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Breaking Through Isolation to Support Equitable Information Access for Rohingyas

Aisha was born 24 years ago in Yangon, Myanmar’s energetic cultural center, and lives there today with her parents and four siblings. But she says her true community resides somewhere she’s never been, 250 miles away in Rakhine State, which has become synonymous with the violent oppression of the minority Rohingya Muslims.

So when the opportunity arose to be an audio presenter on a weekly online broadcast aimed at bringing news to the Rohingya of Rakhine, Aisha saw it as a chance to help her grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins.

“My accent is not that good in Rohingya,” she says. “But I feel so honored to being doing this kind of work. Our Rohingya people are not interested in movies. They are focused on news. They are isolated. They want to know what is happening in the world and what the world is doing for them. That’s why what we are doing is so important.”

The pilot podcast was launched as part of a partnership between The Rockefeller Foundation and Oxfam, with Internews supporting the broadcast. The goal was to create equitable information access for some of the 128,000 people living in Internal Displaced Persons (IDP) camps near the Rakhine State capital of Sittwe. Oxfam has been working in these camps and Rakhine more broadly, delivering life-saving assistance and leading community empowerment efforts, over the past several years.

Since 2018, work by Oxfam in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation has included a particular focus on ensuring IDPs can directly shape decisions that impact them, amplifying their voices, and building a more inclusive civil society across Rakhine, which has been impacted by conflict for many decades. Throughout these efforts, equitable access to information has remained foundational to supporting community action and empowerment.

Currently, each weekly program lasts about 25 minutes with three distinct segments: international news, national news and local Rakhine news. And as the camps are both isolated from the outside world and pervasively overcrowded, with inadequate provisions for water and sanitation, the program broadened in late March to include Covid-19-related health messages and information. Aisha and her fellow news presenters are looking for ways to continue the broadcasts, and even expand them.

Creative Ways to Push the Boundaries

“The pandemic has exposed and accelerated unprecedented inequalities around the world. Vulnerable communities like the Rohingyas are being deprived of potentially life-saving public health information during an unprecedented global crisis,” said Deepali Khanna, The Rockefeller Foundation’s Managing Director, Asia Regional Office.

“Using creative mediums to better communicate, empowering the Rohingya communities to share the right information, and helping humanitarian workers provide information to carry out their operations more effectively is critical to an equitable recovery,” Khanna said.

“We’re trying to find creative ways to push the boundaries of what is possible in Rakhine,” agrees Lindsey Hurtle, Oxfam’s Policy and Advocacy Coordinator.

The United Nations Secretary-General General Antonio Guterres has described the Rohingya as “one of, if not the most discriminated people in the world.” As non-citizens, they lack basic freedoms in Myanmar including the freedom of movement, and are considered stateless. Before 2015, some 1 million to 1.3 million Rohingya lived in Myanmar. In 2017, a military crackdown on the Rohingya sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing across the border into Bangladesh.

In January 2020, the UN’s top court ordered the Buddhist-majority country to take measures to protect members of its Rohingya community from genocide. But the army in Myanmar (formerly Burma) has said it was fighting Rohingya militants and denies targeting civilians. The country’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once a human rights icon, has repeatedly denied allegations of genocide.

The process of creating the broadcast is complicated by divisive politics. The stories the broadcasters relay are carefully selected from Burmese papers, and although some of the news might be sensitive to the Myanmar government, the team seeks to tread a very careful line.

Internews recruited and trained the team in December 2019, and they began broadcasting in late February. A number of those initially approached for the job turned it down due to security concerns. Aisha, like all the broadcasters, does not use her real name, and the broadcast is produced in a private and secret location.

Although she is aware of potential dangers of being identified as a Rohingya activist, Aisha had no hesitation about joining the team and says she is not afraid. “We are not doing anything wrong,” she notes.

Rohingya is largely an oral language without a standardized and universally recognized written script, and very few Rohingyas in Rakhine State understand or have access to Burmese-language news sources. The result is that many in the IDP camps have frustratingly little knowledge of what is happening in Myanmar, Asia or the world.

Making Broadcast More Interactive

Internews managed to conduct a small survey of listeners even though it presented logistical challenges, and considers the results encouraging. Most of those surveyed believed the broadcast carried important and relevant information. The main request was even more Rakhine-focused news. Right now, that section runs three to five minutes long. Plans are underway to extend it.

Additionally, Internews has launched Rakhine language version of the same news after forming Rakhine podcast team with three broadcasters to demonstrate neutrality and present the news for the non-Rohingya population of the western coastal state.

While working as a broadcaster, Aisha continues to study architecture, but actually wants to become a politician so she can work to more directly support her community. Or if not that, she says, she would like to go to Rakhine State and teach young Rohingya children how to use computers. She speaks often to her relatives in the IDP camps.

“My mom has seven siblings, so I have about 30 cousins,” Aisha says. “We talk about the problems they face and what we can do, but actually we can’t do much except to pray and to give a bit of money. But my relatives listen to my broadcast and they are proud. To know the news around them, they say—it helps.”

Her biggest dream, Aisha says, is that one day her relatives in Rakhine State “are able to study freely and move around freely as we do here.”

  • One of the confined camps in central Rakhine State, Myanmar, where approximately 128,000 displaced Rohingya have lived without freedom of movement for more than eight years. Photo credit: Oxfam

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