For Aung San Suu Kyi, December 10 could have been a date to remember. It is the day when she received her Nobel Prize in 1991. Each year on December 10, on the death anniversary of the inventor Alfred Nobel, individuals in five categories are honoured for their outstanding services. In his will, Alfred Nobel desired that one-fifth of the interest of his trust fund would be given to “the person who has done the most or best to advance fellowship among nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies, and the establishment and promotion of peace congresses.” In 1991, Suu Kyi fitted the bill for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was even dubbed by Time magazine as one of the “Children of Gandhi” (1999) for her commitment to non-violence. For long, almost 21 years, she had been the caged bird as a political prisoner who served as a beacon of hope for freedom-loving people around the world. As the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, an Oxford graduate married to a Westerner, and an ex-UN employee—Suu Kyi had been the darling of the mainstream media.
However, in recent years, the world has woken up to her new avatar. The “sound” of her silence over the Rohingya massacre of genocidal proportions and its stated desire of ethnic cleansing is eerie, shocking and disturbing. It seems there are two Aung San Suu Kyis: one from pre-2015 and another from post-2015 election. The first one could have sipped tea while ruminating on her Nobel memory on December 10, while the other one had been brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The Gambia, a small African country, remotely connected with the violence, summoned the Southeast Asian songbird Suu Kyi to a court in Europe for “singing from a different song sheet” ever since her landslide win in the national election. In the last few years, there have been numerous calls to revoke Suu Kyi’s Nobel Prize, of which she is arguably no longer worthy; the Nobel committee disagreed.
But the matter at hand is graver than a mere shiny trinket. The Gambia’s Attorney General and Minister for Justice Abubacarr Marie Tambadou is leading a legal team to bring global attention to the gory details of the orchestrated action of Myanmar army and its goons that participated in the near annihilation of the Muslim population of Rakhine. Over a period of two decades, a total of 1.1 million Rohingyas have fled Myanmar and taken shelter in Bangladesh.
In his opening gambit, Tambadou said, “I could smell the stench of genocide from miles away when I visited the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. It was all too familiar for me, after a decade of interacting with the victims of the Rwandan mass rapes, killings and genocide.”
The Gambia, for a change, not any Western power, situates itself on a moral high ground. A Least Developed Country such as Bangladesh, for a change, not any Western power that prefers building walls or dealing with the refugee-seekers off-shore and deporting them at the first available opportunity, situates itself on a moral high ground. The moral compass is changing. Both Bangladesh and Gambia have expressed their national memory of experiencing genocide. Bangladesh is a grateful country as it wanted to reciprocate the humanitarian gesture that it received in 1971 from India which once sheltered 10 million refugees. The difference is: those “Joy Bangla” refugees knew at heart that they would be returning to an independent country. They had the hope because their freedom-fighting sons and daughters were waging a guerrilla warfare, while their host country was garnering international support for their winning cause.
The Rohingyas are devoid of any such hope. They have not been officially given the refugee status, which would make Bangladesh government liable for all social services and citizen rights. The donors, meanwhile, are acting like hospital emergency services dealing with patients without insurance policies. They are treating the surface without getting at the root of the political problem. They know that sooner or later the funds will dry up. The world will get tired of hearing about the Rohingyas. The caravan of donors will move elsewhere following the scent of the dough. All the humanitarian rhetoric will wither away like a mirage in the desert. And Bangladesh will have to deal with the doubly deserted population: first, by their own country, and then by the world. By then, a donor-dependent population will forget the dignity of living through hard work, and resort to short-cut means, affecting the host country. Already there are signs of drug smuggling, human trafficking, prostitution, and terrorism. It is a ticking bomb, and Myanmar is the timekeeper.
The extremely optimists among us perhaps expected Suu Kyi to be different in the Hague tribunal. They were surprised to see her repeating a rehearsed position: that Myanmar is investigating some instances of excessive force used by her army. Suu Kyi painted the Rohingya victims as the collateral damage of an army action engaged in diffusing insurgency. The General’s daughter’s position will surely instil more fear in the Rohingya people who now will have all the more reasons to protest any possible attempt to relocate them to what used to be their homeland.
Suu Kyi, articulate as she is, will use her words to silence the narrative of trauma and violence. She will convolute the discourse to prolong the repatriation process, and eventually make the Rohingya issue a problem and liability of Bangladesh alone. I remember one Israeli minister once saying on TV—“Who said that the Palestinians do not have a country; they have Jordan and Syria.” I think we are going to hear a similar undertone in the official Myanmar narrative. Already, by giving China access to the Indian Ocean through Kyaukphyu deep sea port and the building of the Special Economic Zone in the Rakhine province, Myanmar has proved the value of a relatively peaceful Rohingya-free Rakhine state for its powerful neighbour. China’s interest in our deep sea port was punctured by a country who should not be named. The mass exodus on religious grounds has encouraged our other big brother to contemplate the same in their eastern provinces. It seems all the big players are keen on taking mileages from the inches of humanities that we have given. The little sign of prosperity that our economy is showing has become the target of many.
Our pain has been felt by a country at an unexpected corner of the world. Geographically, it has nothing to do with either South Asia or Southeast Asia. Yet, ostensibly supported by the OIC, the Gambia has dared to sound out the silenced voice of a stateless people. One hopes that this ongoing legal discourse will also point out how Bangladesh is being affected by another type of collateral damage: the heritage site of Cox’s Bazar. Our ecology is threatened, our tourism industry is in disarray, and the local residents are seeing their poverty and rights being ignored at the expense of some sponsored guests.
Sitting in the comfort zone of my reading room, and trying to make sense of the world while surfing through the net or watching TV, can only lead me to a wall of silence. The shadow lines of the Gambia–the Netherlands–Bangladesh–Myanmar can remind one of the author Amitav Ghosh, who wrote, “I know nothing of this silence except that it lies outside the reach of my intelligence, beyond words—that is why this silence must win, must inevitably defeat me, because it is not a presence at all.”
In this month of Victory, let me echo Ghosh, and say, “this silence [too] must win.”
Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English, University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.