If universal consciousness caused DNA, it’s ironic that we highly conscious humans, the crown of evolution, are apparently unable to apprehend it. Metaphorically, God made man in his own image: with consciousness; but even to conscious humans, God-consciousness (whatever gnostics, mystics and gurus say) is unknowable. Non-metaphorically, science for all its brilliance, is unable to agree on a theory of everything. Metaphorically again, science in its current state can’t look upon the face of God.
I should add that I’m an agnostic. I’m implying design, but not a designer. Evolution is designerless design. I’m suggesting a universal non-divine design process analagous to evolution.
Remember Aung San Suu Kyi, darling of western liberals, heroine of democracy and human rights, under house arrest in Burma for her beliefs for 15 years before being triumphantly elected as her country’s leader? Well, treasure the golden memory – the reality is disappointingly tarnished.
Suu Kyi’s saintly image suffered badly at an internationally covered election campaign press conference in November 2015. Questioned about the the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (the new name for Burma), she shocked her worldwide fans by saying only that that it was important not to exaggerate.
As the informed watching world knew, it would have been hard to exaggerate the problems faced by the Rohingya people. They’ve been violently persecuted for many years by state-backed Buddhists in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine. They’re one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. (The UN is supposed to have said that. Apparently they didn’t, but in any case it’s evidently true.)
Since then, Suu Kyi’s image has gone from bad to worse. She won the election as expected. She became Myanmar’s State Counsellor – effectively its prime minister – and (despite her government being dominated by unelected junta leftovers) was in a postion to help the Rohingya by at least speaking out about their plight.
Instead, as the violence continued, so did Suu Kyi’s shameful indifference. The Nobel peace prize winner didn’t make peace. Known as The Lady, she wasn’t ladylike – she gracelessly and callously did nothing about it, apart from criticising the critics and telling them to give her government ‘space‘.
There’s widespread hostility towards the one-million-plus Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in Myanmar, including among some within Suu Kyi’s own party. Myanmar doesn’t recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group. It denies them citizenship and basic rights. The previous military junta called them ‘Bengalis’, implying that they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though the Rohingya have had a well established presence in the country since at least the twelfth century.
The history of the Rohingya is complex and not fully understood. It is the subject of academic disagreement in the region. Some academics support the Myanmar government’s line, claiming that the name ‘Rohingya’ is a political invention by Bengali immigrants who have no particular ethnic identity. Others with more integrity argue that the name dates back to at least the 1700s, and that despite historical migrations to and from what is now Bangladesh, the Rohingya have a long history in Rakhine and a distinct ethnic identity and language.
From the 1870s to the 1930s, many people were persuaded by the British empire to move from what’s now Bangladesh to what’s now Rakhine State for the purpose of increasing rice production to supply India. They weren’t illegal immigrants. They integrated and intermarried with the native Rohingya. That doesn’t make the Rohingya ‘Bengalis‘.
During World War Two, in the area now known as Rhakine State, then known as Arakan, Buddhists backed the Japanese, while the Rohingya Muslims backed the British. Both sides were given arms. As well as fighting their nominal enemies, they fought each other. Thousands died on both sides.
Suu Kyi’s government has continued with the policy of claiming that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants. Min Aung Hlaing, smiling head of Myanmar’s powerful military, said at a 2016 press conference, ‘As we have said before, there are no Rohingya.’
Neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh also doesn’t allow Rohingyas citizenship. In the late 1970s some 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh, claiming that the Burmese army had forcibly evicted them, and alleging widespread army brutality, rape and murder. Bangladesh negotiated their return and encouraged it by restricting food supplies.
Then in the early 1990s more than 250,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh from forced labour, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese army. They were brutally repatriated to Burma, a process shamefully overseen by the UN. Respected non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch gives the background and history of these events.
There’s a complex history(2) of conflict over land and resources. In 2012 this led to waves of mob violence against the Rohingya led by hardline Buddhist priests and politicians, and covertly backed by the state. Hundreds of Rohingya were murdered. No one has been prosecuted for the killings.
More than 100,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes and live in decrepit internment camps where they are denied medical services and adequate food. Thousands tried to escape to Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand on rickety boats. Many Rohingyas, having reached Malaysia and Thailand, were held in detention centres there.
Also in 2015, Genocide Watch(6) said that the Myanmar regime’s gross human rights abuses and its persecution of the Rohingya persisted alongside a pervasive culture of impunity; and that the situation may have reached stages nine and ten of their ten-stage model of genocide(7).
In March 2017, aid agencies estimated that over one million Rohingya had fled Myanmar in the previous 40 years as a result of persecution. (3)
In July 2017 it was reported that a Thai judge, after a two-year trial, had found dozens of people guilty, including a senior army general and a wealthy businessman and former government official, in the country’s largest ever human trafficking trial following the discovery two years ago of mass graves in a squalid jungle camp where hundreds of migrants had been brutally exploited.
Many Rohingya and Bangladeshis paid people smugglers to reach Malaysia or Thailand. When they arrived, the court heard, they were detained in bamboo pens and had to beg their families to pay a ransom for their release.
The case led to a crackdown on smuggling networks that brought people from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Thailand. Smugglers, fearing arrest, then abandoned boatloads of migrants. The UN refugee agency estimated that hundreds died at sea, mainly as a result of starvation, dehydration and beatings by boat crews.
Most disappointing of all, Suu Kyi herself seems to be anti-Muslim. In March 2016 she made an off-key off-air comment after being interviewed by Mishal Husain, Muslim presenter of Today, BBC Radio’s flagship UK news and current affairs programme. Suu Kyi lost her temper during the interview when Husain repeatedly asked her to condemn the anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar. Suu Kyi answered angrily and evasively, and after the interview was heard to say, ‘No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’
In May 2016, Suu Kyi’s ministry of foreign affairs asked the US ambassador to stop using the term ‘Royingya’, which they said was ‘controversial‘. To the USA’s credit, the ambassador said he’d continue to use the term, because that’s what the group calls itself. The European Union, by comparison, has cravenly caved in to Suu Kyi’s demand (see below).
When US secretary of state John Kerry delicately raised concerns about the issue during a visit in May 2016, Suu Kyi responded: ‘All that we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties we are facing and to give us enough space to solve all our problems.’
Weasel words, Suu. Your halo was slipping – off. What would Dave Lee Travis think? What would the world – previously your oyster, thanks to your massive international support – think?
Sadly, the world thinks you’ve gone from saintly reformer to either hypocritical racist or, at best, paralysed pragmatist. The world thinks that your main concern is either to hang on to power or, at best, to preserve Myanmar’s so-called nascent democracy.
You squandered the world’s good will, Suu. The world thinks that, whatever you’ve become and whatever your motives, you’re willingly fronting one of the worst governments in the world, with self-indulgent brutal hatred bordering on racism at its rotten heart.
Following its shameful part in the 1990s Bangladesh deportation (see above), the UN partly redeemed itself by issuing a report that urged Suu Kyi’s government to take concrete steps to end the ongoing systemic discrimination and human rights violations against the Rohingya – violations that the UN said could amount to crimes against humanity.
Sickeningly, European Union ambassador to Myanmar Roland Kobia said in June 2016 that the EU would stop using the term ‘Rohingya’. He pathetically echoed Suu Kyi’s weasel words by adding that Myanmar needed ‘space’ to deal with human rights abuses.
Suu Kyi responded to international pressure by appointing an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. She somehow persuaded fellow Nobel peace prize winner and former UN head Kofi Annan to chair it. There were two hardline hate-mongering Rakhine Buddhists on board. There were, of course, no Rohingya representatives – after all, they don’t exist.
The commission was strongly opposed by Myanmar nationalists, so perhaps Suu Kyi actually did something right. It started in September 2016 and was due to report a year later – assuming, presumably, that there might still be some Rohingya left alive by then.
Update 2: March 2017
Annan – interim report
The Annan commission’s interim report called for the closure of Myanmar’s squalid internment camps, where 120,000 Rohingya have lived since the hardline Buddhist violence in 2012.
‘They [should] close the camps and allow the people in the camps, particularly those who have gone through the [citizenship] verification process, access to freedom of movement and all rights of citizenship‘.
Well said, Kofi. You listening, Suu?
But Suu Kyi had stamped her absurd ban on the name ‘Rohingya’ onto the commission. In a section headed ‘Nomenclature‘, the interim report said:
‘In line with the request of the State Counsellor [Suu Kyi], the Commission uses neither the term “Bengali” nor “Rohingya”, who are referred to as “Muslims” or “the Muslim community in Rakhine”. This does not include the Kaman Muslims, who will simply be referred to as “Kaman”.’
So the Kaman Muslims (a smaller ethnic group of Rakhine Muslims recognised as Myanmar citizens) could be called ‘Kaman’, but the Rohingya Muslims couldn’t be called ‘Rohingya’ – because they don’t exist, of course. The quote above contained the only use of the name ‘Rohingya’ in the report.
Disappointingly craven, Kofi. Still, at least Suu Kyi also asked the commission not to use the name ‘Bengali‘ – the name used by the military junta to falsely assert that the Rohingya were illegal Bengali immigrants. Perhaps a tiny spark of conscience remained.
Update 2: August 2017
Annan – final report
In August 2017 the Annan commission published its final report. It pointed out that ‘Muslims in Rakhine’ (ie, the Rohingya – see March 2017, above) constituted the single biggest stateless community in the world.
The commission’s report was overshadowed – probably deliberately (see below) – by a new outbreak of violence. Annan said he was ‘gravely concerned’ by the latest outbreak of fighting.
The report urged the government to:
speed up the citizenship verification process
ensure freedom of movement for all
close the internment camps as soon as possible
improve camp conditions immediately
allow humanitarian and media access
give access to health and education services
end hate speech by Buddhists.
The report recommended that the government appoint a minister with special responsibility for Rakhine State.
Myanmar president and Suu Kyi ally Htin Kyaw thanked the commission for its ‘visionary and constructive approach’, and said that he agreed with the recommendations. A press release (which is no longer posted) said:
‘The large majority of the recommendations will be implemented promptly with a view to maximum effectiveness. The implementation of a few will be contingent upon the situation on the ground but we believe there will be speedy progress.’
Suu Kyi’s office said that as an immediate step, the government would immediately form a new minister-led committee to implement the commission’s recommendations. Government ministry representatives would be included on the committee.
The committee would be assisted by an advisory board on Rakhine which would include regional and international experts.
So… Suu Kyi deflected some international criticism by seeking and apparently accepting Annan’s advice. But would she – could she – implement it?
Mass exodus began / Erdoğan spoke / Security council waffled / Suu Kyi petition / ‘Fake’ news / Homes burning / Suu Kyi recommends harmony / Landmines / UN: ‘ethnic cleansing’ / The island / Myanmar to implement Annan / UN SecGen spoke / Security council: end violence / Female Nobel laureates wrote to SK / Amnesty: ‘scorched earth’ / UK stopped military aid / SK speech / Bangladesh tells UN: safe zones needed in Myanmar / US: ‘stop weapons’
Myanmar: ‘refugees can return’ / New Cox’s Bazar camp / The island / UN in Myanmar ‘disfunctional’ / Myanmar civilian-led agency / Charity appeal didn’t use the name ‘Rohingya’ / UN: Myanmar planned ethnic cleansing / War criminal Hlaing / Estimated number of refugees: 603,000
It didn’t take long for the Myanmar government to resume its brutal ethnic cleansing. Claiming that nine police officers and five soldiers were killed by insurgents at border posts, Government forces responded by looting and burning villages and carrying out helicopter gunship attacks. At least 100 Rohingya were killed. The government claimed that their forces were attacked by men with guns, spears, machetes and wooden clubs, and that they responded with a ‘clearing’ operaton. Quite.
Images and videos on social media showed women and children among those killed. The army was accused of raping Rohingya women. Unbelievably (in both senses) the government said that the ‘insurgents’ had burned their own homes to discredit the army.
During the conflict, Slippery Suu avoided journalists and press conferences. However, on a Japanese jaunt to get an honorary doctorate she was challenged by the Japanese foreign minister. Suu Kyi replied that the military in Rakhine were operating according to the ‘rule of law‘. Nice one, Doc.
Satellite images released by Human Rights Watch (an NGO known for its impartial reporting) showed that more than 1,200 homes were razed in Rohingya villages during the military operation. The UN estimated that 30,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes into Bangladesh. Bangladesh turned many refugees back from the border, and complained to the Myanmar government.
Rohingya refugees from the military crackdown joined the many thousands who’d fled Myanmar to Bangladesh over the last 40 years . Estimates of the number of Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh before the current displacement vary wildly from 35,000 to 500,000. The unreliability of the estimates was a sad indication of the world’s neglect. Most of the refugees in Bangladesh, as with most Rohingya refugees elsewhere, live in squalid camps, lacking adequate food and medical care
Muslim-majority Malaysia spoke up, also describing the violence against the Rohingya as ‘ethnic cleansing‘. At a solidarity rally in Kuala Lumpur, prime minister Najib Razak asked the angry crowd, ‘What’s the use of Aung San Suu Kyi having a Nobel prize?’ Good question.
Suu Kyi’s government investigation found – surprise, surprise! – that the security forces had followed the law. So that was alright, then. However, a report by Amnesty International accused the Myanmar military of ‘crimes against humanity’. The Amnesty report called on the Myanmar government and Suu Kyi to order a stop to the violence, publically condemn rights violations, allow unimpeded access to Rakhine and launch an impartial investigation with the UN. Yeah, right – dream on.
ASEAN regional leaders met in Yangon (Myanmar’s largest city, formerly its capital, also known as Rangoon) for emergency talks on the violence. Pressurised by the intervention of neighbouring Muslim-majority states Indonesia and Malaysia, Suu Kyi reluctantly addressed the meeting – only to repeat her ridiculous assertion that the army action was legitimate.
The Myanmar government invited Kofi Annan’s advisory committee (see above) to look into the situation. Disappointingly, Annan reportedly said that observers should be ‘very, very careful‘ in using the word genocide, and that Suu Kyi’s government should be given ‘a bit of time, space and patience’. Oh dear – there was that weasel word again.
Annan was possibly right to describe ‘genocide’ as an exaggeration, but perhaps the great (now, sadly, late) man should himself have been ‘very, very careful’ – not to blow his credibility. He sounded worryingly like Suu Kyi, with her ‘Don’t exaggerate’, and her ‘Give us space’. At that rate, next thing, Annan would refuse to use the name ‘Rohingya’. (And guess what? He did just that, at Suu Kyi’s request. See above.)
Annan’s views on the conflict were given in the introduction to his commission’s interim report. (See March 2017, below.)
It was widely reported that – for what it was worth (not much) – 23 of the great and good had written an open letter to the (useless) UN security council about it, describing the action as ethnic cleansing, and demanding that the council put it on their to-do list. More than a dozen of Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel laureates signed, including Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai.
The letter was wordy but well meant and heartfelt. Perhaps they hoped to stir the dozy security council into action, or at least add to the embarrassment factor for Suu Kyi. (However, our former human rights heroine seemed unembarrassable.)
Suu Kyi’s commission of investigation said that there was no evidence of genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state. In its interim report, the commission, led by hardline former regional military ruler and current co-vice president Myint Swe, also said there wasn’t enough evidence to support widespread rape allegations. It didn’t mention claims that security forces had been killing people.
The UK’s secondary parliamentary body, the House of Lords, held a debate on a question tabled by activist and Labour peer Baroness Glenys Kinnock about the Rohingya, and the UK government’s response to their current plight. Four baronesses, three lords and one bishop made knowledgeable and compassionate speeches.
UK government minister Baroness Annabel Goldie replied in a similar tone of concern, but spoiled it by saying that the UK government would, in effect, do nothing.
Goldie said that UK ministers had raised this issue in parliament and in direct discussions with the Myanmar government. She said that the UK government was deeply concerned about the recent military action and the lack of humanitarian access.
Goldie said that the government didn’t find Myint Swe’s commission of investigation (see above) credible, and had expressed its concerns to the UN security council. However, she ended by saying that the UK government was wary of doing anything which might impede Myanmar’s legitimate democratic development.
That wasn’t good enough. As elsewhere, the UK bears considerable historical colonial responsibility for the mess left behind. It should have been clear that the diplomatic approach had failed, that the junta-heavy Myanmar government was no democracy, and that the UK government was defending a dictatorship wearing Suu Kyi like a window dressing.
If we accepted our historical and moral responsibility, we’d instead have been actively defending the Rohingya.
The Bangladeshi goverment showed great compassion for its opressed Muslim neighbours by planning to forcibly relocate the recently arrived Rohingya refugees to an even more squalid site. A push to attract tourists was the reason for the move, which had the backing of controversial prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed.
The squalid refugee colony, home to the newly exiled Rohingya, is near the world’s longest unbroken beach – and Bangladesh’s largest resort. Officials feared the refugees might put off would-be holidaymakers, and ordered the forced relocation of the Rohingya to a vulnerable island before being repatriated to Myanmar.
The island, flooded by several feet of water at high tide, has no roads or flood defences. It was formed about a decade ago by sediment from a river. Nice. Thanks, Hasina, for your generous hospitality.
Mass gang-rape, killings (including of babies and young children), brutal beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by Myanmar security forces were detailed in a UN report based on interviews with victims in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh asked the UN and the international community to support its plan to relocate Rohingyas to an uninhabitable island, Thengar Char (see above).
The briefing was attended by some 60 ambassadors, high commissioners, heads of missions and representatives of various diplomatic missions, as well as representatives from the office of UN resident coordinator Robert D. Watkins, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNHCR and other UN agencies.
The Myanmar government said that its ‘clearance operation’ had ‘ceased‘. Suu Kyi’s office issued this statement:
‘The situation in northern Rakhine has now stabilised. The clearance operations undertaken by the military have ceased, the curfew has been eased and there remains only a police presence to maintain the peace.’
That was nice, Suu – to describe as ‘peace‘ the aftermath of the army’s 1,000 killings (including the killing of women, children and babies), gang rape, the looting and burning of homes, and the displacement of 70,000 people.
It was reported that the Bangladesh government strongly discouraged the distribution of aid to Rohingya refugees. Bangladesh banned three NGOs from distributing aid, saying that it would encourage more refugees to cross the border. The Bangladeshi interior and foreign ministries apparently declined to comment.
Bangladesh had form for this. In the 1970s they encouraged the return of 200,000 Rohingya refugees by restricting food supplies (see above).
Kofi Annan’s advisory commission on Rakhine state (see update 2, above) published its interim report on 16 March. In the introduction, Annan, whose commission was asked in December 2016 to look into the current crisis (see above), said:
‘The nature of the crisis facing Rakhine state has changed due to the attacks of 9 October  and the subsequent security operations … There are steps that can be taken immediately…[including] unimpeded access for humanitarian actors and journalists to the affected areas in Northern Rakhine and for independent and impartial investigation of the allegations of crimes committed on and since 9 October 2016. We strongly believe that perpetrators of these crimes must be held to account.’
Well said, Kofi – that was better than your useless comment in December 2016 (see above). Now try to get the UN to pull its finger out.
The EU submitted its weaselly, watered-down resolution to the UN human rights council, presumably with the support of the UK (see above). The resolution (click on ‘E‘ to download it) on the Rohingya, which did at least use their name, was adopted by the council. The resolution specified a weedy ‘fact-finding mission‘, not the high-powered commission of inquiry needed. Pathetic.
Predictably, Suu Kyi rejected the UN decision. In a televised speech, she said that her government would refuse to accept the fact-finding mission. Myanmar’s military head Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech that the mission was a threat to national security.
Without Myanmar’s cooperation, the UN’s fact-finding mission – already toothless – was likely to become a paper tiger.
Suu Kyi’s first interview this year (with BBC TV) sadly confirmed her shameful indifference to the terrible plight of the Rohingya. Speaking like a cut-price Thatcher, she said that there was no ethnic cleansing, and spoke instead about attacks by Muslims on fellow-Muslims who’d collaborated with the authorities. In a strangely worded comment on the widely alleged troop atrocities, she said that troops had not been ‘free’ to commit crimes. ‘They are not free to rape, pillage and torture,’ she said. ‘They are free to go in and fight.’ Right, thanks, Suu.
Suu Kyi had a sickly, medicated look. Maybe she should consider her legacy, or at least her priorities. Her ambitious programme – to sort out Myanmar’s basket-case economy, make peace amongst the warring factions and bring the military under democratic control – looked unrealistic, but with a change of heart she could have spoken out in support of Myanmar’s opressed Rohingya Muslims; she could have granted them citizenship.
At a stroke, she’d have regained the world’s support – which would have given her leverage to clear out the junta.
India’s right-wing BJP government added to Rohingya misery by backing local moves to deport 8,000 Rohingya refugees from the city of Jammu back to Myanmar. 40,000 refugees fled to India from Myanmar army brutality in 2012.
Suu Kyi’s government planned to resettle refugees returning from Bangladesh in ‘model villages‘. The returnees wouldn’t be allowed to permanently rebuild their homes – burnt by security forces – in their villages where they’d farmed and fished.
A UK Guardian editorial about Suu Kyi said: ‘[Her] moral credibility has been vastly diminished if not demolished by her failure to even acknowledge the brutal persecution of the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state’. (That’s what I said – a year ago.)
The Myanmar government refused entry visas to the three members of the UN’s fact-finding mission. It insisted that the domestic investigation headed by former lieutenant general and vice-president Myint Swe (see January 2017, above) was sufficient to look into the allegations of crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
Junta spokesperson Kyaw Zeya (permanent secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs, headed by Suu Kyi) said ‘Why do they try to use unwarranted pressure when the domestic mechanisms have not been exhausted? It will not contribute to our efforts to solve the issues in a holistic manner.’ (Sic – and sick.)
The final report of the Myanmar government’s rubbish commission of enquiry (see November and December 2016, and January 2017, above) concluded – to no one’s surprise – that no crimes were committed during the recent military action.
Deceptively gormless-looking vice president and junta thug Myint Swe – a notorious former general blacklisted by the USA – headed the enquiry. He said there was no evidence of the crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansingalleged by the UN. Myint Swe also denied that there had been gang rapes by the military – as reported to the UN by refugees in Bangladesh.
The advisory commission on Rakhine State headed by Kofi Annan also published its final report. Amongst his many recommendations, Annan asked the government to allow humanitarian and media access to the affected areas. (See Update 2, above.)
The Myanmar president gave Annan’s report a warm welcome, but the love-in didn’t last long. State violence resumed as the military and Buddhist mobs launched a typically disproportionate retaliatory crackdown after attacks on police-posts left twelve members of the security forces dead. There were reports of soldiers burning villages and attacking residents.
Some 400 Rohingya were reported to have been killed. The military claimed that the vast majority of those killed were ‘terrorists’. But refugees said that villagers were indiscriminately beaten, shot or hacked to death; that others were killed after failing to pay the soldiers a ransom; and that many women were raped and killed.
Suu Kyi was quick to smear the Rohingya insurgents as Islamist terrorists. Given the decades of oppression, and the 500,000 Rohingya refugees in Islamist hotbeds Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, insurgency movements with elements of Islamism were inevitable. No doubt there’d been some ‘radicalisation‘.
However, the solution was not a massively disproportionate military crackdown backed by Buddhist mobs – it was to integrate the Myanmar Rohingya into Myanmar. The Islamist mission thrives on despair and anger.
Wierdly, Suu Kyi accused aid workers of supporting terrorism – by supplying biscuits. It was like a mad old lady shouting, ‘You gave them the biscuits! I saw you!’ (Apologies to mad old ladies everywhere.)
Myanmar claimed that they’d responded to the insurgent attack, but apparently the military had been busy destabilising the area by arming and training local Buddhists in the weeks before Annan’s final report was due. The insurgents claimed that their action was a response to that provocation.
It was clear that the military had no intention of allowing Annan’s recommendations to be implemented. Through intelligence, or the use of planted provacateurs, they must have expected the insurgency that gave them the pretext for the massive ethnic cleansing operation that followed.
In a clear resumption of ethnic cleansing, an estimated40,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh after the violence erupted a week ago. (Within a month, the number increased to over 580,000.) Many Rohingya drowned trying to cross a river to reach Bangladesh.
Suu Kyi said in a statement, ‘I would like to commend the members of the police and security forces who have acted with great courage in the face of many challenges’. Wow.
UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said that ‘decades of persistent and systematic human rights violations, including the very violent security responses to the attacks since October 2016‘ had contributed to the insurgency that sparked the latest vicious crackdown.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stuck his oar in, accusing Myanmar of genocide. Erdoğan’s own record on human rights isn’t great. For instance, he’s been accused of orchestrating the genocide of Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Erdoğan’s intervention at least helped to keep the story in the news.
The UN security council met behind closed doors to discuss the violence but there was no formal statement. UN secretary-general António Guterres said in a statement that he was ‘deeply concerned by the reports of excesses during the security operations conducted by Myanmar’s security forces in Rakhine State’.
So far so good, but Guterres’s conclusion was: ‘The current situation underlines the urgency of seeking holistic approaches to addressing the complex root causes of violence.’ Oh-oh, António. That was weak – and weaselly. The situation actually underlined the urgency of helping the Rohingya by stopping the state violence.
The statement’s conclusion may have been a respectful reference to the complex and nuanced recommendations of Annan’s commission (see August 2017, above), but coming from the UN head in that desperate context, it sounded disappointingly like a queasy combination of the weaselly Myanmar government spokesperson speaking of ‘efforts to solve the issues in a holistic manner’ (see June 2017, above) and slippery US president Donald Trumpsaying that the vehicle-attack murder of a protester by a White Supremacy supporter indicated ‘blame on many sides‘.
The UN may have been unable to intervene on its own account, true, but its secretary-general needed to show some leadership.
The UN increased its estimate of those forced to flee to Bangladesh from 40,000 to 58,000. Then it was 70,000. Then, 87,000. Then over 120,000. Then 160,000. Tens of thousands were said to be stranded near the border.
The Myanmar military blamed Muslims for the burning of thousands of homes. But Human Rights Watch, having analysed satellite imagery and accounts from Rohingya refugees, said the Myanmar security forces deliberately set the fires.
Myanmar allowed some journalists an accompanied visit to an affected area. They inadvertently saw new fires in an abandoned village. An ethnic Rakhine villager said that police and Rakhine Buddhists set the fires. About ten Rakhine men with machetes were seen there.
Perhaps feeling the pressure, Suu Kyi spoke to the world – and sounded a bit less like a robot. She told Delhi news agency Asian News International:
‘We are implementing recommendations given by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan as quickly as possible to create harmony and peace in the Rakhine state. Our recommendation is harmony and we shall be addressing it quickly.’
Needless to say, she spoiled it by continuing to characterise the current vicious ethnic cleansing as a legitimate anti-terrorist clearing operation. She didn’t mention the Rohingya forced to flee their homes.
The UN increased its estimate of the number of Rohingyas who had fled to Bangladesh in the previous two weeks to over 270,000.
Invoking the 1982 law was clearly an obstructive tactic. Regarding that law, a former UN human rights ‘special rapporteur’ said:
‘The Government of Myanmar should consider the revision of the 1982 Citizenship Law to abolish its burdensome requirements for citizenship. The law should not apply its categories of second-class citizenship, which have discriminatory effects on racial or ethnic minorities, particularly the Rakhine Muslim population. It should be brought into line with the principles embodied in the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness of 30 August 1961.’
Human Rights Watch has urged the Myanmar government to repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law (or else amend it in accordance with the recommendations of the UN special rapporteur) and to grant all Rohingya full citizenship and rights.
The UN security council, which includes Myanmar supporters Russia and China, was reported to have:
‘expressed concern about reports of excessive violence during the security operations and called for immediate steps to end the violence in Rakhine, de-escalate the situation, re-establish law and order, ensure the protection of civilians, restore normal socio-economic conditions, and resolve the refugee problem.’
(International news agency Reuters reported this as a security council statement. UK ambassador to the UN Michael Rycroft was reported as saying that it was the first time in nine years that the council had agreed a statement on Myanmar. However, I couldn’t find the statement on the security council website. I asked them about it. They said that it wasn’t a formal statement but was in remarks by the UK ambassador after a closed meeting. I asked Rycroft and Reuters about this. They haven’t replied.)
Amnesty International revealed new evidence of a scorched-earth campaign, with Myanmar security forces and vigilante mobs burning down entire Rohingya villages and shooting people at random as they tried to flee.
Following intensive pressure from campaign groups, including the excellent (and presumably ironically named) Burma Campaign UK, UK premier Theresa Mayannounced that the UK would suspend the training of Burmese military.
Speaking at the UN general assembly in New York, May said the UK would end all engagement with the Burmese military until military action against civilians in Rakhine state had stopped.
The US ambassador to the UN called on countries to suspend weapons supplies to Myanmar until the military had put accountability measures in place.
The ambassador said that Myanmar’s ‘brutal, sustained campaign to cleanse the country of an ethnic minority’ meant that ‘those who have been accused of committing abuses should be removed from command responsibilities immediately and prosecuted for wrongdoing.’
The US – apparently keen to counter China’s influence in resource-rich Myanmar – stopped short of threatening to resume the sanctions dropped under the Obama regime.
Myanmar told the United Nations refugee agency that its – Myanmar’s – top priority was to bring back Rohingyas who’d fled to Bangladesh. A Myanmar government minister said:
‘The repatriation process can start any time for those who wish to return to Myanmar. The verification of refugees will be based on the agreement between the Myanmar and Bangladesh governments in 1993.’
This was presumably a reference to the 250,000 Rohingya refugees who, in the early 1990s, fled to Bangladesh from forced labour, rape and religious persecution at the hands of the Burmese army. They were brutally repatriated to Burma, a process shamefully overseen by the UN.
This time, many refugees fled with nothing, but even if they had verification documents, many were wary about returning without an assurance of full citizenship, without which they’d face the same persecution and curbs they’ve endured for years. A Rohingya refugee said:
‘If we go there, we’ll just have to come back here. If they give us our rights, we will go, but people did this before and they had to return.’
Bangladesh announced that it would build one of the world’s biggest refugee camps to house all the 800,000-plus Rohingya Muslims who’d sought asylum from violence in Myanmar. (This would include the estimated 300,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to Bangladesh during earlier violence.)
Bangladeshi authorities planned to expand a refugee camp at Kutupalong near the border town of Cox’s Bazar to accommodate the Rohingya. 400 hectares (1,000 acres) had been set aside for the new camp next to the existing camp.
On her return from a UN meeting in New York, Bangladeshi premier Sheikh Hasina Wazedpromised to help the Rohingya, offering – somewhat unconvincingly – to eat only one meal a day if necessary.
However, she ruined this saintly image of pity, generosity and self-sacrifice by blithely adding (in confirmation of the announcement made a month ago) that Bangladesh was planning to build temporary shelters for the Rohingya on an island, with the help of international aid agencies. She praised the aid agencies for their support.
The island was Thengar Char (recently renamed Bhasan Char, also known as Char piya). Wazed first planned to forcibly move the Rohingya refugees to this island in January 2017. (See above).
Bhasan Char was formed about a decade ago by sediment from a river. With no roads or flood defences, it was used sporadically by fishermen and by farmers seeking to graze their animals. It regularly flooded during the June-September monsoons and, when seas were calm, pirates kidnapped fishermen for ransom.
The Bangladeshi government said a month ago that they’d establish a 2,000-acre camp near Cox’s Bazar to house 250,000 Rohingya. So the 1,000-acre camp now planned will presumably house 125,000 people – not the 800,000 claimed in the recent announcement.
The government was speeding up work at Bhasan Char with a view to building a 10,000-acre facility that could house hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
As the originally planned 2,000-acre camp near Kutupalong was meant to house 250,000 people, the 10,000-acre camp planned for the island would presumably hold up to 1,250,000 people – that is, all the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh
Clearly Bangladesh was planning to move all the Rohingya refugees to the remote and barren island detention camp until such a time as they could be returned to Myanmar (which, the way things were going, looked like never).
Once the troublesome refugees had been moved, Cox’s Bazar, with its world’s longest unbroken beach, could be further developed for tourism. Kerching!
An excellent February 2017 article shed light on this murky plan.
When the island first appeared eleven years ago, it was considered as a possible solution to Bangladesh’s land scarcity. But because most of the island is submerged during the monsoon season; and because trafficking routes converge around the island, and criminals roam its waters, talk of populating it died out.
Then in January 2017, the government issued an order directing officials to relocate Rohingya refugees to the island. A district administrator estimated that the island, about 116 square miles, might support as many as 50,000 Rohingya.
Some officials expressed misgivings. A forestry department official involved in planting mangroves on the island said:
‘The ground is too soft to support sturdy structures, and the weather changes erratically. In my opinion, it is not habitable.’
According to the February 2017 report, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said of the planned relocation:
‘This is a human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making, and the Bangladesh government should be ashamed for even considering it, much less asking for a budget for it from every international donor they come across. What Bangladesh is really proposing is to put the Rohingya out of sight and out of mind on an island, and hope they are forgotten by the international community.’
The February 2017 report also said that UN refugee agency UNHCR recommended that any relocation plan be carried out through a consultative and voluntary process, after its feasibility has been assessed.
UNHCR Bangladesh representative Shinji Kubo said that a better plan would be to simply register and document the Rohingya in Bangladesh no matter where they were. Kubo said:
‘This helps the government to know who is on its soil, and helps humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance to those who need it.’
If Bangladesh’s fascistic plan was to be stopped by aid agency opposition, the opposition of UNHCR would be needed. UNHCR representative Kubo, a proactive hustler for human rights, would perhaps do the right thing, and oppose the plan.
The UN was recently accused of taking a long-term political view in Myanmar and down-playing the urgent Rohigya issue. A leaked memo (there’s always a leaked memo) suggested a central policy creep heading in that direction, making normal UN activity ‘disfunctional’.
As an agency that relies on governments’ cooperation to do its work, UNDP has historically avoided confronting governments that commit abuses. That has led to a culture of silence, and to allegations that the UN has been complicit in atrocities, from Myanmar to Sri Lanka.
A UN report, entitled The Role of the United Nations in Rakhine state, was commissioned by (UNDP-appointed) resident coordinator Renata Lok-Dessallien – and was then supressed by her when she didn’t like its conclusions.
Lok-Dessallien was accused of preventing discussion of the Rohingya crisis at UN meetings. The UN closed ranks and responded angrily and defensively to the criticism. However, Lok-Dessallien was conveniently ‘rotated’ out of the way. Or rather she was supposed to be. Several months later Lok-Dessallien was still there, the Myanmar government having rejected her proposed successor.
The UN eventually got Norwegian Knut Ostby accepted as interim resident coordinator. The appointment of a temporary placeholder was expected after Myanmar blocked an upgrade of the UN Myanmar chief from resident coordinator to assistant secretary-general.
Suu Kyi had told diplomats that she was frustrated with the UN’s human rights arm. Bless. Still, she’d be OK with another UNDP placeperson in charge.
Another sign of the UN being too cooperative with Myanmar was the news that the report by the UN food agency that Rohingya children were ‘wasting’ (see July 2017, above) had been shelved at Myanmar’s request.
The July assessment by the World Food Programme warned that more than 80,000 children under the age of five living in majority-Muslim areas were ‘wasting’ — a potentially fatal condition of rapid weight loss.
Anyone wondering why the UN sometimes seems too compliant with the Myanmar government should remember: the USA is the UN’s chief paymaster – and the USA is competing with China to tap into Myanmar’s rich but undeveloped natural resources.
Suu Kyi, sounding almost human, announced plans to set up a new Myanmar civilian-led agency which with foreign assistance, she said, would deliver relief and would help to resettle Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, as well as implement projects in the region. Hmmm.
DEC said that as they’re an umbrella charity, decisions on appeal names have to be made collectively by all the charities involved – 13 in this case.
DEC said that some member charities, particularly the few allowed to continue operating in Rakhine state, were concerned that naming the Rohingya would cause difficulties.
DEC also said that some member charities had concerns about the word ‘refugee’ – because Bangladesh hadn’t granted many of the displaced people refugee status.
This is design by committee gone mad. DEC told me that decisions are made by consenus. But DEC, whilst posing as a neutral coordinator, is actually more powerful than that. Its umbrella appeals boost money and profile for its member charities.
DEC should have had the balls, the common sense and the integrity to insist on the use of the words ‘Rohingya‘ and ‘refugee‘.
The vast majority of the ‘people fleeing Myanmar’ are Rohingya; and whatever Bangladesh says, they’re clearly all refugees.
Not calling them Rohingya looks like collusion with Myanmar’s pre-genocidal attempt to deny their existence. Not calling them refugees looks like collusion with Bangladesh’s heartless reluctance to grant refugee status.
Also, less well informed potential donors who’d heard about Rohingya refugees in the news might have glanced at the advert, not realised what the appeal was for – and might not have donated.
Nevertheless, dear (UK) reader, please donate. Every little helps.
A UN report says that the Myanmar military started deliberately destabilising the area before the ‘terrorist insurrection’. (See August 2017, above.) The report highlighted a strategy to instil deep and widespread fear and trauma – physical, emotional and psychological – among the Rohingya population.
After the ‘insurrection’, brutal attacks against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State were well-organised, coordinated and systematic, with the intent of not only driving the population out of Myanmar but preventing them from returning to their homes.
Efforts were taken to effectively erase signs of memorable landmarks in the geography of the Rohingya landscape and memory in such a way that a return to their lands would yield nothing but a desolate and unrecognizable terrain.
Myanmar security forces targeted teachers, cultural and religious leaders, and other people of influence in the Rohingya community in an effort to diminish Rohingya history, culture and knowledge.
Security forces torched dwellings and entire villages, were responsible for extrajudicial and summary executions, rape and other forms of sexual violence, torture and attacks on places of worship.
Megaphones were used to announce:
‘You do not belong here – go to Bangladesh. If you do not leave, we will torch your houses and kill you.’
The International Criminal Court (ICC) – based in the city of The Hague in the Netherlands (also known as Holland) in north-west Europe – only has autonomous jurisdiction in countries that have signed the Rome statute that established the ICC in 1998 – and Myanmar isn’t a signatory.
However, the ICC can also have jurisdiction anywhere – if it’s authorized by the UN security council.
In the 1990s, during the preparatory work by the UN to establish the ICC, the security council established two ad hoc international criminal tribunals.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established in 1993 following massive violations of humanitarian law during fighting in that region. It was the first war-crimes court created by the UN and the first international war-crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals at the end of the Second World War.
US secretary of state (top foreign policy official) Rex Tillerson said that the USA held Myanmar’s military leadership responsible for its harsh crackdown on the Rohingya. He said:
‘The world can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area, We really hold the military leadership accountable for what’s happening.’
Fine words, Mr Secretary. But standing idly by was apparently exactly what the USA planned to do. Tillerson stopped short of saying that the USA would take action against Myanmar’s military leaders. The USA has established close ties with Myanmar in the face of competition from strategic rival China.
The USA has form for cosying up to murderous regimes for strategic reasons. Remember US-backed mass-murderer, embezzler and Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet?
In any case, Myanmar allies Russia and China would probably block any move to establish a tribunal for Myanmar, so – for now – war criminal Hlaing goes free.
Justifying Israeli arms sales to Myanmar, an Israeli New York senior diplomat ridiculously told Jewish human rights group T’ruah (who’d protested against arms sales to a regime carrying out brutal ethnic cleansing against a minority population) that ‘the two sides in the conflict are conducting war crimes‘.
Oh well, that’s alright, then! The diplomat’s response was a wierd combinanation of stupidity, admission and arrogance.
It was stupid in that an attack on armed border posts by a handful of badly armed insurgents can’t by any stretch of imagination be described as a war crime.
The diplomat seemed to be admitting that Israel’s arms customer, the Myanmar military, had committed war crimes.
The diplomat’s response was arrogant in the manner of all Israeli defence pronouncements. Israel will do whatever they need to do – the world can like it or lump it. So one of Israel’s arms customers has committed war crimes – so what?
The UN security council finally managed to make a statement about the Rohingya crisis. The statement began:
‘The Security Council strongly condemns the widespread violence that has taken place in Rakhine State, Myanmar, since 25 August, which has led to the mass displacement of more than 607,000 individuals, the vast majority belonging to the Rohingya community.
‘The Security Council further expresses grave concern over reports of human rights violations and abuses in Rakhine State, including by the Myanmar security forces, in particular against persons belonging to the Rohingya community, including those involving the systematic use of force and intimidation, killing of men, women, and children, sexual violence, and including the destruction and burning of homes and property.’
The statement called on the government ‘to ensure no further excessive use of military force in Rakhine state, to restore civilian administration and apply the rule of law.’
The statement was watered down by Myanmar ally China. They weakened the language on citizenship rights and rejected a demand that Myanmar allow a UN human rights mission into the country. But at least they agreed to the highly critical statement – as did Myanmar’s other security council ally, Russia.
Russia was being pressed by its Muslim-majority republic of Chechnya to abandon its military and diplomatic support for the Myanmar regime.
Myannar’s response was to criticise the UN statement, saying that it ‘could potentially and seriously harm the bilateral negotiations between the two countries which have been proceeding smoothly and expeditiously’.
Perhaps any lack of negotiating smoothness is actually due to Myanmar insisting that those returning must be verified, and Bangladesh refusing to register the refugees.
A statement issued after the recent ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit in Manila attended by Suu Kyi mentioned the importance of humanitarian relief provided for victims of natural disasters in Vietnam and a recent urban battle with Islamist militants in the Philippines, as well as ‘affected communities’ in northern Rakhine state, but made no mention of the exodus of Rohingya Muslims.
However, Suu Kyi did apparently give an assurance about the return of refugees, after two unnamed ASEAN leaders raised the issue during a plenary session. According to a Philippines presidential spokesperson, Suu Kyi said:
‘The process of repatriation of IDPs [internally displaced persons] will conclude within three weeks after a signing of a memorandum of agreement for understanding with Bangladesh.’
Suu Kyi has benefited from ASEAN’s policy of non-interference – but when she led the fight for democracy in Myanmar two decades ago, she opposed that policy.
In a 1999 editorial in Thailand’s The Nation newspaper Suu Kyi said that ASEAN’s policy of non-interference was ‘just an excuse for not helping’. ‘In this day and age,’ she wrote, ‘you cannot avoid interference in the matters of other countries.
Bangladesh signed a deal with Myanmar to return the Rohingya. Myanmar’s conditions of return remained unclear, and many Rohingya were understandably terrified of being sent back.
Myanmar military head and war criminal Min Aung Hlaingtold US secretary of state Rex Tillerson that ‘the Bengalis’ could return to Myanmar only if ‘real citizens’ accepted them – meaning Rakhine Buddhists.
A joint working group was due to be set up within three weeks. Bangladesh said that an arrangement for repatriation ‘will be concluded in a speedy manner’ and the return of the refugees should start within two months.
Aid groups scrambled to respond to Myanmar’s controversial plans to create new internment camps for displaced Rohingya.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch called Myanmar’s camp proposal ‘a human rights disaster‘. Robertson said:
‘The international community will rue the day if they decide to go along with this plan…for an open-air Rohingya prison, surrounded by barbed wire, hostile security forces and hateful Rakhine communities. The international community should boycott this proposal and demand that the right to return means going back to the locations where people lived before this latest wave of ethnic cleansing, and rebuilding there.’
A spokesman for the office of the UN resident coordinator in Myanmar said: ‘The return of IDPs and refugees should be voluntary and to the places of origin where they have the highest prospect of rebuilding their lives.’
Fine words, but note the UN representative’s avoidance of the name ‘Rohingya‘, favouring Suu Kyi’s terminology: IDPs (internally displaced persons). It seemed that the new UN resident coordinator was following in the footsteps of his predecessor by downplaying human rights issues and sucking up to the Junta.
The UN’s weak approach had apparently resulted in it being sidelined by Myanmar in their plan to imprison the Rohingya. The worst outcome would be a rerun of the disastrous 1990s scenario: brutally forced repatriation, shamefully overseen by the UN.
During his visit to Myanmar, Pope Francis, like Suu Kyi, disappointed the watching world by failing to speak up for the Rohingya. He took the advice of weaselly prelates not use the word ‘Rohingya’ in case Myanmar’s catholics might be put at risk.
He made a vague and waffling reference to minorities, but was shamefully silent on the plight of the Rohingya.
The rape of Rohingya women by Myanmar security forces was sweeping and methodical, according to a report by Associated Press (AP).
AP interviwed 29 women and girls who’d fled to Bangladesh. They were from several refugee camps, and were interviewed separately and extensively. Ranging in age from 13 to 35, they described assaults between October 2016 and mid-September.
The interviewees recounted experiences of sexual assault by troops that revealed a sickening sameness and a distinct pattern to the abuse. The horrific accounts typically involve the murder of men, children and babies, and the gang-rape of women.
The testimonies support the UN’s contention that Myanmar’s armed forces were systematically employing rape. UN special representative on sexual violence Pramila Pattensaid that sexual violence was used as a ‘calculated tool of terror to force targeted populations to flee‘.
Bangladeshi government health officer Dr Misbah Uddin Ahmed said the women who managed to overcome their fear and make it to his clinics were usually the ones in the deepest trouble. Many others suffered in silence, he said.
Doctors and aid workers were said to be stunned at the sheer volume of rapes, and to suspect that only a fraction of raped women had come forward. Médecins Sans Frontières doctors had treated 113 sexual violence survivors since August, a third of them under 18. The youngest was nine.
When journalists asked about rape allegations during a government-organised trip to Rakhine in September, Rakhine State minister for security and border affairs Colonel Phone Tint said:
‘These women were claiming they were raped, but look at their appearances — do you think they are that attractive to be raped?’
The use of sexual violence by Myanmar’s security forces isn’t new. Before she became Myanmar’s civilian leader, Suu Kyi herself condemned military abuses. In a video message to a 2011Nobel Women’s Initiative conference in Montebello, Canada, she said:
‘Rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and to divide our country.’
But the new Suu Kyi dismissed accounts of systematic rape as lies. In December 2016, her government department issued a press release disputing Rohingya women’s reports of sexual assaults, accompanied by an image showing the words ‘Fake Rape.’
Surveys by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Bangladeshi refugee camps indicated that at least 6,700 Rohingya were estimated to have been killed (many more than Myanmar’s official figure of 400). This included at least 730 children below the age of five.
According to MSF, some 4,625 people were killed by gunshots, 600 were burnt to death in their houses, and 335 were beaten to death.
UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein – the only top UN official to unreservedly criticize Myanmar – dramatically announced his decision not to seek a second term in September 2018.
‘To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication, muting a statement of advocacy, or lessening the independence and integrity of my voice.’
It was uncertain whether Hussein’s boss, UN secretary general António Guterres, would support him seeking a second term – or whether the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN security council would use their influence to block it. Hussein had criticised them all.
Besides denouncing the Chinese-backed government of Myanmar, Hussein had critised the Russian-backed government of Syria, US president Trump’s travel ban on citizens of Muslim-majority countries and Trump’s response to US white supremacist demonstrations.
After his recent call for those responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya to be held to account, Hussein apparently tried (and presumably failed) to get the UN to investigate those crimes.
Hussein, the first human rights chief from the Middle East, is a sharp critic of violations by Arab governments; a Muslim who condemned Islamist militants; and a Jordanian prince who discarded his title to take the job and become an advocate for victims.
Hussein’s reference to ‘the current geopolitical context‘ confirmed the toothlessness of the UN, which is largely funded and controlled by the USA. UN agencies trying to uphold fundamental human rights were apparently deeply worried about US president Trump’s rhetoric on key issues, from migrants to torture – and the consequent prospect of a post-human-rights world.
It was still not too late for our former human rights heroine Suu Kyi to redeem herself and restore some balance by speaking out on behalf of the Rohingya – and all other oppressed people. You could have done it, Suu.
Hello? Ethnic cleansing? War crimes? Crimes against humanity? Possible genocide? Anyone?
The awkward silence from the world community shamed the United Nations. It might be thought that because the UN was behaving like a toothless tiger, it didn’t have the constitutional right to intervene – but it did have the right.
A 2005 UN world summit meeting agreed that all countries have a shared responsibility to prevent and respond to the most serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The summit agreed that the principle of state sovereignty carried with it the obligation of the state to protect its own citizens. However, if a state was unable or unwilling to do so, the international community was empowered to intervene. The summit outcome document says:
‘…we are prepared to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.’
To its great shame, the UN never has taken such action – and probably never will.
The only viable solution was for an autonomous region to be given to the Rohingya by Myanmar, and perhaps Bangladesh. This solution was suggested in a 2015 book chapter by Anthony Ware (senior lecturer at Deakin University, Melbourne, and former director of the Australia Myanmar Institute).
In the conclusion to his chapter, Ware argued that:
‘…the Rakhine State conflict should not be treated as a special case completely independent from the broader discussions about national identities and possible semi-autonomous and federal state arrangement to ensure the voice of minorities in their own affairs… both Rakhine and so-called ‘Rohingya’ need to be part of this process if peace is to be achieved.’
(Ware’s expression “so-called ‘Rohingya’” looks bad, but I hope it’s a pedantic reference to the uncertain origins of the name, rather than a clichéd expression of anti-Rohingya propaganda. Ware’s well researched chapter shows an unusally balanced and impartial point of view.)
A semi-autonomous and federal state arrangement could be implemented by Myanmar and, perhaps, Bangladesh. Interested superpowers the USA, China and Russia could urge them to do that. It’d bring peace and stability to the region, and would therefore be in everyone’s interest.
Bill Richardson, a seasoned US diplomat and friend of Suu Kyi, resigned from an international panel set up by Suu Kyi to advise on the Rohingya crisis. The panel was set up last year to advise on implementing the findings of the Annan commission. See August and September, 2017, above.)
Richardson, a former adviser to the US Clintonadministration, had known Suu Kyi for decades, and visited her while she was under house arrest in the 1990s. Richardson claimed that the panel was a ‘whitewash‘ and accused Suu Kyi of lacking ‘moral leadership‘.
Suu Kyi had been ‘furious’ when he raised the case of two Reuters reporters on trial in Myanmar. The journalists had been charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act (a left-over British colonial law) while covering the Rohingya crisis.
Suu Kyi ‘exploded‘ at Richardson when he mentioned the journalists, he told the New York Times. ‘Her face was quivering, and if she had been a little closer to me, she might have hit me, she was so furious,’ Richardson said.
Richardson, who was acting in a non-official personal capacity, told Reuters that he’d resigned from the advisory board because it was a ‘whitewash‘, and he didn’t want to be part of a ‘cheerleading squad for the government‘.
He was ‘alarmed by the lack of sincerity with which the critical issue of citizenship was discussed,’ he wrote in a statement. Annan had emphasised this issue in his report, which had a positive reception from the Myanmar government. (See above.)
Richardson’s account alarmingly implied that Annan’s commission was a cynical ploy by Myanmar to deflect international criticism; and that Suu Kyi had broken her promise of harmony
Further light was shed on Suu Kyi’s attitude by an excellent BBC collection of the things Suu Kyi had said – from her idealistic Nobel prize speech to her more recent weaselly pronouncements.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHR), the number of refugees registered since 25 August was 688.000. The OHCR report said this was causing suffering on a catastrophic scale. Did you read that, Suu?
Reutersreported that Bangladesh planned to relocate 100,000 Rohingya refugees to a flood-prone and uninhabitable island. Premier Sheikh Hasina absurdly described the island as ‘very nice’.
British and Chinese engineers were helping to prepare the island to receive refugees before the onset of monsoon rains. Plans showed metal-roofed, brick buildings raised on pylons and fitted with solar panels. There were due to be 1,440 blocks, each housing 16 families.
Bangladeshi premier Sheikh Hasina first planned to forcibly move Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugees to the island, Bhasan Char (originally called Thengar Char, also known as Char piya) in January 2017. (See above).
Bhasan Char, a flood-prone island formed in the Bay of Bengalabout a decade ago by sediment from a river, has been used sporadically by fishermen and by farmers grazing their animals. It regularly floods during the April-September monsoons. Pirates operate in that area and kidnap fishermen for ransom.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertsonsaid in February 2017 of the planned relocation:
‘This is a human rights and humanitarian disaster in the making, and the Bangladesh government should be ashamed for even considering it, much less asking for a budget for it from every international donor they come across. What Bangladesh is really proposing is to put the Rohingya out of sight and out of mind on an island, and hope they are forgotten by the international community.’
In October 2017 Hasina confirmed that Bangladesh was planning to build temporary shelters for the Rohingya on the island with the help of international aid agencies. (See above).
Explaining the new announcement, prime ministerial political adviser Hossain Toufique Imam said that once there, the Rohingya would only be able to leave the island if they wanted to go back to Myanmar or were selected for asylum by a third country. ‘It’s not a concentration camp, but there may be some restrictions’. he added. The island would have a police encampment with 40-50 armed personnel.
Imam said that the question of selecting Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar to move to the island had not been finalised, but it could be decided by lottery or on a voluntary basis.
At a news conference in Dhaka, premier Hasina said of the island, ‘from a natural point of view it is very nice‘. Riiiight. Hasina said that although the initial plan was to put 100,000 people there, it had room for as many as 1 million. She said that this was a temporary arrangement to ease congestion at Cox’s Bazar. She didn’t mention her concerns about the refugees’ impact on tourism at the Cox’s Bazar holiday resort.
US magazine Timereported that more than 43,000 Rohingya parents were lost, presumed dead since Myanmar’s military crackdown last August, according to the summary of a fact-finding mission to Bangladesh by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
This far exceeded Myanmar’s official figure of 400 Rohingya killed, and Médecins Sans Frontières’ December estimate of 6,700 killed.
Based on surveys of refugees in Bangladesh, 28,300 Rohingya children had lost at least one parent, while an additional 7,700 children had lost both parents, according to APHR, citing data from the Bangladeshi government. That put the estimate of ‘lost’ parents as high as 43,700.
Reutersreported that Bangladesh, having failed to get support from aid agencies (despite premier Hasina, in October 2017, prematurely praising aid agencies for their help), was paying the $280m cost of building homes on flood-prone island Bhasan Char, and of fortifying the island against monsoon flooding and cyclones.
An earlier report revealed the involvement of Chinese construction company Sinohydro – better known for building China’s disastrous Three Gorges Dam – and British engineering and environmental hydraulics consultancy HR Wallingford, the privatised government establishment formerly known as the Hydraulics Research Station. (Neo-liberalism rules! Create a useful public institution paid for by tax, then privatise it because of dodgy 1980s economic theory, so that it can then profit – with minimal oversight – from the dodgy plans, rejected by all NGOs, of a dodgy premier.)
A Reuters graphic explained the development of the island.
A Bangladeshi minister said that no refugees would be moved against their will. This was an improvement on the earlier suggestion of a possible lottery to decide who would be moved.
‘The prosecution seeks … to verify that the court has territorial jurisdiction when persons are deported from the territory of a state which is not a party to the Statute directly into the territory of a state which is a party to the Statute.’
The ICC doesn’t have a great track record and lacks international support. The USA, Russia and China haven’t joined, and continue to obstruct its functioning in the UN security council. It has no enforcement officers – it relies on signatory countries carrying out their own arrests. It didn’t look hopeful – but at least Bensouda was signalling that war criminal General Hlaing was a wanted man.
It was reported that senior diplomats from each of the 15 UN security council member states would travel to Bangladesh and Myanmar.
The ambassadors were due to visit refugee camps in Bangladesh before meeting Suu Kyi and going by helicopter to Rakhine state,
In an attempt to restore her battered reputation, Suu Kyi also agreed to allow UN human rights and development organisations to enter Myanmar to prepare the ground for the large-scale return of Rohingya Muslims.
The presidential election last month of Win Myint, a close Suu Kyi ally and a more assertive figure than his predecessor, was said to have strengthened Suu Kyi’s position.
Maybe there was hope for our former heroine – and for the 1m Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh – after all.
Super-traders and serial security council vetoers Russia and China could persuade their trading partner, the Myanmar junta, to implement a semi-autonomous federated region – to be overseen by UN peacekeepers – where the Rohingya refugees could rebuild their shattered and suspended lives. In the circumstances, issues of citizenship and military accountability could be deferred.
China, evidently not particularly interested in human rights but perhaps needing regional stability, moved sluggishly in the direction of helping the Rohingya refugees to return home.
Chinese rising star, foreign minister and powerful state councillor Wang Yi told Bangladesh foreign minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali at a bilateral meeting in Beijing that China would improve the resettlement environment in Rakhine State by helping with building houses and creating economic opportunities.
Amnesty and Reuters: Myanmar planned ethnic cleansing
Two new reports show that Myanmar planned the ethnic cleansing, and that the programme began before the 25 August attacks by Rohingya insurgent group ARSA.
In October 2017, a UN report found that the Myanmar military started deliberately destabilising the northern Rakhine State area before the ‘terrorist insurrection’. (See above.)
A new investigation by human rights NGO Amnesty Internationalconfirmed this in shocking detail. Amnesty’s report included detailed evidence showing that the Myanmar military subjected Rohingya men and boys to arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture in the weeks leading up to 25 August 2017.
The torture included beatings, burning, waterboarding and sexual violence, with the perpetrators trying to extract confessions or information about ARSA.
Myanmar military commander-in-chief and de-facto dictator Senior General Min Aung Hlaing ordered the deployment of shock troop battalions of the 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions (LIDs) to northern Rakhine State in August 2017. Amnesty International published a report in June 2017 showing that soldiers from the 33rd and 99th LIDs committed war crimes against civilians from ethnic minorities in northern Shan State.
The new Amnesty report implicated Hlaing and 12 other named individuals in crimes against humanity committed during the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State.
A separate investigation by international news agency Reuters, titled Tip of the Spear, confirmed Amnesty’s findings. Reuters presented evidence including social media posts by soldiers to show that hundreds of battle-hardened soldiers from the elite 33rd and 99th LIDs (referred to by Western military analysts as Myanmar’s ‘tip of the spear‘) flew into Northern Rakhine in early August, weeks before the ARSA ‘insurrection’.
Suu Kyi’s government said in a statement at the time that the deployment would bring ‘peace, stability and security‘. But the influx of heavily armed combat troops with a long history of human rights abuses had the opposite effect – it stoked fear and tension across a volatile region.
The Reuters report also showed the close link between those elite troops and war criminal Hlaing.
Following the JuneAmnesty and Reuters reports, Southeast Asian human rights NGO Fortify Rights produced its own independent report claiming that Myanmar made meticulous preparations for attacks against the Rohingya with ‘genocidal intent‘ in the weeks before last year’s purge.
The 162-page report, ‘They gave them long swords‘ was based on testimony from 254 survivors, officials and workers over a 21-month period. It named 22 military and police officers as directly responsible for the campaign, including war criminal General Hlaing.
Japan said that Myanmar had accepted a proposal to expedite the process of building modern villages for returning Rohingya.
At a meeting in Dhaka, Bangladeshi and Japanese foreign ministers Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali and Taro Kono discussed Japan’s five proposal for the quick and sustainable return of the Rohingya.
After the meeting, Ali said that Japan had agreed to provide the necessary support for the repatriation and resettlement of the Rohingyas. In a separate briefing, a Japanese spokesperson said that Kono had shared the five proposals with Myanmar, and that Myanmar ‘gladly accepted’ the proposals.
The Japanese spokesperson said that it was ‘very rare’ for a Japanese foreign minister to visit a country twice in a year. But Kono had visited Bangladesh and Myanmar twice in six months ‘because he saw some positive developments regarding the Rakhine State such as setting up independent enquiry commission by the Myanmar government and signing of the memorandum of understanding (MoU) between Myanmar and the UN agencies’.
The June 2018 MoU and Myanmar’s July 2018 ‘independent’ commission of enquiry have both been widely discredited. The secret MoU was rejected by Rohingya representatives and was criticised by NGOs. Myanmar said that the July commission of enquiry would ‘investigate the allegations of human rights violations‘, but chair Rosario Manalo (an obscure Philippine diplomat) said that there would be ‘no blaming of anybody’.
Rising star Kono has been described as a ‘maverick’ politician. His misplaced enthusiasm for the failed MoU and the useless commission perhaps showed the downside of a maverick mind.
Konos’s five proposals urged Myanmar to:
Fully cooperate with the independent commission of enquiry [presumably a reference to the July 2018 commission].
Fully cooperate with UN agencies according to the MoU.
Close the camps for internally displaced persons in Myanmar.
Expedite the process of building modern villages.
Conduct regular briefings in Rohingya refugee camps about the steps being taken to enable their safe return.
The Japanese spokesperson’s enthusiastic claim that the proposals were ‘glady accepted‘ was overblown. The Japanese foreign affairs website said that Suu Kyi ‘responded that she understood the importance of the prompt implementation of the proposals offered by Minister Kono, and that the Government of Myanmar would put them in execution.’
At a press conference after Kono’s meeting with her on 6 August 2018, Suu Kyi said, ‘Japan expressed its interest and discussed the Rakhine issue as a good friend who is trying to find out [how] to help solve our problem. We really value such an approach.’
However, given that Myanmar paymaster China had spoken recently about building houses (see June 2018, above), perhaps Myanmar was rethinking its plan to place returnees in camps.
The prospect for Rohingya refugees of new homes and villages in Myanmar was presumably better than Myanmar’s prison camps – or Bangladesh’s prison island.
The paper tiger roared! The UN’s fact-finding mission, despite being underpowered (see March 2017, above) and banned from Myanmar, delivered a damning report, saying that Myanmar leaders must be investigated for genocidal intent, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Genocidal intentis genocide according to the 1948 UN genocide convention, which defined genocide as the ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. This was codified in UN treaty 1021, which was ratified by Myanmar in 1949.
A BBC report explained the UN mission’s painstaking approach to its investigation, which also looked into rights abuses in Kachin and Shan states.
The UN report named, shamed and blamed the usual supects – including de facto dictator and war criminal General Min Aung Hlaing.
The report called for the UN security council to refer Hlaing and his gang to the International Criminal Court, or to create an ad hoc tribunal. Needless to say, when this was put to the council, Russia and China vetoed it.
The report accused Suu Kyi – and the civilian part of the government she controlled – of lying, denying, obstructing investigations, destroying evidence, and contributing to the atrocity. it said:
‘The State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has not used her de facto position as Head of Government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events, or seek alternative avenues to meet a responsibility to protect the civilian population. On the contrary, the civilian authorities have spread false narratives; denied the Tatmadaw’s wrongdoing; blocked independent investigations, including of the Fact-Finding Mission; and overseen destruction of evidence. Through their acts and omissions, the civilian authorities have contributed to the commission of atrocity crimes.’
Outgoing UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein (see above) said that Suu Kyi should have resigned last year. He told the BBC that she should have considered returning to house arrest rather than excusing the military.
Perhaps in a defiant response to the recent damning UN report (see above), a court in Yangon (Myanmar’s largest city, formerly its capital, also known as Rangoon) sentenced two Reuters journalists to seven years in prison on the trumped-up charge of stealing state secrets.
The Reuters journalists were charged under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act, created by the British colonial government in 1923 to criminalise the sharing of almost any kind of information held by the government. Under the act, the Myanmar government can say that any information is an official secret, and can thereby hide corruption and wrongdoing. Empire legacy had struck again.
The British government, accepting that the law violated freedom of expression, replaced their Official Secrets Act in 1989. The Myanmar junta clearly found the old repressive version just fine.
The two journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were investigating violence against the Rohingya when they were clumsily framed by the police. The Myanmar police force is, of course, controlled by war criminal General Hlaing.
In his ridiculous ruling, ‘judge’ U Ye Lwin said that the journalists ‘tried many times to get their hands on secret documents and pass them to others. They did not behave like normal journalists.’
The supreme court of Myanmar supposedly has supervisory powers over all Myanmar courts, and could therefore have righted the wrong. However, the chief justice of the supreme court, Htun Htun Oo, is an ex-military man.
The ruling was in reponse to the question put by ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda in April 2018 (see above) as to whether an investigation could proceed on the basis that although the alleged crime was committed in Myanmar – which isn’t a signatory to the ICC Rome treaty – the crime was, in effect, completed in Bangladesh, which is a signatory.
Bensouda’s question was about the ‘alleged’ criminal deportation of the Rohingya. However, the ICC judges’ ruling went further, saying that the court could also exercise its jurisdiction with regard to any other crime set out in the Rome statute, ‘such as the crimes against humanity of persecution and/or other inhumane acts‘.
The ICC was now due to begin an investigation, as a prelude to prosecution. This was likely to take many years, and – with the inevitable lack of cooperation from Myanmar – would be difficult to complete.
However, it was another important nail in the political coffins of human rights betrayer Suu Kyi and war criminal General Hlaing.
The US state (foreign affairs) department quietly released the results of its investigation into Myanmar’s military campaign against the Rohingya. The report detailed many atrocities but stopped short of calling the crackdown either genocide or crimes against humanity — two designations with legal ramifications.
The state department investigation, confirming what other reports have said (see above), found that Myanmar’s military operations were ‘well-planned and coordinated‘, suggesting the insurgent strike was little more than an excuse.
Genocide is still taking place against Rohingya Muslims remaining in Myanmar, according to UN investigators.
Marzuki Darusman, chair of the UN fact-finding mission on Myanmar (see above), told a news conference that thousands of Rohingya were still fleeing to Bangladesh, and the estimated 250,000 to 400,000 who have remained following last year’s brutal military campaign continue to suffer the most severe restrictions and repression. ‘It is an ongoing genocide,’ he told a news conference.
The first report was by US pro bono law firm and global NGO Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG), which worked with the US state (foreign affairs) department on their fact-finding report. The US state department stopped short of calling the violence genocide (see above). PILPG reviewed the same evidence as the state department, but undertook its own legal analysis to reach its conclusion: ‘…there are reasonable grounds to believe that genocide was committed against the Rohingya‘.
The USHMM report also warned that the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are still under threat of genocide, and called on the international community to prevent future atrocities and hold those responsible accountable.
Dr Rowley, besides being an accomplished photographer, is a human rights activist and advocate for the Rohingya. I contacted her about this post. She replied, saying that Suu Kyi is powerless to change anything because the military still control the government, and they continue to oppress the Rohingya and other minority groups.
Fair point, Doc, but even so, Suu Kyi’s attitude stinks. She has the world’s ear and, as the Dalai Lama has told her, could at least speak out on behalf of the Rohingya. Instead, she tells the UN that she won’t use their name.
This 2015 chapter by Dr Anthony Ware, senior lecturer in international and community development at Deakin University, Australia, from the book Territorial Separatism in Global Politics gives an excellent and fair perspective on the struggle. Ware presciently concludes that semi-autonomous and federal state arrangements may be needed to achieve peace.
This UK research centre aims to further the understanding of state crime, nicely defined as organisational deviance violating human rights. Penny Green, professor of law and globalisation at Queen Mary University, London, and a director of ISCI, said in the Economist article referenced above that the situation had reached stage four of ISCI’s six stages of genocide.
1. Stigmatisation and dehumanisation ✔
2. Harassment, violence and terror ✔
3. Isolation and segregation ✔
4. Systematic weakening of the group ✔
5. Mass annihilation
6. Erasure from the country’s history
Formulated by Daniel Feierstein in his book, Genocide as Social Practice, and adapted by ISCI (above). Feierstein is director of the Centre of Genocide Studies at the National University of Tres de Febrero, Buenos Aires. He gave his views on the legal difficulties of holding modern genocide perpetrators to account in this Logos article.
This US NGO co-ordinates the International Alliance to End Genocide, a coalition of 40 campaign groups. A Genocide Watch statement on the Rohingya said that Myanmar may have reached stages nine and ten of their ten stages of genocide.
Dave Lee Travis, also known as DLT, was a very successful UK BBC radio DJ and regular Top of the Pops TV presenter in the 1970s and 80s. On his popular weekend breakfast radio show he called himself The Hairy Cornflake.
In the 1980s and 90s Travis presented a BBC World Service music request show supposedly much enjoyed by Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest.
After her release in 2010, Suu Kyi spoke publicly of her regard for Travis. This charmingly incongruous pairing caught the UK public’s attention. Suu Kyi met Travis at the BBC in London. The reputation of both has suffered since that meeting.
DLT’s well known downfall: the little-known facts
After a high-profile arrest in 2012 by London Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yewtree, which was investigating historical allegations of sexual abuse by DJ Jimmy Savile and others, in 2013 Travis was charged (under his real name of David Griffin) with 14 offences.
In 2014 he was found not guilty on twelve counts, and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the remaining two counts. At a second trial he was found guilty of one count of indecent assault on a 22-year-old woman in 1995.
Travis was sentenced to three months imprisonment, suspended for two years. The judge said that the offences of other Yewtree convictees were of a different order of magnitude. Travis lost an appeal in 2015.
To cover his three-year legal costs, he sold his mansion and moved to a bungalow. He lost his commercial radio work when he was arrested. He says that as a result of the long, drawn-out legal process his wife’s health has suffered. (Send him a card, Suu. He’s paid his debt – and more.)
Or was it Bob?
Some say that Suu Kyi got her World Service presenters mixed up, and she was actually thinking of a similar show presented by Bob Holness, much-loved presenter of 80s UK TV teenage quiz show Blockbusters. In any case, at the time of Suu Kyi’s UK visit in 2010, Holness was very ill, and probably wouldn’t have been able to meet her. Sadly, he died in 2012, aged 83.
This 1967 McCartney song was a massive hit single worldwide and a track on side two of the US Magical Mystery Tour album. Featuring Paul’s experimental minimalist lyrics, it’s beautiful but underrated (especially by John, who thought his ‘I Am The Walrus‘, the single’s B side, should have been the A side).
Copyright Northern Songs, 1967. Title borrowed and mangled without permission. (Halo goodbye – geddit? Please yourself.)
The selfish gene
And the secret part
Of the sacred heart
The red cross breed
The holy seed
The human gravy’s
Sail on beyond the flood
It’s in the blood
She was just thirteen
The first blood came clean
The time was night
The moon was right
The women danced
Beneath the sky
The blossom trees grew high
Above the mud
It’s in the blood
In the month of May
The children play
The pipes of Pan
Who lost his honour
To the Black Madonna
Tried to own her
Became a blood donor
A sacrificial stud
It’s in the blood
Blood is thicker than water
Water turned to wine
The wine is the blood
The blood of the lamb
Will wash away your sins and mine
So wash your bloody linen
For everyone to see
Hang out the blood cloth
Of the Red Queen
Victorious in wonderland and me
The sun returns
The fire still burns
When the blood is shed
And the king is dead
The blood is the life
So give me the knife
Don’t give me that
Ol’ superficial crud
It’s in the blood
We’ll keep the red flag
The blood rag
We have no fear
Of Mother Russia
So brother hush your
Mouth a while
And walk a mile
In her shoes, Bud
It’s in the blood
Down the years
The hopes and fears
Of the human race
Have changed the face
Of the dreadful truth
So we say no sooth
But in the corner shops
Of the mind the penny drops
With a heavy thud
It’s in the blood
In which I make a fool of myself with two (or three) quite famous people, discover Laurel and Hardy in the UK’s Lake District, berate touchy creatives who complain about fame, and match UK TV characters Beverly from Abigail’s Party and Alan Partridge.
Updated December 2017
If you see a famous person in public, you recognise them, but you don’t know them. You might admire them for whatever they’ve done that made them famous. Should you speak to them, or should you pretend not to notice them out of respect for their privacy? The thing is, you do know them, in a way. It’s an etiquette conundrum for the reticent British.
In recent years, I’ve had two encounters with celebrities. Neither went well.
Encounter 1 A familiar face
On the first occasion, I saw maverick UK film director Mike Leigh on a street in London’s West End. He was walking towards me and my wife on a crowded pavement. I recognised his distinctive face, but I didn’t realise at the time who he was.
I thought he was someone I knew in real life, so I started to give a facial ‘hello!’ expression, and he – generously (or perhaps instinctively), given that he obviously didn’t know me at all – started to respond with a similar expression.
At that point, I suddenly realised that he was actually a famous person who I didn’t personally know; and that although I recognised him, I didn’t know who he was. We were getting closer. I changed my focus to somewhere over his shoulder, neutralised my expression and walked past him. Awkward.
It was a small room with two or three tables. Coogan and Reilly took off their country-style jackets and peaked caps, and sat at another table. They didn’t acknowledge us. I got the impression that perhaps they’d hoped to have the room to themselves.
We recognised them (although I had do some googling afterwards to get Reilly’s name), but we discreetly ignored them while we – and they – were eating, drinking and talking.
It was like a surreal version of Coogan and Rob Brydon‘s brilliant TV spoof restaurant tour of northern England, The Trip, but with Reilly instead of Brydon, and with us (accidentally) hearing only snatches of their conversation.
When we left I decided – emboldened by a couple of pints – to say something to them. Something amusing would be good, I thought. OK, actor-celebs want to be left alone when dining incognito. But deep down, don’t they want to be recognised? Loved, even? I was going to give them some love.
After the rest of our party had filed out, I stopped at the end of Coogan and Reilly’s table. They were deep in conversation. ‘Excuse me’, I said, ‘Sorry to interrupt you.’ They stopped talking and turned to look at me. They both looked wary.
I was going to ask Coogan, ‘Didn’t you used to be Steve Coogan?’ I thought that’d be an amusingly pseudo-stupid cliché. He’d get the joke, we’d have a laugh, and I’d go on my way. What I actually said to Coogan was, ‘Didn’t you used to be on TV?’
I don’t know why I said the wrong thing. I admire Coogan’s work, but I wasn’t particularly starstruck, so it wasn’t that. It was probably a combination of my sudden proximity to the intoxicating world of show business, my audacity tripping me up, and the beer. (And the large gin and tonic before that. Don’t worry – we had a designated driver.)
Anyway, what I actually said wasn’t amusingly pseudo-stupid – it was just stupid. I couldn’t correct myself – that would have made it worse. I could only let it lie. It lay heavily, like a fart in a lift.
Coogan and Reilly both looked – understandably – taken aback. They looked at each other. They shifted in their seats. Coogan said, ‘Er…’ He looked cornered, as if he was taking my question seriously but realised there was no way to answer it.
The atmosphere darkened. For a moment, I thought they might get up and attack me. (Reilly’s a big man who looks like he’s been in a few punch-ups; and Coogan had a dangerous look about him. I’m a big man, but I’m in bad shape*. I wouldn’t have fancied my chances.) Time seemed to have slowed down. Actually it had only been a second or two since I’d spoken.
‘Just kidding!’, I said lamely, smiling and making the universal peace gesture of outward palms. They seemed to relax a bit. ‘It’s nice here, isn’t it’, I added even more lamely, gesturing at the room. (It was a lovely little pub, with excellent food.) They looked relieved, and nodded in agreement. I think one of them said, ‘Yes, it is.’
It was a save, kind of. ‘Bye then!’, I said. I think one of them replied, ‘Yeah, bye’, as I turned and left (not too hastily, I’d like to think).
When I told our party about this awkward encounter, my sister (who’d hosted our meal and had rented our holiday cottage, and consequently felt even more entitled than usual to judge my behaviour) was horrified. Disgusted, even. She said I shouldn’t have done that. Annoyingly, she was right.
Postscript 1 Laurel and Hardy in the Lakes
I found out that Coogan and Reilly were making a BBC film, Stan and Ollie, about Laurel and Hardy‘s swansong 1953 UK tour. (Oliver Hardy became ill during the tour; he died four years later.) Stan Laurel was born in Ulverston in what’s now south Cumbria, so presumably that’s why Coogan and Reilly were in the area.
We saw a film crew in the square in Broughton-in-Furness (a small market town north of Ulverston). My sister thought she saw UK film and TV actor (and former Dr Who) Christopher Eccleston; and she overheard a technician in a shop complaining that he’d been waiting eight hours for a two-minute shoot. Show business!
Apparently Laurel and Hardy attended a civic reception at Ulverston’s Coronation Hall during their 1947 tour. They appeared on the balcony, and waved to a massive crowd in the square below. Laurel was presented with a copy of his birth certificate.
I thought that maybe the BBC film had spliced that event into the 1953 tour, and used Broughton-in-Furness as a stand-in for early 50s Ulverston.
However, apparently, Eccleston wasn’t filming Stan and Ollie, but was making a new series of Cumbria-set BBC drama The A Word. It was a coincidental glut of celebs (but, sadly, my sister didn’t accost Eccleston).
As it happened, Coogan and Reilly weren’t filming Stan and Ollie either. The film, due to be shot largely in the West Midlands and Bristol, had been delayed, and Coogan and Reilly took the opportunity to secretly visit the Laurel and Hardy museum in Ulverston. Apparently, Coogan has a holiday home near Coniston. Nice.
Anyway, I wish I’d known about the Stan and Ollie film at the time of my encounter with Coogan and Reilly. I could have attempted a brief, intelligent conversation about their project, instead of making my would-be-humorous interjection. I could have said, ‘It’s Laurel and Hardy, isnt it?’
Oh well. You always think afterwards about how an unsatisfactory encounter could have gone better. At least I didn’t ask for a selfie. I should have done, really.
The film, released in the UK in January 2019, got 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 75% on Metacritic. Not bad. One critic said, ‘…you feel like you’re beholding the real duo, so thoroughly concieved are the actors’ physicality and performances’. Reaching deep into my own extensive critical vocabulary, I’d say I thought it was really good. To my new almost-acquaintances Steve and John, I say: well done. (Just not well met.)
Postscript 2 Steve Garbo – the curse of fame
According to Wikipedia, Coogan likes to keep himself private, and has said ‘I have never wanted to be famous’.
Coogan’s proactive contribution to the UK Leveson Inquiry into illegal press intrusion was admirable and effective. His legal team forced an uber-hacker to say who instructed him to hack Coogan. Coogan got hundreds of thousands of pounds in damages from Mirror Group Newspapers after they – eventually – admitted hacking phones and covering up unlawful activities. (Kerching!)
But, ‘never wanted to be famous’? Really?
What did he think would happen when he worked hard to become a very successful TV comedian and film actor? If you succeed at that, you get famous. Job satisfaction, awards and peer-approval are all very well, but in that line of work fame is a true measure of your success. If Coogan ‘never wanted’ to be famous, he could have done something else.
Sensitive creatives who complain about fame probably did want it – craved it, even – but then couldn’t cope with it when they got it. That’s fair enough, but when they then publicly complain about their fame, it grates with the audience whose appreciation gave it to them.
Anyway, sorry, Steve, for adding my own rubbish intrusion. (I’ve emailed him via his production company, and invited him to read this. I don’t suppose he will, but you never know.)
Postscript 3 Beverly and Alan – a happy coincidence
It occurred to me that Mike Leigh and Steve Coogan have something in common apart from me having seen them in the flesh. They’ve both created brilliant but monstrous UK TV comic characters who expose the terrible cracks in the facade of working-class upward mobility.
Leigh’s roots are middle class and Coogan’s are working class. Leigh’s been accused of middle-class mockery and Coogan could be accused of working-class self-mockery, or, even worse, class betrayal.
(Yon Alan Partridge character is nowt but a lickspittle mockery, an’ a betrayal o’t’ working class an’ our rightful aspiration to better ourselves. Get thee gone, Steve lad, an’ never darken our door again.)
However, such criticism misses the point: the characters are funny because they’re true – exaggerated and enhanced, but fundamentally true. In both cases, the humour’s cruel but not mocking (or betraying) – rather, the characters’ vulnerabilities and pretentions are shown with painfully funny honesty.
(Sadly, Leigh and Coogan are not thought to be collaborating on anything any time soon.)
Thoughts after getting sacked from a temporary job at the Leicester, UK, HSBC call centre
Couldn’t hack it, got the sack. Monday morning won’t be back. Need to go to work – nowhere to go. (And oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go…)
It upset me. It was a crap job, so I don’t mind losing it, but getting fired was a bitter blow to my fragile male ego. Getting fired from a crap job!
(The reasons they gave didn’t ring true. I suspect age discrimination, illegal in the UK. So, yes, I’m doing something about it.)
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought: better find something to occupy my mind – and I did. The strangeness of the phrase, ‘Occupy your mind’, got me thinking.
The Occupy movement uses it as a clever slogan: Occupy your mind – think responsibly. But in everyday usage it’s not an instruction to occupy your own mind; you already do, obviously. It’s short for ‘Find something to…’
That’s a strange shortening, suggesting mental indolence addressed with military zeal. Stop that daydreaming! Wake up and (find something to) occupy your mind!
Why do you need to find something to occupy your mind? What’s wrong with your mind being occupied only by you?
Perhaps what’s wrong – apart from the tendency of the mind to brood disproportionately on the painful details of recent setbacks – is the risk that you’ll turn into the animal in you. The advice to keep your mind occupied or even preoccupied and to find a suitable occupation is meant to save you from your lower self.
Spookily anticipating the Occupy movement slogan, 16th-century Roman Catholic utopian philosopher Thomas Moore said, ‘Occupy your minds with good thoughts or the enemy will fill them with bad ones’. By ‘the enemy’, Moore meant, of course, the Devil who, as any fule kno, makes work for idle hands – and minds.
In our enlightened post-Darwin times we can take a less Moore-ish and more diplomatic approach to ‘the enemy’. We’ve got a lot of bad and baddish animal stuff going on – down there. Monsters from the id, if you like.
If you can face that stuff and give it a non-judgemental nod of acknowledgement from time to time, the bad stuff will behave itself, and you can live above it. (And – which is more – you’ll be an adult, my child.)
In which case, of course, we no longer need a mental occupant to distract us from our animal urges. They’ll be under humane control. More or less.
But we like being distracted; and now we’ve got a habit: media addiction. Let’s watch a movie…
I mean, we still need distraction from the things we have to cope with day-to-day using part of our minds:
Find shelter, pay for it, keep it clean
Get food, pay for it, prepare it, cook it
Ablute, wash, groom, exercise
Choose clothes, buy them
Choose clothes, wear them
Wash clothes, dry and fold them
Iron and put away
Have children: have no life
Go to work, get sacked…
For Om’s sake – give us a break.
We need mental distraction, entertainment, stimulation, a funny cat, anything. Hollywood, Bollywood, Nollywood, Netflix, YouTube, er, Tumblr, whatever, we need it. We deserve it. Bring it on. It can occupy our minds rent-free.
The field of mind occupancy studies got a boost recently when the research centre for neuromapping at the University of Salamanca in Spain announced the publication of a paper, Neuromapping patterns of mind occupancy by Carles Escera and Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa.
The paper includes in an appendix the following illustrative poem by Cadenza Prize winner Hugo Brucciani.
occupancy and occupation
by hugo brucciani
occupancy of the mind by
a lodger who is welcomed by
the mind’s landlord
rent-free. it could be
reading a book
watching a movie
takes most of you
out of yourself
to a resting place
enough of you
is left behind in the mind
as a pilot to enjoy it
judge it, control it
end it, if necessary
after the end
when the occupant’s gone
back to yourself
the process of rejoining
can be delayed as
the pilot reflects on
a different world
meanwhile the landlord
above it all in the attic
‘occupant’ sounds ok
find place to live
pay rent – harmless but
find an occupation
right, I think there’s one
in Palestine is there?
what am I supposed to
do about it?
oh, you mean a job
right. yes, you’re right
find a good job
thats. right. so
it’s a good job I’ve got
genes for work ethic
and obediance, then
so my mind’s meant
for an occupation
designed by the
we can fight back
join the underground
resist the occupation
evict the occupying forces
take vacant posession
we know what we feel
we can live above
our work ethic and
bad memories in
we don’t need no
we could live well on
a state income
the world owes us
we can work when
good riddance to
the occupation of
the landlord and
his architect can
suck it up, live and learn
occupant’s ok though
there’s a good movie on
at nine *
* This is possibly a reference to the increasingly archaic practice of watching scheduled TV broadcasts.
Probability maths says that given infinity, a random character generator (producing upper and lower case letters, spaces and punctuation marks) will reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Think monkeys and typewriters, if you like.
(Shakespeare is wheeled on for this thought experiment rather than, say, Charles Dickens because he’s the supposed apogee of literary creativity. The reductionist probabilitarians are saying: you think Shakespeare’s great – well, he can be reproduced by empty randomness.)
You can kind of see what they mean, and there’s probably not much point arguing with a probability mathematician (though there are valid questions about the abstract concept of infinity) – but it just seems wrong, doesn’t it? The first sentence or two, maybe – but the whole thing? Maybe some things will never happen by chance, even in infinty.
Then there’s the origin of DNA. Scientists say it can be explained by random chemical events occurring over a very long time. There are several different theories as to how this might have happened, but none of them sounds remotely plausible. As with the randomly reproduced Shakespeare, it just seems impossible.
I know it sounds like I’m on the slippery slope from intelligent design to creationism, but I’m not. I’m suggesting that the crucial element in both cases is meaning.
Henry VI, Part One Scene I: Westminster Abbey. Dead March. Enter the funeral of King Henry V, attended on by Dukes of Bedford, Regent of France, Protector; and Exeter, Earl of Warwick, the Bishop of Winchester, heralds, etc. Bedford: Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
I’m yawning already, but that’s not the point. The works of Shakespeare, including that opening of the first play, exist because they have meaning. That meaning comes from human consciousness (and its medium, language) . The unique sequence of six million characters comprising that product of meaning could never be reproduced by chance, I’d suggest.
Wikipedia says that DNA is a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms. Most DNA molecules consist of two strands coiled around each other to form a double helix. Both strands store the same biological information, which is replicated when the two strands separate.
Does that sound like something that came about by chemicals randomly bumping into each other?
Perhaps DNA came into existence because the universe (or multiverse if you like) has meaning, perhaps deriving from universal consciousness. Again, I’d suggest that meaning is never the product of random processes.
It must, of course, be admitted that random genetic mutation fueled the natural selection that led from the first living organisms to humans capable of pondering the meaning of meaning. Nevertheless, randomness and meaning are worlds apart.
Or perhaps, rather, they’re part of a hierarchy, with randomness subject to probability, and probability subject to meaning.
Try as it may, maths and science can’t yet explain the origin of life, what consciousness is, or the ultimate nature of the universe.
I’m a big fan of maths and science. I’d love science to have an explanation for everything; but perhaps some things are ineffable. Perhaps maths, for all its fundamental beauty, is the scaffolding rather than the be-all and end-all.
I thought my post title was original – but, of course, it’s not. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism by Charles Ogden and Ivor Richards has been in print continuously since 1923.
The most recent publication is the critical edition prepared by Terrence Gordon as volume 3 of the 5-volume set C. K. Ogden & Linguistics (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1995).
Wikipedia says that the book proposes a contextual theory of signs: words and things are connected by signs that are the source of our power over the external world.
(I’d say: sod the signs, it’s language that has the power – the power of meaning.)
The book has been used as a textbook in many fields including linguistics, philosophy, language, cognitive science, semantics and semiotics. Umberto Eco described it as ‘a seminal book, whose merit was to say certain things well in advance of its time’.
This view caught my eye. See the straight branches with the new morning sun shining through (Dylan reference), the mist along the line of trees across Victoria Park and the long shadows. It’s taken from the car park extension, the building of which was facilitated by the cutting down a large number of mature trees. It links to the Lutyens war memorial. (I like to call it the Sir Peter Soulsby memorial car park extension, in honour of our elected mayor, who’s spent our taxes on several such vainglorious developments. Hes not actually dead yet, but…)
Is there an afterlife? How can there be? Life is life. Death is death. Or is our individual consciousness independent of our living body? If so, heaven/hell/whatever must be a crowded place. Except it wouldn’t be a ‘place’, of course. It’d be ‘outside’ space-time as we know it.
So, if there is a heaven, and you get past the gatekeeper, what would you do? I’d head for the library. Unless they’ve closed it.