Do unto others (27/09/19)

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 27 Sept 2019

A glimpse of hope amid despair.

On September 24, the US House of Representatives passed its 2019 Burma Act by 394 to 21 votes, supporting targeted financial sanctions against any of Myanmar’s senior military leaders or military-controlled business interests complicit in grave violence against the people of Myanmar.

Two years after a genocidal upsurge of state-sponsored rape and murder accelerated the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from their homeland, this vote shows the refugees’ suffering is not being forgotten. When global voices are raised on their behalf, they will still be heard. The crimes of the junta in Yangon are too brutal and blatant for it to be any other way.

Seventy years of violent conflict against multiple ethnic and religious minorities have merely made the Tatmadaw a reliable customer for arms sellers. It has not made Myanmar’s armed forces powerful enough to resist all accountability, while also impoverishing their country’s economy.

To the world at large, Myanmar is still a small isolationist military state, where Aung Sang Sui Kyi’s endorsement of persecution and pogroms has duly trashed her own hard-won reputation.

To powers like China, it is largely an economic opportunity. Where in the long run, should the pursuit of profit seem better served by means other than the junta, it will be.

To its own people, should regime change offer openness and respectability in return for holding ethnic cleansers to account, how many would die on a hill to save the generals?

Only the lack of any currently credible military option for meaningful humanitarian intervention gives the generals cause for comfort. At the very least, the US vote will give those wanting to step into their shoes some pause for thought.

So much for hope then. As the chattering classes frequently remind us, there are more compelling reasons for pessimism. Mostly requiring external support to be resolved.

Which is why the issue I raise today is one that can be addressed at no cost with no international assistance required. Namely, that it is far too commonplace in Bangladesh for people to go unchallenged when they make disparaging or racist remarks about Rohingya refugees. Typically, it seems because such remarks are either not noticed or when acknowledged, listeners habitually find reasons to explain, excuse, and ignore.

There is nothing new about racism anywhere of course. And in Bangladesh for decades, vulnerable Rohingya have been scapegoated in local media for one thing after another.

But the 2017 exodus was not just extraordinary in its speed and magnitude. So was Bangladesh’s response. Far bigger and faster than its past humanitarian responses, it went beyond a default bureaucratic policy of legal caution and red tape.

In a world beset by xenophobia against refugees, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina showed leadership by declaring in words everyone could understand: “If we can feed 160 million people, we can also feed 700,000 Rohingya refugees.”

Words made deeds as Kutupalong suddenly had to grow into the world’s biggest single refugee camp. And where some of the most valuable support provided for refugees came via the types of basic health care and vaccinations most Bangladeshis take for granted.

The significance of the PM’s soundbite lies not just in the safety it provided for refugees, but in the positive self-image and statement it made about Bangladesh. (A narrative the government will inevitably ramp up in the run up to the 50th anniversary of independence.)

Yet clearly not everyone got the memo, or as with so much else, it has long been forgotten.

Too many people go unchallenged when they spread easily disprovable myths No amount of evidence it seems, is enough to dissuade some people from believing criminality by Rohingya is somehow larger or more dangerous than by the population at large. Without irony, the “we shouldn’t make things too comfortable as it will only encourage others” school of thought is still commonly expressed by people who would run many miles if asked to live in the same conditions.

Bureaucratic reluctance to reform unjust and outdated rules brings absurdity when officials unabashedly cite “security concerns” about refugees operating mobile phones.

Ironically, those that monger such fears the loudest are often those who also assure you “they” can readily buy NIDs and passports from corrupt officials. So much for those “concerns” then.

Such rules also impose pointless hardship and public embarrassment when they deny refugee children born or brought up in Bangladesh access to higher education. Not to mention spreading graft and turf wars.

As long there remains no safe homeland to which Rohingya can return, it is in Bangladesh’s national interest to empower refugees through education, employment, and legal pathways to citizenship.

It is self-defeating denial to pretend otherwise. There is nothing to gain by fearing innocent people forced to flee across the border.

Helping to increase opportunity for refugees helps everyone. This is no vague liberal aspiration; it is something people instinctively know from how we would each like to be treated ourselves. No nation is free of racism but those countries that do the most to challenge it and offer the most freedom and best opportunities for refugees also tend to those that do best for all citizens and residents.

Ordinary people in Bangladesh have the most to gain by their government following suit.