Obama, Dobama, And The Price of Ignorance
by Stephen Schwartz
India has hanged Mohammed Ajmal Kasab, a Pakistani citizen, for his involvement in the infamous terror assault on Mumbai in 2008. The Islamabad government that subsidizes the Al Qaida-affiliated Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) to which Kasab was recruited, as a weapon against Indian authority in Kashmir, has not reacted significantly. The Pakistan Taliban, however, have demanded the return of the criminal's body to Pakistan, amid a storm of threats against India.
Moderate, traditional, conventional, and spiritual Muslims should accept the verdict of the Indian court against Kasab, and his execution, as just. LET murders and stains the reputations of ordinary Muslims no less than it takes non-Muslim lives.
When Mumbai was bloodied horribly by Kasab and his cell of radical Muslims guided from Pakistan, not for the first or last time, a flurry of complaints appeared in Western media, arguing that the Indian megalopolis should retain its older title as "Bombay."
Nevertheless, Westerners did not disapprove of the change from "Ceylon" to "Sri Lanka" in 1972. Nor did the issue arise after the commencement of conflict between Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist majority and the island's Tamils, who are mainly Hindu in faith, with Muslim and Christian minorities among the Tamils, and Christians found in Sinhala society.
Simultaneously with the application of the death sentence to Kasab, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the land of Burma, also known as Myanmar. His journey reflected Obama's ignorance of many topics, notwithstanding his admirers' claim that he is somehow omniscient about foreign affairs. And here the question of naming cities and countries returns to the foreground of commentary.
American news websites criticized Obama for referring to the country as "Myanmar" rather than "Burma," and its main city as "Yangon," instead of "Rangoon." The U.S. insists officially on using the old spelling for the names of the country and town, apparently without knowing or caring that "Myanmar" is the classical pronunciation of "Burma" in the Burmese (Bamar) language, and that "Yangon" is similarly the Bamar name for the former capital.
But the controversy over the naming of territories and prominent urban locations failed to produce recognition that the colloquial "Dobama" was the appellation preferred by the Burmese nationalist "Thakins" who emerged in the 1930s, and whose ranks included one Aung San, father of the current international idol Aung San Suu Kyi. So Obama went to Dobama; if there is a joke there, it is doubtless too obscure to appeal to anybody but Bamar folk and a few foreign experts. Obama was probably left uninformed of the curious parallel.
Obama's sojourn in Dobama additionally called forth criticism from human rights monitors, who point out that Burma/Myanmar continues to keep some 300 political prisoners behind bars, and that ethnic combat persists between the Buddhist Bamar rulers and the Kachin highlanders, who are mostly Christian, with some Kachins following Buddhism and animism.
Further, there remains the abominable condition of the Rohingyas, who are Muslims, in Rakhine State on the Arakan shore, which is the western Burmese frontier. Burma/Myanmar recognizes 135 ethnic identities, but has excluded the Rohingyas from citizenship. In the latest round of oppression and violence against Rohingyas, more than a hundred have been killed and 100,000 driven out of their homes, fleeing in the direction of Bangladesh, India, and, by sea, attempting desperately to reach Muslim Malaysia or Indonesia.
Burma/Myanmar has a bad history in dealing with non-Bamar peoples. The Rohingyas are not alone in being refused citizenship. The regime also denies the rights of Burmese Chinese, Burmese Indians, Burmese Chinese Muslims known as Panthays, Anglo-Burmese, and Gurkhas. I know from direct experience how racist the Bamar majority are in their view of people they consider Indians. They commonly call them "kala" or "black," a word borrowed from Hindi, as an insult.
On 21 November, David Pilling, in the London Financial Times, quoted "U Ye Myint Aung, former Myanmar consul-general in Hong Kong, who in 2009 contrasted the Rohingyas' 'dark brown' complexion with the 'fair and soft' skin of the Burmese. 'In reality, Rohingya are neither "Myanmar people" nor [one of] Myanmar's ethnic groups,' he said, adding that they were 'as ugly as ogres.' "
Indians of all faiths should take note of this reality. As with the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Muslim Rohingyas are persecuted for their racial and religious characteristics, out of hatred for Indians in general. I write these words while visiting Albania, in the Muslim Balkans. Like the Serbs in Kosovo, in their mistreatment of the indigenous Albanian majority, and immigration panic-mongers in my native America, the Burma/Myanmar government alleges that the Rohingyas are "illegal aliens" from Bangladesh. Historical evidence demonstrates, by contrast, that the Rohingya Muslims have been present on the Arakan coast for centuries.
Obama in Dobama alluded to the Rohingyas' plight, declaring, "Today, we look at the recent violence in Rakhine State that has caused so much suffering, and we see the danger of continued tensions there. For too long, the people of this state, including ethnic Rakhine [i.e. Arakanese Buddhists – SAS], have faced crushing poverty and persecution. But there is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold… within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do." This comment was offensive to some Bamar, who deprecated even such a modest reference. Pilling observed that Aung San Suu Kyi, as "the opposition leader, has not covered herself with glory over the issue. She has called for the establishment of law and order but has stuck to the formula that 'both communities have suffered human rights violations and both have also violated human rights.' "
Pillling continued, "That is true. But it is rather like saying that whites as well as blacks violated human rights in apartheid South Africa. The comparison is not far-fetched. Since the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship [in 1982] they have been classified as temporary residents, required to buy registration cards and to seek permission to travel between villages, to marry and even to have more than two children. Those Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh have been ruthlessly turned back to Myanmar or herded into stinking internment camps."
The movement that referred to the country as Dobama, and to which the patriarch Aung San belonged, originated allegedly in ethnic Bamar murders of about 120 Telugu-speaking Indian dockworkers, who participated in a strike at Rangoon in 1930. Some 900 Indian strikers were injured in Bamar attacks at that time. The Bamar supremacists came to refer to themselves as "Thakins" or "lords," in protest against British imperialism but also to reinforce their discriminatory feelings toward Indians.
During the second world war, Aung San and other "Thakins" collaborated with the Japanese occupiers of Dobama. They formed the Burma National Army which fought as partners of the Japanese, but turned against Tokyo in 1944-45 and assisted the Allies in retaking the dominion.
Obama failed in Dobama by refraining from a more forceful presentation on the Rohingya tragedy. That is, of course, his style – superficial effect, without adequate study – the price of ignorance. The Obama administration is wedded to Aung San Suu Kyi, and it is likely the Rohingyas will be left to a miserable fate. While some Indians and Bangladeshis fear the Rohingyas will turn to Islamist radicalism, so far very few have done so, although there were reports in the 1990s that some Rohingyas had gone to Afghanistan to train with Al Qaida. Wahhabi propagandists claimed that Rohingya "mujahidin" had organized to fight the Buddhist authorities in Burma/Myanmar. But real evidence of this is scant.
Whether the Rohingyas are or are not susceptible to extremism remains to be proven. Aisha Shansudin, a Rohingya woman living in the U.S., called on Obama to emphasize the Rohingya issue in his visit to Burma/Myanmar. She used no jihadist vocabulary and has no association with the large Pakistani radical factions in America, where Pakistanis make up a plurality of all Muslims, and are responsible for a campaign of terrorist agitation and conspiracy.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) should act swiftly to investigate the Rohingya crisis and should recommend more significant measures by the U.S. to assist the victims of prejudice. India rescued Bangladesh from the tyranny of Pakistan and sent a Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990. The Tamil rebels responded by assassinating Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. But India has stood up for Hindus and Muslims alike, when they are accused of being too "black" for racists in power. The Rohingyas should not be abandoned. Leaving them to die in leaky boats on the Naf River border between Burma/Myanmar and Bangladesh, or in open waters, will doubtless radicalize them in a way so far avoided.