A diverse student coalition including more than 18 organizations will co-host a “Week of Action” in November to raise awareness and collect donations for the Rohingya Crisis in Myanmar.
The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority with a long history of persecution in the Buddhist majority country of Myanmar. In the most recent ethno-religious flare up that began in August, more than 500,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee their homes to escape what the United Nations has called a “textbook case” of ethnic cleansing, in which thousands have been raped and killed.
In response to the crisis, social justice groups, faith groups and many other organizations at Cornell have converged “against the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya people,” according to the event’s Facebook page.
“We believe that furthering international focus on the perpetrators of the on-going genocide will increase the cost of atrocity and encourage more people to come to the aid of the refugees,” said Tarannum Sarwat Sahar ’19, president of Cornell Welcomes Refugees.
The inter-organizational coalition is a highly “collaborative” effort, according to Zach de Stefan ’18, vice-president of Amnesty International at Cornell.
“Everyone doing their little piece here and there, which makes it special. We are all working together every single week, we are not just delegating tasks to different organizations,” added Grace Bogdanove ’18, AIC president.
With such a diverse coalition, the members of the groups have wide range of motives that drove the many participating organizations to take part in the week.
For Shikhor Wahed ’19, event coordinator of the Bengali Student Association, the Rohingya crisis hits close to home, affecting those around him.
“I personally know a Rohingya who has recently left Myanmar for Bangladesh. I know he was engaged in trading illegal drugs. I realize there is nothing he can do. As a refugee there are only so many things you can do to survive,” he said.
“Meeting one of them and learning how bad it can get even before the violence erupted gave me a different perspective on the matter,” he continued. “You know he was just a regular guy just trying to survive, he had his family on the other side. I am not sure if they actually made it to Bangladesh. I don’t know if they are even alive. So that’s something that really affected me.”
South Asian organizers, like Anuush Vejalla ’20, secretary of Hindu student council, stressed that Hindus need to participate in order to do justice to the complexity and intersectionality of the situation.
“There have been Hindu mass graves [recently] discovered,” Vejalla said, referring to a grave site buried by a Rohingyan insurgency group according to unverified Myanmarese government reports. “So, while religious demonization is part of it, it’s also a demonization of a whole culture that crosses all sort of boundaries. … Trying to show that intersectionality would be great.”
Though the Rohingya are a Muslim minority, solidarity at Cornell has bridged religious differences.
Chris Arce ’19, executive board member of Christian union, explained that “the Bible calls me to fight against the systems of oppression.”
“The genocide of the Rohingya directly destroys the God-given dignity the Rohingya have,” Arce said. “Fighting injustice is a Christian value, which is why the Christian community at Cornell will support this week of action.”
As for other organizers like Shivani Parikh ’19, president of South Asia council, the geographical proximity and cultural affinity of their home country to the Rohingya people motivated them to participate in the week.
“Since the start of the genocide, many [Rohingya] have escaped to neighboring Bangladesh and India. The historic Arakan kingdom was partially in India as well,” Parikh said. “It was important for us to participate, especially now with many communities and countries in South Asia receiving Rohingya refugees.”
Supporters of other causes from other parts of the world also found it crucial to participate in the week. Puerto Rican Student Association will also support the Rohingya as they too, understand “the consequences of inaction toward injustice,” Arce, who is also the PRSA co-President, said in a statement.
“Puerto Rico suffers today largely in part because of the second class treatment it receives from the federal government, and there is little discussion on how this discriminatory treatment hinders the ability of the island to thrive,” Arce wrote. “Similarly, the genocide of Rohingya is disastrous and for so many years, it has not received the attention it deserved.”
Likewise, those supporting the Palestinian cause also found it appropriate to support the Rohingya, whom they saw as a people experiencing similar hardships.
“We recognize the occupation of Palestine, and that what is going on is a genocide,” Hadiyah Chowdhury ’18, vice-president of Students for Justice in Palestine, said. “And we see a lot of parallels in Myanmar. That was the main reason we decided to sign on.”
Despite the diversity of the assembled coalition, the organizers acknowledged the absence of Burmese or Rohingya student groups in the alliance.
“Currently, there is no exact ALANA cultural umbrella to house the clubs and interests of students from and issues related to Southeast Asia,” Parikh said. “If Cornell had a ‘Burmese Students’ Association,’ a cultural umbrella for Southeast Asians, or ideally for people of Rohingya background, any of those three would serve their interests more closely.”
Members from some student organizations said that they plan to support the Rohingya beyond this single week.
“We are planning to discuss this event independently as our small group,” said Sarah Dincin ’19, president of Association for International Human Rights. “Each semester we plan a semester awareness or fundraiser, and we are considering making this topic a fundraising topic.”