Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Will Dick Cheney visit Canada?

A lawyer's group in Canada wants former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney arrested for war crimes. You can read the news by clicking here.

Lawyers Against the War argued in a letter dated Sunday that Toronto Police Chief William Blair and Ontario Attorney General John Gerretsen have a duty to arrest Cheney "as a person suspected on reasonable grounds of authorizing, counseling, aiding, abetting and failing to prevent torture.”
“Once Richard (Dick) Cheney enters Canada … Canada must ensure that Dick Cheney is either investigated and prosecuted for the indictable offence of torture in Canada or extradited to another country willing and able to do so," Lawyers Against the War's Gail Davidson wrote.
Cheney has said he was "a big supporter" of waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques against terrorism suspects during his vice presidency. He and former President George W. Bush, along with other top Bush administration officials, were convicted in absentia of war crimes last year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for torture and cruelty. The verdict was largely symbolic.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, also has accused Cheney of war crimes.
"Waterboarding is a war crime, unwarranted surveillance ... all of which are crimes. I don't care whether the president authorized him to do it or not, they are crimes," Wilkerson said in 2011.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 3

A Bengali writer once famously wrote – Raate mosha, deene maachi, ei niye Kolkatay aachi (meaning: With mosquitoes at night and flies at daytimes, I reside in Kolkata). Kolkata, of course, these days in the post-partition of India period, is no longer part of Bangladesh, but is the capital city of nearby West Bengal state of India, where Bengali is the lingua franca. I don’t know how bad is the mosquito and fly problem today in Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal, but the above verse aptly applies today for any city of Bangladesh. It is really a sad commentary for a country that had seen better days since 1947 and 1971.
When (late) Mohammad Hanif was the Mayor of Dhaka, his city corporation had a very aggressive program to fight against the mosquitoes. And now although too few people die of malaria and dengue fevers, thanks to the effective drugs to treat those life threatening diseases, mosquito-bites can be felt during both daytimes and nighttimes. It is impossible to not feel the stings of biting mosquitoes staying at home or anywhere, unless one has taken enough precautions to avoid mosquito bites. It is really alarming!
The major reason for ever increasing infestation problem with mosquitoes and flies is open sewage and poor garbage collection system everywhere which helps to breed them. To make things worse, the municipal authorities no longer use chemicals to kill flies and mosquitoes. Most drains carrying city sewage are open and are not cleaned periodically.
The towns and cities of Bangladesh can well rank amongst the dirtiest places on earth. It is really depressing! But it does not have to be that way. Simple, cheap, prudent and effective solutions are well known and can be copied from places like Singapore and Japan. While the tax collection system is very flawed with too few paying real taxes, most dodging the system in cahoots with corrupt municipal and government officials, it is worth pointing out here that municipal and income taxes are not cheap in Bangladesh. So one is forced to ponder: where does the money get spent? 
In a democracy, taxes are supposedly collected for the good of the tax payers. In the USA, there is a well-known saying – no taxation, no representation. I wish I could say the same thing for Bangladesh! People are simply deprived of the benefits of their paid taxes. It is difficult to motivate people to pay their taxes when they don’t see benefits. I am reminded here that only about a percent of the population pays taxes, the rest do not. If this be true, it does not take an Einstein to see the flaw with the entire taxation system. Good tax payers like my father – who was honored for being one of the top taxpayers for the longest period of time inside Bangladesh last year, are being abused paying more than their due share of taxes and must now share the ever-shrinking benefits that are trickled down to them with tax-dodgers and others that either don’t pay or pay far less than their genuine share. It is not a sustainable solution for Bangladesh and must be reformed to maximize the benefits for greater good of all.
As I have noted elsewhere corruption is very rampant inside Bangladesh. In spite of meager gains made in recent years, the yearly reports from the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) show that the government is failing miserably to cut it down to a respectable level. An anti-corruption bureau was formed, reporting directly to President of the Republic, more than a decade ago, but it has been kept as a toothless tiger, as famously complained by its erstwhile chairman, Mr. Golam Rahman. The budget of the Bureau is not sufficient to fight corruption, and worse still, some high ranking officials appointed by the government are alleged to be corrupt themselves. The government also does not want any of its sitting ministers tried on corruption charges, who could only be tried when they are out of the office. Such an attitude sends wrong message about government’s sincerity to fight corruption. Take for instance, the well-known Rail-Gate case involving Minister Suranjit Sengupta when his personal assistant was caught red-handed in Dhaka – not too far from the Kamalapur Rail Station - with 7 million taka (nearly 100,000 USD), which was allegedly collected as bribe. And yet he couldn’t be tried for his alleged corruption. He was retained as a minister, albeit without a portfolio, in the Hasina government. This action by the prime minister has been very unwise and widely criticized by her well-wishers, let alone the opposition.
While the corrupt individuals often have tons of money to dodge the law and buy a corrupt system, without adequate funding from and sincerity of the government, Bangladesh’s war against corruption seems half-hearted at best, if not doomed for failure.
But not everything is lost in Bangladesh! There are still plenty of honest, good officers in every sector who could be the role models for the society. Let me share here a personal story.
In 2005 my family witnessed the ugly side of crime and corruption when a local MP (who was prime minister’s parliament affairs advisor then – holding a ministerial rank and operating from the Prime Minister’s Office) and his eldest son were directly involved in attempted land-grabbing of our family properties in Khulshi, Chittagong. Sadly, all my pleas to the ministers, including the prime minister’s younger brother (now deceased) and a favorite technocrat minister (now imprisoned on sedition charges) – both of whom were my classmates – met deaf ears. They did not do anything to stop the crime against one of their own who was widely feared as a Mafia Don kind of character.
Eventually, I sought the help of my embassy after showing family documentations on deeds and other relevant records. That probably did the wonder! A police investigation, led by Mr. Abdullahel Baki who was then DC (North), showed that we were wrongfully victimized. A subsequent police raid removed the criminal trespassers from our premises. For his impeccable honesty and dedication to police code of conduct, which torpedoed the MP’s land-grabbing crime, however, Mr. Baki was relocated away from Chittagong. The MP has recently been sentenced to death for war crimes of the 1971 Liberation War.
The MP’s criminal thugs wrongfully demolished 8 brick bungalows (where some 16 tenant families used to reside – many college teachers) amongst other constructions in our family premises during that sad period of 2005. We were warned not to sue the MP and his eldest son for their crimes. Thus, we ended up filing criminal cases against Jaker Hosain Chowdhury – a notorious land-grabbing criminal and fraud – who acted as the front-man for the MP and his son. Jaker and nine of his accomplices – some of whom, interestingly, were attached with two major political parties – were found guilty of land-grabbing crime and sentenced to 6.5 years of prison term. They were also fined only 6000 taka (equivalent to 100 USD then). After serving only a month in prison, Jaker and his accomplices were all let go free on bail. They have been threatening our family members ever since.
I was simply shocked to learn how easy it was to obtain bail in the courts of Bangladesh. More shocking was the meager fine imposed by the court for demolition of all those homes – which if we were to reconstruct today would cost us at least 200,000 USD! So, why the judge fined the land-grabbing syndicate only 100 USD remains a mystery to my family! I don’t know the legal codes in Bangladesh and can’t say whether they were upheld or we were shortchanged in a broken or faulty system that has failed to keep up with time. God knows!
Crime and corruption always go hand in hand. One feeds the other. A recent report from the TIB suggests that judiciary remains a grave concern in the area of corruption. I am told that many magistrates and even judges can be bought for the right price. There is wide perception that many of these individuals lack the qualities for those vital positions. Just about five years ago, an arrest warrant was issued by a corrupt magistrate against my father who is currently 87 years old based on a false and ludicrous claim that that he had tried to kill the land-grabbing criminal Jaker by grabbing his crotch. The corrupt magistrate did not bother to get an inquiry or police report to verify the accusation before issuing such a warrant. Just the tens of thousands of Taka he received from the criminal syndicate were enough for him to issue the warrant! And what a suffering that my family had to endure for such a false case, let alone the millions of taka spent to fight such falsity!
And, how about the lawyers? At least half the cases would not be there in the courts today had they been all honest, and not making up false cases. Many of them are immoral all the way up to their ears and prey on victims to enrich them beyond any measure. A case which could be closed in a single hearing is often prolonged so that it can be dragged for months and years while in many cases by the time a judgment is reached the plaintiff is financially broke, if not already dead.
Most of the successful lawyers in the High Court and Supreme Court of Bangladesh charge hefty sums of money – at least six figure fees for a simple case (thousands of USD), and have yearly incomes of tens of millions of taka, which are many times the yearly income of some of the successful lawyers in the USA.
Some years ago, the taxes paid by some of the top lawyers in the country was published in a national daily in Bangladesh. I could not believe what I was reading for I knew firsthand that some of the lawyers’ reported yearly income was less than what they nominally charge for a single case. This again shows the chronic problem with the tax collection system of the national revenue and tax collection agency. So, under a broken system, as one would expect, honest people are pushed to pay more than their genuine share of the taxes, while the dishonest ones dodge the system!
How can one fight crime when judges and magistrates are perceived to be corrupt, greedy and dishonest? A recent report in the Prothom Alo, a national daily with wide circulation, revealed that it takes years to get a verdict in a criminal case in Bangladesh, and for a civil case it can take generations. It is no surprise that the number of cases in any court is simply increasing exponentially. And no genuine plaintiff and unfortunate defendant can win in this broken judicial system except those involved with the court system – from peons to judges!  That is the health of judiciary in this sad place!
More problematic is the fact that when after years some of the criminals are put behind the prisons where they truly belong, they are sometimes released through some political manipulation. In one week alone, in the last month, some 550 terrorists were released from Chittagong. In one day alone, 200 such terrorist were released from the prisons. Such releases and bails issued to convicted terrorists are sure to demoralize the police and panic the citizens. But no one important seems to care for making such a travesty of the judicial process!
Most of the terrorists have political affiliations. It is a win-win formula for the sponsoring politicians and their criminal cadre while the general law-abiding public suffers miserably from this ugly union.  Many of the terrorists like lucrative land-grabbing criminals have learned the trade very well and switch allegiance to or tie their knots with those in power. Thus, e.g., there was no problem for Jaker and his criminal land-grabbing syndicate to find new political sponsors in the last five years while a new government has been in office in the last five years. That tells a lot about the long arm of such criminal syndicates in Bangladesh. Governments may come and go, but they are there to stay and victimize their victims!

To be continued >>>

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Link on the Sundarbans

Here is a link to an article on the Sundarbans, which was forwarded to me by Prof. Abid Bahar. It has some useful information on the Portuguese and Magh piracy in the lower Bengal during the Mughal period. This article is written in Bengali and can be read by clicking here.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 2

It is impossible for Bangladesh to move up in the economic ladder without meeting its energy needs. In recent decades, with stronger economy demand for higher standard of living has become a norm, which is dependent on energy. A personal example may shed some light here.

Nearly 30 years ago, when my father built our six-story home in Khulshi, Chittagong, it was the tallest building in the locality. It did not have any elevator though, which was rather the norm then. Nowadays, most residential buildings have elevators and are at least eight-story high. Very few residents have 1-unit homes. As a result, our house is now surpassed by many high-rises in our neighborhood once again reflecting the economic progress that the country has made in the post-liberation period. In olden days, people were satisfied with fans to cool off, but now they need air-condition units, which consume more electricity. Many of the apartment or flat dwellers use washing and drying machines to wash and dry their clothes which again consume electricity. Many also use electric stoves and ovens to cook.

The demand for electricity simply has skyrocketed in every sector, and not just limited to the housing sector. Its demand in the industrial sector has been phenomenal. The ready-made garment industry is an envy of the world providing superb quality at cheap price. Bangladesh, just behind China, is now the second largest exporter of garment products to the USA. (However, safety measures to ensure safety of the workers and workplace has lagged behind in the progress card. As a result, in recent months Bangladesh has witnessed some of the worst industrial accidents of our time.)

Bangladesh’s ship-breaking and –building industry has also grown tremendously with demands for new ships coming from European countries. Many of the new rich within Bangladesh have come from the ship-breaking industry. They have now diversified their reach to other segments – all requiring electricity, gas and water.

As already noted, however, Bangladesh has very limited reserves for gas, oil and coal. And yet, its people were wasteful in its heydays of gas recovery. In the 1970s many of the residential and commercial gas consumers let the gas burn non-stop 24/7/365 even when they were not using it for cooking or other purposes. Sadly, the cost of a single matchstick to burn the gas was valued higher than the wastage that they were incurring on gas. It was criminal and outrageous to the core! A major part of the problem outside the nonchalant attitude of most gas consumers, which is now haunting everyone, was lack of any gas meter to track the usage and as such, no penalty was imposed by the state-run Titas Gas agency on abusers of energy.

The state-run gas agencies are now better managed, with gas meters in place, and a consumer must first pay in advance its intended usage. Unfortunately, when the consumers need gas for cooking, they don’t get enough supply because of fast depleting reserves. So acute is the situation that real estate developers are having difficulty delivering their newly made apartments to buyers for lack of gas and electric supplies.

Vehicles in the ground transportation system have become a major consumer of liquefied gas these days. Because of higher gasoline prices, which are higher than those in the USA, most vehicles have alternative compressed natural gas supplied canisters, which are comparatively cheaper, and give a better mileage than gasoline. Naturally, with ever shrinking supplies and limited reserves the gas consumers are now complaining.

As already noted, massive infrastructure needs to be developed to improve its ground transportation/communication network. And such an initiative must focus on mass transit system, esp. railways, which would help to relieve congestion problem on the roads enormously. This initiative would greatly reduce energy demand within Bangladesh.

To improve the energy supplies within the country, the Hasina administration has taken serious steps and claims to have more than doubled its old capacity since 2008. It has signed a bilateral treaty with Russia which would enable Bangladesh to have its first nuclear plant. Bangladesh has also signed treaty with its neighbor India on share of energy resources.

Alternative sources of energy, e.g., fuel cell, wind and solar, however, have not yet been fully explored. Given the fact that Bangladesh is blessed with hundreds of miles of coast from the Sundarbans to Teknaf and a topical climate, I see tremendous opportunity in the latter two areas to meet its vital energy demand. Collaboration with China may greatly help in these areas.

Many Bangladeshi-born engineers now work or have worked for some of the best known companies in the energy sector. Their skills, talents and experience can be harnessed to grow the necessary competency that Bangladesh currently lacks.

Bottom line: Bangladesh needs a smart policy that balances its energy needs with environmental concerns. As I have noted in the previous article that balance seem to be defective now. The general public has also not been adequately educated about the pros and cons on those debates. Many of the energy crusaders, sadly, are working for foreign interests to keep Bangladesh dependent on others. Many are ignorant about the impact of their protests and lack the necessary knowledge to make the right decision. A concerted effort must be made by the press to debate such issues honestly.

To be continued>>>>

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 1

For the last few weeks I am in Bangladesh. This week Muslims are going to celebrate the Eid-ul-Adha commemorating the sacrifice that Prophet Abraham [Ibrahim (AS)] vowed to God the Almighty. The Hindu community is also celebrating their Durga Puja in Bangladesh – the largest festival for the Bengali Hindus.

The entire country is now in celebrative mood with many offices closed for the extended holidays. As usual, the shopping centers are full with customers. A visit to any of the shopping centers is sufficient to show that this once poverty-stricken country is no longer poor and people have lots of money to spend. Although the price of most food items is as expensive (sometimes more) as in the USA, no one starves to death. The purchasing power of ordinary folks here has multiplied several folds in the last couple of decades. Outside the mosques, temples and Buddhist monasteries hardly one can see beggars.

The city streets are abuzz with rickshaws, baby taxis, cars, buses and trucks round the clock. Every day, hundreds of new cars are infiltrating the crowded roads in all major cities. Even in the late hours of the night, thousands of vehicles move from one place to another on any of the major roads every hour making it difficult for all those people residing in homes near the roadside to have a quiet, sound sleep. I happen to be one of those victims. More than half a century ago when my parents moved to Khulshi area of Chittagong, once a beautiful coastal city lying on the Bay of Bengal, there were hardly a dozen residents in our neighborhood, and the adjacent road had little traffic. It was truly a residential area. Now it is difficult to demarcate between residential and commercial areas in most parts of the city, and our adjacent road has become a major artery connecting other parts of Bangladesh to the port city of Chittagong.

While the city population has grown at least twenty times in the last half a century, not too many new and wider roads have been built in the last four decades in Chittagong, thus aggravating the pains of most commuters. This Saturday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in Chittagong and opened some major flyovers in the city, which would help to lessen the traffic jam situation in this city of over eight million people.

Most of the footpaths along the roads are occupied by the vendors or shopkeepers thus forcing pedestrians to walk on the roads, further narrowing down the effective width for the vehicles to drive along. As expected, crossing any of the major junctions of roads is a very time consuming process taking anywhere from two to ten minutes. A three-mile commute inside the city, thus, can take anywhere from half an hour to a full hour. At this rate, as one real estate developer once told me, Bangladesh is losing or wasting away more than a quarter of its GDP because of poor transportation system alone.

As I see it, unless Bangladesh prioritizes improving its ground communication or transportation network – easing the pains of its commuters, it will fail to maximize its true potential. The government, therefore, ought to take a serious look to improving its communication network. In my opinion, there is no alternative to improving the rail communication system, especially given the fact that Bangladesh is energy-poor. I am told that most of the inter-city railroads don’t have dual lines. As such, at places when another train has to go in the reverse direction, even the non-stop trains have to wait in certain areas, thus allowing the other train to pass along. Given the fact that train communication is both cheaper and could take much less time than alternative means (minus air transportation), this negligence to improving its infrastructure is simply mindboggling. I am here told that the bus owners are opposed to any such improvement proposal, which would in turn reduce their share of the profit. Many of the politicians also own bus services, thus lingering the overall crisis in this critical sector.

This reminds me of California when the automakers in the early 20th century were at the forefront of such opposition against public transportation system. They wanted residents to buy cars and not use public transportation – trains and buses. And they were successful for almost a century. I recall that when I was a student in California in the early 1980s, cities like Los Angeles still didn’t have rail transit system. All these have changed for better now. Los Angeles has a great rail transit system allowing its people to move from one part to another at a much cheaper cost and less time.

Bangladesh must overcome its inertia and political gravitational pulls to deciding for and improving its railway infrastructure not just for the benefit of the intercity commuters but also for its people in the inner cities, with huge rippling benefits in other sectors. With a good rail transit system in place, most commuters would eventually switch to it under-burdening its otherwise faulty road transportation system. This would lessen Bangladesh’s dependence on oil and gas, freeing such vital resources for other better usages.

When the Mahajote Government of Sheikh Hasina came to power nearly five years ago, two of the major promises her government made were to improve the gridlock situation within the city roads and energy demand. Her government has a positive score on both counts. As typical of Bangladesh, however, some of the newly constructed flyovers are named after family or party members of the prime minister. The newly opened flyover in Jatrabari of Dhaka has been named after late Mayor Hanif and that in the Baddhar Hat area of Chittagong has been named after an Awami League minister - late M. A. Mannan. Both were exemplary politicians who deserved such recognition.

Interestingly, just last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Emon, son of late M.A. Mannan, in my parents’ home. Mr. Mannan was a labor and social welfare minister who was much revered for his honesty and sincerity. He returned three hundred crore Taka to Bangladesh Treasury when the above sum of money was given as a gratuity money to him on a foreign contract signed with a Middle-eastern country. I don’t know of any politician in Bangladesh who has demonstrated such a level of honesty!

On the energy sector, Sheikh Hasina’s government has succeeded in improving the overall capacity. However, its supply lags behind the ever increasing demand. Some of the initiatives towards curtailing energy dependency, e.g., energy from coal plant in Rampal area of the Bagerhat district, near the pristine Sundarbans, have been highly controversial and criticized by some activists. The latter see the construction of the proposed plant in Rampal as threatening the eco system in the Sundarbans.

Many neutral energy experts, however, consider such opposition to the government plan as misguided, hypocritical and dishonest. None of these energy-crusaders, touted as Bangladesh’s prominent intellectuals, is, sadly, willing to walk the talk by living an Amish life by residing in huts or homes that don’t require electricity or gas. As a matter of fact, each one of them is known to live in air-conditioned homes. Many see them catering to foreign, e.g., Indian, interest thus, making Bangladesh entirely dependent on other countries on such matters. Lest one forgets, the previously imported coal from India has been known to be of very low quality generating higher carbon emission.

So, what is better for Bangladesh – an energy-starving policy for a developing country that continues to rely on Indian coal for its vital energy demand while capping its own resources or a smart policy that has learned to harness energy without compromising on ecology, ethics and energy self-sufficiency that would help grow Bangladesh’s economy?

To be continued>>>>

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

U.S. Congressional Hearing on Burma

The House Foreign Affairs/Asia Sub-committee of the U.S. Congress held a hearing on September 19 to examine the current political environment inside Burma (Myanmar), the growing human right abuses among its ethnic groups, and assess U.S. policy towards the country. Amongst other dignitaries Professor Wakar Uddin of the Arakan Rohingya Union, Tom Andrews of End Genocide and Jennifer Quigley of the U.S. Campaign for Burma were invited as guests to answer a series of questions on the above subject. Hearings of this kind suggest that the U.S. Congress is mindful of Myanmar and is interested to better the situation for all inside the country. I welcome such an initiative wholeheartedly.
Here below would have been my responses on a series of questions posed by the sub-committee.
Q1.  To what extent the political situation in Burma has changed over the last two years? How has this impacted the people of Burma?
Answer: In my opinion, the changes that have happened in the state of Myanmar in the last couple of years are mostly cosmetic and not genuine. I wish I could have sounded more optimistic. But I can’t and I shall share why I feel this way.
On the positive side, hundreds of political prisoners (almost all Buddhists) have been released from the prisons where once they had been rotting for years. On the negative side, they were released conditionally with the threat that they could be re-imprisoned to serve the remainder of their long prison sentences.
There is even a parliament (with members coming mostly from the armed forces) that discusses national issues, but the debates there don’t reflect an environment of a genuine democracy. Important issues affecting the future of the state, the role of military, the nature of the ‘emerging democracy’ and federation needed for Myanmar to survive in the 21st century as a united country that is composed of many races, ethnicities and religions are mostly ignored.
The Burmese military showed no sign of reform and in June 2011 it attacked the Kachin Independence Army ending their 17 year ceasefire. In March of this year, it also broke the ceasefire with the Shan State Army.
People, especially the minorities – ethnic and religious – are discriminated in every stratum of the society – from local levels to federal state of the government administration. As a matter of fact the situation of the minority Muslims has become much worse than any time before. The minority Rohingyas are still denied their basic rights to citizenship in spite of the fact that they are indigenous to the Arakan state, bordering Bangladesh. Thousands of Rohingya and other Muslim prisoners of conscience still continue to languish in Burmese prisons. Many of these prisoners have lost everything that they once owned. Sadly, many of the Rohingya political prisoners, previously uncharged all those years, are all on a sudden charged with fictitious crimes which they never committed, with the objective of excluding them from getting released under mounting international pressure to release of political prisoners. Worse still, in recent ethnic cleansing drives since May of last year while the victims were overwhelmingly Muslims almost all the prisoners related to such pogroms have been Muslims, aged from 8 to 60 plus years old, who are sentenced anywhere from 7 years to life imprisonment terms. Only in Mogher mulluk can one witness such travesty of justice!
The government has not allowed freedom of trade unions to operate freely within the prevalent laws.
There is no journalistic freedom to report from war-torn and riot (or more correctly pogrom) affected areas and express views that may be critical of the government.
The Myanmar government policy continues to advocate deportation of the Rohingya Muslims, unless, of course, they can be eliminated inside. Neo-Nazi Fascism is at an all time high inside much of Myanmar where the minority Muslims are forced to live a life of traumatic fear and absolute insecurity.  In recent days, three Kaman Muslim villages in Thandwe Township have been set on fire by the extremist Rakhine Buddhists. Instead of much anticipated security and integration, insecurity and marginalization to the level of wholesale extinction have, sadly, become the lot of the minority Muslims in this ‘new’ Myanmar. They face ever increasing mob violence that is directed against them with full support from top to bottom – from those in administration to the security forces and local racist Buddhist politicians and extremist Buddhist monks. Sadly, there is no Buddhist voice of conscience except probably that of U Gambira condemning such ethnic cleansing drives against minority Muslims. If this situation is allowed to continue unchecked the Rohingyas of Myanmar will become an extinct people in our time.
Succinctly put, while the outside world is mildly amused with the political reforms initiated by the administration of President Thein Sein, such reforms are too little and far between to address the more pressing issues of Myanmar – its fractured society that is divided along ethnicities, nationalities, races, religions, etc., and the role of the politicians, government officials, and the society at large to building the foundations for a stable and viable democracy in this otherwise multi-racial, -religious, -ethnic country. Unless the reforms are genuine by all intent and purpose, I am afraid that Myanmar will continue to bleed internally widening the gaps between religious and ethnic communities, creating an environment in which Buddhist monk-encouraged, racist politicians-motivated and government supported pogroms against vulnerable minorities would become the norms and not the exceptions. This would have, something already witnessed, a very adverse impact in the entire South Asia and South-East Asia leading to permanent chaos, conflict, regional insecurity, and instability - none of which is desirable for our world. As a resource rich but structurally and technologically weak, Myanmar cannot afford such an outcome.
Q2. Has the Obama Administration moved too quickly in easing sanctions on Burma and increasing its overall engagement efforts over the last two years?
Answer: As any expert would tell the regimes like those of Thein Sein crave for opportunities that give a lift to their legitimacy. The visits of the former Secretary of State Mrs. Hillary Clinton and President Barak Obama to the state of Myanmar are what the Myanmar’s new government craved for its public image and to boost its standing at home and abroad. Such visits gave the impression that the U.S. government is okay with the so-called reform efforts and the direction in which Myanmar is heading.
When the Thein Sein government was guilty of advocating Nazi-type solution for the Rohingya Muslims in July of 2012, the Obama administration issued waivers lifting financial and investment sanctions on Myanmar. In September-October of 2012 the US government lifted restrictions on international financial institutions assistance to Burma. In November President Obama waived the majority of the import ban on Burma.
Naturally, with all the sanctions almost lifted, there is no bar any more for any U.S. company to do business with this government, which still runs an apartheid state by any definition. Farmers and entire ethnic and religious minorities are removed forcibly from their ancestral lands in anticipation of lucrative foreign investments there. The Burmese Parliament has passed two laws that legalize land confiscation – the Farmland Law and the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Law – taking people’s ability to fight for their land rights.
As expected, the pace of reform slowed down drastically after the sanctions were lifted. Thus, in my opinion, the Obama Administration has moved too quickly in easing sanctions on Burma. What was required was a slow - give and take policy in which the new regime had to prove its sincerity for true reform before it could extract such political, economic, trade privileges or concessions from the USA.
The lifting of sanctions has been very counterproductive and damaging on the human rights front sanctifying violent and inhuman actions of the government as if those practices are okay. Thus, what we have been witnessing is an evolving face of Genocide of Muslims of Myanmar, which is no longer limited to the Rakhine state, but spread all over Myanmar. And, there is no other way around to describe this ugliness. In one particular incident this year in Meiktila Township in central Myanmar, as documented by the Physicians for Human Rights, 32 Muslim students were massacred by Buddhist mob and local authorities after hunting them down during the night. An MP, the police commissioner, security forces and hundreds of Buddhists watched the monstrosity as those unfortunate Muslim students were lynched to death one after another in a very calculated way. The pits where the students’ bodies were buried had been pre-dug, once again indicating the premeditated nature of the crime.
Many observers see, thus, easing of U.S. sanctions as highly hypocritical in which U.S. policies are considered opportunistic and short-sighted that are more dollar-pleasing and conscience-starving! It is morally bankrupt and ill-advised, to say the least.
Q3. Do you agree with the Obama Administration’s decision to start military-to-military relations with Burma?
Answer:  I find the decision of the Obama administration quite problematic for a plethora of reasons. As a concerned citizen of this planet, my preference would have been to avoid military relationship with any government that is guilty of some of the worst crimes of our time.
A visit to the ethnic territories in the Arakan (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin, Shan and Karen states inside today’s Myanmar and/or a mere research on what the Tadmadaw – the Burmese military and its hated NASAKA have done or have been doing for years would have been sufficient to show the unfathomed inhumanity and brutality of the apartheid regime. The Burmese military continues to practice and adopt means that are illegal and unacceptable per international laws and are simply criminal to the core. Such practices need to be condemned by all, and surely, not condoned.
So when a government like the USA, which is respected around the globe for its advocacy and promotion of law and order, human rights and integration of all people, is seen cooperating with a government that epitomizes intolerance, abuse, racism and bigotry and is known as the worst den of hatred and inhumanity in our time – it sends a very wrong message. It is immoral and wrong. The military collaboration with Myanmar should have been shunned and not promoted.
Having said that it would be foolish of anyone to ignore the important role played by the Burmese military (Tadmadaw) in all things related to Myanmar. It has a long history dating back to the colonial times. It has ruled the country for almost its entire life. Her much celebrated founder Aung Saan (the father of Aung Saan Suu Kyi) himself was a military man who first collaborated with the Japanese Army against the Allied forces during the World War II, when Burma was a British colony and then switched side before the Allied victory. Ever since General Ne Win, a former comrade of Aung Saan, took power in 1962 through a military coup, military has continued to run the country. The current president Thein Sein is a former general, too. Most of the ministers and those in authority within the country have military connections. As a matter of fact, hardly anything happens without military involvement. The military continues to dominate the parliament and write policies and draft constitution so that none could challenge its grip on the country either today or tomorrow. Its philosophy has been described by area experts as Myanmarism – a toxic cocktail of militarism, neo-Nazi fascism and ultra-racist-religious-Buddhism in which the Bamar (Burmese ethnic group) primarily rules and other secondary and tertiary races support the pyramid structure in an apartheid system. It is feudal and regressive in its character. It is built on myths and astrology – concepts that are outdated and obscene.
Whether we like it or not, the military will continue to play a dominant role inside Myanmar for a foreseeable future. Its grip on power of more than half a century would not go away soon and it won’t allow such from happening either by hook or crook. It would, therefore, be years before we see a real transition to democracy in which the faces of leadership are all or mostly civilians.
Simply put, I cannot imagine the US government to have military-to-military relationship with an apartheid regime which is guilty of some of the worst crimes of our time. Lest we forget, the regime exploits such collaboration with a powerful country to boosting its image, solidifying its legitimacy and avoiding or delaying the true reform from taking place.
What the ethnic minority states like Karen, Chin, Kachin, Rakhine (Arakan) and Shan, etc. need is a federal structure that allows all its people inclusion and not exclusion where they feel secure and safe, and enjoy the same rights and privileges, and surely not a program that strengthens the killing machines - killing them, dehumanizing and marginalizing them, and eventually pushing them out, leading them no option but to fight guerilla wars with no winners at the end.
Q4. Please describe the growing conflicts between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority. What implications does this conflict have for an end to inter-ethnic conflict and national reconciliation? How should the US better respond to escalating human rights abuses and mounting doubt that reforms will continue?
Answer: Since Thein Sein floated his so-called ‘reform’ government, the ethnic-religious-racial tensions have become worse. In the last 17 months, we saw the worst violence against the minority Muslims not only in the Arakan state but also all across Burma. In May of last year, nearly a dozen innocent Muslims – heading for Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, were pulled out from their bus and lynched to death mercilessly. Days later, Muslim villages and townships were burned down in a very organized manner in which the local Buddhist security forces, the police, politicians and preachers (monks) collaborated, inciting the Rakhine mobs to kill and destroy everything Muslim or Islamic. Even the government security forces were seen taking part in this murderous orgy. As a result, there is not a single functioning school, mosque, shop or business in territories that once had a solid Muslim majority in many parts of Burma, esp. in the Rakhine state. The pogroms against Muslims continued unabated for months and the entire city/town zones and villages in which they once lived became ghost towns with no Muslims to be found.
According to reports shared by human rights groups, some 140,000 Muslims remain as IDPs (internally displaced persons) inside the Rakhine (Arakan) state alone. Tens of thousands of Muslim homes have been systematically destroyed to ethnically cleanse those territories. Many of the Muslims are now living in squalid camps with less-than-adequate supplies. Many have tried to flee the country as unwanted refugees to places like Bangladesh, Thailand and beyond. They have been denied access in Bangladesh, imprisoned in Thailand and/or repatriated forcibly back to Myanmar, and worse still, some have been enslaved by Thai fishermen. Many have died trying to brave the ocean.
The condition in these refugee camps where Muslims are kept are beyond description. On July 2012 President Thein Sein told Antonio Gueterres of the UNHCR that the ‘only solution’ to the anti-Muslim conflict is to deport the Rohingya to other countries or to confine them to UNHCR refugee camps. He said, “We will send them away if any third country would accept them.” Such a statement is a direct reminiscent of the Nazi era in which Hitler and his fascists saw the ‘only solution’ to the ‘Jewish Problem’ was for other nations to take the Jews off Germany’s soil. Obviously, Rohingyas cannot be refugees in their own land, and the UNHCR rejected Thein Sein’s fascist demand.
From the statement of Thein Sein, it is obvious that the Myanmar authorities don’t want the Rohingya Muslim minorities living anywhere inside Myanmar. Thus, they are determined to starve them to death, unless they flee the country on their own. Even while fleeing the country, these unfortunate human beings have been shot at by the security forces.
Worse still, the government authorities and Rakhine terrorists worked together to physically destroy the buildings in the emptied Muslim communities in cities and towns, ensuring that the IDPs could not return to their homes. As noted by Ms. Quigley, the army dug pits and dumped the bodies of the Rohingya people in mass graves outside the IDP camps near Sittwe and throughout the Arakan state. Burmese authorities were also seen destroying Mosques and conducting mass arrests of Muslims.
The international NGOs and human rights agencies were barred from opening offices to monitor and provide necessary humanitarian aid to Muslim victims. Even the OIC could not open office in the Rakhine state. Government sponsored mob demonstrations provided the justification to deny such rights to the OIC.
The Buddhist monks have demanded that laws should be enacted that penalizes people from selling to and buying from Muslims. They also demanded that maximum quota for children for a Muslim family be limited to only two. It is all copycat of the Nazi era Germany that is being promoted in Buddhist Burma with the perpetrators being Buddhists and victims the Muslims. The formula is essentially the same!
The situation of the Muslims in other parts of Myanmar is equally bad. Recent months have seen organized mob violence in many parts of the country that are far away from the Rakhine state. The Buddhist terrorist monks like Wirathu are increasingly playing a very divisive, an evil, role in such pogroms against the Muslim minorities. Muslims are safe nowhere today inside Myanmar. Just like in Nazi Germany, the Muslim properties are easy targets for destruction, looting, and pillage. Just a mere rumor is enough to incite such organized mob violence against them in which everyone in this Buddhist country is a participant. Even the so-called democracy icon –Suu Kyi – is a silent endorser to such horrendous crimes!
In recent days, parts of Myanmar have seen demonstrations held by racist Buddhists opposing the resettlement of the Muslim victims. As I have repeatedly maintained, it would be utterly foolish to ignore the evolving signs of genocide of the Muslim minorities inside Myanmar. It has become a national project in which every Buddhist is playing a role inside the country – overtly or covertly, if not silently through their impotence or hesitance to condemn what is morally wrong and unjustifiable.
Many outside observers were surprised to see such outbreaks of targeted violence that have witnessed wholesale destruction of hundreds of Muslim villages and townships, esp. in the Rakhine state, the internal displacement of more than 200,000 Muslims all across Burma, deaths of innumerable victims and rape of so many. But we, in the human rights camp, knew better. Years before the current tragedy had hit Burma, we asked the leaders of the ENC and other so-called democracy groups operating inside Thailand and other parts of the world for a dialogue to discuss the problem of racial and religious tension and ethnic division inside Burma, and its transition to democracy but what we got was outright contempt and rejection. From the level of arrogance and intolerance, hatred and racism displayed by the so-called leaders and members of the ‘democracy’ movement, we knew too well that a simple transition to democracy won’t be able heal the wounds and stop the bleeding process; democracy would be abused, democratic means of voting would be abused to impose majoritarian narratives on the marginalized minority, denying them basic rights. As we feared, mob violence against the targeted minorities is the new face of democracy in Myanmar. Apparently, minority rights have no place in this new jargon. The denial of citizenship right to the Rohingya and other Muslims is seen as a necessary means to cement this apartheid process of keeping them out of the political process – permanently denied and ignored.
For a national reconciliation process to succeed, I suggest that Rohingya and other minority Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Christians who have been born and live in Myanmar be given full citizenship rights forthright. They need to be integrated within the Myanmar society with all the rights and privileges enjoyed now by the Buddhist majority. Quota systems must be allowed for these vulnerable minorities to make sure that not only are their views heard inside the parliament but they have equitable representation in all sectors of the government. Without such a massive program to integrate the once-persecuted minority, there is no way to fully reconcile the various peoples who live in this fractured country on the right track.
As to the refugees, now stranded or forced to live as unwanted refugees or temporary workers in foreign countries, provisions should be made under the supervision of the UN for their quick resettlement inside Myanmar.
Due compensation for the loss of properties should also be made by the Myanmar government to each of the victims so that they could restart their lives.
On its part, the ruling elite and the dominant Bamar race ought to understand that ethnicity is a colonial era concept, which has no place in our time when we have moved to citizenship to foster group identity towards shared responsibility of nation building. By holding onto its divisive and racist past, Myanmar, instead, is doing harm to its own long-term goal of keeping the country together. It needs a federal system where every state from the western-most Arakan state to the eastern-most Shan state would have rights similar to those enjoyed in the USA by any of its 50 states. Minus that formula, Myanmar will fight internally and eventually become a failed state disintegrating along ethnic/religious lines. Thus, it is to Myanmar’s best interest that I suggest that Rohingya and other minorities be accepted as full citizens of the country, allowing them every opportunity to build the country up so that once again Myanmar could become strong politically and economically.
Xenophobia and racism run deep and are widespread inside Myanmar because of the poisonous roles played by several ultra-racist provocateurs who continue to foment hatred in this country. Sadly, many of these ultra-racists, whose role have become akin to those played by Julius Streicher of the Nazi-era in Germany, have settled in the liberal west. The late Dr. Aye Kyaw (a Rakhine academic) who drafted the 1982 citizenship law disbarring the Rohingya was a professor at the NYU. Dr. Aye Chan, another Rakhine academic, notorious for describing the Rohingya people as ‘virus’ and inciting extermination campaign against them is a US resident who teaches in Japan. There are many such hate provocateurs who don’t mind enjoying the liberal, open status that they enjoy in the liberal West as a Buddhist minority, but are outright rejecters and deniers of such rights and privileges for the minority Muslims in their native country. Since their writings have been feeding hatred and justification for current and previous ethnic cleansing drives against the Rohingya and other Muslims, it is pertinent that such provocateurs of hatred and violence be prosecuted in the land of their residence. Those who incite genocide should never be allowed to continue their hateful mission that translates into loss of so many lives! They need to be held accountable for spreading intolerance and violence.
As I have noted last year in my keynote speech at Thammassat University, Bangkok, Thailand, a massive government undertaking is necessary inside Myanmar for eradicating hard-core racism and xenophobia that has hitherto allowed the brutal military regimes to exploit the country through the old maxim of divide and rule. But in the new setup, such old techniques will prove to be devastating and suicidal. Old myths that degrade and dehumanize the ‘other’ people need to be replaced with new realities through massive education and propaganda campaigns that unite and foster citizenship with shared responsibility.
The USA, as the most powerful nation on earth, can play a very important role in this latter goal of reconciliation and nation-building sharing its own rich experience how it has become a beacon of hope for all to jointly collaborate in and gain from, thereby strengthening the nation. Pluralism, integration and multi-culturalism, and not hard-core racism and bigotry, are the answers for curing Myanmar’s disease.
In conclusion, ethnic cleansing of the Muslims can no longer be denied by the Burmese government. It must be stopped. The continued neglect of human rights of the Muslim minorities and other non-Buddhists inside Myanmar will prove detrimental to any chance of national reconciliation and genuine democracy in Myanmar. The USA must change its current Burma policy that is emboldening Myanmar’s apartheid policy, which is increasingly becoming genocidal against the targeted Muslim minorities. The USA government policies should reflect and incorporate the needs of those persecuted minorities. It would be dim-witted to offer carrots to a rogue ass that refuses to change its behavior. The USA government should not issue GSP privilege to Myanmar until the latter has demonstrated concrete progress on labor laws & practices, and uprooted its forced (slave) labor policy.
Domestic attempts to inquire the root cause of anti-Muslim pogroms have proven to be hogwash to fool world opinion. The participation and complacency of security forces plus the lack of justice and accountability for those in authority underscore the importance of an international inquiry into crimes against humanity. A UN Inquiry is the only way through which facts can be established, those responsible can be held to account, and recommendations can be made to prevent further violence. The USA and the UN must support the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry into what has taken place in Arakan State and other parts of Myanmar since May of 2012.
Neo-Nazi Fascism, a la Myanmar style, targeting minorities has become the new dark force of our century. Sadly, it is growing in a very alarming rate and in a calculated way but with devastating results, permanently altering the face of Myanmar. Unless, the UN and the USA see this danger nakedly and stop it now, I am afraid that the burden of doing too little and too late will haunt us forever much like it did about Rwanda.