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Summary of the Roundtable Discussion on Myanmar and the Rohingya Crisis, January 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm in Thomson 101

January 19, 2018

Ben Marwick

On January 11, 2018, an expert panel of five UW faculty met to discuss the ongoing Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and explore its implications for the region and the US. The panel included Mary Callahan (Associate Professor of International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies (“JSIS”)), Sara Curran (Professor of International Studies at JSIS, Professor of Sociology, and Director at the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology), Judith Henchy (Southeast Asian Studies Librarian for UW Libraries), Seth Kane (JSIS Ph.D. Student), and Nathalie Williams (Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and JSIS). The discussion was moderated by Ben Marwick (Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology), who opened the discussion with a brief illustrated review of some relevant historical and geographical details of Rohingya and their ongoing mass escape to Bangladesh.

This was followed by brief formal remarks from members of the panel, starting with a video sent by Mary Callahan who was not able to be present in person. Callahan elaborated three observations from her recent in-country observations. First, that narratives of the crisis within Myanmar are at odds with reputable international reports, second, that the Myanmar government does not appear to view the crisis as a humanitarian emergency, and third, that the crisis is likely to have lasting effects on the Myanmar economy and international relations. Seth Kane presented an extensive scholarly analysis of the possible motives for the Rohingya genocide. He centered his discussion around the framework proposed by Daniel Chirot and Clark McCauley in their 2006 book Why Not Kill Them All?: The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder. Kane systematically evaluated the four types of motives (convenience, revenge, simple fear, and fear of pollution) using publicly available evidence from UN documents and international media reports.

Nathalie Williams placed the Rohingya crisis in an international context by reviewing some other recent conflicts and genocidal events with significant migrations of people fleeing violence. Williams pointed out that data from other conflicts, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Darfur, indicates that most people do not leave during the violence. She noted that the Rohingya crisis is extreme compared to other examples in recent decades because of the unusually high proportion of the Rohingya population in Myanmar that have fled to Bangladesh. Judith Henchy shared her observations from some recent visits to Myanmar, with a focus on newspapers and the changing role of the press. Henchy remarked on the proliferation of newspapers in recent years, and commented on the challenges these newspapers face in promoting freedom of speech and civil discourse in the face of dangers posed by hate speech. Sara Curran offered three anecdotes from visits of Myanmar scholars and professionals to UW that she helped to organize as part of an ‘Information Strategies for Societies in Transition’ initiative. Curran’s remarks highlighted the reactions of the visitors to their experiences at UW and in Seattle, and their perception of Facebook as the entire internet. She connected these observations to the Rohingya crisis by noting the challenge that even well-educated people in Myanmar face in discerning reliable information from lies on social media in Myanmar’s rapidly modernizing society.

Following these prepared remarks, questions were invited from the audience. These questions included: what has been the international reaction? Why have other countries been unwilling to receive Rohingya refugees? What is the role of international law in these kinds of genocidal situations? How far back in time did these tensions start? How should we respond to this situation as scholars and students? Discussion of these questions followed, with the round table concluding at 8pm.

Here’s a list of some of the publicly-available resources referenced during the discussion: