… And my life’s cold winter that knew no spring; Of my mind so weary and sick and wild, Of my heart too sad to sing. — Paul Laurence Dunbar
The world now has more refugees than at any time since after WW2, more than the population of Britain. They are often the consequence of wars usually instigated by great powers directly or through proxies. Civil strife accompanied by the demonization of minorities, killing and expulsion is another reason. Such is the story of the Rohingya in Burma, or Myanmar as it now likes to be known.
It is a country with the river Irrawaddy as a central artery. Bordering it is the heartland, peopled by the Bamar who make up 68 percent of the population and are Buddhist. The Rohingya are Muslim, look different and have lived in Rakhine state for at least five centuries. During WW2 they supported the British while the Buddhist Burmese supported the Japanese, their coreligionists. It brought lasting enmity. After years of propaganda and vilification, the Rohingya were stripped of citizenship. Not unlike Nazi Germany targeting Jewish people, new restrictive laws curtailed liberties, marriage rights, even children — limited to two. The vilification turned most neighboring Buddhist villages against the Rohingya, and those attacking and burning their villages were often these neighbors when not the military.
In this latest violence, 90 percent of the Rohingyas were driven out and about three-quarters of a million sought refuge across the border in Bangladesh. The story does not end with the Rohingya for there are other threatened minorities in Burma occupying the periphery in the north and south:
In northern Shan state, a simmering conflict with the Taang National Liberation Army dating back to 1963 has displaced 300,000. The army emboldened by the relatively meek response to the assault on the Rohingyas have intensified their efforts also against the ethnic Kokang’s Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. The consequence is an addition to the tens of thousands that had streamed from earlier conflicts over the border into China. Also in the north the largely Christian Kachin minority formed the Kachin Independence Army to defend their villages. The ongoing conflict has displaced more than 135,000 internally. And in the south the conflict with the Karen (Buddhist, Animist and 15 percent Christian) resulted in over 100,000 refugees … this time in Thailand, plus a 100,000 diaspora to the rest of the world including some 65,000 in the US. Myanmar’s perverse antipathy towards all its minorities makes a mockery of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader. Is meaningful censure an answer, or is innate tribalism an unconquerable primitive amygdala response?
The top five refugee hosting countries might also come as a surprise. Amid all the news of Angela Merkel’s generous offer to accept everyone entering her country, Germany is not one of them. Shortly thereafter her party lost by-elections and she is departing. The actual figures are Turkey (3.5 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million) and Iran (0.98 million). The chaos in countries adjoining them (think of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia) explains why, and the great power with a finger in each pie, when not actually baking it, is also not difficult to discern.
Imagine being forced to flee with just the clothes on your back or just a bag. A word here also for the people who had to do just that to escape wildfires. They all have our heartfelt sympathy, often taking a concrete form through donations to help. A happy new year to everyone and a better one for the unfortunate among us. We can try to make it so.