The Rohingya crisis has been termed a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” and one of the worst humanitarian disasters of this decade. At Cornell, organizations will be rallying to raise awareness about the crisis in November, but students were able to hear about it firsthand from Prof. Gayatri Spivak, English and comparative literature, Columbia, on Monday.
The Rohingya are a stateless Indo-Aryan, dominantly Muslim people living in Myanmar. They are persecuted in a country where Buddhism is the prevalent religion, and they are even denied citizenship.
Spivak, an activist for rural education in Asia, first encountered the Rohingya in Bangladesh in the 1980s, where she said she saw them being shot at as they attempted to cross the Naf River, which marks the boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar.
“I have never seen human beings so degraded by oppression, so robbed of dignity,” Spivak said.
Today, she said she feels a need to “speak for them, to them, and about them” whenever possible.
Spivak urged her audience to not only consider the Rohingya as a minority oppressed group, but to also regard them as human beings. Rather than think “they are like us,” imagine “we are like them,” she said.
Spivak said that unless we can envision ourselves as the same as them — as human beings — all the same, it is not worth it in the long run working to emancipate them.
“They cannot represent themselves, so they must be represented” by us, she said.
While in Myanmar, she witnessed a couple of Rohingya women sitting in the mud. Born in Calcutta, India, and similar in appearance, Spivak said she was willing to stand in the most impoverished parts of Myanmar and immerse herself completely in the culture.
The Rohingya women “saw something in my face” and thought “this is one of us,” Spivak said. “They spoke to me … They could tell I thought they were human beings. This was a huge discovery.”
The ability to draw a response from the other side acted as the impetus to dedicate herself to the Rohingya issue and reach out to these mistreated men and women, Spivak said.
One major abuse Rohingya women face is rape, Spivak said.
“Rape is at work all over the world, including in countries where we live,” she said.
In Myanmar, it is both a millennial tradition and a weapon to ethnic cleanse, Spivak said.
Furthermore, the Rohingya lack equality in regards to the people of Myanmar. In the nation-state, they are denied citizenship and cannot vote.
The Rohingya are not technically illegal immigrants, but they are stateless, Spivak said.
“We can relate [this] to Mexico. We can relate it to all kinds of places. One day, it was my place. Next day, it became illegal,” she said. “The land under my foot becomes illegal because it belongs to someone else.”