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Dr Maree Higgins 

Contemporary social science scholarship is exploring more inclusive and transformative ways of undertaking human rights dialogue, particularly examining how metaphor can expose, inform and shape human rights discourse.

Regional Regional development which occurs in the absence of grassroots voices has been criticised for both valorising and demonising displaced peoples and those subject to forced migration pressures, preventing the realisation of human rights. Yet human rights metaphors can also promote creative thinking to envision and enable justice, inclusion and community-led solutions. Despite this, Rohingya voices remain conspicuously absent from the dialogue about the large-scale movements of refugees occurring in the Asia-Pacific region, and about how best to respond. 

This article will apply Ife’s compelling argument that human rights remains a discourse of the powerful about the powerless to regional perspectives about the displacement of the Rohingya since the Andaman Sea crisis.  

Metaphor and the Andaman Sea Crisis

The Andaman Sea Crisis in May 2015 drew the international gaze to thousands of Rohingya refugees who, stranded and stateless, were experiencing tragic loss of life on the open sea. Escaping sustained persecution of the Myanmar military, almost 25,000 men, women and children sought protection from their nearest neighbours – Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia – but officials from these countries offered neither humanitarian aid nor safe entry to their harbours. 

Earliest reports about the crisis used metaphor to communicate about the unfolding tragedy. On May 14, 2015, Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch, urged: 

The Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian navies should stop playing a three-way game of human ping-pong, and instead should work together to rescue all those on these ill-fated boats… The world will judge these governments by how they treat these most vulnerable men, women, and children.

Human rights scholarship has for some time been examining how metaphor can expose, inform and shape human rights discourse. Metaphor can be an important vehicle for people who have experienced refugee trauma to convey their culturally located understandings and perspectives on human rights.1 Because similes and metaphors describe something by referral to something else, usually simpler or everyday, they are often used in the media to enable swift creation of coherency and map the unfamiliar to that which is already known.2 In the case of the Andaman Sea Crisis, metaphors have played an important role in bringing to light a tale of incomprehensible human suffering. 

Robertson’s ping-pong metaphor was quoted by The Guardian that very same March day. It has since been quoted in at least three other publications and in myriad contributions to this Kaldor Centre series, starting with Gleeson, its editor and a legal scholar:

In the earliest and most critical days of the crisis, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand reacted unfavourably to the attempted influx, and a three-way game of ‘human ping-pong’ ensued.  

In 2020, with human tragedy once again underscoring the inadequacy of regional mechanisms to prevent genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya – and to more effectively respond to the root causes of their flight – the ping-pong metaphor was again deployed, this time by Ugandan scholars in a comparative analysis of the broader implications of border securitisation that vilifies rather than protects victims of state-based violence: 

In the ASEAN region this has been categorised as a game of “maritime ping-pong” bereft of humanitarianism … [The] selective approach [to addressing the issues] allows Malaysia to play a two-faced role in this “maritime ping-pong”.

A diplomatic metaphor

It is worth reflecting on why the ping-pong metaphor might have become in English-language discourse so emblematic of the Rohingya community’s plight. Likening the Rohingya’s perilous situation to a three-way game of ping-pong has an element of the absurd. Such a game is likely to result in jostling, missteps and missed opportunities. It is unclear whether the metaphor characterises, or caricatures, the responses of Myanmar’s proximate nations. Yet this metaphor is eloquent in its simplicity – pointing to complex underlying themes of responsibility, power and control. At the earliest moments of the crisis it expresses vivid emotions – anger, distress, desperation. It has, however, been even more useful than might immediately be apparent for communicating about the unfolding tragedy to an international audience.

In his book, The Origins of Ping-Pong Democracy, Mayumi Itoh writes about the ‘significant diplomatic role in world history… [of this] “tiny” sport’, ping-pong having catalysed an historic breakthrough in Chinese-United States of America relations in 1972.3 Use of the metaphor in 2015 thus reminds us about past successes in international diplomacy and at the same time calls the international community to a higher standard. An argument has been made that human rights metaphors can promote creative thinking and enable policymakers to envision justice beyond the sovereignty of the nation-state.4 Robertson’s ping-pong analogy vividly illustrates the lack of such creative thinking and vision. In doing so, it becomes part of a lexicon of human rights that confronts abuses at a pivotal moment of escalation of violence in the region. It is not at all clear whether in the case of the Rohingya this metaphor has been able to carry diplomats or policymakers beyond the sovereignty of the nation-state as envisaged by Gregg, but the ping-pong metaphor has clearly emerged as a strophe in the coverage about duty and human rights in the region. 

Nothing about us without us

Regional bodies responded reasonably quickly during the 2015 crisis. The Australian Government engaged in international and bilateral diplomacy, offered humanitarian assistance and confirmed that ‘the official and societal discrimination against Rohingya in Rakhine State, on the basis of their ethnicity’ (2018:9) were grounds for refugee resettlement to Australia. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also intervened, to differing levels, to press for humanitarian outcomes and examine potentially durable solutions.5 

However, in November 2018, Mohammed Sheik Anwar, Rohingya activist and journalist, accused the international community of attempting to ‘whitewash’ the Myanmar military’s crimes in their plan to repatriate displaced Rohingya communities back to their homelands: 

This week, according to an agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, the refugees are supposed to start going back. The problem: No one has ever asked us, the Rohingya, what we want. Once again, our fate is being determined over our heads — without the slightest reference to our own desires. This must stop. In reality, the so-called repatriation plan is nothing but a scheme designed to whitewash the Myanmar military’s crimes and to help it escape accountability.

As Anwar highlights, one of the ongoing issues for political redress is the exclusion of the Rohingya community from the processes of development, hindering efforts to produce a robust framework for managing their distressing humanitarian needs and issues. This exclusion is facilitated both by the Myanmar State itself and by non-intervention principles and harsh border securitisation policies across the region. Anwar presents a powerful argument for the restoration of Rohingya citizenship in Myanmar and reinstatement of their status as an Indigenous group; for the offer of peaceful and protected resettlement back to people’s original villages; for an end to the culture of impunity surrounding the Myanmar military’s crimes against the Rohingya; and for legal justice to be effected. Yet, he repudiates planning which occurs in the absence of community consultation: such planning lacks legitimacy and is branded a whitewash. 

The metaphor of whitewash enables criticism of what appears to be concerningly cursory consideration of Rohingya circumstances since 2015. While the international community might share a desire to see the Rohingya repatriated to their country of origin, the reasons they are unable to return are yet to be properly addressed. This occurs because human rights remain contested, a discourse of the powerful about the powerless.6 

Metaphors of protest

Anwar’s use of the whitewash metaphor is pre-dated by former Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who resigned from a Myanmar advisory board in January 2018, questioning the genuineness of the representations made to the panel by Aung San Suu Kyi, the first and Incumbent State Counsellor of Myanmar. In his statement he emphasises: 

She has developed an arrogance of power … she basically is unwilling to listen to bad news, and I don’t want to be part of a whitewash.

Like the ping-pong metaphor, Anwar’s re-iteration of Richardson’s whitewash metaphor also suggests that a lexicon of human rights has developed around this complex humanitarian situation, one that maps and creates coherency regarding the contested space in which power, representation and inclusion in decision-making is being negotiated. Surrounding metaphorical language reinforces this, pointing again and again to the extant jostling, missteps and missed opportunities to protect and reinstate the rights of the Rohingya. Alongside the whitewash quote, the news article about Richardson’s resignation contains several key metaphors, two of which are presented below: 

One of my objectives in joining the advisory board was to be helpful and try to sort out real, long-term policy solutions, but I discovered that this board was being used as a cheerleading squad for the government … ever since Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi entered a power-sharing agreement with the military in 2016, she has grown distant from her international supporters. She has refused to meet with some of her former advocates and complained about a “huge iceberg of misinformation” related to the Rohingya. 

These metaphors, like others presented in this article, point to complex underlying themes of responsibility, power and control. It seems likely that the cheerleading metaphor references enduring international respect for Aung San Suu Kyi, held for so long in high regard for her principled stance the against the ruthlessness of Myanmar’s ruling military elite. The iceberg metaphor is a reiteration of a statement made by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, and will be addressed below. Richardson’s use of metaphor facilitates powerful criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership and highlights hidden drivers of current responses, questioning her commitment to durable solutions and confronting the international community’s mediated perspective of events. 

Metaphors of hostility

In September 2017, four months prior to Richardson’s resignation, reports were confirming that almost 120,000 Rohingya had fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in the wake of horrific violence, which, according to the United Nations Secretary-General, verged on ethnic cleansing. Unaccountably, Aung San Suu Kyi commented on the situation in Rakhine State as follows: 

“fake news photographs” posted on Twitter by Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister … purported to show dead Rohingya in Myanmar, but in fact were taken elsewhere … That kind of fake information … [is] simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.

In Aung San Suu Kyi’s choice of words, we see the darker side of the use of metaphor. These racially hostile metaphors degrade and demonise Rohingya communities, and leverage readily available reference material to delegitimise their claims to justice and to tap into existing discourses, such as those initiated by Donald Trump, ripe with prejudice and cynicism. Her commentary not only debases asylum-seekers but debases us all. Worse still is a metaphor recently reported in The New York Times, a translation of the testimony of two senior soldiers appearing at The Hague, where, for the first time, the International Criminal Court is examining crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya:  

In August 2017, the 353 and 565 Light Infantry Battalions conducted "clearance operations" in the areas where the men said they did, Buthidaung and Maungdaw Townships. Commanding officers whom Private Myo Win Tun said ordered him to wipe out the Rohingya … were operational there at the time, according to fellow soldiers.

Offering the first insights as to the modern operation of Myanmar’s military in relation to the Rohingya, this testimony shows how metaphor can obscure the true nature of atrocities committed, both in the moment, and in recall. The term clearance operations is part of an aggressive lexicon of sovereignty and statehood that debases and dehumanises victims of state crime and drowns out the human rights lexicon. Under cover of a colourless metaphor, atrocities are permitted and enacted; this pattern is both familiar to those of us who have researched genocidal events, as well as horrifically out of place. Such metaphors tear apart the very fabric of language itself.  

A lexicon of mixed metaphors

Small wonder, then, that when asked to articulate the plight of their families and communities, Rohingya activists draw upon bleak metaphorical language:

One Rohingya man captured the impasse of having no home and no prospect of acceptance either in Myanmar or Malaysia by simply exclaiming: "There we are nothing, here we are nothing." 

The metaphor we are nothing is a metaphor published by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Religion and Ethics Report. It creates a depth of feeling and evokes a response in the audience different to that of other language and reports. Lived-experience metaphors are important as they convey meaning across languages and cultures. Contrast the impact of the above statement with the excerpt below, part of a 2019 campaign to raise funds in respect of the plight of displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh: 

The latest exodus began on 25 August 2017, when violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, driving more than 742,000 to seek refuge ... The vast majority reaching Bangladesh are women and children … many others are elderly people requiring additional aid and protection. They have nothing and need everything. 

This excerpt picks up on the idea of nothing but as a label imposed by outsiders it positions the Rohingya as a community apart, victims in need of rescuing. As Makau Mutua, Kenyan-American Professor of Law, has argued so forcefully, this formulation is unhelpful as it taps into the trope of ‘victim/savage/saviour’,7 reducing Rohingya agency and excluding communities from problem-definition, problem-solving and decision-making. This exclusion is often repeated through history, as highlighted in the below metaphorical statement by a man identified as a Burmese Coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition, General Secretary of Forces of Renewal Southeast Asia and a fellow of the Genocide Documentation Centre in Cambodia: 

Like all other non-Burmese ethnic communities throughout the vast border regions, the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1948 means, to the native inhabitants of Rakhine region, the release of Arakan or Rakhine from the clutch of the White Man’s rule to the old colonial masters next door – the majoritarian Buddhist Burmese nationalists.

These metaphors leap off the page, bringing historic events into our comfortable living rooms to ask questions of us and our nascent decolonial rhetoric. Seventy years on from an end to colonial rule, what real progress has been made in nation, peace and prosperity-building in the region, and what cost post-colonial inaction? Against this sweep of history and the backdrop of atrocity, the selection of language around the ‘we are nothing’ quote in the Religion and Ethics Report is almost surreal:

Rohingya's freedom of movement is restricted (they are even herded into detention camps and ghettos) … 'soft deportations' have been known to take place along the Thai-Malaysia border … Large-scale raids are periodically conducted in urban centres to ‘weed out illegals’ … This prolonged life in limbo, in a condition of not being part of a larger social fabric and community, has undoubtedly had a profound effect on many Rohingya and their sense of being Rohingya.

The use of the term ‘soft deportation’ is misleading and highly problematic given that these journalists are reporting potential refoulement, that is, return of Rohingya to Myanmar in violation of the Refugee Convention and/or deportation of Rohingya from Malaysia into the hands of people smugglers and human traffickers. Furthermore, the term ‘limbo’ has been criticised for establishing and upholding limited parameters within which asylum seekers are allowed to exist, enabling implementation of restrictive laws and policies regarding forced migration.8 Using pastoral terms such as ‘herded’ and ‘weed out’ reveals and/or reiterates antipathic perspectives and assumptions towards the Rohingya community. In a similar vein, stereotypical metaphors such as ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’ when applied to the Rohingya9 clearly undermine productive discourse and impact formulation of workable approaches to refugee protection by reducing human suffering to the banal and commonplace. It should be clear from the above, if not from previous scholarship, that academics, politicians, journalists and practitioners need to amplify metaphors that are inclusive and respectful of people from displaced and vulnerable communities and avoid those which other, objectify and mislead10 Neither valorisation nor demonisation of the Rohingya have been sufficient to enable productive human rights-based responses to date.

Metaphors ‘from below’

A potentially more fruitful approach is for the international community to attempt to understand human rights ‘from below’,11 examining metaphors utilised by Rohingya, and within Myanmar towards the Rohingya, in contemporary politics. Australian author Cheeseman does this by examining the history of the idea, or metaphor, of ‘taingyintha’,12 from the Burmese language:  

taingyintha as an idea … provides the basis for guidelines by which certain facts are accepted and others rejected in determining membership in Myanmar’s political community, with injurious consequences for any group like Rohingya who fail to obtain recognition. In contemporary Myanmar, taingyintha is an exemplary term of state. 

Cheesman’s analysis of ‘taingyintha’ illustrates its changing importance in framing identity within Myanmar. He explains that this metaphor denotes ‘different linguistic and cultural groups joined together by an imagined and shared ancestry or a common homeland’.13 In the space of just over a century, ‘taingyintha’ has referred to handicrafts, medicines and trades; then, later, livelihood rights and preservation of the vernacular. In the post-war era this term expressed ‘oneness and [desire to] end colonial practices of divide and rule’ and was a positive ‘signifier of difference and plurality’.14 It was not until the 1960s that this metaphor gained momentum as ‘a contrivance for political inclusion and exclusion, for political eligibility and domination’.15

Through Cheesman’s examination of the metaphor of ‘taingyintha’ we are able to perceive the unfairness of the fact that Myanmar and the region more broadly is not any more willing or better prepared to respond to mass displacement and forced migration than at the time of the 2015 crisis. Cheesman’s is a bold project, attempting to get inside the Burmese language and examine a metaphor that reveals the contested nature of the Rohingya’s statehood and citizenship in Myanmar. Projects such as these can reveal lived experience from the perspective of Rohingya and others in the response frame, exposing unconstructive assumptions and responses, and potentially better promoting human rights in the region over time. As Cheesman emphasises: 

… the alternative history that Rohingya advocates articulate, while being a history told “from within the shadows,” is not a counter-history of subjugated knowledge… although it aims to bring out historical contents that are buried and disqualified and contest some premises of the truth regime, it does not question the premises of the regime itself, or its underlying “truths”.16

Inclusion: The only way forward

Sadly, regional development often occurs in the absence of grassroots voices; this is illustrated here by analysis of diverse accounts of the root causes of, and proposals put forward since, the 2015 Andaman Sea Crisis. Academic, high-profile and lived-experience voices have been compared to provide new and useful perspectives. Clearly, metaphor highlights both resonances and dissonances present in the wake of the Andaman Sea crisis. 

In Habiburahman’s recent autobiography, the Rohingya narrator pronounces:

A tyrant leant over my cradle and traced a destiny for me that will be hard to avoid: I will either be a fugitive or I won’t exist at all.17

Habiburahman is a Rohingya man who sought protection from the Australian government in 2009. He endured refugee detention and was granted only temporary protection because he arrived in Australia by boat. His status remains unresolved. His story, co-written with Sophie Ansel, and translated by Andrea Reece, offers insight into Habiburahman’s experiences growing up in Myanmar. The metaphorical fragment, ‘I will either be a fugitive or I won’t exist at all’ has been reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, and is further testament to the power of metaphor to inform and elucidate human rights themes. The situation of the Rohingya is untenable if these two are the only possible outcomes. Clearly, inclusion is the only way forward. 

The study of human rights metaphors gives unique access to the underlying discourses produced by media bodies, academics and, where possible, people with lived experience. Iterative analysis of data, attending particularly to the context and usage of language, can reveal and test patterns of communication for their viability in the response frame. Metaphor is a powerful tool of communication that can stereotype and disempower but also enrich and reframe discussions about why atrocities occur and what can and should be done when they do. The metaphorical statement above, and the broader body of work analysed in this article, offers new ways of thinking about nation-building and suggests it is well past time for iterative and inclusive examination of the underlying bases of power, privilege and polity in Myanmar.


Dr Maree Higgins is a social work educator and a human rights researcher. She convenes the BSW(Hons) program at UNSW. Maree has over 10 years’ experience as a social worker in clinical and management roles in cross-cultural contexts including refugee and asylum seeker services, youth services and international aid. She is interested in how people's cultures and lived experiences shape their understandings of human rights, significant life transitions and wellbeing, and how poetry, metaphor and storytelling can convey meaning in intercultural practice and research towards meaningful change. She also focusses on exploring and reflecting upon the nexus between ethics and qualitative research practices. Maree engages in social-justice oriented research in collaboration with a range of industry, community and government organisations in relation to human rights, forced migration, criminal justice, sexual misconduct, health and welfare. 

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  • 1. Maree Higgins, '‘Like gold scattered in the sand’: Human rights as constructed and understood by African families from refugee backgrounds', Australian Catholic University 2019)
  • 2. Zoltán Kövecses, 'Metaphor in media language and cognition: A perspective from conceptual metaphor theory' (2018) 3 Lege Artis (De Gruyter Open) 124
  • 3. Mayumi Itoh, The Origin of Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Forgotten Architect of Sino-U.S. Rapprochement (Palgrave MacMillan 2011).
  • 4. Benjamin Gregg, 'Human Rights as Metaphor for Political Community beyond the Nation State' (2016) 42 Critical Sociology 897
  • 5. Irawan Jati, 'Comparative Study of the Roles of ASEAN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Responding to the Rohingya Crisis' (2017) 1 IKAT:The Indonesian Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 17.
  • 6. Jim Ife, Human Rights and Social Work: Towards Rights-Based Practice (3rd edn, Cambridge University Press 2012)
  • 7. Makau W. Mutua, 'Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights' (2001) 42 Harvard International Law Journal 201.
  • 8. Ben Hightower, 'Refugees, Limbo and the Australian Media' (2015) 28 International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 335.
  • 9. Felix Heiduk and Antje Missbach, 'Risking Another Rohingya Refugee Crisis in the Andaman Sea: SWP Comment' (2020) Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik 1, 3.
  • 10. Vanessa Pupavac, 'Refugee Advocacy, Traumatic Representations and Political Disenchantment' (2008) 43 Government and Opposition 270.
  • 11. Jim Ife, Human Rights from Below: Achieving Rights through Community Development (Cambridge University Press 2009).
  • 12. Nick Cheesman, 'How in Myanmar “National Races” Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya' (2017) 47 Journal of Contemporary Asia 461-483.
  • 13. Ibid, 463.
  • 14. Ibid, 464.
  • 15. Ibid, 462
  • 16. Ibid, 462
  • 17.  Habiburahman and Sophie Ansel, First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks (Scribe Publications 2019).
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