By Nikki Schwab
Actor Matt Dillon made headlines earlier this month for going to a remote part of the world to meet a group of people that nobody’s heard of. Back stateside on Thursday, Dillon explained how exactly it was that he ended up in Myanmar among the Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted ethnic group.
“My decision to go to Myanmar was kind of a spontaneous thing,” said the actor, known for ‘90s movies like “Wild Things” and "There's Something About Mary." He currently stars in the television show “Wayward Pines.”
He told the crowd at the National Press Club that he had been in Tokyo to do press for "Wayward Pines" when he opted to make the trip to Myanmar. If his interest in the refugees seems out of character for the Hollywood icon, it shouldn't be: Dillon has served on the board of Refugees International for seven years, and got involved in a very Hollywood-meets-Washington way.
“It was Richard Holbrooke,” Dillon said, speaking of the late American diplomat. “Richard Holbrooke introduced me to the organization after Robert DeNiro introduced me to Richard Holbrooke.” The name dropping sparked laughter among the listeners.
But back to the Rohingya.
“There was more stuff that was coming out about the Rohingya in the news -- pictures, horrendous pictures, of people crammed into hulls of boats like human cargo, stories of human trafficking,” he said. “I wanted to find out a little bit more about why these people were being forced to flee.”
So he went. “I decided to go under the radar,” Dillon said, connecting with journalist friends already in the region. What he saw over two days around the town of Sittwe stunned him. The Muslim Rohingya are a minority in the mostly Buddhist country, the government of which refuses to formally recognize them. “It really seems as if nobody wants them,” Dillon explained.
The neighborhood of Aung Mingalar is one striking example. It’s within Sittwe's city limits, but its Muslim residents can’t come or go freely. It’s closed off with barbed wire. When Dillon tried to get in he was met by a police officer who tried to block his camera. He left when more police officers showed up with guns.
He offered a dramatic comparison: “It’s literally like the Polish ghetto under the Nazis.”
He also visited four refugee camps and one Rohingya village near the sea. “There are clear signs of ethnic cleansing,” Dillon suggested, pointing to policies like one the government enacted recently, which says Rohingya children have to be born three years apart.
This type of population control is considered an early sign of genocide, a point underscored by an analysis by the Early Warning Project, which says Myanmar has the highest probability of seeing genocide compared to everywhere else in the world.
There’s not really a good option for them either. The Rohingya have the choice to live in camps, behind barbed wire, or take the chance on crowded ships to find a better life in countries that also don’t want them. “They are damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t,” Dillon pointed out. When asked where they'd even want to go, the actor didn't know.
“I think they just want to go anywhere where they have a better shot, a better shot at living,” Dillon said.
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