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.