Earlier this year, I spent two weeks travelling around a country fast becoming a new tourist hot spot in Asia, Myanmar. I should point out that this is not at all why I wanted to go. Far from it, I had no idea that this country was heavily marketing its holiday agenda and my intrigue came mainly from old literature, such as Kipling’s stories and George Orwell’s tales of Burmese days.
One of the reasons I was going to reject the trip was because of the crisis which has made it into the mainstream news today. You should already know what I’m talking about and if you don’t, well it’s time to switch on and wake up to the suffering of the Rohingya.
This is not a new problem, it is one that dates back to the military coup back in the 60’s as far as I’m aware and it was very much of concern to me before I accepted the trip.
Should I really be spending my money in a country that is allowing what I believe is a genocide? A country that is turning it’s back on a very large group of people based on their religion? I was so torn, I had no idea what to do because although I didn’t support their actions, Myanmar is not a country of the West. In fact it has a very tumultuous political history and in the end my overall curiosity and desire to learn more overshadowed my guilt. I decided this was my opportunity to see things from the other side, perhaps learn a bit more about the country from within it, rather than focusing on what we are fed in the press.
Was I surprised by what I discovered? Oh yes, I was.
Coming back home I was again in two minds. On the one hand, as far as a holiday destination goes, Myanmar is a beautiful country, filled with beautiful, respectful people. One of the travellers in my group described it as being just like Cambodia before it became over-populated by backpackers. Although some tourist destinations were busy, it was relatively quiet compared to other far east Asian choices. At no point during my trip did I feel unsafe, did I feel worried as a Muslim traveller. In fact our guide was incredibly respectful of my religion, of me being Muslim. Which I wasn’t at all expecting, especially as the Rohingya are cast aside as outsiders for being Muslim.
Every new town we visited, he would point out halal restaurants, every meal he arranged for us he would advise what foods to avoid, and what drinks contained alcohol. I saw some beautiful mosques around our hotel in Mandalay and many people out and about in headscarves and religious clothing. Even in the Shan mountains, the activities we took part in catered to and respected Muslim travellers.
On the other hand, although I had no problems whatsoever travelling within the popular districts of this country, it was clear this is a country still living in fear and still lacking the one thing we in the West are being led to believe they have gained: freedom.
During one of our bus journey’s, our guide took it upon himself to explain the situation in Rohingya. I was shocked, really surprised that he would choose to address the topic. Even more shocked by the firmness in which he explained the army were in fact simply carrying out a service to protect the villagers from terrorists. It was all very clean cut, simply a war sparked from defending the welfare of innocent villagers. And once he explained the situation it was clear he was unwilling to discuss it any further.
I later learnt that the suffering of the Rohingya is in no way shape or form reported in the news in Myanmar. The crisis is brushed under the carpet, with no one wanting to speak about the situation, anyone who does so is risking their safety. At the time when I was visiting I heard all towns surrounding the crisis in Rakhine were blocked off to international visitors – including aid agencies. A clear sign this was surely an ethnic cleansing process the government simply wanted to pretend did not exist.
On the last day I spent in Yangon, one of the fabulous ladies I met who lived there told us about an exhibition by a German conceptual artist, Wolfgang Laib, who had chosen his Myanmar debut ‘Where the Land and Water End’ to be displayed in the Southeast wing of the Secretariat building. This building only ever opens its doors once a year on a public holiday day so this was an incredible opportunity to be able to enter this very old, very famous government building.
The building was not just phenomenal, it was spine tingling to know that we were walking in the same halls, the same rooms that General Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father not only worked, but also the very building in which he was assassinated in.
The Secretariat is still within a military complex and surrounded by guards, monitoring visitors and ensuring no photographs are taken of any of the surrounding area. I remember reading an article where a tourist feeling inspired had wanted to sketch elements of the building but was taken aside and told that this was a ‘military exhibition,’ giving you an idea at how strictly the exhibit is monitored and how important the junta still are.
Then comes the issue of the Nobel peace prize winning leader – the infamous Aung San Suu Kyi.
Where does she fit into all this?
I’m giving you a very brief insight into the history here, but when General Aung San was shot, so too was the hope for independence. Years later his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi, inspired by Martin Luther King and Ghandi, went out of her way to campaign for democratic and peaceful elections. But the junta military weren’t ready for that and instead seized power in a coup, and Aung San Suu Kyi was detained under house arrest for fifteen years. Her release and democratic win was a huge moment for Myanmar. A huge vision of hope and promise that this was the beginning of a better future for a country that was being suffocated by militarisation.
The locals I spoke to held her in high regard, she was their saviour but it was clear they were under no illusion that since taking control everything was hunky dory. They knew she had a battle on her hands, they knew that hard times weren’t over yet, but they also knew that she was the only one who was willing to take on the task. I heard stories about how difficult it was living under the military regime, the fear, the hardship, the collective suffering. It’s this kind of living situation people like me and perhaps you can never imagine and I totally understand the reluctance of locals not wanting to get involved in anything political.
Literally 12 hours after I left Yangon, one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s advisors Ko Ni was assassinated right outside Yangon International Airport. No motive was ever uncovered. Ko Ni was a legal advisor for the National League of Democracy. Not just any legal advisor, a Muslim one. He had spoken out in the past about the military retains in Myanmar. An advocate of human rights, even credited with finding the loopholes in the 2008 constitution of Myanmar creating the office of state counsellor, which enabled Aug San Suu Kyi to become the de facto head of government.
He was also one of the few people documented in speaking out against the Myanmar laws that stripped the Muslim minority, the Rohingya, of their Burmese citizenship.
He was shot after returning from a trip to Indonesia, and his death would have been a huge blow to Aug San Suu Kyi’s government team, showing how fragile her government truly is. I knew nothing of Ko Ni until that point, and reading up on his career and life ambitions gave me hope at that time that Aug San had a real vision of creating a better future for her people, all her people.
We’re now coming up to a year since the violence in the Rakhine state took a dangerous turn. Although the violence towards the Rohingya started way back in the 70’s, over the last 12 months after the killings of nine border police, troops have been flooding the villages and the devastation they have caused and left behind, to us here in the UK, or wherever you may be, well it’s unimaginable.
This is a targeted attempt to wipe out a people. Killing men, women and children. Raping them. Torturing them. Burning them. Burning complete villages in fact.
Up until these last few weeks, I have defended Aug San Suu Kyi’s silence, convinced that this is beyond her control and that any vocal condemnation from her, would jeopardise her life and with that the future dream of freedom for Myanmar. So she has remained silent, or worse, blamed both sides.
I’m not defending her anymore. Because a very wise woman once said:
“It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
And that wise woman, was Aung San Suu Kyi herself. And this crisis, this mass execution that is taking place in her country deserves the voice and condemnation of their leading Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Many UN officials have spoken out against the ‘ethnic cleansing.’ How many of us have watched movies like Hotel Rwanda, read books on World War II and have said that we, we in this day and age would never allow this to happen in our lifetime. And yet here it is. There are many places in the world where oppression of a specific group of people still occurs and we shouldn’t let them go unnoticed.
We need to know about it. We need everyone to know about it. And we need to pressure from the ground up to try, we need to at least try, to do something.
Whether you help by donating to aid agencies, writing to your MP, setting up or attending protests in your area or by simply showing some compassion when the media turns to talk of the millions of fleeing refugees this crisis has and will cause, it’s important that we all do something.
I am sharing my thoughts with you, in the hope that the least you will do after reading this post is say a silent prayer or spare a though for the Rohingya. I have already written to my MP. Signed petitions and tomorrow I will hopefully be joining protestors in Manchester to shout loud and clear that we stand and will not be silent about this any longer.
I regret not talking about this sooner, but deep down inside I know Aung San Suu Kyi has the potential to do great things. Right now though, whether it be through intervention of another countries government or through the rising force of her own, urgent action needs to be taken.
This isn’t just a fight for the people of Rohingya, this is a fight we should all be taking seriously, for the sake of humanity.
Thank you for reading.
*** For anyone in Manchester or the surrounding area, there is a demonstration organised by drive for justice to protest against the Rohingya genocide. 1:30pm Manchester Piccadilly Gardens. More information can be found on their facebook page. ***