October issue 2017

By | Newsbeat International | Published 7 years ago

The story of Bangladesh,” Joan Baez sang 45-odd years ago, “is an ancient one again made fresh/ By blind men who carry out commands/ Which flow out of laws upon which nations stand/ Which say to sacrifice a people for a land.”

That script has lately been revisited in neighbouring Myanmar, with Bangladesh this time around the destination, rather than the source, of large numbers of refugees fleeing a dogged campaign of extermination that has reportedly involved some of the most unspeakable atrocities that one group of human beings can visit upon another.

Yes, we have seen it all before, not just in Bangladesh — or East Pakistan, as it was then — in 1971, but in Cambodia just a few years later, and in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda towards the end of the 20th century. And those of us, naive enough to assume that the 21st century held out the promise of a more peaceful tomorrow, were soon enough disabused of that silly notion as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, paved the way for a series of conflicts that almost rivalled the Korean and Vietnam wars in their ferocity.

There wasn’t, however, any obvious reason to assume that Myanmar would be the next Bosnia. Sure, it had its ethnic conflicts, but the one between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists, which has simmered for centuries, wasn’t by any means the worst of them. Besides, the state formerly known as Burma, seemed to be gradually but steadily drifting towards some form of democracy, after decades under one form or another of military rule.

The shining star in this incremental progress was Aung San Suu Kyi, the elegant and eloquent daughter of the celebrated father of Burmese independence, General Aung San, who was assassinated when she was a toddler. By the cusp of the 1990s she embodied the democratic hopes of a nation fed up with a suffocating military dictatorship, and much of the world was deeply dismayed when her National League for Democracy’s (NLD) 1990 electoral landslide was thwarted by the military high command.

Suu Kyi spent many of the years that followed under house arrest, garnering international sympathy, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize, and being hailed as an Asian Nelson Mandela. Hardly anyone paid much attention throughout this period to the fact that she was extremely reticent about condemning the sporadic outbreaks of violence in Rakhine province. The few who did, generally tended to explain it away by suggesting that she was understandably disinclined to further alienate the military or the Buddhist majority on whose support the NLD relied.

The implication, invariably unstated, was that her heart was essentially in the right place, and that were she ever to assume power, she would be inclined to sort out the mess. When she showed no such inclination after being freed and permitted to contest elections, similar excuses were resurrected. And they continue to be regurgitated even now, when she is effectively Myanmar’s prime minister, the suggestion being that even the hint of any sympathy for the Rohingya would choke her popular support and quite possibly prompt the military, which has never entirely relinquished its power, to cut short the experiment in semi-democracy.

Even many of those who accept that political leadership worthy of a Nobel must, whenever necessary, entail going out on a limb for the discriminated-against and the dispossessed, some of whom have been demanding that Suu Kyi’s peace prize be rescinded, tend to see her behaviour as hypocritical. That may be a mistake. There was never any obvious reason to believe that her struggle for democracy was ethnically or communally inclusive. Perhaps she did not recently sprout feet of clay. Perhaps they were always there, but most of us chose to ignore them.

Like all too many of her compatriots, Suu Kyi refuses to use the term Rohingya, except in reference to the Islamist militants who have relatively recently appeared on the scene. Beyond that, the primary victims of the Rakhine conflict are referred to either simply as Muslims (never mind that Myanmar is also home to a fair amount of non-Rohingya Muslims) or as Bengalis, which feeds into the myth that they are essentially interlopers from Bangladesh, even though there is irrefutable evidence of a Rohingya presence in Rakhine since the 18th century.

That there are ethnic, cultural and linguistic affinities with Bengalis is hardly surprising — this is a common enough phenomenon in border regions pretty much all over the world (and not least in Pakistan). It is an appalling excuse for what the United Nations has characterised as a classic case of ethnic cleansing — the awful term that has been used since the 1990s to signify a concerted attempt to drive out, decimate and, if possible, exterminate a particular group of people. Others speak of genocide, a word that also reared its ugly head in 1971, but may be even more appropriate in the present case, given the fairly obvious intention on the part of the Myanmar authorities to obliterate the Rohingya identity.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have crossed the river that divides their country from Bangladesh, or else braved the waves in the Bay of Bengal in rickety craft, bringing their tales of horror and insurmountable woe. And if Suu Kyi is indeed interested in finding out why they fled, as she claimed when she finally broke her silence on the matter last month, she could do worse than pay a visit to the makeshift refugee camps that have cropped up in the vicinity of Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere in the border region.

Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Hasina Wajed, has demanded that Myanmar take back the refugees. That’s wishful thinking. Suu Kyi has said they can come back if they have verifiable documentation — which in most cases is highly unlikely, given the Rohingya lost their citizenship 35 years ago, and any identity papers they may have had are likely to have been lost when their villages were systematically ransacked and burnt down by local mobs encouraged by the authorities.

Bangladesh, which was already host to tens of thousands of Rohingya, is understandably reluctant to permanently accommodate the latest influx of refugees, and keen to ensure that they don’t stray from the designated areas, but the prospects of their return to Myanmar in the foreseeable future are exceedingly grim, even if reports of the Myanmarese authorities laying landmines along the border to prevent such an outcome, turn out to be exaggerated, or untrue.

The Rohingya have been fleeing violence in Rakhine for decades on end — which helps to explain why there is a Burmese colony in Karachi — but the drive against them has never been quite as concerted as in recent weeks. It was apparently prompted by the emergence of an outfit that calls itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a group with radical Islamist tendencies (and, reportedly, affiliations; its leader is said to have Saudi connections and Pakistani experience) that attacked security forces, and has vowed to carry on. The state responded with collective punishment, without any inkling of how much — or how little — support ARSA enjoyed among the Rohingya. Thus are the seeds of militancy sown.

The refugees arriving in Bangladesh have barely mentioned these particular militants — they are inevitably far more concerned by the Buddhist variety, led or instigated by monks, who have been randomly murdering them, including children, en masse, and burning their villages. Suu Kyi’s government sought to suggest that the arson was being carried out by the Rohingya themselves, but eyewitness accounts — not least that of BBC correspondent Jonathan Head — put that particular lie to rest.

Parts of the Muslim world have responded with considerable passion to the plight of the Rohingya. Like the Myanmar authorities, they view them primarily as Muslims rather than as human beings. Vast segments of humanity are often guilty of similar perceptions. The protests would have far greater moral value were the protesters — including Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan — inclined to demonstrate similar passion in the defence of minorities in their own countries.

That’s certainly not to suggest that the Rohingya should be ignored. The unfolding tragedy entitles them not only to compassion but to substantial dollops of aid, judiciously targeted through the appropriate agencies, on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, as well as an international programme of resettlement. And it would be good to see the Muslim countries that are most vociferous in decrying the maltreatment of the Rohingya take the lead in this respect.

Sadly, the far greater likelihood is that Joan Baez’s lament in Song of Bangladesh — “Once again we stand aside/ And watch the families crucified/ See the teenage mother’s vacant eyes/ As she watches her feeble baby try/ To fight the monsoon rains and the cholera flies…” — has lost none of its validity in the intervening years.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.