My inherent issue with Facebook solidarity

So I didn’t change my Facebook profile picture for Paris. Or Beirut, or Syria, or Kenya, or anywhere else. Nor do I have strong feelings about what people should or should not do after a tragedy, as long as it’s not rooted in bigotry. For me, I have an issue because I know Facebook solidarity is incomplete, and that my friends only focus on certain types of events.

First, as people have pointed out before, there are many places on Earth in perpetual crisis. Syria recently, but also the Rohingya refugee crisis that extends from Burma into Bangladesh and various surrounding territories. Central Africa has been in a series of ongoing conflicts where rape is a major weapon of war. Billions of people are in varying degrees of poverty, most of which is long-standing. There is something ethically troubling about showing visible solidarity with other people when there is an acute incident. Haiti has never recovered from the earthquake several years back- we had a brief period of solidarity, money was raised, and much of the humanitarian crisis was not solved. It still hasn’t been, but our Haiti Facebook pictures have long since been taken down.

Second, since I am an American (along with my race, class, sex . . ) I have a bias towards places and people I can directly relate to. I’ve been to Paris, I’ve never been to Beirut or Nigeria. The entire way I receive information about the world is skewed, and even with wonderful outlets like Al Jazeera English, the lack of coverage of Africa, south Asia, etc. creates an unconscious tendency to think that even when atrocities are reported from there, they aren’t as important as events of a similar magnitude in the developed world.

Which is a long way to say that I feel not changing my profile picture is not a signal that I don’t care about terrorism and imperialism. Rather, it’s an acceptance that the world is immensely fucked up all the time, and only recognizing a tiny portion of the new evils introduced to the world seems somehow wrong. It goes without saying that ultimately fighting global problems on an individual level is about donating money, donating time, and standing against imperialism and exploitation. But don’t lose the past when the unpleasant present roars into view. Because the Haiti crisis is still here, and they don’t get their flag on social media anymore.

Rohingya now face a different, but familiar hell

The big news in Southeast Asia has been the ejecting of Doctors Without Borders from western Burma. This comes due to a dispute with the government regarding their treatment of the stateless Rohingya people- which the Burmese government views as squatters and parasitic. From the linked story:

The BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, says MSF is one of the few agencies providing treatment for Rohingya who would otherwise be turned away from clinics and hospitals.

The government says that MSF has prioritised the treatment of the Rohingya community over local Buddhists.

The final straw may well have been MSF’s statement a month ago that they had treated people after an alleged massacre of Muslims by Buddhists near the border with Bangladesh, our correspondent says.

Displaced Rohingya have serious food security issues.
Credit: Andrew Stanbridge/Al Jazeera

The conflict between the Muslim Rohingya and mostly Buddhist surrounding people has gone on for decades, but the humanitarian situation has been especially dire recently.  I wrote a brief piece last year that is still as relevant today. These people also live in Bangladesh but face similar issues- at best, they are ignored. Two weeks ago a huge number of Rohingya fleeing by boat were intercepted by Thai authorities and sent back into the country they were fleeing from.

Helping the forgotten Rohingya- educating people on the outrage

A common word used to describe the Rohingya- a population of Muslims residing in the Buddhist-majority Rakhine State in southwestern Burma- is “forgotten.” They are a people without a country, unacknowledged by the government of Burma. After fleeing from their homes amid violence and terror,  they are seen as a nuisance to surrounding countries.

Rohingya refugees, three of thousands

I only heard of the Rohingya six months ago, thanks to an al-Jazeera English feature on their terrible plight as refugees in Bangladesh. The media focus on the people, 800,000 strong, is practically nonexistent. Political reform in Burma has often overshadowed the chaos in Rakhine. In a society where people have vowed to prevent another Rwanda, another Cambodia, it seems strange to see a lack of concentrated action against Burma and the surrounding countries to give the Rohingya some kind of political status.

A few weeks ago, I logged onto Twitter and saw that my feed was full of messages marked with the hashtag #RohingyaNOW. Organized by Anonymous, this Twitter offensive was successful in getting the Rohingya onto the global trending topics, peaking at 24,000 messages an hour. At the end of the day, a lot more people knew something about who these people were and what was happening to them.

Now in the aftermath of the Kony 2012 abomination, social media-based campaigns to highlight atrocities should be met with healthy skepticism. But Twitter is good at getting people to at least learn the basics, maybe do a bit of Googling to figure out what the fuss is about. Because one of the first steps to helping a forgotten people is to make them no longer forgotten.

The stateless

The stateless

One of my favorite moments of the 2012 Olympics was when in the middle of the parade, an unusual nation was represented- the Independent Olympics Athletes.

In three Olympics people have, by choice or by necessity, not competed under the flag of a specific nation. The games has a way to deal with the war, politics, and division that the real world faces- if they qualify for an event they can petition to march under the flag of the International Olympic Committee.

In 1992 Yugoslavia was collapsing, and the Olympic flag was a way to get around sanctions against the Federal Republic. In 2000 the end of the struggle to free East Timor was approaching, and athletes from there did not want to play for Indonesia.

2012 had three people who were stateless due to administration- when the Netherlands Antilles was absorbed by the mother country, they lost their Olympic committee. Since they didn’t view themselves as Dutch, they qualified as independents.

The link is about Guor Marial, who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, left homeless during the decades-long civil war. He fled servitude and literally ran himself out of the conflict. He considers himself South Sudanese, but the new country didn’t form a committee in time.

These athletes remind us on a large stage how people can be more than just homeless- they can be without a nation. It’s not just Yugoslavia, East Timor, and the Sudan, it’s also about groups such as the Rohyingya people who are forced out of their homes in Burma. The Olympic flag reminds us all of an obligation we have.

During the Arab Spring I was moved by the words of a female Syrian blogger, Razan Ghazzawi. Shortly before her arrest by the Syrian government, she told friends that “If anything happens to me, know that the regime does not fear the prisoners but rather those who do not forget them.”

When we see the stateless, that is our role. We are here to remember, we are here to make sure people are not forgotten.

 

The whole world is watching.