DhakaTribune
Sunday January 21, 2018 06:27 PM

The wrongs remain the same

  • Published at 07:02 PM December 31, 2017
  • Last updated at 02:17 AM January 01, 2018
The wrongs remain the same
The Rohingya all but dominated headlines in 2017Photo: REUTERS

A brand new year full of the same old problems?

Another year over. A new one just begun.

John and Yoko’s chorus comes to mind as my nephew asks, “what’s your favourite Christmas song?”

“’Merry Christmas, War is Over,’” I reply without irony.

To which he says: “Oh, mine’s, ‘Fairytale of New York.’”

I applaud the nine-year-old’s taste for the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, and he sniggers at the non-PC insults in the 1980s festive classic.

The very next day, we both pine for the naive sentiments of the late Beatle’s seasonal anthem, as the BBC screens a hard-hitting Panorama update about Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

Several Rohingya women calmly give testimony about the systematic burning of villages and use of mass rape by the marauding Burmese militia.

Haunting and harrowing, this would be uncomfortable as a documentary, let alone as peak-time holiday viewing. Images of large numbers of children seeking solace in refugee camps are utterly heart breaking.

As viewers transfixed, we simultaneously wanted to reach for the remote and to make the whole world watch in solidarity.

The program explains how this tragedy was perfectly foreseeable — Myanmar’s military rulers have been enforcing the wholesale denial of rights and state-sponsored persecution of the Rohingya people in their homeland, for decades.

Not for the first, or last, time, a documentary thoroughly excoriates Aung San Suu Kyi as the one Burmese leader in a position to oppose the murderous military, for shamelessly endorsing and promoting the regime’s propaganda. The sight of the once-lauded lady of Yangon looking elegant in silk amid an audience of armed goons prompts a succinct summing by the nine-year-old.

Optimism took a beating in 2017. Given it was a year which began with Barrack Obama in the White House and ended with Donald Trump, what else could you expect?

“It’s as if the princess in Star Wars had joined the dark side,” he declares. The baddies have won.

Some truths are so self-evident, they can be startling to hear spoken aloud.

When John Lennon first released his “War is Over” song in support of the anti-Vietnam war movement, he predicted its longevity by noting “there’s always a war on somewhere.”  Hence the line, “war is over, if you want it.”

Ironically, for Bangladeshis, that record first came out in December 1971. The one time a major war really was over by Christmas.

Sadly, today, there is no sign of Myanmar’s perpetrators of crimes against humanity, being held to account. Myanmar’s generals have been steeped in multiple ethnic conflicts for over 70 years.

In the absence of a regime change, bar the occasional international travel sanction, they remain as free to fly the Earth without being arrested, as Henry Kissinger (for now).

So, it’s not easy as tradition demands, to welcome January as a chance to look forward to a better year ahead. Optimism took a beating in 2017. Given it was a year which began with Barrack Obama in the White House and ended with Donald Trump, what else could you expect?

Intolerance, inequality, xenophobia, and climate change, his instincts and policies encourage them all. Yet, he ends the year with his base intact (for now).

Europe, meanwhile, looks doomed to spend another whole year, at least, talking about Brexit.

On the plus side, we all learned about hubris as the UK General Election saw Theresa May throw away the Conservative party’s parliamentary majority. And the world found out Big Ben had to stop ringing. Yet, for all the attention and praise earned by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, she remains in charge (for now).

In the years ahead though, it is more likely to be the inequality and injustice represented by the glaring image of the burned-out Grenfell Tower, not the technicalities of the Single Market which will exercise voters’ minds.

Journalist Robert Peston has written vividly of the need for leaders of rich Western nations facing relative economic decline as China grows to make fundamental changes, or “face the pitchforks.”

In the Middle East, meanwhile, a palace coup in Arabia boasts it will end a 35-year-old ban on cinemas and women driving, but has done nothing to stop Saudi Arabia bombing civilians in Yemen or preaching sectarian conflict.

Even after tens of thousands of civil war deaths, Syria still sees Assad protected by Putin. As for Israel /Palestine …

At this stage, tradition also demands a nod to either economics or science as alternative saviours in the absence of better politicians.

But precedent shows that for every do-gooder at talking shops like Davos, there are plenty more serial tax-avoiders and vested interests. And the disruptive effect of new technologies is prone to the law of unintended consequences.

So, that leaves us with Bangladesh.

The Rohingya crisis has shone a new sort of light on the nation — which may bring more international media looking for good news stories. I do not doubt they will find a few.

Yet, inequality, intolerance, xenophobia, and out-of-touch metropolitan elites, they will be even easier to find. And even harder to change.

But that’s no reason not to start trying.

Niaz Alam is a member of the Editorial Board of Dhaka Tribune. A qualified lawyer, he has worked on corporate responsibility and ethical business issues since 1992. He sat on the Board of the London Pensions Fund Authority between 2001-2010 and is a former vice-chair of War on Want.

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