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Bangladesh

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Bangladesh: End of Democracy

1 January 2019

It always looks bad when the ruling party jails the opposition leader just a few months before the election. If only Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had decided to boycott this election like she did the last one, she’d probably still be a free woman. But she decided to run, and so was sentenced to jail time on various implausible corruption charges.

Her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, could probably have won a fair election against the BNP, but even with Khaleda Zia in jail she took no chances and arranged a ‘landslide’ in which her Awami League and its allies won almost all the 300 seats in parliament. The BNP only got seven seats, which is also pretty implausible.

After a decade in power, the Awami League is getting arrogant and careless. In Chittagong, the country’s second city, a BBC reporter actually saw the pre-stuffed ballot boxes being delivered to a polling station. (Hint: when pre-stuffing ballot boxes, ensure that they are opaque, not see-through.)

Just another fake election, you might think, no better and no worse than the shambolic vote in the Democratic (or just Dreadful) Republic of Congo on the same day. The outcome in the DRC hasn’t been announced yet (half the voting machines were burned), but you may be sure that the government will win there too. So why should anybody care?

The DRC has the highest extreme poverty rate in the world, with six out of seven people living on less than $1.25 a day. In six decades of independence, the country’s 88 million people have never seen a democratic transfer of power. They hold elections anyway – even China has ‘elections’ – but nobody expects them to change things. Bangladesh is a very different place.

When Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan 48 years ago after a bloody war, it was seen as an economic ‘basket case’, because its only natural resource was its people – and there were too many of them. There are even more of them now – 167 million –but the pessimists were wrong.

Bangladesh works. It is still a very poor and very corrupt country, but its economy has been growing at an average of 6.5% for the past ten years and is now at almost 8%, second highest in the world. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and steady, and it has its population growth under control.

The region now called Pakistan and the region now called Bangladesh had exactly the same population when they were part of the same country. Today’s Bangladesh has 167 million, while the Pakistan of today has 202 million. Bangladesh’s population will stop growing at about 200 million in 2050; Pakistan will have 300 million people in 2050 and still be growing fast.

Even more impressive is Bangladesh’s literacy rate, up from 47% to 73% in the past ten years. And who has been the prime minister for the past ten years? Sheikh Hasina, that’s who.

She may have locked up her rival, arrested hundreds of BNP party workers and brought charges against tens of thousands of BNP party members. She may have rigged the election. But the country is doing fine. It just has this endless civil war going on between its two main political leaders, both now in their 70s: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The ‘battling begums’, as the Bangladeshi press calls them (‘begum’ is a title used to refer to a Muslim woman of high rank), did not start out as enemies. Shortly after the country got its independence in 1971, it fell under military rule for almost two decades. Sheikh Hasina’s father was the prime minister murdered in the first coup; Khaleda Zia’s husband was the ruling general assassinated in the second coup.

The two women managed to cooperate in removing the last military ruler in 1990, and they have been the most important politicians in the country ever since. They quickly became first rivals and then enemies, but they alternated in power in a more or less functional democracy until 2014, when Sheikh Hasina decided she would prefer to stay in power permanently.

Contrary to previous practice, she declared that it would be her government, not a neutral and temporary caretaker government, that ran the 2014 elections. Khaleda Zia protested that the election would be rigged by the Awami League government, and her party boycotted the vote. That was a bad mistake: she handed everything to Sheikh Hasina on a plate.

This time she tried to correct her mistake and said that the BNP would run in the election – so Sheikh Hasina sent her to jail, and rigged the election so ruthlessly that the BNP only won seven seats out of 300.

So what? The country is doing well by all the usual indicators, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but the street violence grows with every election, and BNP supporters everywhere are afraid to let their views be known.

Bangladesh is now effectively a one-party state in which somewhere around half the population hates and fears the ruling party. For the moment the fear predominates, but sooner or later the Awami League will stumble and the hate will be expressed in actions. It would have been better to stick with democracy, even if that meant winning only part of the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“Just…place”; and “The region…fast”)

The Reluctant Rohingyas

The Rohingyas are around a million Bengali-speaking people who used to live in Rakhine state in Burma – until late last year. Then the Burmese army attacked them, claiming they were illegal immigrants. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands were raped, their villages were burned – and at least 700,000 of them are now in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.

The United Nations has described these Burmese actions as ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, but the Burmese army denies any wrong-doing. So does its civilian political partner, ‘Special Counsellor’ Aung San Suu Kyi. (Remember her? She used to be a secular saint.)

Bangladesh doesn’t want all these refugees, most of whom have no ties with the country although they speak Bengali, so last month it made a deal with Burma to send them back. But Burma doesn’t really want them back either. If it did, why would it have bothered to drive them out in the first place?

The United Nations has no part in this great ‘repatriation’, nor any of the NGOs either. It was a private deal between Bangladesh and Burma, and the Burmese army knew perfectly well that the refugees would be too terrified to go back. Agreeing to take them back just made the generals who planned the atrocity look a little less vile.

The Bangladeshi authorities fell for it, and chose 2,200 Rohingya refugees to go back in the first contingent. The Rohingyas weren’t fooled, and most of them immediately went into hiding, changing camps or fleeing into the woods.

A loudspeaker truck went around the sprawling Unchiprang camp near Cox’s Bazar last week imploring the ‘approved’ refugees to come out. “We have six buses here. We have trucks. We have food. We want to offer everything to you.” But nobody stepped forward, and the crowd chanted “We won’t go.”

The Rohingya won’t go back because they are quite understandably afraid for their lives. It wasn’t just the army but their own non-Muslim neighbours who turned on them and took part in the slaughter. If you are recalling images of the massacres and expulsions of Bosnian Muslims by the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, you are absolutely right. It’s happening again, and again nobody is doing anything effective to stop it.

How did it come to this? All the South-East Asian countries contain minority groups, but Burma takes it to extremes. Bamars (ethnic ‘Burmese’) account for two-thirds of the population, but there are eight other recognised ethnic groups, most with their own language or languages. And there are the Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship by Burma’s military dictatorship in 1982.

Why them? They were only 2 percent of Burma’s population, they were a minority even in Rakhine state (formerly Arakan) where they almost all lived, and they never did any harm to the majority. They are, however, Muslims, and the Buddhist majority in Burma is paranoid about Muslims.

It goes back a long way. Buddhism once dominated Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Indonesia, but it has been in retreat for a long time. First Hinduism made a comeback in India, and then Arab conquerors brought Islam to north-western India.

Islamised Central Asian conquerors spread Islam as far east as Bengal, and finally Malay traders carried it throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The only Buddhist-majority countries left in Asia today are Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Burmese Buddhists should feel their faith is jeopardised by the presence of even a single million Muslims – especially if rabble-rousing Buddhist monks advance their careers by preaching fear and hatred.

It’s also utterly irrational and reprehensible. The Rohingya are just as Burmese, in the broader sense, as any of the recognised minorities. The first Bengali-speaking Muslims arrived in Rakhine state in the 15th century as soldiers helping an exiled king regain his throne. The last significant wave of immigration was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s now the 21st century, and there is no excuse for what the Burmese army has done: to understand all is NOT to forgive all. Neither is there any excuse for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yes, she was trying to preserve a hard-won democratic opening that might close if she openly criticised the army. Moreover, the average Burmese heartily approves of what the army has done. (Shades of Serbia again.) But she is condoning and covering up a genocide. Shame on her.

So will they take her Nobel Prize away? Well, no, because it doesn’t matter what she does after she gets it, and she got it in 1991. As Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said last year, the Prize “is awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement OF THE PAST.” Once you get it, you can commit any crime you want.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“A loudspeaker…go”; and “So…want”

Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

Nobel Peace Prize winners sometimes go on to undistinguished later careers, and some seem to have got the prize by mistake. Barack Obama, for example. But there has never before been one who went on to become a genocidal criminal.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader, richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for her thirty-year non-violent campaign (much of it spent under house arrest) to restore democracy in the country. Two years ago, when she finally became the de facto prime minister, her reputation was as high as that of Nelson Mandela.

Hardly anybody had noticed an interview she gave in 2013 in which she said that Buddhists in Rakhine province live in fear of “global Muslim power”. You know, the same global power that lets Muslims dominate the world’s refugee camps. (Muslims make up three-quarters of the world’s refugees, although only a quarter of the world’s population.)

Back then, this was merely a bizarre remark and Suu Kyi was still a saint. The Muslims of Rakhine state, known as Rohingya, were having a hard time at the hands of the authorities, but it wasn’t her fault, and there was no ethnic cleansing yet. There is now, however, and she is fully complicit in it.

When at least 7,000 Rohingya have been murdered, thousands more have been raped, and 700,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, leaving behind another half-million of whom many are in ‘internment centres’ (concentration camps), you can legitimately call it ethnic cleansing. Or genocide, if you want to get legalistic about it.

The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are really illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It even refuses to use the familiar word ‘Rohingya’ any more, insisting on referring to them only as ‘Bengalis’ or ‘Bengali terrorists’. That is a despicable lie.

Rakhine state, between the Arakan mountains and the Indian Ocean, was a separate empire until the Burmese army came over the mountains and conquered it in the late 18th century. Most of its people spoke a dialect of Burmese, but a big minority spoke Rohingya, an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali.

The Rohingya have been in Rakhine at least since the 1660s. The fact that they were Muslims posed no problem for the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan (Rakhine), which was heavily influenced by the Islamic sultanates of eastern India. The Burmese conquerors of Rakhine, and the British empire that followed, didn’t see the Rohingya as a problem either.

The independent Burmese republic founded in 1948 was different from the start. Only two-thirds of Burma’s 53 million people are Bamar (ethnic Burmese), but most of the other ethnic groups share the same Buddhist religion. Nation-building requires a common identity, so Buddhism got the emphasis – and the Rohingya, as Muslims, were automatically excluded.

Bit by bit the military regime that had seized power in 1962 took away the Rohingyas’ land rights, their civil rights, and in 1982 even their citizenship. They were redefined as illegal immigrants, and the local Buddhist population launched occasional pogroms against them.

The anti-Rohingya policy always played well with Bamar nationalists, who are obsessed with the alleged threat posed by Islam. (Only 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, and only half the Muslims are Rohingya.) It’s the one regime policy that is genuinely popular with most of the population, so the army resorts to it whenever it hits a rough patch. It’s losing power now, so it reflexively turns to the old remedy again.

Two years ago you could still argue that a wobbly democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi had to pick its battles carefully. The Rohingya was one that it couldn’t win, so best avoid it and let the military have its way. But that was before it turned into a full-blown genocide last August.

Tactical calculations of political advantage cannot justify mass murder, and it has become clear that Suu Kyi is willing to ignore mass murder if the victims are Muslims. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has known her for more than 30 years, is close to despair.

“She’s changed,” he told CNN last week. “She’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.” And (although Richardson didn’t say this), she also probably feels the same unjustified hatred and fear towards the Rohingyas, and Muslims in general, as the general population.

Meanwhile, the 700,000 Rohingyas suffering in rudimentary refugee camps in Bangladesh have been told that they can start going home next month, but people who have seen their villages razed and family members raped, shot or burned to death are a bit reluctant to trust the Burmese army. Especially when they have no guarantee that they won’t end up in grim ‘detention centres’ back in Rakhine.

Taking the Nobel Peace Prize back from Aung San Suu Kyi wouldn’t help matters in Rakhine at all, but it would do the standing of the prize a lot of good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“Rakhine…Bengali”; and “The anti…again”).

Burma: Rohingya Genocide

During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma, the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.

Only two-thirds of Burma’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all the other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military take-over in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1 million Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.

The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.

The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Burma. They were mostly poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies.

The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.

The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went relatively quiet until 2013.

The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in Burma’s cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after Burma was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century.

These urban Muslims, many of whom owned shops or other small businesses, attracted the envy and resentment of poorer Burmese, and have been the targets of sporadic rioting and looting throughout the past century. Since independence, the Burmese army has often supported these riots, or even incited them.

What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism in Burma as it has done in other once-Buddhist countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. It is a completely unfounded fear – Muslims are just four percent of Burma’s population – but many Buddhist Burmese are obsessed by it.

When the Taliban blew up the giant 6th-century statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Burmese army ‘retaliated’ by bulldozing the ancient Han Tha Mosque in the city of Taungoo. In the same year Burmese monks began distributing an anti-Muslim pamphlet called “The Fear of Losing One’s Race”, and since then Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of the attacks on Muslims – including in Rakhine.

The poor Rohingya farmers of Rakhine have little in common with the Muslim merchants of Burma’s big cities, but they are now the main target of the army’s wrath. This is probably because Rakhine is the only province of Burma where Muslims are – or more precisely were until recently – almost half the population.

The attacks on the Rohingya, initially explained as part of intercommunal rioting between them and the local Buddhist population, have escalated until this year they have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.

It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on 25 August, killing twelve people.

They were armed with home-made black powder muskets and swords, but the Burmese government has proclaimed that it is under “terrorist” attack and launched a “counter-offensive” that is the local version of a final solution.

About 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of weeks, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingyas in Burma, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.

And what about Burma’s secular saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practice the head of a democratically elected government (although one still subject to a military veto on security matters)? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. “These urban…them”; and “When…Rakhine”)