This week, we held our breath while Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about Myanmar’s response to criticism of its apparent efforts to allow ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people from Rakhine State on the west coast of Myanmar, just below Bangladesh. Hopes for a break-through were dashed when Aung San Suu Kyi denied knowing why the Rohingya were fleeing.
“I am aware of the fact that the world’s attention is focused on the situation in the Rakhine State. And, as I said at the General Assembly last year, as a responsible member of the community of nations, Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny, and we are committed to a sustainable solution that would lead to peace, stability and development for all communities within that state…. Since the 5th of September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations. Nevertheless, we are concerned to hear that numbers of Muslims are fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. We want to find out why this exodus is happening.”
For many months, as the Rohingya crisis has deepened and atrocities have gotten international attention, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has been called upon to exercise her influence with the Myanmar government to end the violence and ethnic cleansing of Rakhine State that has led to more than half a million refugees fleeing in every direction, especially into Bangladesh. It has been astonishing and frustrating that Aung San Suu Kyi has not done anything, and in fact has denied evidence that there were villages burned with people of all ages trapped inside, murders and rapes committed by government troops, and human rights violations. She was apparently instrumental in blocking free international investigations by such delegations as the UN team led by Kofi Annan, although she lifted quotes from that report in her speech last week. Her refusal to intervene has led to an on-line campaign to have her Nobel Prize revoked, which cannot happen because there is no precedent or mechanism for it.
On September 21 Michael Jerryson of Youngstown State University reflected on Aung San Suu Kyi’s disappointing speech in an article in “Religious Dispatches”. Jerryson says that there is an identifiable dynamic in operation here that he has seen before.
He mentions the case of another renowned Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, whose poignant memoir, Night, about his personal experiences in Nazi concentration camps is one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Wiesel was a human rights campaigner whose passionate advocacy had one blind spot. As Jerryson witnessed, when Wiesel was challenged by university students to talk about Israeli action against Palestinians in the summer of 2014 in which 2000 + Palestinians were killed of whom ¾ were civilians, Wiesel reversed the terminology to insist that it was Israel who were the sufferers. This was a point he made in full page ads in national and international newspapers at the time, despite declaring in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1986, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” He prefaced those remarks by famously saying: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” But the Palestinian issue is a “battle of civilization versus barbarism” he said in the newspaper ad.
Jerryson raises the question of how two champions of human rights could be so blind to violations in their own countries. He refers to a 2008 book, Violence, by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
“Violence, Žižek states, takes three forms--subjective (crime, terror), objective (racism, hate-speech, discrimination), and systemic (the catastrophic effects of economic and political systems)--and often one form of violence blunts our ability to see the others, raising complicated questions.” (Quote from “Goodreads” website).
Without going into the subject of where has Slavoj Žižek been all of my life (he has been writing many books that I only heard about this very day, fighting neoliberalism, and becoming famous in a way that will make him popular if the populace begins to care about tedious, brilliant writing), I’d like to imagine why one form of violence blinds us to others. It must have to do with rage, an inner explosion of such intensity that we are rendered senseless, ineffective and terrified. It is an axiom that anger is caused by fear of loss. Behind the anger is fear.
Slavoj Žižek writes extensively, repetitively (according to comments online), and humorously about how subjective violence blinds us to systemic violence. Why are we willing to put up with the “catastrophic effects of economic and political systems”? His answer is that we are traumatized by or fixated on more immediate perceived threats. Jerryson reverses the matter, suggesting that ASSK and Wiesel have become immersed in “something” to such an extent that they fail to see the trees for the forest.
I do not think we need to look far to see what the “something” is. Burma/Myanmar and Israel are both imperiled, enmeshed in circumstances from which there are no ways to extricate themselves without somehow “starting over”. Now, that is a prospect of such magnitude as to be unthinkable. Instead, all focus must be narrowed to reality. Israel’s reality is defense against persistent aggression. All reality is filtered through that lens. Myanmar’s reality is a political-military establishment so firmly entrenched that every fiber of the national fabric is infiltrated and all extraneous strands (mostly ethnic groups) must either be incorporated or eradicated. ASSK’s contribution has been toward repairing the fabric, which is an undertaking so fragile even the slightest faltering can unravel it all.
If this analysis is on target, we should find the same blindness in other circumstances where a nation is so entangled it can only be left to its own devices or disintegrated back to fundamental elements to start over. Being left to deal with things, almost always means that the world sits idly by while a people-group is devastated. Starting over almost always means that anarchy and revolution foment violence so that all survivors become victims.
Ever since the Second World War, the option most often taken has been to let a nation handle its internal circumstances and turmoil. This has resulted in immense atrocities and often refugees, but also the occasional Velvet Revolution which was peaceful. When word of the atrocities got out the world gasped and shrieked, and probably did little or nothing. That is what happened in the ethnic cleansing as Yugoslavia broke apart, in Ruanda, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. The refugees became the world’s concern, slowly being sifted wherever they could land. It appears that events after the end of the Soviet Union have created a new scenario in which selected types of subjective violence are targeted for intervention, especially by military giants. Russia has a tendency to do this exceeded only by the USA. Other states are beginning to copy these examples, as is Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
So now we are hearing of three options: permitting a nation to cleanse itself however it chooses, rescuing the refugees who manage to flee the violence or letting them perish, and decisive outside intervention with unpredictable consequences. The option we will prefer will be the one with the violence we fear less. Meanwhile we will be blind to violence being inflicted on others.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.