On Rohingya identity in conflict: Interview with Elliot Prasse-Freeman

This interview was conducted via video on March 27, 2020. Dr. Elliot Prasse-Freeman spoke with me from Singapore, where he is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

In this first clip, I introduce Elliot and he tells us a bit about the COVID-19 responses in Singapore.

“It’s not their first rodeo. Whereas at least from the outside, it seems the U.S. isn’t handling things quite so smoothly…”

In this second clip, Elliot gives us an overview of the situation for Rohingya who are living in refugee camps around the wider region.

He notes, “There have been waves of this kind of expulsion over forty years…they live at the pleasures of their hosts…the fine print is that they don’t have any rights, they are not allowed to legally work, they cannot go to school…they’re in a perpetual state of social exclusion…”

The third clip gets to the heart of Elliot’s research on Rohingya ethnicity. In it, he discusses the tensions between asserting a Rohingya identity as a way to push back against violence suffered at the hands of the Myanmar state, while recognizing that identities evolve and are interpreted differently.

“One informant said, ‘you know people are 50/50. They’re fifty percent for saving themselves, and they’re fifty percent for defending the nation.’ And I think that 50/50 often operates within individuals. So that half the time, you’re looking to save your life, and half the time you’re trying to do what’s good for this broader collective that you’re just, in some senses, coming to know for the first time.”

The final clip begins with me asking an extremely rambling question about both the democratization movement and how more complex theorization about ethnicity has practical implications. Elliot somehow turned it into a fascinating response.

Elliot recalls his previous research with democratization groups and how some of them (but far from all) continued to stick their necks out when the violence against Rohingya increased: “The activists groups, the democracy movement, is constantly dealing with this tension about to what extent do they have to be instrumental — and then sacrifice the process for the end goal-? And to what extent does that end up undermining and corrupting the message that they bring, and hence leading to a transition to a democratic government that is not worth the name.”

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

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