“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” – Elie Wiesel
We never used to believe the military. We were born afraid within the walls that spied on us. Even a rumor of a whisper of dissent could make us disappear into thin air. We knew this. We accepted this. For over fifty years, we are made aware of the power of those who control us in Burma. We saw students imprisoned, gunned down, beaten to death, in 1988 uprising. We saw Buddhist monks stripped of their robes, tortured and thrown in prison in 2007. If on rare occasions, someone dared to say out loud how restricted our lives were, how imprisoned our minds were, we admired her bravery, believed her and held her courage as our beacon toward freedom. What was learned with our first breath has to be shed by hard work, and bravery.
My father used to say that he would not live to see the day Burma was set free. True, it would be over two decades after his death before Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy became officially recognized as elected leaders of Burma. Even then, they were not given a free rein to legislate or to govern. To this day, Burma remains besieged under the military and the now behind-the-scene-pulling-strings generals who continue to grasp onto their ruling power. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency, and had to resort to creating a State Counselor position to be part of the legislating body. Regardless of any future election outcome, 25% of the parliamentary seats are always reserved for the military. Still, as I write this in 2018, because of the outcome of 2015 election, the country is now freer; freeer to trade, freer to speak, freer to think. Except one more problem.
Last night, I was on the phone with my friend’s daughter for about thirty minutes. Long after the conversation ended, my mind remained ablaze for half of the night. I had agreed to talk to her on the subject of the Rohingya refugees as she was gathering facts and opinions for a discussion to be held at her University. If you are unfamiliar with the Rohingyas, please Google, and you will see page after page of atrocities committed against this group of “Stateless” people, who in fact had lived within the borders of Burma for decades if not centuries, but never been recognized as citizens.
The influx and efflux of population between countries are bound to happen when the borders are porous and border patrols non-existent as it is between Burma and Bangladesh. The tension between this minority Muslim group and the majority Burmese Buddhist population has long existed, due in part to the country being under a military regime for decades which effectively encouraged discrimination against non-Burmese and non-Buddhists. The general despised anyone who was not Burmese or Buddhist. They were not allowed to get higher education of their choices, or allowed to own property. Our minds were inundated with propanganda against the non-citizen, minority religious groups.
Even after the democratic movement semi-prevailed by having Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the elected state counselor, the shadow of military and its indoctrination linger in this country. When a handful of Rohingyas attacked a few police outposts last year, the military and the Buddhist locals retaliated disproportionately to the point of what the world now termed as “ethnic cleansing”. Over 600,000 Rohingyas have streamed into the neighboring country, ending up in crowded refugees camps.
As a Burmese, I , along with the whole country full of people, adore and worship Daw Aung Sann Suu Kyi who has shown us the way out of our hell hole “Burmese Way to Socialism”. The economic and press freedom are finally starting to bloom in the country. Foreign investments are pouring in. If you ever visit Yangon, the former capital and the city that never pauses, you know what I am referring to. Every minute new buildings are going up, next to the crumbling dilapidated old ones. Don’t blink, or you will miss yet another shining upscale mall being constructed. And the city is ripe with opportunities, unlike the dooms day of socialism. From high schoolers to street peddlers, they all carry cell phones and conduct business. In general, compared to General Ne Win’s regime, people dress better, appear to live better, and hope better. At the same time, if you take a taxi to venture out to the outskirt of Yangon, you still see people living by the side of the streets in make-shift “homes” constructed of a few bamboo poles, worn-plastic tarp as walls and roofs. Next to the road, in front of their homes, they sell used tires, cook in the back rooms, sleep in the spare spaces, shit behind the shelters in barely covered toilets. Those are the Burmese you don’t see over the looming billboards of Yangon. Here, in this space, every day, someone out there is hoping she/he will make a buck to stretch another day. He/she does not have time to care about some Muslims group in the western part of the country being hacked to death and buried in a mass grave by the military.
What about then, I wonder, what about the middle class and upper income people who can drive the latest models of cars and not having to worry about what to eat for the day? They too appear not to care or even admit the possibility of an atrocity committed by the same aggressive and tyrannical military.
If we Burmese believed that we as the majority of population, were repressed for five decades at the hands of the same merciless rulers, why would we now not believe the suffering of a minority group? Could this sentiment have been changed if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, from the beginning of this conflict, expressed her support for equality and the need for justice? Would we the Burmese demand for justice and equality for all, if she had instructed, similar to the way her speeches had inspired us to fight for democracy?
Instead, from my perspective, not until recently, she never clearly addressed directly to the people of Burma, and to the people of Rakhine and to Rohingyas, or set an example of good will, or the need for us to get along or to warn us that if we fight amongst ourselves, we would lose our hard-earned semi-freedom. Or even if she did, I never heard of it. Then, most people would not have either. It made no impact on people’s long-held animosity toward the Rohingyas.
I have gotten into heated debates and fierce arguments over this issue. Even the most giving, the most generous and kind-hearted Burmese who practice the true Buddhism, i.e., to love all beings and to treat each other with kindness, would get angry, agitated, and defensive when I say we must treat the minority as our own.
The responses have been most disheartening, such as, “They are not refugees, because they don’t belong in Burma.” or that “They are not Rohingyas Muslims. They are Bengalis, not Burmese. Therefore they have no rights or claims inside the country.” “If a guest is behaving badly, he must be forced to leave the house,” or “Don’t believe the stories. They are all fake news” even as the satellite images showed burned villages and malnourished children and rape-victims showed up in refugee camps.
I am not denying that a handful of Rohingyan people caused damage and loss of life when they attacked the security outposts. But how can 1 million people, be ALL terrorists? The claim that 600,000 people burned their own villages and left their belongings so that they could move into a refugee camp is more than ludicrous. It is criminal.
History is full of stories of how the powerful suppressed the powerless while countries full of good generous people turned blind eyes toward injustice. The abusers have always tried to strip identities of their victims as a way to dehumanize and deny their existence. When we are called a number and not by our name, when we are forced to sit at the back of the bus, when we are denied of a word that describes our identity and our level of suffering, when we are made to be “the other”, we are stripped of our humanity and our belonging to society.
It pains me to see the headlines screaming “ethnic cleaning” in Burma. Not my beloved Burma, the country ranked as one of the most generous. But when the hard truth hits us in our faces, we must reckon with the reality. This is the only way we can become who we aspire to be, to reveal our true Buddha nature. Everyone, regardless of whom they are born to, must be welcomed and treated as equal. We must make long journeys and walk in their sooted shoes if that is what it takes.