This November, attacks against the Rohingya population, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, killed 86 people, and displaced more than 30,000. And neighboring Bangladesh closed its doors to the refugees. In New York, activists have been calling for an end to the persecution. But are they being heard in Myanmar? Samira Sadeque finds out.
SADEQUE: On the last Sunday of November, a crowd gathered in the heart of Jackson Heights to speak out against the ongoing violence on the Rohingya population in Myanmar. (0:09)
AMBI: Protest sound (0:04)
SADEQUE: Men, women and children held placards with graphic images of the victims from Myanmar. Mohiuddin Yousuf, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar and the leader of the World Rohingya Organization, says they are organizing these protests to raise awareness in New York. But with Myanmar being so far, how effective are these protests? (0:22)
SADEQUE: Do you know anything about the issue?
VOXPOP: I don’t know, why it’s protest for
VOXPOP: “I really don’t know about this issue…. (0:10)
SADEQUE: Part of the barrier could be language. Seventh grader Maliha Zaman says she cannot understand the issue because the posters and announcements are in Bengali, a language she does not speak (0:11)
ZAMAN: There’s like a lot of words in Bangla and he’s saying stuff in Bangla so that’s why it’s hard to understand it (0:07)
SADEQUE: A few days following the protests in Jackson Heights, the same group gathered outside the UN Headquarters in New York, to press world leaders to address this issue. Abdul Jabbar, a Rohingya refugee working as an interpreter for other refugees in Chicago, has come all the way to New York to stand with the demonstrators. He believes protesting outside the UN would help leaders understand specific needs of the refugees, such as women’s healthcare (0:23)
JABBAR: We are here to demand the United Nations to help, to access medical aids. We have a lot of the victim of the rape, a lot of the Rohingya women asking for the medication (0:10)
SADEQUE: Hunter Marston, a senior research assistant at Brookings Institute who has worked extensively on this issue for seven years, says protests in other parts of Asia are beginning to have some effects on Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently cancelled a trip to Indonesia following mass protests there. And there’s reason to believe that the protests in New York might have a similar effect (0:21)
HUNTER: I think if the protests in New York are sustained or if they’re channeled through the appropriate people who can reach San Suu Kyi’s cabinet that includes the Burmese in America, then I think they stand a good chance of really impacting Aung San Suu Kyi’s calculus (0:14)
SADEQUE: Marston also says New York being a center stage for many of the world leaders makes it an important place for these demonstrations because it might just help create pressure on Su Kyi (0:12)
HUNTER: I do think New York in particular might be particularly poignant a venue for the protests given that it’s the seed of the United Nations. Myanmar’s leaders take that privilege of participating in the United Nations very seriously, and look to America for guidance and support in their democratic reform. So I think they don’t want to lose that support (0:22)
SADEQUE: The pedestrians in Jackson Heights may not be aware of the issue, but the world leaders most definitely are. Whether the voices of the protesters will overcome the language barrier and finally reach the world leaders at the UN, only remains to be seen.
Samira Sadeque with Uptown Radio. (0:15)
Samira Sadeque is a writer and journalist living in New York. You can follow her work here, and on Twitter.