Burmese Strays

By Thomas Gregory

Anyone who availed themselves—as I did —of the opportunity to attend this Wednesday’s evening talk (hosted by FXU RAD) on the crisis faced by the Rohingya Muslims, formerly habituated in the western Burmese region of Rakhine, ought to have found the lecture harrowing, in the least. Their recent persecution has meant that six hundred-thousand members of this stateless minority group have been deracinated and forced to flee north, over the border into Bangladesh, only to find that they do not qualify, in their country of refuge, as refugees.

This lack of official status has meant that, in turn, the United Nations (which, predictably, was useless on the tackling of the issue in the first place) has been sluggish, if not immobile, in the provision of aid to these stranded people. I haven’t any first-hand account of the conditions in which these “forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals”—to make use of the sterile designation of Bangladeshi officialdom—live in to relate to, but the statistics alone describe their destitution adequately: an estimated three hundred-thousand lack basic shelter, and a quarter of a million are unable to access clean water. Only one in ten children receive education of any kind and food shortages have left even the most vulnerable, including pregnant women and infants, with nothing to eat.


Emma Larkin has it, in her introduction to the Penguin edition of Burmese Days, that citizens of the country joke (and joke darky) of the staunch old anti-totalitarian that Orwell in fact wrote not one but three books about; a trilogy of which the aforementioned novel is merely the first, followed by Animal Farm and then Nineteen Eighty-Four. This might as well be the case; Burma has been under the rule of an oppressive and authoritarian military junta since 1962, (though recently a government has been elected, the state’s armed forces are still able to act essentially with impunity) and has spent many decades convulsed by successive civil wars, mostly fought on ethnic or religious fault lines. The Rohingya, who had their right to citizenship revoked in 1982, have arguably been forced to bear the worst of the country’s institutionalised bigotry, and, as a small, cohesive, and localised group, make target of convenience when it comes to scapegoating and bullying. The atrocities committed against this community are the ebullition of historic racial and cultural prejudices; it is a story with which we are all depressingly familiar.

In the centre of all this, the once revered and venerated Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been for decades a symbol in the struggle of the Burmese for democracy and emancipation, and who is now in office as the ‘State Counsellor of Myanmar’ (a role roughly equivalent to that of Prime Minister) has caused controversy through her silence on the matter of the ethnic cleansing going on under her rule. It is thought that her failure to manifest any condemnation, let alone action, on behalf of the Rohingya is down to her inability to control Burma’s military and her desire to retain an, apparently impotent, position of office. Many have pointlessly suggested that she have her Nobel Peace Prize revoked, which, I hope, will elicit an ironic sneer from anyone familiar with the story behind weapons manufacturer Alfred Nobel’s disingenuous conception of this farcical award. Namely that, upon reading his prematurely distributed obituary, so alarmed was the inventor of dynamite by the description of himself as a “merchant of death” that he founded a prize for peace as a way of obscuring his unsavoury reputation.

Yet, neither does squabbling about who deserves which meaningless decorations do anything to aid the Rohingya. At the United Nations Security Council, all that the globes most powerful peacekeeping organisation could eventually muster was an anaemic statement of condemnation. According to the lecture, these states, China in particular, have an investment in the new oil pipeline which runs through Burma, and for this reason would not wish to in any way damage their relationship with the country.

From inside Rakhine itself, our information is supplied entirely by those who have fled to Bangladesh, as the government has been extremely rigorous in denying access to any international persons or agencies, even for the purposes of rendering humanitarian aid. What we have heard, though, are devastating and grotesque accounts of killing, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest, and sex abuse. The villages of the Rohingya are being systematically razed, extirpated and immolated. The majority of the Rohingya have already fled the country and it is for the moment not possible to be accurate on the number who have been slaughtered before they were able to do so. The organisation to which we in attendance were exhorted to donate was the Disasters Emergency Committee, (www.dec.org.uk) who furnish the “food, water, shelter, and medical care” which are all in urgent need. I would encourage anyone who is able, to donate something to this desperate cause.

The outlook is bleak for the Rohingya, who do not seem wanted wherever they go, and for whom these horrors show no sign of abating. There really is no hopeful or positive message which I can think to contrive by way of a closing remark. This said, however, we were informed in the presentation that the attacks inside Rakhine do seem to be winding down, owning to the fact that it looks as though—and it was this single statement of the talk that hit me hardest—they’re “running out of villages to burn.”