By Amir Taheri
29 December 2017
Medieval historians in the Middle East often used the memory of particularly great disasters as a label for a year or even a whole epoch under study.
The original model came from pre-Islamic Arabia with such well-known examples as “The Year of the Elephant,” remembering the year in which the Abyssinians invaded the Tihama, or the Year of the Locust, in which swarms of insects wiped out crops across a vast arc spanning from the Peninsula to the Mediterranean.
Last year, we used the formula by designating 2016 as The Year of Aleppo to mark the destruction through carpet-bombing of a great Islamic city by the Russian air force, pushing the Syrian tragedy further down the abyss of inhumanity.
At the time we could not imagine that 2017 would witness an even greater crime against humanity in the shape of what the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called “the genocide” of the Rohingya people in Burma (Myanmar).
Aleppo was crucified by a foreign power using its superior military force against a defenceless population pushed to the edge of collective nervous breakdown by years of starvation and conflict.
In the case of the Rohingya, however, the genocide was organized and carried out by what was, in theory at least, the victims’ own central government and “national” army. Worse still the government in question was, again in theory at least, headed by a woman who had been cast as an angel of compassion and crowned with a Nobel Peace Prize.
That Russia might use massive force to crush real or imagined foes would cause little surprise for those familiar with history. It was not so long ago that the Russian air force reduced Chechnya to a pile of rubble, killed a quarter of the population and drove another quarter out of their homes.
Burma, however, was supposed to be a peaceful neck of the woods where Buddhism, supposed to be a school of peace and harmony, reigned supreme.
In 1977, I interviewed the Burmese “strongman” Gen. Ne Win, who harped on at length about how Buddha’s teachings could save the world from violence and war.
The fact that he himself had seized power through a putsch seemed an exception against a broader history in which Burma, an ex-British colony, appeared to be immune from the kind of violence the world had witnessed in the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent and neighbouring Indo-China.
To students of post-colonial developments, Burma had the potential to become a model of peaceful development.
Under Prime Minister Thakin Nu, better known as U Nu, Burma had achieved a special status in the Non-Aligned Movement. U Nu himself was ranked along India’s Nehru and Indonesia Sukarno as the three “sages” of the so-called Third World. Thus, when U Nu proposed one of his ministers, U Thant, as secretary-general of the UN, everyone applauded. In the chilliest years of the Cold War, U Thant managed to lead the UN for 10 years, a record at his time.
I interviewed U Thant in Tehran in 1968 when he chaired an international conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His aim was to broaden the scope of the original declaration to include a whole set of new social and economic rights.
The result was the famous Tehran Declaration, a fruit of U Thant’s patient diplomacy and goodwill, which remains the pinnacle of “progressive” aspirations.
So, how could the country of U Nu and U Thant, a land which has the highest ratio of priests to population, become the venue for the largest genocide the world has seen since Rwanda in the last century? Worse still, how could the Buddhist clergy become cheerleaders and, in many cases, even active accomplices of the military units specially trained to kill civilians and raze villages to the ground?
The first lesson to draw from the genocide of the Rohingya is that one should not exclude the possibility of evil in human affairs as a mere figment of metaphysical imagination.
As the Persian poet Nasser Khosrow observed almost 1,000 years ago, since we see the effect of evil, if we wish to combat it we had better assume its existence. Evil can assume many identities.
It could wear the mask of a spiritual sage such as U Nu or a compassionate peacemaker such as U Thant, not to mention the soldier of “Buddhist Socialism” Ne Win or the darling of Western bleeding-heart liberals Aung San Suu Kyi.
To justify the genocide, Myanmar propaganda has accused the Rohingya of many misdeeds, most notably that of having fought the Japanese invaders of Burma during World War II. They are also blamed for keeping their own language, one of 22 languages native to Burma, alive. But the Rohingya’s supreme crime is that a majority of them are Muslims.
And, yet, the Rohingya have received little more than lip service from the 57 Muslim-majority nations. None has deemed it necessary to sever ties with Myanmar. A handful have sent token aid to Rohingya refugees dying of starvation and disease in neighbouring Bangladesh.
Iran was even less attentive to the Rohingya tragedy. A cargo of humanitarian aid, perhaps costing a few hundred thousand dollars, much less than (Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah’s monthly stipend from Tehran, was sent to Bangladesh, which hosts half a million Rohingyas forced out of Burma.
No regime big shot, and not even one of the thousands of mullahs getting fat on a government salary, was sent to shed crocodile tears and wave the flag. As for Erdogan, for “Supreme Guide” AIi Khamenei, it was Jerusalem or bust.
The so-called international community did not do better. The UN Security Council and General Assembly could come up with emergency sessions to condemn Trump’s Jerusalem move; something that has no effect on reality on the ground, but were reluctant to put the Rohingya genocide on the agenda.
The Security Council could promulgate unanimous sanctions against North Korea’s “little rocket-man” but dragged its silk-stockinged feet when it came to deciding meaningful action on the Rohingya.
Yes, 2017 was the Year of the Rohingya and a year of shame for the so-called international community.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.