THE great philosophers Socrates and Plato dwelt at length on the concept of justice in society. They debated and destroyed one prevalent concept of justice that it was the interest of the stronger without giving an easily understandable alternative definition of the term. In the thousands of years of the development of human society since then, the concept of justice has not really settled the debate that justice is not the interest of the stronger. In fact, the concept that they had thought they had destroyed lingers stronger than ever. Karl Marx’s communism was based upon the belief that ‘the history of all hitherto existing societies is a history of class struggle’ or the struggle of the weak to challenge the unquestioned power of the strong that considered justice to be a matter of upholding their interests.
Marxism apart, history has shown over and over again that justice in human society has almost always reflected the interests of the stronger. In a recent article in January-February 2018 issue of the Foreign Affairs titled ‘the Original Sin’, Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that one of the most powerful political documents on earth, namely the US constitution, has built its powerful commitment to equality of all human beings on the assumption that the blacks were born to be slaves. In fact, the presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson were slave owners but they had no inhibitions about it and believed that they would be able to talk about freedom, equality and democracy while keeping the blacks as slaves and that the world would accept it as justice because they were stronger.
Movements for fundamental rights, human rights and civil rights notwithstanding, the weak are still pitied everywhere and whatever equality they have attained since Socrates and Plato thought they had debated and destroyed the concept that justice was the interest of the stronger; justice after all these years is still the interest of the stronger. That it is still so has been brought home another time by a report of Médecins Sans Frontières or as it is known by its English name, Doctors Without Borders. The MSF’s report is about the Rohingyas, a million of whom have taken refuge in Bangladesh fearing for their lives. The report is a clear one that underlines that the weak have no rights when it conflicts with the strong and in such conflicts, the strong do not care about murder, ethnic cleansing or genocide, to establish their right over the weak.
The report said that the Myanmar military killed 6,700 Rohingyas in a month in August–September after the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army that has been described by international security strategists as a riff-raff terrorist organisation had murdered four Myanmar military personnel. The survey of the MSF is the first major survey of the brutality of the Myanmar military that was unleashed upon the Rohingyas that sent so far 6,70,000 Rohingyas fleeing to Bangladesh for their lives that the prime minister of Bangladesh has called genocide and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’
Yet, so far there has been a show of sympathy for the plight of the Rohingyas and little else and that too, in a very subdued manner. In fact, the powerful nations have treated this man-made tragedy of humungous proportions casually and unjustly because the Rohingyas, the immediate victims, are abjectly weak and Bangladesh, the victim of the fall-out of this tragedy that is trying to stand for the Rohingyas, is also weak on the regional and world stage. And Myanmar, the perpetrator of this tragedy, has so far not even been held accountable for its crimes against humanity because although it is not much stronger than Bangladesh, it is nevertheless strong because it is protecting and serving the interests of the stronger nations of the region that have looked the other way to underline that justice is the interest of the stronger.
That interest of the strong in the Rohingya tragedy has been exposed by the Pope who himself could not muster the courage the call the Rohingyas Rohingyas on his official visit to Myanmar because he was afraid that it would upset his hosts and the powerful countries that supported its crimes. He said, after there was criticism everywhere for his failure to use the ‘R’ word in Myanmar, that he had heard that the Rakhine state that was previously called Arakan where the Rohingyas had lived for hundreds of years before it was annexed by the majority Buddhists Barmans in 1784, was ‘rich in precious stones… that the outside world (the powerful regional powers) wanted to be emptied for mining.’
It is now acknowledged that India and China are both vying with each other for these ‘precious stones’ as well as the state’s huge strategic value to both that have encouraged them to set aside reason and rationality to support the Myanmar military’s brutality and ignore totally their friendship and responsibility towards Bangladesh because it is weak. In fact, the Indians underlined both Socrates and Plato absolutely wrong when their prime minister Narendra Modi went to Myanmar to offer sympathy for the four victims of ARSA and turn a blind eye towards genocide/ethnic cleansing and the 6,700 cold-blooded murders (the MSF said the estimate was ‘conservative’). Russia also took the side of the stronger and had no pang of conscience to follow China and stated that whatever the Myanmar military committed in Rakhine State was an internal matter of Myanmar and not the concern of any other power.
The power of the stronger over the weak was further established on the world stage, again with the Rohingya tragedy. In the vote in the United Nations on a report critical of the Myanmar government on November 16, 10 countries including Russia and China voted against the critical report, 26 countries including India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka and Japan abstained. The voting in the United Nations clearly underlined that the weak are always the sacrificial goat when its interests are pitted against those of the stronger. Otherwise, there cannot be any justification that India, China and Russia did not stand in favour of the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing and instead either supported the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity or remained silent over their inhuman acts.
In fact, with the Rohingyas, there has been a far greater injustice that has not been exposed because they are weak and those who have taken up their cause are also weak. The Rohingyas are perhaps the only ethnic group in modern history whose ethnicity is being robbed from them right under the watch of those that assume they are the guardians of the international political order. Myanmar insists that the rest of the world cannot refer to the Rohingyas as Rohingyas because they want to make them stateless and deprive them of their nationality/citizenship by force, notwithstanding that the Rohingyas have not just the legal claim under international law to retain their ethnic name like the 130 odd other ethnic groups in Myanmar but also by that token the justifiable claim to Myanmar citizenship.
And it is not just the Pope, it is even the Bangladesh government that has submitted itself to illegal demand of the Myanmar government that the Rohingyas cannot be called Rohingyas. Bangladesh agreed to accept the arrangement it reached with Myanmar for repatriation of the refugees to be called ‘The arrangement on the return of displaced persons from Rakhine state’! Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan who undertook a study of the Rakhine State also succumbed to the Myanmar demand against the use of the ‘R’ word. In the interim report and recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State that he headed, he has not used the word Rohingya as it was a demand of the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at whose initiative the advisory commission was set up.
The Pope finally used the ‘R’ word in Bangladesh and called the Rohingyas Rohingyas. He went much further in Bangladesh. He said to a group of Rohingya refugees who met him in Dhaka that ‘the presence of God today is also called “Rohingya”.’ That was a very strong statement in favour of the Rohingyas, a profound one indeed, something that should have moved everyone to tears in support for the Pope’s articulation of the Rohingya tragedy. Only, that the Pope had failed to make the profound statement in Myanmar, belying Socrates and Plato and underlining the fact that the weak can only hope God’s favour to get justice but even His emissary on earth cannot dare stand for the weak in front of the strong.
M Serajul Islam is a former career ambassador.
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