When he was in London in 1931, Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of the European civilisation. Being a master of the English language, he replied, “It would be a good idea”. The expression ‘would be’ was to denote the current absence of, but hoping for better in the future. He was to be proved horribly right as, within his lifetime, the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed. Germany, an old European nation, the cradle of Martin Luther, Goethe and Einstein, inflicted the most uncivilised murder upon six million Jews and left many more damaged forever.
This week, in the Dutch city of The Hague, Asia is on trial. Aung San Suu Kyi, the State Counsellor (de facto Prime Minister) of Myanmar and previous winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is the head of a Burmese delegation facing trial at the International Court of Justice. The charges relate to genocide of the Rohingya. The tragedy of the Rohingya has been unfolding before our eyes for years now. They have been hounded out of Myanmar. They have flooded into Bangladesh and India and farther away.
Suu Kyi, the granddaughter of former Burmese prime minister Aung San, suffered house arrest for many years as she fought the military rulers of Burma, and won the battle for restoration of democracy in the country. She regained her legacy as a member of a ruling dynasty. But that was a quarrel among the Buddhist Burmese. When it came to othering Muslims, Suu Kyi has proved as seasoned a politician as the worst military general.
There is a huge tragedy here of Asian culture and Asian politics. How is it that a Buddhist country long known (perhaps wrongly?) for its peace-loving people has conducted one of the world’s worst genocides? The Khmer Rouge of Cambodia made a virtue of slaughtering all ‘intellectuals’ — everyone who wore spectacles or was educated — to build a one-class paradise where only peasantry had the right to live. They killed one-seventh of the total population. They were othering their own. But they were not Buddhists; just Maoists.
Myanmar and Suu Kyi have ‘othered’ the Rohingya who have lived in Myanmar for centuries, just because they are Muslims. Of course, the Myanmarese defence is that Rohingya are terrorists. The word terrorist has become almost synonymous with Muslims across the world since 9/11, regardless of evidence. The idea seems to be that only Buddhist Burmese are authentic citizens.
The astonishing thing is that the case has been brought by Gambia. Not by any neighbouring Asian nation. Not Malaysia nor Indonesia nor Pakistan. It says something about Asian solidarity or humanism that no country in Asia has cast a critical eye towards Myanmar. Of course, the reason is China, which is a strong ally of Myanmar and a country no other Asian nation wants to displease. China has its own Uighur problem which has brought no protests on any street in any Asian country. Only the American Congress seems to be fighting for human rights these days. Though not the American President!
During Gandhiji’s lifetime, Burma was a part of India. In 1935, it was separated. Then, in 1947, Partition made Pakistan a different country. In 1971, Bangladesh separated from Pakistan. From one, we have four. How many more?