Centralizing Universality in Human Rights Education for Rakhine State, Myanmar, by Benjamin Steiner

Photo: Curriculum Cover

When I traveled to Rakhine State, Myanmar as a Human Rights education (HRE) curriculum consultant with the support of AC4, I packed light. My two duffle bags contained several drafts of my HRE curriculum packaged neatly in Columbia University binders, some nifty visual aids and teacher training tools, less changes of clothes than I realistically needed for two months, and — unbeknownst to me at the time — a handful of implicit assumptions I carried regarding who Human Rights was for, and how it would be taught to students in Rakhine. Mainly, that Human Rights education in Rakhine State equaled Human Rights for the protection of stateless Rohingya Muslims. Though there is more than a kernel of truth to this perspective, it renders the ethnic Rakhine perspective insignificant, and thereby alienates the Rakhine ethnic majority whose support is indispensable if peace is to be achieved in the region. Thus, through conversations with students, teachers, and NGO workers, I was forced to reconsider this presupposition and refocus the HRE curriculum on one of its most foundational principals; that of universality, or Human Rights for all.

The contours of the conflict in Rakhine are probably familiar to most casual news observers. Tit-for-tat violence in Rakhine State persisted for decades despite tense but largely peaceful relations between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State. The Rohingya, however, remained stateless, and received none of the benefits typically afforded to citizens, including the right to public education and adequate healthcare. In 2012, this violence imploded in a conglomeration of anti-Rohingya state propaganda, nationalism, and an alliance between a radical monkhood, fearful citizenry, local militias, and state military. That violence eventually abated, but tensions flared, and a time-bomb of inter-ethnic resentment stirred beneath a fragile peace. In 2017, a radicalized sect of Rohingya militants retaliated by attacking several police posts in northern Rakhine State. The government and local militia response was asymmetrical and brutal, drawing the attention of governments and news cameras across the globe. Muslim villages were burnt to the ground. Rohingya villagers were shot in the back as they fled to the border. A “biblical exodus” of terrified Rohingya poured into Bangladesh. The result: a “textbook genocide” with untold numbers killed and more than 1.3 million displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh or functionally imprisoned in IDP camps.

In the midst of this tumult, a local NGO, the Peace and Development Initiative (PDI), is the only NGO providing rights-based social cohesion programs in Rakhine State. Their flagship institution, the Akyab Institute of Social Studies (AISS), serves predominantly Rakhine students (with some other non-Rohingya minority groups). Although AISS ostensibly offered a full term of Human Rights education, they didn’t possess a locally applicable, full-semester curriculum to implement in the classroom. The curriculum I carried in my duffle bag when I arrived in the summer of 2018 was intended to fill that gap. My research and discussions with NGO workers and local teachers prior to my arrival had essentially reinforced the conflict narrative I just described.

That narrative was complicated in the last day of my first training of trainers (ToT) at AISS when I opened the floor to questions. I anticipated questions on topics like classroom management, or — as I had in many other ToTs in Southeast Asia — questions about my favorite local foods or marital status. I received all of those. Yet, I was caught unprepared when asked for my opinion on the conflict. The whole class looked at me expectantly. I had been briefed by PDI’s director to avoid this topic as it is a powder keg of anxiety and anger. Left with few options, I turned the question on the student and asked what he thought, or what he thought I should know.

“We were scared,” he told me, and recounted a story of him packing his bags in fear after the police station attacks in August of the previous year. He was angry at the “Muslims” for the violence he believed was imminent at that time. Through studying at AISS, he reevaluated that perspective, but couldn’t reconcile that with the reality that the first time he heard the words “Human Rights” was in 2017. For decades, Rakhine people had been oppressed by the military junta. Their land had been taken without compensation, activists had been imprisoned, the military harassed the Rakhine population in a campaign of constant intimidation. “Where were Human Rights then?” He asked, exasperation evident in his voice. NGOs, and the world, had taken a side in this conflict, but left the Rakhine to suffer under the iron fist of the junta. Human Rights, in their perception, was only for the Rohingya, but not for them. I asked the class if they felt the same as this particularly vocal student. Although most had come to oppose the expulsion of the Rohingya through their studies, they still felt as if Human Rights had abandoned the ethnic Rakhines. This story was echoed by NGO workers and locals I spoke to throughout my time in the region.

This realization precipitated a fundamental shift in the underlying philosophy of my curriculum. Without a genuine effort for universality, the Human Rights project in Rakhine is toothless. To convince a Rakhine student to advocate on behalf of the Rohingya, they must expect that their own Human Rights will be advocated for in their own defense. With this in mind, I redrafted the curriculum with a lessened (but of course, still present) focus on genocide and statelessness, and increased attention on issues that impacted everyone in Rakhine State. Child labor, government oppression, child soldering, and sex trafficking became central elements of the second draft. By expanding the perceived moral scope of Human Rights to include the Rakhine students, Human Rights educators in Rakhine may be able to convince their pupils to extend their own vision of humanity to contain the Rohingya population.

Photo: sunset in Sittwe, Rakhine State

Author: Benjamin Steiner is in a Masters program on International Education Development at Teachers College, Columbia University. With the AC4 Fellowship, he travelled to Myanmar, implementing teacher trainings for Human Rights instructors in the Rahkine State in cooperation with the Peace and Development Initiative (PDI).

All photos provided by author.

Read more by Benjamin Steiner: The Criticality and Potential of Local Human Rights Educators in Rakhine State.

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  • Michael Bade says:

    Sounds really interesting! I know from our short time there things are not as cute and dried as the to seem

  • Charles Bradley says:

    Beautifully written and wonderfully insightful! Thank you for publishing!

  • Yvette Leung says:

    A very insightful piece of writing! Thank you for showing us other perspectives of the population which is often unreachable to most of us.

  • Myrna A Moody says:

    I found this thought process, “To convince a Rakhine student to advocate on behalf of the Rohingya, they must expect that their own Human Rights will be advocated for in their own defense. With this in mind, I redrafted the curriculum with a lessened (but of course, still present) focus on genocide and statelessness, and increased attention on issues that impacted everyone in Rakhine State.” to be filled with inspired thoughtfilled insight.
    Thank you Ben for caring enough to share.

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