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The Silent Dissident: Aung Sang Suu Kyi and the plight of the Rohingyas

During her recent trip to the United States, Nobel Prize winning Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi took to the stage at the San Francisco Freedom Forum to accept the inaugural Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent. However one couldn’t help but feel that “the lady” who accepted the prize on Saturday was very different from the lady who was conferred the award. The award was conferred to a Suu Kyi who is considered one of the world’s most celebrated pro-democracy campaigners; a fearless human rights advocate and a hero to other activists around the world including the late Havel himself. But the Suu Kyi who accepted the award on Saturday was perhaps nothing more or less than a cautious and calculative politician.

This transformation has been nowhere more evident than in her continued silence over the issue of the sectarian unrest in Burma’s west between the Buddhist Rakhines and the Muslim Rohingyas.  Ongoing sporadic violence between the two groups has taken the lives of hundreds and displaced thousands on both sides though the loss on the Rohingya’s side has been much more.  The Rohingyas have traditionally been discriminated against by the Buddhist majority, so much so that it has led to the United Nations describing them as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. Since 1982, when the-then head of state General Ne Win reframed citizenship laws leading to the Rohingyas being considered illegal aliens in a land that they had inhabited as early as the 8th century, at least 250,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh.

Their living conditions in Bangladesh weren’t any better even though they escaped the religious persecution they faced back in Burma. A Bangladesh government, already facing problems of widespread poverty and resource crunch, reluctantly offered a helping hand under increasing pressure from the international community and its own citizens who were sympathetic to the Rohingyas. After the latest episode of violence though, the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made it clear that they would seal their borders and not let in the thousands of Rohingyas who were fleeing murder, rape and torture in Burma.

Ms. Suu Kyi’s silence is especially alarming considering the regional repercussions of the issue, which she will have to deal with if, her government comes to power in 2015. Bangladesh’s stance with Rohingyas has led to some quarters crying foul over its handling of the case of Bangladeshi citizens who have migrated to the state of Assam in neighboring India where a separate case of violence between the indigenous Bodos and the Bengali speaking Muslims has erupted recently, a large number of whom have resided in Assam for decades. These clashes have led to the death of many on both sides and in turn has led to hostility towards citizens of North East India, of which Assam is a part and a mass exodus of the North-Easterners from major Indian cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad.

However, there’s an even bigger underlying problem that has the potential to lead to a standoff between the three countries if not now, then by the time Ms. Suu Kyi’s government comes to power. The government of Bangladesh has suggested that members of the Rohingya community have links to fundamentalist groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, which has in turn led the Burmese authorities to dub the Rohingyas as ‘Islamic insurgents’. The irony of the situation is that similar concerns, however dubious they may be have been, have been raised against Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam by the local authorities who suggest their links to organizations such as the Bangladeshi terror outfit, Harkat ul Jihad Islami, which has undertaken major attacks within India. All this poses an enormous danger to the regional peace and stability and can create a potentially awkward diplomatic standoff, which is the last thing Ms. Suu Kyi needs as she tries to gather more support from the international community in helping rebuild Burma.

Voices from all over the world, including government authorities and human rights groups have urged Ms. Suu Kyi to take an explicit stand against the violent repression of the Rohingyas. However, her views on the issue have been vague and ambiguous at best. She has suggested that there has been human rights abuses on both sides, which while factually true vastly undermines the disproportionate suffering of the Rohingyas. She has further stated that the need of the hour is to ‘”clarify” citizenship laws and grant equal citizenship to all ethnic minorities. On the face of it, this might suggest that she is calling for more rights for the Rohingyas. But the statement conveniently hides the fact that officially Burma doesn’t recognize Rohingyas as ethnic minorities as they are not even considered citizens.

Politically, Suu Kyi doesn’t have much to gain but a lot to lose by opening her mouth on the matter. By taking a stand against the violence, she risks losing the electoral support of not only the Rakhine population who hugely outnumber the disfranchised Rohingyas, but also the rest of the Buddhist majority of Burma who consider the Rohingyas as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and a threat to the security and stability of their nation. As Burma expert and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, Maung Zarni says, “She (Ms. Suu Kyi) is no longer a political dissident trying to stick to her principles. She’s a politician and her eyes are fixed on the prize, which is the 2015 majority Buddhist vote.”

During her speech at the San Francisco Freedom Forum, Ms. Suu Kyi expressed her initial unwillingness about speaking on the topic given to her – “The Long Road to Freedom.” She said that she wished to speak about the life of the great dissident, Havel instead. Havel once said, “Without free, self-respecting and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace.” Perhaps she should remind herself of Havel’s idea of a free nation as she embarks upon Burma’s long and treacherous road to freedom.

Join the South Asian Political Committee today for a student roundtable to discuss the issue of the Rohingyas and other such problems of displacement and migration in South Asia. For more information on the event visit http://sites.tufts.edu/sapac/

-Shayan Purkayastha is a senior majoring in Computer Science and the co-chair of the South Asian Political Action Committee 

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Welcome Back!

Welcome back to what we at SAPAC hope will be another fantastic semester filled with thrilling new ideas and opportunities to further continue the dialogue on South Asia. After organizing the many events last semester,  such as a round-table on State building in Afghanistan and a discussion on the Psychology of Conflict in Kashmir with Justine Hardy, we cannot wait to delve deep into the innumerable issues of this bustling region yet to be deliberated, discussed, and debated.

While we welcome everybody’s contribution (yes, please do send in any ideas, write-ups or simply just opinions and thoughts that you would like shared,) SAPAC is excited to announce that we are looking for TWO new E-Board members – a Freshman Rep and  a Social Media Rep!

Everybody is welcome, so please do follow the link below and submit your application!

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?fromEmail=true&formkey=dGFXanB1aVBveDBWTm9RLUg2ZVJmWlE6MQ

On that note, we hope to see you all at our events throughout this semester and really encourage everybody to get more involved with this complex yet exhilarating region of the world!

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Sustaining the dialogue on South Asia

As this year comes to an end, SAPAC’s executive board would like to thank all of you who came for our events, and helped make them a success. This year we have expanded our campus presence, by organizing a wide-range of events. We really enjoyed the student led discussions, where we were able to engage in vibrant discussions about some pertinent issues in the subcontinent from state building in Afghanistan to India-Pakistan relations. This semester we tried to bring in those with  expertise in the region like Professor Partha Ghosh and Justine Hardy. One of our greatest feats was being able to successfully collaborate with other groups on campus like the new Association for Pakistani Allies (APA), the Hindu Students Council (HSC), BUILD India and organize Tufts first ever South Asia Week. We hope this will become an annual event at Tufts.

Of course having a website and launching a blog were two new initiatives and we have  had students write about a range of issues related to South Asian politics, economics and society. We encourage more of you to write to us with ideas for blog posts, and of course actual bog posts.

Our blog but also our group as a whole occupies an important position in an institution like Tufts which values it’s global-minded student community and encourages us to be aware of the world around us. Given the South Asian region’s growing importance in today’s global context, whether it is related to economic development or social and political change, we believe it is important to make sure that this dialogue continues and that SAPAC continues to attract students who are interested in sustaining this dialogue through their interest in the region or those who are interested in learning about it.

On that note, we think it is valuable to learn about the kind of work that Tufts students are doing in South Asia, whether it is over the summer or in their life post-Tufts. We have spoken to a range of students who have worked in diplomacy, policy-work, rural development, and entrepreneurship.

So as you depart for summer, or for those of you seniors who have graduated and may be looking at opportunities in the region, be sure to look at our newest page ”Tufts Students in South Asia,” which will profile the work of Tufts students and Tufts alumni in South Asia.

Have a great summer!

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India’s Ambiguous Political Game : The Tibetan-Chinese Issue

It’s often ironic how the measures undertaken by a government to sideline and almost obscure an issue can turn on it itself and instead, accentuate it. Unfortunately for India, this is exactly the case. As this years host of the annual BRICS summit, India is definitely the center of attention but neither for its economic progress nor for its extoled hospitability. Instead, following Tibetan activist Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation amid protests against Chinese President Hu Jintao’s arrival in New Delhi, all eyes have turned towards India’s increasingly abstruse stance on the Tibetan-Chinese issue.

Dharamshala, a city in northern India, is currently home to the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government-in-exile and approximately 200,000 exiled Tibetans. Having fled to India in 1959 in promise of freedom of speech and religion, this community has always hoped to enjoy the same democratic rights granted to all Indians. However, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent statement asserting that India “recognized Tibet as an inalienable part of Chinese territory and will not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China activities,” not only has India’s ambiguous political game come into question but also its seemingly hypocritical commitment to its democratic constitution.

In hope of a peaceful and well-executed BRICS exhibition, Indian authorities have arrested almost 250 Tibetan activists during recent protests as well as placed New Delhi’s Tibetan community under house arrest. As we all know, this is not the first time either. A breach of democratic rights? Evidently, yes. But in what is this ambiguity rooted? The timely coincidence between India’s improving economic relations with China and its problematic role as protector to the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile has forced India into an arduous fix. While on one hand China has expressed it appreciation towards India’s position, on the other, the international community remains critical of India’s inconsistent democratic efforts.

Therefore, is this a matter of economic gain versus democracy? Perhaps the issue is not as clear-cut as that. However, what is clear is that India’s way of dealing with such politically charged protests has once again put its wavering approach to democracy under the spotlight. Too often ready to forsake democratic rights in the name of social stability or economic benefit, perhaps India needs to take a moment and assess the many trade-offs prevalent in its ambiguous political game.

 

Written by Zara Juneja. Zara is a sophomore studying at Tufts and the assistant web manager and blogger at SAPAC.

 

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Reflections from Professor Partha Ghosh’s discussion on the ‘Complex Puzzle of Growth’: Important ethical and ecological concerns, but at a prototypical phase?

On March 13, Professor Partha Ghosh of the Fletcher School gave a lecture entitled, “The Complex Puzzle of Growth: Embracing Modernity while Preserving Tradition in India and China”. Professor Ghosh has worked in various strata of careers, from managerial consulting to policy and strategic issue advising. His experience in these various fields gives him a unique perspective on the problem India and China are facing today.

Both India and China are significantly large economies, with China boasting a 9.3% growth rate. Though India is the world’s largest democracy and China is a Communist power, the two have similar tensions between different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. Development has not occurred proportionally throughout the countries, leaving poorer states out in the dark when cities such as Shanghai and Bangalore are in the spotlight. The biggest problem these two countries are facing, according to Professor Ghosh, is energy. The search for sustainable energy is nigh upon the rest of the world, but this poses a problem for a country whose capital city is blanketed in smog. Another challenge in this region is the proximity of three large nuclear powers- Pakistan, India, and China- and their unstable relations with one another. At a pivotal time when elections are happening in these countries, it is important to focus on how to bring them together, rather than set them apart.

Professor Ghosh brought up some very interesting points about resources. For Americans, it is easy to picture the world with limitless capital; consumerism ideal can allow us neatly ignore the fact that we are using exponentially more material than our predecessors could have imagined. However, if Chinese families attain the same standard of living as Americans do, they will also create the same amount of household waste. Professor Ghosh indicated that the US alone would be creating teratons of waste in 20 years. With China’s population, we could be looking at entire country-sized landfills. Current business models fuel unidirectional demand, that is, harvesting natural resources in order to create a product, which is then thrown away in order to get more advanced items, which use even more natural resources.

Paradigm X: 

According to Professor Ghosh, there are three levels on which humans and the market operate: the foundational level in which basic human traits are codified, such as self-interest and survival of the fittest, the industrial level, which focuses on economies of scale and the consumerist “source to sink” linear model, and the individual level, which pits self above society, humans above nature, and instant gratification over gradual resolution. He believes that the way to change society is to shift our thinking to a new paradigm that is diametrically opposed to the way things have run for the past 500 years. India and China are the perfect locations to spearhead this shift in consciousness because many of the ideas of this new “paradigm X” are taken from old Confucian and Vedic wisdom. These include self-enlightenment, harmony with nature, mutual respect between the individual and society. A very important concept unifying both schools is multiple streams of inquiry- not taking things at face value but rather seeing how they got there, why they were created, and how to improve upon them. What society needs is to derive a balance between consumption and conservation, as well as between point and holistic solutions in regards to ecological preservation and economic advancement.

At the macroeconomic level, he believes that the unrestricted free market will not be able to create the changes he sees for the future. A mixed economy of government intervention and market cooperation is the only way to oversee such a large shift in thought.  At the microeconomic level, he calls for innovative integration between Western technology and Eastern ancient values to build a global business model. While the current model is linear, a new possible archetype would be circular, including recycling and reuse. Ghosh argues that Adam Smith’s invisible hand works in the city-centric capitalist regime, but if we want to forward the goal of developing villages as self-sufficient titans of agriculture, we must use socialized networks and what Ghosh calls “cellular capitalism in a green economy”.

Though I agree with much of what Professor Ghosh had to say from an idealist’s standpoint, the feasibility of what he is proposing remains unclear. For one, China and India are not the only key economies in the market; if they employ this kind of circular model and no other country with economic hegemony joins them, they could be looking at large losses at a peak in their growth and development as nations. These countries cannot afford to make a costly paradigmatic shift unless others are on board as well. Another question to consider is who we would look to first to create this kind of change- the firms who run the current market, or the government who restricts it?

The Chinese government has already started taking steps toward reviving ancient roots. New industrial models include sustainable farming, intelligent power, and exploring alternative energy sources for powering at least 13 of the larger cities in Mainland China. India is still not making much progress on this front, which makes one wonder- what are the drawbacks for a nation like India that is attempting to change its economic model? I believe there are a variety of reasons. Firstly, a communist regime such a China will have more success with this because all that is needed is a can-do attitude from the leadership. Since they shape the market conditions and rules of firms, it will be much easier to regulate this shift than in the largest democracy of the world. China also has a positive trade balance- they have the ability to spend out of pocket for experimentation with innovative markets, whereas import-heavy countries such as India would not have the resources to make these changes. This also means that countries like the United States do not have the budget to pioneer such shifts. There is also the fear of disintegration if the Indian government encourages the buildup of villages as separate economies from the rest of the country.

While I do believe that Professor Ghosh raises some very important ethical and ecological concerns, his ideas may still be in a prototypical phase not ready to be applied to nations that are at the cusp of their economic potential. The Chinese standard of living is quite low and with a GDP rising at 10%, there is nowhere to go but up. For the rest of the world, however, it will take some time before we can put mind over market and others before ourselves. As much as we want to, completely disregarding Hobbesian theory will not save the planet any faster than taking small steps to improve each of the G8 countries’ economy and ecology before trying to unite the world in the purview of “paradigm X”.

Written by Neha Madhusoodanan, a sophomore at Tufts University from New York 

 

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