From Myanmar to Barnard
A international conversation on the accountability and protection of the Rohingya.
By Amad Ross
One of the most affecting moments of the International Conference on Protection and Accountability in Burma was not a particular statement made by one of many esteemed panelists, but rather the moment of silence—accompanied by sobbing—that came at the end of the first panel of the first day, when Ahmed Ullah gave us a momentary glimpse into the pain of being Rohingya in today’s Myanmar.
The two-day conference was hosted by Barnard College on February 8th in collaboration with Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and a slew of international human rights groups. The college’s purpose for holding it, according to Professor Yvette Christiansë, the interim chair of Barnard’s Council for Diversity & Inclusion, was to “recognize the horrible consequences of refusing to embrace ethnic differences.”
The Rohingya people are an ethnic and religious minority in Myanmar who have been severely persecuted in recent years. Since August of 2017, over 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in response to the bulldozing of villages, burning down of houses and indiscriminate killings carried out by Myanmar’s military in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”
That silent moment came at the end of a panel called “Rohingya Voices,” one of several panels to address the direct consequences of genocide, when a Rohingya refugee named Ahmed Ullah described the terrible conditions suffered by the hundreds of thousands Rohingya forced into refugee camps abroad. The panel would soon come to a decisive conclusion: the genocide’s perpetrators need to be held accountable.
But the conference was full of debate, including between speakers. After the panel, Professor Elazar Barkan, Director of SIPA’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, presented a starkly different picture of the way forward: “There may be a time for accountability,” Professor Barkan said, “but it is not now. It is not that I do not believe in justice; it is that I do not believe in miracles.”
Professor Barkan’s comments were soon challenged by audience members, including one who charged him with a form of “neocolonial intervention.” “You frame accountability in the language of ‘miracles,’” he said. “Every Rohingya I’ve known wants justice. You do not have the moral or intellectual authority to tell the Rohingya what they should want.”
The specter of Professor Barkan’s comments seemed to loom over the next panel, “How Genocides and Other Atrocities End,” when Professor Gregory Stanton of George Mason University said that the first step of combating genocide is making those responsible “international pariahs, having their assets seized and putting them on trial.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the conference was this ongoing debate on whether the international community should focus its efforts on helping Rohingya people now or laying the groundwork to hold those responsible accountable as soon as possible. The question of what the international community ought to do was especially important in that room, where the vast majority of audience members were not students but activists, some in New York for work at various NGOs or the UN, others specifically for this conference.
Much was said on both sides, but the silence during Ullah’s testimony spoke loudly. When Ullah broke that silence, he addressed the audience with tears in his eyes: “I don’t believe in government, I don’t believe in systems, but I believe in you. You can make this genocide stop.