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Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

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Myanmar's 800,000 stateless Rohingya are described by the UN as one of the world's most persecuted minorities [AFP]Yesterday I listened to the Turkish First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( formerly now known as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Burma (aka Myanmar).

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.

The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Burma, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.

Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.

I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende. 

Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.

Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

…..Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly


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