By Jahnavi Bhatia
BU News Service
On the eve of the International Day of Peace, people gathered at the Marsh Plaza at Boston University for a vigil to mourn the persecution of Rohingya Muslims who live in the South Asian nation of Myanmar.
As he handed out electric candles, Vignesh Chari, who spearheaded the event and is a brother of Iota Nu Delta, a South Asian fraternity at BU, talked about his motivation.
“The Rohingya genocide has been going on in Myanmar for decades and has killed thousands of people,” he said. “I was appalled by the inaction in the international community as well as the domestic community in Myanmar — even after the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared this issue as an act of ethnic cleansing — and wanted to address the issue in any way that I could.”
Barbara Wilhelm, a BU alumnus who works as the anti-Islamophobia coordinator for the Boston Chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, said it’s about more than spreading awareness.
“It is very important for us to publically gather our forces to stand up against injustices,” she said.
Iota Nu Delta organized the vigil along with the BU Bangladeshi Students Association, the Islamic Society at BU, and Omega Phi Epsilon, which is a South Asian sorority at the university.
For decades, Muslims in Myanmar have been denied citizenship and civil liberties, with the government viewing them as illegal immigrants, according to a Human Rights Watch report from 2000 . In August, a military crackdown led to the killing of thousands of Rohingya people and forced almost 73,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to the neighbouring country of Bangladesh, according to UN estimates.
A UN report in February that compiled interviews of Rohingya people who were fleeing Myanmar testified to frequent instances of “extrajudicial executions or other killings,” “enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention,” “gang rape,” and other forms of “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The influx of refugees also is posing a problem for Bangladesh, as it struggles to accommodate those in need.
The Prime Minister of Bangladesh recently spoke with Reuters about her interaction with President Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly, saying she did not expect his help on the topic of refugees given his stance in the Unites States. Since then, however, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the UN Security Council saying that the president condemns the violence in Myanmar and encourages swift action. On Wednesday, at the UN General Assembly, the administration also announced that it would provide an additional $32 million in humanitarian aid for displaced Rohingya people.
The vigil had an open forum, and some of the attendees chose to share their thoughts on the crisis and how they were dealing with it.
Lul Mohamud, an undergraduate student at BU and a member of the university’s Islamic Society, encouraged empathy.
“Living in a powerful country like the United States makes it difficult for us to resonate with people suffering to this extent,” she said.
She encouraged everyone to try nonetheless.
Ibrahim Rashid, a Pakistani student and founder of My Muslim Friends, an initiative that works to tell the stories of Muslim people in the U.S., said most of the attendees were South Asian and came from “families that have faced strife.”
“We are lucky that we are in a country like the USA, but I encourage you to not forget your heritage so that you can eventually be in a position where you can help make your communities better,” he said.
Anam Amirali, a BU student who attended the event, said she has grandparents who had to flee Myanmar for Pakistan decades ago.
“I belong to a different Muslim ethnic group, not the Rohingya group, but even my family was forced to leave,” she said.
Her family was not allowed to go back to Myanmar, she said, and her grandfather had hoped to be able to return someday but died recently. She said that, as somebody who has known about the anti-Muslim atrocities in Myanmar all her life, she was glad that the issue is “finally getting some coverage in the western media.”
Others at the vigil were less optimistic.
Raina Hasan, president of the Bangladeshi Students Association at BU, said she thinks some countries monopolize the news and is concerned about it.
Sophia Brown, also a BU student, said she also was worried about sparse media attention to the Rohingya situation.
“If more people knew about this, maybe I wouldn’t be one of the only non-South Asian people at this vigil,” she said.
Ray Bouchard, the director of Marsh Chapel, said he was “ignorant of this tragedy until recently.”
“The one thing I can do now is tell somebody else what’s going on — just like you should tell somebody else who doesn’t know — so that the world knows and pays attention,” he said.
Follow Jahnavi Bhatia on Twitter @bhatiajahnavi