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Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

Yesterday I listened to the Turkish
First Lady, the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak
about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the
federal state of Arakan ( formerly now known as Rakhine) who are
located in northwestern Burma (aka Myanmar).

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority
numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in
Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been
brutally massacred and their villages burned. 

She spoke in a deeply
moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly
after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of
this year.

She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an
ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost
totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by
media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and
irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond
with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most
victimized category in these extreme situations of minority
persecution and ethnic cleansing.

The situation of the Rohingya is an
archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world.
In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen
rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan
for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be
unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in
Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause
tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the
world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled
across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities,
and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping
persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages,
and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy,
only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as
‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great
majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive
miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at
or even below subsistence levels. The Rohingya who continue to exist
precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are
reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure
hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health
services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while
those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be
comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’
even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of
minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a
life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the
continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

The principal purpose of this
educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with
strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the
situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize
public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to
reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken
in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya
plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable
silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic
political leader in Burma, herself long placed under punitive house
arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel
Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her
country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and
religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry
great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public
opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate
action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing
tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as
intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of
ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced
deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the
country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with
deep historical roots in northern Arakan. Outside pressures from
Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider
international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic
goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put
pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has
softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving
toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

What struck me while listening to the
presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become
when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that
women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We
fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed
from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and
logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express
serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only
thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious
religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to
empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational

Such a powerful rendering of suffering
reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the
‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and
poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our
conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech.
Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language
even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only
that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential
validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we
know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have
discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as
honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of
occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have
been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the
existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from
visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the
rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under
international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to
touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to
convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and
wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to
drain their emotive content in any event.

I recall also my experience with the
world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam
War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view
the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials,
especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming
‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’ I
accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’
during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at
the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting
the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that
it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve
what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it
was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important
security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my
understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many
of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions,
visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary
Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the
country to the military superiority of the United States with no
prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being
on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years. I
came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and
especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the
United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped
up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the
Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the
dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own
collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my
mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

When I left Vietnam, and returned to
Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total
disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the
most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant
humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high
tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was
completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’
The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war,
but they were keenly eager to report on proposals for ending the
conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to
convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out
that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from
Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and
many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel
Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates
back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the
concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all,
with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth
analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to
forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested
the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and
intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that
might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether
Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not
ready for even such a favorable compromise, and plodded on for
several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the
setting of a thinly disguised surrende.

Poets in the West, caught between a
cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their
inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their
frustration with language as the only available vehicle for
truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final
section of his great poem East Coker:

Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different
kind of failure

Imagine if the master poet of the
English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of
defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the
rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault
ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the
temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the
shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise

Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes
some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the
sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

…..Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of
their folly
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