Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Choose the Railway Station to Say Goodbye

Saying goodbye is the hardest thing to do. Yet at times it is inevitable and the environs in which it is set plays a crucial role in alleviating the process. That’s why I felt strange waiting at the ‘Departure’ of an airport. There was something impersonal about waving to a person goodbye as she walked through security guards into a large airport.

The airport is not a good place to bid goodbye. It does not make the heartbeat palpable and lacks the personal and emotional tinge a seeing off at a railway station platform offers. The airport has a formal, a very English and a stiff upper lip corporate overbearing that stops the finer emotions at the gates and says ‘not here’.

A railway station offers the ultimate setting to bid goodbye. It has a very Indian feel to it — Indian because it’s filled with emotions, it allows a requisite sprinkling of drama and to add to the milieu there are just about the right amount of sound effects.

If the train is running late there’s always a bench waiting to be warmed or the ‘last’ coffee can be at the railway ‘Light Refreshment Stall’. The blood starts to rush in through the veins into the heart causing an intangible pain as the train pulls in by the platform. After placing the luggage it is customary to return to the compartment door for the ‘final’ goodbye. By now there’s considerable tension in the air and words are few and far between. The awkward wall of silence that suddenly builds up between the two is broken by the huffing and puffing of the train. It’s almost as though the train is jostling the two into speaking.

With the train whistle the ‘goodbye drama’ reaches its crescendo. The train chugs at such an incredibly slow pace it is as almost as the train is enjoying separating the two. It’s a sadistic pleasure the train enjoys while saying ‘I’m giving you one more chance....forgot to say something?’ The last act before the lights blur is the ‘waving goodbye’. One gets to wave till the other reduces to a dot and merges with the horizon. These are bittersweet pleasures missing at an airport.

Perhaps it is for this that Indian cinema has countless number of farewell scenes at railway stations. The airport, with security guards, multiple checking points and glass doors that enclose the other on a ‘safer’ inside is dead and does not exuberate the spirit of separating. It is railway stations, and not airports, that are the temples of parting.

While I wait at the departure lounge of the airport wondering whether to feel sad and risk being the odd one out, I receive an SMS: ‘Guess who’s on the plane: Ranbir Kapoor!!!’ Soon her facebook and twitter profiles are updated. While leaving the airport the mind offers an a la carte of emotions: I pick confusion. One thing, however, is sure — railway stations are better places to bid goodbye.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on November 6)

Friday, 2 November 2012

Myanmar’s Indifference to Rohingyas

The Muslim minority, attacked by the majority Buddhists, allege
that Aung San Suu Kyi, the United Nations and other countries
are looking the other way

The present wave of unrest in Myanmar’s Rakhine state has seen about 90 people killed, more than 22,000 people displaced and around 4,600 houses torched. The tension is between the Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims. The 90,000-odd Rohingyas are considered by the majority Buddhist (3 million) as ‘outsiders’ and ‘intruders’ from Bangladesh. While ethnically they might be from the west of the present Rakhine state, Muslim presence has been recorded in Burma for a good century or more. The government of Myanmar has made things further hard for the minority group by refusing to recognise them as one of the 135 ethnic groups in the country.
President Thein Sein has expressed concern over the developments but considering that it was him who had suggested in July to hand over the Rohingyas to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ‘resettle’ them in a third country, Sein’s concerns are at best hollow. According to the president’s office, the Rohingyas are an “illegal border-crossing” community and not “an ethnic group in Burma”. In wise counsel the UNHCR rejected Thein Sein’s relocation plan.

Easy Target

Many times in the past the Rohingyas have been victims to Burmese nationalist politics, most notably in 1978. In 1978, General Ne Win carried out Naga Min Sitsin Yae, better known as King Dragon Operation. While the said purpose of the operation was to tackle Mujahid rebels in Rakhine, many observers believe that it was a pretext to round up Rohingyas. An estimated two lakh Muslims were displaced and many of them made it to relief camps across the border to Bangladesh.
While the Buddhist and the Muslim Rohingyas have not much love lost between them, the spells of peaceful coexistence is relatively longer than the sporadic violence as is seen now. The present wave of deadly clashes started in May after a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three Muslim men. In what is considered to be a retaliatory attack, in August, 10 Muslims were killed in Taungup, in Rakhine. The violence that ensued resulted in hundreds getting killed. Emergency was declared and the army was deployed; but local accounts and rights groups have accused the army of not protecting the Rohingyas — some accounts accuse the army of siding against the minorities.
Tom Malinowski, of the Human Rights Watch, is of the view that the ruling authorities in Myanmar, over the decades, have used the Rohingyas as a decoy to divert popular focus from the administrations shortfalls. Speaking at a news show recently he observed that “sometimes dictators single out ethnic or religious minorities in a country for special hatred in order to distract their people from the abuses of their own government and that’s what the Burmese government did for decades. Those chickens are coming home to roost right now.”

Suu Kyi Silence

Suu Kyi featured in the
January 10,2011 cover of Time.
Where is this fighter?
This being the case, there are sections in Burma that want to peacefully co-exist with the minority communities. Perhaps the greatest such voice was that of Bogyoke Aung San, father of Myanmarese leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. He was a great supporter for an independent Burma that also included all minority groups.
What has surprised many is the silence Aung San Suu Kyi has maintained throughout on the issue. Suu Kyi undoubtedly is the most recognisable face from the country and a stand taken by her will go a long way in bringing nations to sit up and take notice of this persecution. However, that is not the case and the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate is being accused of not willing to stand up for justice in fear of derailing her political career.

Unfounded Fears

The West, especially the United States, which was more than eager to intervene in the Afghanistan, has not taken a shining towards the plight of the Rohingyas, who are stateless people in their own country. It should be remembered that in addition to Washington’s justification of fighting terror after the September 11 attacks, it was said that the invasion will bring justice to the people of Afghanistan who have been persecuted by the extremist Taliban.
Linh Dinh, speaking to PressTV, was of the view that “the US and the West are remaining silent on this because they have nothing to gain from intervening. For decades Myanmar was ruled by a military junta that was pro-China and anti-West. Now it has a government that is open towards the West and moving away from China. The West is not going to upset this balance....”
This fear that antagonising a supposedly pro-West and pro-democracy government in Naypyidaw would push the Thein Sein government into the hands of a waiting Beijing arises from a deficient understanding of the situation in Mynamar. Today, the people of Myanmar realise that the junta leaning on China for decades has resulted in a very predominant Chinese presence in trade and commerce. The Buddhist majority have also realised that an over-ambitious China is not in the interest of an independent and sovereign Myanmar.
The West and other countries, including India, that are rushing to do business with Myanmar should tell Naypyidaw in no uncertain terms that trade ties can only be established is the government is more receptive towards the needs of its minorities, in this case the Rohingyas.

No More Neglect

This problem comes at a very crucial time for Myanmar. A religious and sectarian violence at a time when the country is testing democracy cannot be left to resolve on its own. The government in Myanmar does not have the expertise to heal wounds that have been festered for decades. It is here where the international community should intervene. It is here where the United Nations should wake up. Going by the effort and reaction the UN has towards the crisis, it should hang its head in shame.
If only a fraction of the sound and noise it has been devoting to Syria was given to Myanmar, maybe by now the Say Thamagyi Internally Displaced Persons camp, located on the outskirts of Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state, would have not been brimming with people fleeing for their lives.
To ignore the Buddhist-Rohingya tension or to sweep it under the carpet is to do unimaginable injustice to Myanmarese people, many of who genuinely want to live in peace — all of them who have a right to live in peace. This crisis, if neglected, will have repercussions on generations of Myanmarese who will pay just because the world chose not to take a stand when it mattered.
(An edited version of this article appeared in The New Indian Express on November 2)