Photo by REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain via Newsweek

A Reflection

The Rohingya in our midst brought out the worst in some of us.

The aggression of a mob that sought to intimidate and deny these vulnerable humans of compassion and security, shockingly incited by some who carry religious responsibility in the community, will go down as a sad and shameful moment in our national conscience.

The swift intervention, of senior government ministers, to clarify and affirm our stance, however welcome, came too late. By then the contempt with which these vulnerable humans had been treated had done its damage. Their desperate dependence on our compassion and good-will had resulted in the humiliation and trauma instead of an already humiliated and traumatised people.

After fleeing the sectarian violence in Myanmar and a perilous journey by sea, this group of thirty one Rohingya were brought ashore by our navy to be held at the Mirihana detention centre. It was only after the devastating rape of a Rohingya woman, allegedly by an officer whose job it is to protect people that the UNHCR was allowed to do what it is there to do; provide humanitarian care for refugees.  Housed together for the first time they were surrounded by Sri Lankan neighbours with a traditional reputation for hospitality. The children of school going age were very rightly provided with opportunities for schooling; a gesture of some stability and the right and dream of every child and parent. This slow return to dignity was suddenly shattered through the violent reaction of a mob and the Rohingya were once again confined to a restricted space behind high walls in the south.

The lesson here is that when governments treat those dependent on our generosity and protection, arbitrarily, and relegate them out of sight and out of hearing, they fail in their humanitarian obligations and disseminate negative signals that no amount of verbal intervention to the contrary can undo. This creates a climate in which opportunists can easily endorse this mentality to do through visible violence what the government has set in place through structural violence.

While both these types of behaviour humiliate the helpless and the harassed, one difference stands out. The State is unconditionally accountable for its behaviour. Under no circumstances can those who represent the people in pursuing national wholesomeness and integration inflict or permit any kind of violence; whether against its’ own or those who seek refuge on its soil.

The Rohingya in our midst highlights the severe exclusion of humans by humans

Critical as these conditions are, the Rohingya are more than refugees or asylum seekers. They are a stateless people as well. In-spite of living on Myanmar soil they are not considered Myanmar nationals. They are consequently disqualified from constitutionally entrenched rights, freedom and basic facilities enjoyed by other Myanmar nationals; and denied recognition as a legitimate ethnic group in a land where numerous and diverse ethnic identities are recognised.

Despite some courageous exceptions, the majority Buddhists and minority Christians of Myanmar inaccurately portray and disown the Rohingya as ‘Bengali people’-illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. This is the wall of prejudice that Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to contest or dismantle.

This immediate crisis of nationality for the Rohingya is for the government of Myanmar to resolve. Given the current political intransigence as well as the systemic violence unleashed against them however, it will require sensitive diplomatic pressure, especially from friendly countries in the region, if the Rohingya are to eventually enjoy this universal human right.

The wider crisis of nationality for the world’s ten million stateless is to be addressed by the peoples and nations of the world. The scope of engagement if this is to happen should range from awareness at the level of schools world-wide, to global support for the UN Convention on the reduction of statelessness. Whether it is for the handful of Rohingya in our midst or the stateless of the world; it is the sustained combination of compassion, justice and diplomacy from peoples’ movements and the nations of the world that will one day eliminate this horrific humiliation of excluded humans.

The Rohingya in our midst points to a simmering ethno-religious tension

The Muslim identity of these stateless-refugees, more or less explains the lack of public solidarity with their plight and humiliation on our soil. Perhaps unknown to them, it is their religious identity that has made their presence in a land of four world religions, controversial.

For some time now there has been a growing prejudice against the Muslim community in the country. This is not a majority-minority tension as both, the majority Sinhala Buddhists and minority Sinhala and Tamil Christians are known to nurse negative feelings about our Muslims. Images of the chaos in the Middle-East and the hasty stereotyping of acts of global terror, undoubtedly feed these attitudes.

Together towards change 

Our collective response to this challenge cannot continue to be superficial. If it does we foolishly postpone a more serious conflagration. All mechanisms of reconciliation should without delay initiate conversations that address the causes of social prejudice against our Muslims. Sensitivity to the grievance and the rights of each other is of paramount importance and there can be no room for supremacy and intransigence. The unaddressed accumulation of these latter attitudes, seem to have spilled over into animosity.

Together towards life

If we are serious about living together with dignity and integrity, all of us; the religious as well as the secular will be obliged to engage in the task of introspection. To discern the kind of people we have become and then correct our own shortcomings before we become intolerable and offensive to others is a sign of humility and maturity. It is also a demonstration of good-will; that we recognise the public space is meant to be shared as equals with each other.

Together across borders

Another essential step towards building social trust is that our tendency to speak and act, out of self-interest only, has to stop. It is this communal preference that repeatedly sends distorted messages that the needs, benefits and privileges of our own ethno-religious community matter only and most. To tread the same soil and breathe the same air and remain neutral in or indifferent to the wider social realities that exclude and crush others is a recipe for social turmoil. A primary lesson that has evaded us at much cost for too long is that that we cannot expect dignity and freedom for our own if we do not cross borders in solidarity with other grieved and violated communities.

The options we face

If we do not come to our senses and shift from our self-seeking ways, the chances are that whatever vision and energy there is for life together will diminish and impoverish us slowly. Signs that this could already be happening are worrying. Far from upholding the highest human ideals and cooperating for the common good, our secular pursuits and established religion in particular, have acquired a reputation for being unreasonable and obstructive of fresh expressions of advancement, healing and liberation.

We cannot have it both ways. We could either stay with our self- centred and exclusive ways that polarise us and undermine social integration and stability or we could break from this bondage to stand with each other in our common pursuit of a more safe, just and integrated world for all. To imagine that the latter is a betrayal of our identity; national or ethno-religious, is a myth. To rise above division and endorse the human race as the highest race as taught by the Buddha and generate just compassion for our neighbour amongst whom the vulnerable stranger takes precedence, as Jesus taught, is to the contrary a manifestation of our highest collective human values.

It is those who seek to consolidate their power bases, political, religious or ethnic, by controlling our emotions and freedom who suggest otherwise.

With Peace and Blessings to all.

Editors note: Also read, Countering the Fascists on the Streets: A Lesson from Australia by Channa Wickremesekara.