The attack on Rohingya: Shameful and surreal like far-right antics everywhere


by Rajan Philips

Not enough, one might say about the condemnations that followed the shameful mob-monk attack on Sri Lanka’s Rohingya refugees who were under the protection of UNHCR in Colombo. It should not have happened in the first place. The fact it happened is a permanent shame and it cannot be washed away by any amount of condemnation. The police inaction showed that the police have learnt nothing and forgotten everything about their duty to protect the helpless regardless of their religion or ethnicity. To add insult to injury the refugees have been transferred to the dreadful Boosa camp, as the government cannot protect them in any other place in the country. The Minister of Health has described the monk who led the attack as an animal and a disgrace to Buddhism, which is Asia’s pride and Sri Lanka’s state religion. The Minister of Finance (and Media, another odd pairing) was unexceptionable in his condemnation. But other voices who should have added their timbre to the chorus, have strangely, or not so strangely, remained silent.

In fact, until the attack the chorus was mostly condemnatory of the Rohingya people and about their being unwelcome here, as Muslims, from one Buddhist country to another. Much grinding has been going on about the traditional ties between Sri Lanka and Myanmar. No one cares a hoot about the internal and external ties between Sri Lanka and the Muslims, which are live and real and not some page in history. The High Commissioner for Bangladesh in Colombo, Riaz Hamidullah, masterfully pushed back on the impertinent and insensitive traditionalist questioning by insisting that in a situation of humanitarian crisis nothing else matters. Not that he was wanting in speaking to, and he did that quite eloquently, the historical and political aspects of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and its spillover into Bangladesh.

The need of the hour, as the High Commissioner passionately pointed out, is to put an end to the humanitarian tragedy in northern Myanmar and address the plight of half a million Rohingya people who have been driven out of their homes in Myanmar into makeshift refugee camps in Bangladesh. Thirty one of them landed in Sri Lanka and were attacked by the country’s nationalist blacklegs. About 40,000 of them are in India, assembling there over forty years from the 1970s. And a Minister in the Modi government has called for the deportation of the entire Rohingya population in India. When human rights activists pre-emptively petitioned the Supreme Court as any deportation would be in violation of not only international law but also India’s long established, and pre-BJP, tradition of receiving displaced people, the government pulled out the ISIS terrorist trump card. Just like Donald Trump, the man.

What is at work here is not history or traditional ties, but the politics of primitive and intolerant religious chauvinism masquerading as opposition to ‘Islamic terrorism’. As the Indian commentator Subir Bhaumik noted, Rohingya have become "a favourite whipping boy for the Hindu right-wing to energize their base." Just like their leader, Prime Minister Modi, who during the 2014 election campaign, raised the spectre of illegal Bangladeshi migrants to enthuse his Hindu vote base in the eastern border areas. Those who attacked the Rohingyas in Sri Lanka and want them thrown out of the country are not at all representative of the majority of Buddhists, let alone being representative of the teachings and the ideals of the Great One. They are the scum of the earth, Sri Lankan earth at that.

At least the Sri Lankan government spokesmen have called the rascals out. There should have been more of them speaking out, as I noted at the outset. The silence of the Joint Opposition has been deafening. The Left – the old, dead, and new, has been silent too. The former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has put out long and laboured statement in an attempt to vindicate himself in the Uma Oya debacle, blaming of all people the JVP for the tunneling project that is running the Uva region dry. What took him so long? His version of history has already been repudiated by more informed retired officials of the old Irrigation Department. But, why not a much shorter and more statesmanlike statement on how Sri Lankans should react to the crisis in Myanmar? Shouldn’t he remind his compatriots of the teachings of the Great One and their internal and external ties to Muslims? Why haven’t any of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s many advisers advised him to play a peacemaker’s role between Myanmar and Bangladesh? He is closer to the two countries than the distant Kofi Annan or other UN mandarin. This is what former heads of state do when defeated or retired, and not trying to topple the governments of their successors. But the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has seldom been a beneficiary of good advice.

The surreal part

As signs and omens go, the attack on the Rohingya refugees is part of a broader mix of worrisome signs and bad omens, not just in Sri Lanka but elsewhere. The surreal part is in the ‘disconnect’ between the ominous signs and the current socio-political context. The well-orchestrated attacks against Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka have been raising fears every year about another July 1983. While another July 1983 could happen, the ammunition dump that blew up in 1983 is not at all part of the current context. The concerns now are more about mountainous garbage dumps. Yet, to modify Mao, complacency could be the enemy of national peace, with or without reconciliation. The slide into chaos bordering on catastrophe could be swift and without warning like landslides.

The surreal part is far clearer in the nuclear spat between the world’s two overgrown delinquents in North Korea and in North America. The threat of a nuclear exchange is more ominous than it ever was during the Cold War era. And it is surreal that a nuclear exchange could happen without any of the compulsions that characterized the Cold War situation. It would be a nuclear war about nothing: a Seinfeld comedy writ large and tragic on the global scale. The not so sudden success of the extreme right-wing Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) in the German elections, capturing close to a hundred seats as the third largest party and raising fears of Nazi re-emergence, is another surreal phenomenon. Because, there is no Hitler in Germany, and in Angela Merkel, the Germans have the safest hands in the world at their helm.

Chancellor Merkel’s social democratic critics took her to task for her apparent skill in "asymmetric demobilization." It means being bland and extremely inoffensive to the opposition and thereby avoid provoking the opposition base into fury and motivating them to vote. Put another way, Merkel’s style of politics puts opposition voters to sleep and enables her to win by default in a lower turnout. In fairness, it is not only her style of politics but also her performance as Chancellor that has given Angela Merkel a fourth term in office albeit with a dented majority. (For the benefit of Sri Lankan ‘Third Termers’ – the German Chancellor is a parliamentary leader and not a presidential head of state, for which two terms are the world’s norm.) But Dr. Merkel’s bland approach to demobilizing the opposition fell a bit too short of its mark in her fourth election. True to form and to her credit, she has promised to win back the disaffected voters who voted for AfD. In a sign of the maturity of German political leaders, the second largest Social Democratic Party has opted not to join the government but to stay fully in opposition as the main opposition party and deny the AfD a monopolising opposition space. And the AfD, more strongly based in states of the former East Germany, is showing signs of factional splintering under the weight of its own success.

If asymmetric demobilization did not work with the German far right, what will work elsewhere? Poor Hillary Clinton, who brought out a book on her historic election defeat even as Angela Merkel was recording her fourth victory, was pilloried in America for her inopportune turn of phrase during the campaign: the ‘basket of deplorables’ - to describe the monochromatic (as opposed to rainbow) coalition of Trump voters. According to some pundits, it even cost her the election. President Trump, on the other hand, is the master of asymmetric mobilization – deliberately energizing his base while ignoring all the duties and responsibilities and traditions of his office. He is hardly the man to serve America’s interests at the present time, and he is not at all the person the world needs as the leader of its most powerful country. At the same time, while the quirkiness of the American political system, not to mention all the allegations about Russian interference, has resulted in Trump being elected as President, the checks and balances of the system are also straining every bit to keep their extraordinary president extraordinarily checked.

Other countries may not have the same luxury of resources and institutions to minimize the damage caused by political choices. There can also be disappointments, such as in Myanmar with Aung San Suu Kyi. She was once the human-rights hero to the whole world, except for a handful of Sri Lankans who saw her as a western puppet against the military junta in a country with traditional Buddhist ties. Now, Ms. Suu Kyi is becoming known as a stubborn and autocratic political player. The Lady, as she is called, is now a special State Counsellor, who is de facto above the elected President, not answerable to parliament, and above any form of public scrutiny. Even gods will falter under the weight of such a conflation, even if it is not a formal concentration of power, especially in a country like Burma coming out of a total military dictatorship with hardly any institutional resource for good government. A clear symptom of her exalted isolation is the total absence of any exposure to the media in fourteen months after the national election.

She has been noticeably cold and taciturn on the Rohingya crisis, while the Myanmar media has been feeding its people with denunciations of the international media coverage of the crisis as, what else, fake news. From Trump in America to the government in Myanmar, any and every inconvenient truth is fake news. Time was when there were as many leaders as there were heads, while now is the time when there are as many truths as there are social media devices. All of this is not of any help in discerning how or in what way the Rohingya crisis will deteriorate, be resolved, or go into stalemate. But the pretext of using ‘Islamic terrorism’ as reason for targeting, attacking and deporting indigenous Muslims in South Asian countries will extract a huge price sooner or later. It will only foster ISIS finding new homes in countries west of Pakistan, which have hitherto remained isolated from Middle Eastern radicalism with hitherto ‘secular’ India providing a powerful geographical buffer. It will also lead to the unnecessary polarization of South Asia and the more easterly Asia into Muslim and non-Muslim countries. There is no ‘foreign policy’ thinking in contemporary Sri Lanka – for the country to play a positive regional role in preventing regional destabilization. Much of what goes on outside is beyond Sri Lanka’s control. But it has all the power to do everything it needs to prevent external events causing even more divisions among its ethnic co-existences.


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