Archive for the ‘India’ Category
New York- I have a new story out in today’s Asia Times Online about an alleged Chinese spy who was detained and deported from India in what seems to be a very curious case that has received no attention in the Western media that I know of. I came across the story while working on the new issue of Militant Leadership Monitor and decided that it was worth devoting a full article in and of itself.
A lot has happened in the world since I have been pecking away at my laptop. The Finest supermarket in Kabul’s Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood was suicide bombed last Friday that killed at least eight (or nine). While covering Afghan politics in 2009, I survived on provisions from the Finest Shahr-e-Nau location which often had the only working ATM in the city and was walking distance along dust-choked streets to the places I was holed up while filing stories. The Finest stores are owned by Sayyed Mansoor Nadiri, the head of Afghanistan’s Ismaili community and cater to Westerners in the city, making them an obvious target of Deobandi suicide attackers. I met and photographed Nadiri briefly while he cast his vote for Karzai on election day in Kabul and instructed all of his followers to vote for Karzai as well in one of Karzai’s many back room palace deals he cut with warlords and religious leaders to guarantee his “reelection.” I used often drive by the Wazir Akbar Khan location coming back into the city center from Jalalabad road and sit by the traffic circle nearby and observe Western mercenaries mingling in the parking lot after a hard day of tooling around the city intimidating Afghans and looked upon them with disdain. In any war zone, mercenaries are the bottom of the barrel in the hierarchy of “war tourists” and are a favorite target for insurgents. A deadly conflation appears when mercenaries, as fellow Westerners, consume the same goods and services as journalists, diplomats and aid workers and the wished for, supposed distinction of identity washes away and one target becomes indistinguishable from another in a highly chaotic environment. Kaboom!
Then al-Qahira (a.k.a. Cairo) where a day of rage has turned into days of rage and the Obama administration has consistently been “not out in front of this thing” to use my favorite political cliche of late. Mubarak has been the tallest hypocritical cornerstone in America’s bogus democracy promotion agenda for a long time. The last time I was in Egypt was after traveling there via Jordan after the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. Iraq was singled out by neoconservative ideologues as an unpalatable dictatorship that had to be overthrown by force and at once, largely because it was a dictatorship or so the world’s public was told (depending on the day and which way the wind was blowing). Egypt and Jordan, an authoritarian presidential patronage state and a constitutional monarchy respectively, are dictatorships that are stood up by the U.S. taxpayer due to their pliable leadership and peace treaties with Israel, another highly unegalitarian state. Here in the United States, every Zionist, anti-Arab pundit is desperately scrambling to play the Muslim Brotherhood card to confuse and frighten an unfortunately, largely naive public. These pundits views are as out of date as the Brotherhood’s. They only believe in democracy promotion so long as it fits their very narrow idea of democracy, an impossible fantasy in most of the world. Throughout the Cold War, we were told that the Arab world was not ready for democratic and open society because it would create a dangerous vacuum filled by the then boogey man de jour, communism. Now plenty of such Cold War-reared pundits are having a field day warning that the American public should not cheer on a liberation revolution on the streets of Egypt’s cities because surely nefarious Islamists will fill the dangerous void if Mubarak flees, say, to Saudi Arabia, another dictatorship. Then there are those that say things like “well we don’t know if Arabs are ready for democracy” which is akin to those who asked in 2008 whether American voters were “ready” for a black president. Basically, soft racism. The revolution in the Arab states of North Africa and the Middle East is being televised and it is nearly irrelevant what a White House press secretary says in a reactive rather than proactive statement at this point.
“While the Arab Middle East is political Islam’s ideological and historical core, South Asia and Southeast Asia, concentrated in the Indonesian archipelago, make up the modern demographic core of the Muslim world. Advocates of political jihadism have been adept at exploiting pre-existing territorial and ethnic grievances, both perceived and real, in these highly complex and fragmented states. Terror networks in these tumultuous mega-regions have also been cleverly calculating in their agitation of simmering disputes that have arisen from the communal tensions of religious difference that have existed in varying degrees since the region’s violent Cold War-era decolonization.
To better understand the social fabric of terrorism in South and Southeast Asia, The Jamestown Foundation held a panel entitled, “Terrorist Trends in South Asia,” as a component of its annual terrorism conference on December 9th, 2009 at the National Press Club, “The Changing Strategic Gravity of al-Qaeda”. The contents of that panel, including full transcripts, question and answer sessions, executive summaries, slide presentations, panelist biographies and the full transcript of keynote speaker Bruce Riedel’s presentation.”
New York- I attended an event at Asia Society in New York last Thursday called India and Pakistan: Back from the Brink? that dealt largely with the never ending fight over Kashmir. From India was C. Raja Mohan, author of Crossing the Rubicon: The Shaping of India’s New Foreign Policy and current Kissenger Chair at the Library of Congress. From Pakistan was Dr. Adil Najam, professor of International Relations at Boston University. No one from the other major stakeholder, China (with its own slice of occupied Kashmir called Aksai Chin) was present nor was there a Kashmiri to represent the people of Kashmir save for an audience member who spoke up. The event was moderated by Briton Robert Templer from the International Crisis Group. Raja Mohan explained to the audience that the Musharraf years between 2004-2007 were more productive toward a modicum of Indo-Pak peace than the sum of foreign relations in the previous four decades. All of this was derailed by the end of Musharraf’s one-man, rather unipolar military-civilian government, and of course the vile Mumbai terror attack in late November of 2008. Mohan said that the post-Musharraf power structure in Islamabad had complicated things in that the Singh government was now dealing with a Kayani-Zardari-Gilani troika rather than just talking to and dealing with one man as it had done for years with General Pervez Musharraf.
With the prospect of a getting a peace process back on track, Mohan said that such a process must be able withstand pressure from the spoilers. That is to say if Lashkar-e-Tayyba or another Pakistani terror group launches a large scale attack on the Indian heartland, that peace talks will not automatically be turned off at the tap in response. Doing so would hand another victory to those waging asymmetrical warfare/mass murder in South Asia. Adil Najam stated that he was more of an optimist than a realist when considering territorial disputes between India and Pakistan in a broader context. Najam is hopeful that by working on the Sir Creek dispute on the Arabian Sea and the Siachen glacier dispute on the Chinese frontier abutting the Chinese-controlled Shaksgam valley, the larger Kashmir dispute can be talked about more amicably if the less ideologically and emotionally-based conflicts can be settled peacefully. Najam believes there is currently a viable window open for the two primary players to work on the Kashmir dispute but that this window will not last and must be taken advantage of in the near term. Mohan said the Indians were unclear if Musharraf’s policies on Kashmir had been grandfathered in by the current Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani and were therefore not sure of some of the parameters for discussion with their Himalayan opponent. On the subject of cross border terrorism, often Delhi’s biggest contention, Najam said that Pakistan will reign in terror groups when it realizes it is in its own interest to do so rather than as a component of Indian demands (that may further bruise Pakistan’s battered ego). Mohan concluded that Kashmir and the other disputes between India and Pakistan (he left out poor Bangladesh) are more of a post-1947 South Asian civil war stemming from the massive internecine partition than a classic war in the international sense.
I have a piece on the Huffington Post this weekend on the supposed final offensive in the twenty-six year long civil war in Serendip that you can read here. Have a good weekend, there are a few hundred thousand internally displaced people in northeast Sri Lanka that won’t.
I’ve got a new piece out with the folks at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington on a seemingly obscure insurgent movement in Northeast India that has been active for three decades and shows few signs of dying out anytime soon. Not all militant movements are Islamist nor are they confined to operating in nations outside the G-20 and/or failing states. Take a look at the article here…
New York-The New York University’s Center On Law and Security held a discussion on the role of the Kashmir conflict in the context of the South Asian security environment and the disputed region’s place in overall Indo-Pakistani relations. The speakers included Steve Coll of the New Yorker magazine and author of Ghost Wars, Pakistani journalist Arif Jamal and author of Shadow War:The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir, and Basharat Peer, Kashmiri journalist and author of Curfewed Night.
Basharat Peer began the discussion with a general background on the history of the Kashmir dispute and its relevance within the post-partition ideologies in the Indian subcontinent. Peer told the audience of Nehru, himself a Hindu Pandit from the Kashmir Valley, and his belief that maintaining control over a Muslim majority state was an essential element of the inward projection of Indian secularism. Obversely, Pakistan, being founded on the principle of an Islamic Republic, necessitated the Muslim Kashmir be absorbed into Muslim Pakistan.
Arif Jamal related an anecdote of an American diplomat, who upon meeting with a Pakistani counterpart, asked to begin the discussion on Kashmir’s hot and cold cycle of crisis. When the Pakistani official curiously asked why, the American responded “When I come to discuss the Taleban, people in your government shoot back with “Let’s start with discussing Kashmir””. The American learned that he should cut to the chase and realized from the Pakistani perspective that the war over the Valley was of primary importance while the American war with the Taleban and Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan was secondary. Jamal explained that jihadi ideology, rather than being some recent off shoot of globalization, was in fact an integral focus of the Pakistani defense establishment’s outlook since the nation’s inception. Jamal differentiated between being an Islamist and a so-called Jihadist. “One does not have to be an Islamist to be a Jihadist”. In that sense, Ronald Reagan was a jihadist to the extent that he espoused the framing of the Soviet-Afghan war as a Holy War pitting pious Afghans against godless Soviet Communism.
Steve Coll mentioned excerpts from his recent New Yorker piece The Back Channel on Indo-Pak negotiations and recent events roiling the subcontinent. Coll described the lack of a regular Western media presence in Srinagar as possible reasoning behind the Mumbai atrocities. As Coll put it, “A suicide bomber entering a police barracks in Srinagar won’t make the evening news in the United States but attacking five star hotels in Mumbai will”. Coll commented when asked by moderator Karen Greenberg whether he agreed with David Kilcullen’s assessment that Pakistan may collapse in six months time due a marked decrease in the country’s overall security profile by saying that Kilcullen had overstated his case and that Pakistan’s relatively successful (and peaceful) elections showed that the overwhelming majority of ordinary Pakistanis do not want to live in a feudal Sharia state. (Author’s Note:The best example of this is the voters of NWFP throwing out the militant leaning Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in favor of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party)
An interesting part of the discussion was the disagreement between Jamal and Coll over the proposed styles of a Kashmir settlement. Arif Jamal advocated the sanctioned internationalization of Kashmir talks because the historical record of three wars and over sixty years of squabbling between India and Pakistan demonstrates that they are not capable of coming to a mutually trustful agreement without pressure from some international body. Steve Coll sharply disagreed stating the Kashmir conflict must be solved bilaterally inherent to the 1972 Simla Agreement and said that a far more likely scenario would involve non-declared internationals quietly partaking in outward bilateral talks.
I was sitting with my family in an Indian restaurant in Queens, New York at our annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner as my eye occasionally darted up to the screen overhead with images of Mumbai’s Taj Hotel smoldering on a Hindi-language satellite channel. I thought to myself “This has got to be a Lashkar operation” as the casualty numbers mounted. Then when a local ABC news crew began to interview the Indian family at the next table, I knew the militants had really awoken the somewhat slumbering global media in a way their last foray in India did not. In December of 2001, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and another Pakistani group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), jointly attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. However, the world was largely focused on the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing Bonn conference at the time. Lashkar-e-Taiba is known and feared throughout South Asia as a brutal terrorist network composed primarily of Kashmiri irredentists and unreconstructed pan-Islamists. Their agenda has morphed over the last two decades since the group’s inception in the 1980’s with a focused agenda wresting the Indian administered portion of Kashmir from Indian forces to attacks on India’s political and financial institutions.
To explain how groups such as LeT and JeM operate openly in Pakistan is to try to understand Pakistan’s dysfunctional political discourse. I attended a rally earlier this year set up by several of the country’s “big tent” Islamist parties who opposed Musharraf’s rule for not being sufficiently strident toward India and the United States. After shooting photos at the all day affair, a Pakistani friend and I went over the images on my laptop later that evening. He began to comb over the photos tooth-and-nail to show me what I was not nuanced enough to realize earlier. Amid the crowds of demonstrators and on-lookers mixed members of some of Pakistan’s most feared militant outfits. Members of Jaish-e-Mohammed, like LeT, a supposedly banned formation, mingled around in their distinctive headdresses consisting of a very specifically embroidered prayer cap wrapped in a stylized turban. “How could it be” I asked my friend “that these terrorists are walking around central Lahore openly and in front of the press, even standing next to Punjab police officers?” This rally was not being held by a group of nameless malcontents either. Some of the most prominent members of the political establishment were speaking including cricket world champion-turned-pundit Imran Khan and the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s oldest Islamic parties.
Traditional militancy in Pakistan is in fact a viable part of the political culture. Most of the militant groups operate not against the government but rather in the government’s interest of fomenting violence by proxy throughout the region. Militant groups that are genuinely against the government such as the once Marxist-leaning ethnic Balochi nationalists are painted by Islamabad to be pawns of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian CIA. However, among opposition politicians operating nationally in Pakistan, there seem to be certain red lines which, when crossed by the central government, can be used to stir up rage against the leadership. Qazi Hussein Ahmad, the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami extolled his followers to never forgive the Musharraf regime for assassinating Nawab Akbar Bugti in the context of a military operation in 2006. Bugti, in life was anything but an Islamist in the fashion of Mr Hussein. Nawab Akbar Bugti was an ardent Baloch ethnic-nationalist. Essentially, Baloch dissidents want to secede and therefore partly dismantle the Pakistani state while Jamaat players seek to further consolidate Pakistan’s Islamization which they believe has not quite gone far enough. In comparison, there is virtually no synergy between the two groups. The province of Balochistan is a population poor, resource rich backwater long neglected for most of Pakistan’s independence. Walking down The Mall, Lahore’s trendy shopping street, there are signs advertising “Pay Your Sui Gas Bill Online”. The Sui natural gas field is in the Dera Bugti district of Balochistan and is precisely what the elderly Nawab Akbar Bugti was fighting over. Most of the gas produced in the Sui field is fed to Lahore and Karachi while Balochistan seethes largely devoid of infrastructure.
While the chanting of “Bugti, Bugti” by the mostly Punjabi (and entirely male) crowd was likely solely for propaganda purposes and obliviously ironic seeing as Nawab Akbar Bugti struggled much of his adult life against the Punjabi domination of Pakistan’s military and bureaucracy, the very fact that his name was being roused in Lahore demonstrates the fluidity of non state and terrorist alliances within such a fractured country. Jaish militants yelling “Bugti Zindaband” or “Long live Bugti” are actually voting against their interests since the Nawab’s narrow goals of Balochi liberation were diametrically opposed to their broader narrative of religious violence. Such are what passes for politics in Pakistan.
While Lashkar-e-Taiba’s primary aims are launching attacks across the Line of Control toward the Indian military in Jammu & Kashmir, their stated agenda has become much broader. Like Jaish-e-Mohammed, LeT has been partly co-opted into a wider global jihadist milieu. In the evolution of the ideological basis of Kashmiri separatism, these groups have stated their interest in attacking the architecture of the Indian state itself. Beyond that, they have resorted deploring Hinduism in the fashion of anti-Zionist Arab and Iranian groups decrying Judaism as an apostasy that stands in the way of their territorial aspirations. In the most unoriginal way they have equated India, whose destruction has become their raison d’etre, with Israel as part of an archipelago of anti-Muslim neo-colonial powers asserting themselves to destroy the global (although highly fissiparous) Islamic community.
LeT and JeM might sound almost like an exotic, murderous cults to those not familiar with Pakistan, but when I visited the southern city of Bahawalapur as a wandering college student less than a year before 9/11, Jaish-e-Mohammed was running their head office in the city, loud and proud with a corresponding set of charity offices and religious institutions all over Pakistan. Pakistan has border disputes with both Afghanistan and India and its militant groups can be used to irritate both and can easily provoke the Indian military to shift hundreds of thousands of soldiers with an inexpensive, coordinated suicide attack carried out by just a handful of cadres. For Pakistan, these armed formations with clerical justification are relatively easy to foster or deny depending on the current levels of Indo-Pakistani tension. The attack on Mumbai by a group like Lashkar can have one of two effects: India and Pakistan can move their forces along the border in a tired and expensive show of force as in 2002 or Pakistan and India’s respective civilian leadership can forge new ties in the name of counterterrorism and intergovernmental integration and work together, perhaps even with Kabul as a peripheral partner, to deescalate regional conflict. Let the international community encourage the latter.
Creating dramatic headlines on India’s west coast is an immense distraction from the reinvigorated interest in the war in eastern Afghanistan. It also helps to highlight the fact that the American strategy of dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan in isolation from Indo-Pakistani relations and their hot and cold war over Kashmir is a strategy that contains built-in obsolescence. Rather than the keep the Kashmir dispute simmering on the foreign policy back burner, it is in fact Palestine writ large.
Burma’s stateless minority under the tip of globalizations’ spear
A column of frail women and children in brilliant cotton tunics deftly balance aluminum jars atop their heads as they trundle down a steep, eroded jungle hillside. They are spending most of their day in search of the area’s most valuable commodity, clean drinking water. After hours of searching, what they most often find are muddy, stagnant pools. These are the Rohingya, a people you have never heard of, striving to subsist in a place you’ll never visit, inhabiting a violent landscape of crisis completely devoid of human rights.
The most common image of the plight of human migration portrayed in cooperate media these days is what’s known as “South to North”: Guatemalans passing themselves off as Mexicans trying to enter California’s vast produce engine or Cameroonians traversing thousands of miles up the African continent to look for work in a Parisian suburb are but a few odd examples that come to mind. However there is another scenario that is far off the radar of Lou Dobbs and his ilk who appear to advocate blatant xenophobia as part of a Pavlovian response to their own fears and misconceptions about the pace of an increasingly integrated global economy.
Referred to as “South to South” migration in think tank parlance, these massive underground movements are an example of the complex patterns of today’s transnational human exodus across political and cultural boundaries. South to South migration is an economic indicator writ large conveying the severity of poverty (and often state repression) of people struggling to earn $2 a day in the “Global South.” This ambiguous term, which may be new to some, is what we used to refer to as the “Third World” during the Cold War. These human movements and refugee outflows are only likely to increase in the 21st century across this vast region. This Darwinian competition strains the world’s economic and human resources in parity with the ascendancy of these pragmatic Asian market states. With particular reference to the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China, these furiously accelerating economies are further less inclined to institute a faintly moral foreign policy in light of the wishes of their leadership and the needs of their respective billion-plus populations. Rather than promoting liberty and idealism as the triumph of human desire, the search for natural gas fields and connectivity of deep-sea ports are a core strategic component in the rise of these mega states.
In ten years of travel and reportage at civilization’s fraying and violent crossroads, I’ve witnessed an array of struggles of people burning in the smoldering embers of post-World War II decolonization and the last great upheavals of the post-Berlin Wall paradigm shift. From meeting depressed Iraqi refugees living in a dark hotel in coastal Syria, to nowhere Palestinians in brick and mortar “camps” in South Lebanon, I have never personally encountered a situation as dire and a people as desperate as I have on a recent expedition to the far south of Bangladesh. There, near the country’s last settled town of Teknaf, I went to meet a stateless minority from western Burma called the Rohingya. With the advice of people from the United Nations’s High Commissioner for Refugees and Doctors Without Borders, I ventured into a squalid, ad hoc settlement along the Naf river. The Naf is not only a political boundary between Bangladesh and Burma (though the name Myanmar is the preferred nom of the country’s military dictatorship), but it is also a civilizational boundary between Muslim and Hindu South Asia and Buddhist Southeast Asia. This miserable aggregation is known locally as the “makeshift camp” indicating that it survives outside the recognized protection of the U.N. The refugees who “live” there remain in permanent legal limbo. The U.N. is severely limited by an understanding with the government of Bangladesh on specifically who and just how many Burmese it is allowed to help. The U.N.’s writ here is tenuous at best since Bangladesh has refused to acquiesce to the 1951 Convention on the Refugee (when it was then Pakistan’s deprived, untenable eastern wing) and its subsequent 1967 protocol. In other words, from Dhaka’s perspective, the world should be satisfied by the fact that a portion of refugees are being helped at all since Bangladesh is under no international or legal mandate to do so.
The Rohnigya are a Muslim people originating in Arakan state on Burma’s west coast. Arakan has since been renamed Rakhine State by the junta in favor of the ethnic Rakhine Buddhist majority. Since Burma’s independence from the British Crown in 1948, the Rohingya have been persecuted by the central government in several violent fits over the last six decades. The essence of the dispute, for lack of a better term, being that the junta does not consider the Rohingya to actually be Burmese citizens in large part because the are Muslim and it is therefore well justified in using ethnic cleansing to force them off of their farms and out of their villages in Rakhine State. This push factor throws the vulnerable Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh and as far west as southern Pakistan (which we will visit in Part Two of this piece). Although Bangladesh is a majority Muslim republic to which the refugees feel a large degree of cultural, linguistic and religious affinity, they are hardly welcome there. The Rohingya refugees surviving in this dreadful camp are considered by the Bangladeshi authorities to be “illegal economic migrants” according to Shannon Lee, a Doctors Without Borders officer operating a therapeutic nursing center for under and malnourished children near the camp’s roadside entrance.
Upon visiting the Teknaf area camp, I was forced to ask myself if this utter wretchedness was even remotely acceptable under international legal and moral norms? The scene was more evocative of a Nicholas Kristof column on alleged genocide in sub-Saharan Africa than of 21st century South Asia. I thought to myself, somewhat cynically, that at least the Darfuris have George Clooney and Samantha Power. The Rohingya have no one, own nothing and have been stripped of everything, even their history. Naked children waddling around with distended bellies and emaciated elders stooping in their fetid huts without even the stamina to beg confound the odd visitor. This scene looked more out of a late night cable Christian infomercial than laying on the periphery of this century’s most highly touted, emerging global powers; China and India. It is therein I believe lay the issue of why there is a devastating dearth of political leverage on this urgent issue. While technocrats in “Incredible India” can attempt to dress up their strategy in Burma as constructive engagement, the Politburo in Beijing cannot be bothered to waste time on such euphemisms. In fact, it is precisely a reaction from within the Asian economic theater that India has abandoned its 60’s era ideologically driven foreign policy in favor of Kissengerian realpolitik to compete with the Chinese in the regional buffer states of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and most disturbingly, Burma.
Last year, India’s activist Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee indicated that India would be willing to supply fresh arms and military-related spare parts to the Burmese regime in order to help its military flush out ethnic Naga and Assamese rebels from its territory back into India’s insurgency-wracked states of Nagaland and Assam along the Indo-Burmese frontier. India has a multitude of festering rebellions in its isolated Northeast that date back to the country’s painful birth in 1947. The calculatingly severe junta in Burma, forever playing the victim, says it is perfectly willing to coordinate on defense with the Indians so long as India agrees to assist them in updating their aging Cold War arsenal. The fact that China has been Burma’s principal military supplier over the years does not sit well with New Delhi as India looks to assert itself and increase cooperation in the region.
Part of India’s realpolitik outlook, known domestically as its “Look East” policy, is to have totally dropped the public support it once maintained for Aung San Suu Kyi, the junta’s Nobel Prize winning hostage. Sitting in the heat and pain of the makeshift camp, a Rohingya elder employed by a British NGO named Abdul Jabbar explained to me that his people had made an alliance with prime minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in the ill fated elections of 1990. Following the junta’s decision to nullify the democratic process in the country, the generals began to systematically crackdown on those who had supported the League. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party was meant to be a multi-religious and multi-ethnic umbrella organization (at least in theory) where the Rohingya would have been participants. For the cruel, late General Saw Maung and his successor Than Shwe, a massive, vengeful collective punishment was the order of the day for Burma’s Muslims. In the early 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of them fled to riverine environments in Bangladesh’s deep south.
The junta, in the then capital of Rangoon, insisted that the Rohingya minority were not historically Burmese nationals and had no right to dare assert their political or sub-national identity. Bangladesh, a perpetually poor and deeply corrupt state, claimed it had neither the means nor the goodwill to house and assist the Rohingya refugees seeking shelter. The generals in Burma insist that the Rohingya are in fact historically Bangladeshis who migrated to what is now Burma beginning in the early 1800’s at the onset of British colonial rule in Rangoon. The general’s solution to the Rohingya “problem” is blunt state repression interspersed with occasional ethnic cleansing. As for the refugees status in Bangladesh, authorities in Dhaka insists that the refugees are Burmese nationals who must eventually be repatriated to Burma lest their bothersome presence encourage further migration. The great irony of all this, as anyone familiar with the region might surmise, is that no one seems to be pushing out more migrants than Bangladesh itself. Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populous nation of any size and pushes untold numbers of genuine economic migrants north and west into neighboring India (as well as across the entire rest of the world). For the central government in Dhaka to label the Rohingya, who are legitimate refugees, as illegal economic migrants is the quintessence of hypocrisy in this age of hyper politicized globalization.
Trudging through the overwhelming stench of human waste and the eyes of hunger, I came upon a significant light of hope. While the camp is in the process of being taken over by a British NGO, a new, and in relative terms, state of the art refugee camp is being constructed up the road with humanitarian aid funding from the European Union. After a few days of wading through this squalor, it was incredibly heartening to see the new camp being constructed at breakneck pace with many of the laborers being refugees themselves. According to Engineer Bashar, who is in charge of the camp’s day-to-day construction operation for Islamic Relief UK, he is able to employ between 60-75% refugees of the approximately 1,000 workers under his charge. This not only brings in desperately needed income for refugee families, but also adds a sense of self worth for people who have lost everything to a regime that heeds not even the most fundamental cries of human dignity. It is not a circumstance devoid of hope, however much, much more progress is needed to shore up the Rohingya’s most basic human rights and long term food security.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves the following: television host Charlie Rose has referred to this period in which we are now living as the dawn of an “Asian Century” while interviewing leading global economists and politicos from these aspiring superpowers. Here on the frontier of Bangladesh and Burma, two of Asia’s poorest nations, the Rohingya, an obscure and stateless people, suffer in silence at the hands of the military government in Burma’s Orwellian new capital of Naypyidaw, , while the leaders of Bangladesh’s feeble caretaker regime have themselves been less than sympathetic. As India and China are interested in resuscitating decrepit colonial era ports and WWII era transport routes in these weak states in the name of securing resources for their respective domestic economic progress, the Rohingya are literally being crushed to death. In the darkest shadows of dawn in this Asian century, there are children starving.