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

-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!

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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Shalom, Namaste

Our story begins with two Americans, one with an Indian background, the other Israeli, living in a pocket of suburban Long Island. With little in common other than a few mutual friends and an extracurricular activity connecting our two high schools, we became fast friends. However, when we realized we’d be attending the same university, we expected to stay friendly but to go our separate ways. Little did we know that this friendship would become a microcosm of the alliance between our two countries.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Israel. To commemorate the occasion, Indian Minister of External Affairs S.M. Krishna visited Jerusalem to lay out future plans for continued collaboration between the two nations. You may be wondering, so what? Why is the 20-year milestone of this relationship so important, and to whom?

When most people think about India and Israel together, they probably wouldn’t picture the ever-strengthening partnership that exists today. Most people probably wouldn’t even think about India and Israel in the same sentence or thought, let alone think of them as partners in a blossoming alliance. On the surface, the two nations could not be more different. Their cultures, religion and traditions are vastly distinct from one another. When the two countries were first established (within months of each other), they lacked any relationship. India did not recognize Israel as a state until 1950 and even then, the ties between the two countries were loose or non-existent. However, following the establishment of official diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992, the Indo-Israeli relationship has flourished into a strong alliance driven by continued cooperation in the fields of agriculture, trade, science and technology, homeland security, culture and tourism.

The Indo-Israeli relationship is unique in its unlikelihood and unprecedented in its scope. When one takes a closer look, the two countries actually have a good deal in common. Both were born from the British Empire and quickly established themselves as democracies. Both continuously face the external security challenges presented by international terrorism, which are compounded by internal ones regarding natural resource scarcity. But most importantly, both societies work to maintain the delicate balance between seizing the progress they have made in the modern world and preserving the ancient tradition and culture that make up their respective foundations. For the past 20 years, based on these inherent commonalities, a strong relationship has continued to thrive between the two countries and it deserves to be commemorated, its accomplishments highlighted.

Since 1992, trade between India and Israel has grown immensely from $180 million annually to more than $5 billion; both countries hope to establish a free trade agreement this year. In 2010, India and Israel set up a joint research and development (R&D) fund to strengthen cooperation on renewable energy, water management and computer science research. Additionally, because Israel and India both face the challenge of water scarcity, their collaboration in agriculture is vital and largely unprecedented. The exchange of knowledge, including the transfer of Israeli drip irrigation system technology to Indian farmers and the joint Indo-Israeli R&D farm established in the Indian Agriculture Research Institute, allows these two countries to address the challenges of food security together through constant innovation — a true example of the tangible rewards of cooperation.

One of the strongest links that binds India and Israel together is the threat of terrorism. Both countries are surrounded by continuous hostility and are under constant security threats, particularly from state-sponsored terror groups. Even before diplomatic relations were established, Indian and Israeli security personnel maintained secret channels of communication. During the past 20 years, India and Israel have come together to combat terrorism through the exchange of important intelligence on terrorist group activity and weapons technology. As of 2008, Israel has become the largest weapons supplier to India and signed agreements to develop an anti-aircraft system and missiles for the two countries. Israel has also provided training in logistics, intelligence gathering, surveillance and military strategy to Indian security forces. For Israel, the unparalleled control of South Asian waters that India holds would prove indispensable for safe trade in a truculent climate. Recently, India has launched a spy satellite to help give Israeli intelligence eyes in space. This satellite is meant to monitor activity in Pakistan and nuclear developments in Iran, a major concern to Israel, the United States and India.

Israel and India are tied together by many threads, but perhaps the most vital and least recognized is the thread tying together these two peoples and their cultures. Here at Tufts we’ve both found communities that celebrate our own cultures and identities. What we didn’t realize is that those communities on a grander scale have found ways to support one another. There is a small but thriving Jewish population of 70,000 in India that has existed consistently throughout India’s history and that enjoys a peaceful life free from anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, there is also a small population of Indian Jews in Israel that continues to grow, most notably the Bnei Menashe community.

Beyond that, India has become a hot spot for Israeli tourists. About 35,000 Israelis select India as a travel destination each year with many returning several times throughout their lives. India and Israel further demonstrate their desire for understanding of one another through Hindi courses offered at Tel Aviv and Hebrew University, along with other courses related to India and through scholarships granted to Israelis by the Ministry of Indian Overseas Affairs every year. The most significant display of the cultural ties between India and Israel began last May when the Indian Embassy organized and held a month-long festival in Israel titled “Celebrating India in Israel,” which showcased traditional Indian culture and was a major success.

The Indo-Israeli relationship is often overshadowed in the media by the obvious regional and domestic issues of both countries. We believe that this relationship deserves to be recognized and highlighted for all of its contributions. By working together to face their own challenges, India and Israel have shown themselves to be a prime example of the benefits of cooperation among nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently described the relationship with the sentiment that “India and Israel are two ancient peoples seizing the future.”

For the two of us, the most amazing part of the relationship between India and Israel is the way it has unknowingly impacted our own lives. Coming to college, we’ve both embraced our separate identities, one by becoming heavily involved in the Indian community on campus through Salaam and Pulse, and the other through active involvement in Tufts Friends of Israel and Hillel. However, despite our expectations that these different interests would distance our friendship, they have only brought us closer together through mutual understanding and shared dedication to the development of our countries. For this reason we feel it is important to recognize 20 years of Indo-Israeli friendship and support. By working together to find commonalities while embracing our differences on campus and beyond, sometimes the most unlikely of friendships can form.

Shira Shamir is a sophomore majoring in international relations. Neha Madhusoodanan is a sophomore majoring in international relations and economics.

Originally written for the  Tufts Daily - April 24, 2012.

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South Asia Week: Celebrating a multitude of perspectives

The newly elected president of the Tufts Association of South Asians (TASA), Arvind Krishnamurthy, recently pointed out something interesting about the South Asian community at Tufts in his election speech: that it’s not homogenous. Most of us would be able to relate to his experience at Tufts, of having been “exposed to South Asians from a multitude of backgrounds,” each bringing their own perspective, but more importantly their own interests. Here at Tufts there are students who are interested in different aspects of South Asia, ranging from culture to politics to specific countries in the region. Whether it’s SAPAC, the Association of Pakistani Allies (APA) or the Hindu Students Council (HSC) students have brought their own interests to promote an understanding of South Asia in different ways. It is this myriad of diverse perspectives and backgrounds that makes up our ‘South Asian community’ here at Tufts. But in order to have a holistic understanding of the region, it is important to learn about “different cultures amongst ourselves,” which Arvind also pointed out in his speech.

Here at SAPAC we have decided to embrace this philosophy, and bring our South Asian communities together so we can celebrate this multitude of perspectives. For the first time at Tufts, SAPAC in association with TASA, HSC, APA and BUILD India is hosting South Asia Week, featuring events on South Asian culture, politics, economics and arts. From the fun-filled festivals of Holi and Basant, to a journalist’s experience in the conflict ridden zone of Kashmir, the prospect of a new paradigm of economic growth in India and China and a showcasing of BUILD students’ experience in Thotiapatti, we have a week full of events planned for you, straight from the heart of the subcontinent.

Come and celebrate South Asia Week with us. We hope to see you at our events! Here are more details of the events:

1. Holi & Basant by the Hindu Students Council & Association of Pakistani Allies on 21st April – 12.30PM, ResQuad

Basant is the festival of kite flying in Pakistan and is celebrated at the beginning of spring every year. Every year, thousands of Hindus participate in the festival Holi. The festival has many purposes. First and foremost, it celebrates the beginning of the new season, spring. Originally, it was a festival that commemorated good harvests and the fertile land. Hindus believe it is a time of enjoying spring’s abundant colors and saying farewell to winter. It also has a religious purpose, commemorating the salvage of a Vishnu devotee from a fire that killed the demoness Holika.

2. Embracing the Next “ism”: Exploring the New Possibilities of Human Advancement: A talk by Partha Ghosh organized by SAPAC on 24th April – 8PM, ASEAN Auditorium

The challenge facing most developing countries today is whether it is possible to pursue the same model of growth as the developed nations did. Is resource extraction even feasible, given the current global environment? Come and hear Professor Partha Ghosh talk about the next “ism,” a new model for economic development and human advancement. How can this paradigm can challenge the current status quo and provide us with a more sustainable and viable approach towards development?

3. The Psychology of Conflict: A Talk on Kashmir by Justine Hardy organized by SAPAC & The Oslo Scholars Program on April 25th – 6PM, Location TBD

4. Thottiyapatti in Tufts: Experience Development in Rural India with FREE Indian Food
Photo Exhibition by BUILD India on April 26th – 8PM-10PM, SoGo Multipurpose Room

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