pieces for POLITICO bridging the gap between the United States response and the tragedy displayed by journalists, such as Motlagh.

Motlagh experienced the repercussions of the violence in Myanmar through many trips funded by the Pulitzer Center. He spoke about riding in a river boat next to two soldiers on IVs, seeing concentration camps where Rohingya were being held, and watching their access to humanitarian groups and journalists diminish.

“There was so much desperation by the Rohingya,” Motlagh said. “The fundamental problem of a stateless minority is they’re acutely vulnerable.”

An eight-minute clip from an upcoming film, “The Unwanted,” produced by Motlagh and Mark Oltmanns, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in the Bay Area, gave firsthand accounts from Rohingya victims who could not be present at the panel. The film showed aerial footage of the displacement into Bangladesh and graphic cellphone clips documenting the military’s violence against children.

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At left, Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell listens to journalist Jason Motlagh speak about his upcoming documentary about the Rohingya. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

At left, Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell listens to journalist Jason Motlagh speak about his upcoming documentary about the Rohingya. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

“If there was no evidence to show the world, how could we seek justice?” said a Rohingya man in the video.

The full-length film will be published in the coming weeks and Rolling Stone will be publishing Motlagh’s  work next month, outlining the concrete evidence of preparation by the military to persecute the Rohingya.

“The military moved in and killed systematically,” Motlagh said. “This was not a spontaneous reaction. How did so many countries with powerful means allow it to go unchecked?”

The decades-long injustice against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar government has the potential to set a dangerous precedent, as there has been little sign of a unified international response.

While creating her 9,000-word piece for POLITICO, Toosi wrote timelines to help understand the United States’ government involvement in the midst of persecution against the Rohingya.

“The month before Obama lifted sanctions, there was a massive slaughter of the Rohingya,” Toosi said. “Two days after Obama lifted the final economic sanctions, there was a massive outbreak of violence against the Rohingya. The question I was trying to answer was why didn’t the United States stop its engagement in order to send a signal to protect this minority.”

Mitchell described the relationship with Myanmar as an attempt for balance, taking diplomatic relations one step at a time. He stressed the importance of using incentives other than sanctions to persuade the Myanmar government to maintain domestic peace.

However, the ultimate failure to prevent the persecution of the Rohingya has tainted most of the diplomatic efforts by the U.S. Toosi spoke about her contact with Obama administration members and their reluctance to properly assess the Rohingya situation.

“The Obama administration felt caught in a bind, trying to encourage free speech versus telling them not to publish hate against the Rohingya,” Toosi said.

Hamilton ended the discussion by asking panelists what their vision of the future was for the Rohingya.

The outlook is bleak.

“The crime scene is also being sanitized,” Motlagh said. “So, it’s no surprise that maybe we start this very staggered conversation about patriotization. But I don’t know who the hell would ever want to go back to something like you just saw.”

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Former Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell explains how difficult it is to find a concrete solution when addressing the situation in Myanmar. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

Former Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell explains how difficult it is to find a concrete solution when addressing the situation in Myanmar. Image by Jin Ding. Washington, D.C., 2018.

“Can you actually go in there and prevent it? Unfortunately, we want to find the silver bullet answer and there just isn’t,” Mitchell said.

“Among the Rohingya, there’s this sense of delusion… it’s just sad. I don’t see much hope,” Toosi said.

The panelists shared similar perspectives on the danger of Chinese intervention, and all wondered what the lesson for the future is. In the meantime, journalists like Motlagh and Toosi will continue to publish from the ground and from Washington.

“Now, the concern is real radicalism because you have more than a million people uprooted, having experienced the worst trauma, now in Bangladesh, stuck in these awful refugee camps,” Motlagh said. “This is an area that is very porous, where there is an established track record of insurgent groups operating and drug money coming through. If you’re festering in these camps for decades…it’s a breeding ground.”