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International Relations Club tackles tough issues at ‘Foreign Policy Coffee Hour’

(Caroline O’Connor/Daily Collegian)

In an effort to inform students about countries thousands of miles away and to increase their awareness of what is going on in the world, the University of Massachusetts International Relation Club (IRC) hosts meetings known as “Foreign Policy Coffee Hours,” during which students can learn about issues facing the global community.

At this Wednesday night’s foreign policy coffee hour, held in Campus Center room 803 at 7 p.m., the IRC chose to focus on the Rohingya crisis taking place in South Asia. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic and religious minority living in the majority Buddhist country of Myanmar.

For decades, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the government due to their ethnic and religious differences. Ethnic and religious tensions between the Rohingya, most of whom are of Bangladeshi descent, and the Buddhist majority escalated in August 2017. Since the military crackdown in August, thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar in the pursuit of a safer life in Bangladesh and the protection of human rights. Death estimates of the Rohingya since August are in the several thousands.

The voice of the Rohingya is frequently stifled. Brian Atwater, a junior majoring in political science and geography, raised the point during the discussion that “there isn’t much political motivation anywhere in the world for leaders to stick up for people who have no benefit to them.” Atwater uses the Rohingya crisis to emphasize his point about representation being denied to those who arguably need it most.

In 1982, legislation was passed that denied the Rohingya their right to citizenship. As a result, a large majority of the Rohingya are stateless and thus have severely limited human rights and personal freedoms. As stateless persons, they are not represented in the government and therefore cannot vote to possibly change their situation. They are effectively stuck in this state of vulnerability, limited social mobility and poverty.

Atwater brought the issue of the Rohingya’s denied representation close to home, drawing parallels between the Rohingya being unable to speak up for themselves and the inability of immigrants in the United States to speak up for themselves, or when they do are met with an administration that is unwilling to listen to them.

As the discussion progressed, students engaged with one another, talking about the power of word choice, the larger implications of how the Rohingya crisis is being handled and the role of supranational organizations in protecting human rights.

Some students raised the question of, and several expressed frustration toward, why the Rohingya crisis, which has been happening for decades, is just now getting large scale media attention. Saahas Jain, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, shared his view that perhaps part of the reason why the Rohingya crisis isn’t talked about more is because “the only people affected are in Bangladesh, Myanmar and India,” and because of this, “it hasn’t impacted the international community, so I don’t think anyone wants to deal with it.”

When asked about the goal of these foreign policy coffee hours and the IRC, the president of the club and senior economics and global studies double major Noosha Uddin said that the club aims “to get students who are interested in foreign policy or want to expand [their knowledge]” to come and learn.

Uddin added that she hoped students would gain a more “detailed, educational perspective” about topics that may not be as well-known and are not receiving media coverage.

The open discussion allowed students to freely express their ideas and to express what’s going on in the world into their own context and the context of the United States. Uddin added that the IRC and the foreign policy coffee hours are open to all people.

“Every major, every year…are always welcome here,” Uddin said.

 

Kalia Hoechstetter can be reached at khoechstette@umass.edu and Claire Healy can be reached at clairehealy@umass.edu.

 

 

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