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Monday Sep 11 2017

Myanmar’s killing fields

From an icon of democratic values and poster child of liberalism, Aung San Suu Kyi, the de-facto ruler of Myanmar, has fallen to the status of a conniver in the genocide of the Rohingya population. On her watch and right under her nose, the country’s Buddhist monks and armed forces have systematically terminated over 10,000 Rohingya, uprooted tens of thousands and have created such a tall tower of death for this stateless community that it would make Hitler go green with envy.

A Nobel Laureate with a high moral ground, Suu Kyi now stands on the titled stage of dishonour and disgrace. True, the Rohingya’s systematic cleansing (read: extermination) predates her government’s arrival on the scene. But the fact that she – the most known face of her country internationally – has chosen to create a moral equivalence between the killer and the killed and has thrown her weight behind genocidal policies makes her look morally deficient and devoid of principles. She has been a letdown to the millions of her admirers, proving yet again that titles and badges do not make heroes.

Can she and the country she controls be turned back from annihilating the Rohingya? The sheer burden of tragedy has already forced a slow-moving and compromised international community to take notice of the slaughter. Yet this is just in words and not in action. As Asma Jehangir, Pakistan’s celebrated human rights activist and UN rapporteur, pointed out on my show recently, the existential threat to the Rohingya has been documented since 1992 and more recently the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, has been crying hoarse over the worsening situation. The media, while restricted and blocked through an iron wall of censorship by the government, has also chronicled this tale of horror for years. Social media, even though at times inaccurate and misleading, has served an exceptionally useful medium to put out incriminating evidence of the Rohingya’s persecution.

And yet the killings have gone on unhindered. From gang rapes to hacking to pushing groups into flowing river waters, unimaginable atrocities have taken place in recent months. Part of the reason is that Myanmar is a strategically-located country. As China and the US vie for influence in the Indian Ocean, it becomes a hotbed of global power struggle that leaves little scope for its isolation on the grounds of despicable human rights violations. The Rohingya’s plight is further exacerbated by the fact that the community has been disorganised and totally impoverished. Their voices have been weak and wholly dependent on outside support for being heard across a treacherous land that is now closed to any outside scrutiny and documentation. In a dog-eat-dog world, this is a ruinous disability. The Rohingya had to die in their thousands and be uprooted and displaced to be heard.

Besides, the bordering countries, India and Bangladesh, have regimes whose own track record of handling minorities and voices of anguish in their midst is abysmal. You don’t expect Narendra Modi of the Gujarat massacre fame to be moved by the plight of Rohingya. Or for that matter Madam Hasina Wajid to shed a tear over the tragedy considering her brutal suppression of opposition at home, including the hanging spree of those she conveniently dubbed as traitors.

Perhaps the only real-life issue that can bring some relief to the Rohingya in the days ahead is the fear that most countries in the region share – that this tragedy might become a magnet for revenge squads of religious groups to descend from all across and start a new chapter of jihad in the name of the Rohingya. As a recent report has pointed out, the South East Asian region will “have to confront the reality of returning Islamic State (IS) fighters from Iraq and Syria. Experts estimate that hundreds of foreign fighters have returned to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, while only a handful have been identified. More are expected to make their way back following the allied operations in Mosul and Raqqa – the two Islamic State territories in Iraq and Syria respectively.”

The report also says that “their numbers are said to be bigger than those who returned from the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, and subsequently established the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terror group”.

India and Bangladesh have enough tinderbox at home to light the fire of an indigenous reaction to the tragedy that has been allowed to befall the Rohingya. Thailand is already struggling with internal strife involving Buddhists and Malay Muslims. China has its own issues. The blood-curdling sight of a Muslim minority being put to the sword without any effective action being taken by the regional and international countries is a powerful symbol that can unite many disparate groups. That danger can spread fast and wide. We have seen it happen in the Middle East. We have seen it happen in Afghanistan.

Injured sentiments can trigger reactions beyond imagination. Perhaps this consideration will make the regional countries drive some humanity in the heads that govern Myanmar. For those who have perished and whose lives have been damaged among the Rohingya, any action now will be too little too late but for those who survive any intervention at this point will still be welcome.

The above sets the context in which we have to analyse our own reaction and response to the mass murder of the Rohingya. Officially, the right noises have been made even though practical steps to register this protest have been conspicuous by their absence. Pakistan remains a distant but deeply interested observer to the happenings in Myanmar, trying to balance arms deals with growing public demand to talk tough to the Myanmar authorities. The civil society and the religious right have both raised voices of concern and condemnation, which is a reassuring aspect of national life even though the motivations for both groups seem different and even divergent.

The religious right and their affiliates want to champion every cause involving religion, even though their application of the Muslim brotherhood principle has been selective when it comes to tragedies of the Muslims in say Yemen, Nigeria, and even Iraq and Syria. For the civil society, the issue is essentially one of human rights and their grave violation at the hands of a government that has been deaf to reason and humanitarian appeals. Politically, voices have been heard from all quarters about the Rohingya but this has been more in the spirit of expressions on a publically popular subject than any substantive and durable concern about the problem.

Politics in Pakistan continues to revolve around the NA-120 by-election, civil-military ties and – from today onwards – the unfolding spectacle of the review petition before a bench whose three-member, five-member puzzle is making jurists go nuts. Politically, the Rohingya are/were a fleeting concern worthy of press releases, tweets and Friday demonstrations.

The media has been attentive to the tragedy after its details and facts became too ugly to ignore. But even there we have witnessed instances of impotent rage. In one case, an actor-model-turned-analyst (and that’s a tragic combination) frothing at the mouth heaped scorn over Pakistan’s passport and suggested that all the Rohingya should be given Pakistani nationality because, according to his superior logic, Pakistani nationality is hardly a matter of honour at any rate. Since this character is an officially-designated super patriot and he made these remarks from the pure platform of a patriotic channel, his fulminations did not become a matter of national crisis. Anyone else making such pronouncements would have been condemned to the same fate that the Myanmar government has reserved for the Rohingya.

But these aberrations aside, it is heart-warming to see Pakistan debate with great energy and interest an international humanitarian crisis – something that you will not find happen in most so-called developed or Islamic countries that miss no excuse to put down Pakistan’s standing among the comity of nations. There is some humanity left in this world after all and it’s good to be a significant part of it.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

Originally published in The News

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