IN BETWEEN resting her back and straightening the hem of her skirt, Dildar Begum recounted her last glance of Tula Toli, site of one of the worst atrocities by the Myanmar military. The military had rounded up villagers, including some of her relatives, locked them in a house, and set it on fire, at some point she mentioned they had also thrown petrol bombs, and the burning houses, engulfing smoke, overpowering stench of smoke and petrol and bodies chased her all the way to Bangladesh, haunting her being. She remembers the fire, those are her last memories of the village, and then she directs my attention to nowhere in particular but the surrounding camps, ‘Everyone here has a story.’ And they did.
Next to Dildar Begum was Moyna Khatun from Boli Bazar, who walked several days to reach Bangladesh. At the border with nothing else to exchange for safe transit, she parted with her jewellery. This was an involuntary transaction as she remembers, from her telling, more like a confiscation. But for Dildar Begum, the details of her escape were hazier as if the smoke had also engulfed a particular phase in her memory, the smouldering snapshots of Tula Toli still retrievable from where she had them filed away, but the flight from home dissolved. Or maybe she was just circumspect, unwilling, which is just as it should be. None of us are entitled to stories of others or to only as much or as little they let on.
The Myanmar military operation against the Rohingyas has been incessant. The cruelty relentless and methodical, the misery enormous, and a condition that is increasingly intractable. Daily news from the Rakhine region, from Myanmar, from the camps in Bangladesh, and from mavens of geopolitical power curdles into a repugnant mass, a combination of the worst possible elements of modern political life — national interest and enduring pabulum. On November 2, Aung San Suu Kyi visited northern Rakhine state, a spectacle made worse by her exhortations to the Rohingyas left in Myanmar. It wasn’t their choice to be subjected to her entirely meaningless and absurd statements but there they were to listen to her tell them to ‘live peacefully’ and ‘not quarrel.’ Her rhetorical sleight, immoral but functionary-appropriate, speaking in nonsense is wholly commensurate with demands of high positions, even ceremonial ones. Unaccounted for in Suu Kyi’s verbal act was that this wasn’t really a quarrel or anything resembling a fight on equal or near-equal terms. Nor a reckoning with what living peacefully meant for Rohingyas in Myanmar.
On the day of her visit, ‘at least 2,000 terrified and starving Rohingya huddled in rice paddy fields near one border crossing on the Naf river. They had waited for more than 24 hours for permission to enter Bangladesh and spent the night in the muddy fields.’ As many had done in the preceding weeks and months and as others have continued since.
Divesting from any moral deliberation grants Suu Kyi the power of willful ignorance. What and whom she terms as querulous — Rohingyas — has borne a systematic devastation at the hands of a military apparatus that also maintains her status. And in clinging to that status, in harbouring virulent anti-Rohingya sentiments beginning with a refusal to recognise them as Rohingyas, she is complicit. She may never meet Fatema Khatun from Boli Bazar, now in Balukhali, whose ears still ring with gunfire from when the military attacked their village and carnage that followed. But Suu Kyi and her compatriots still have to account for the dead, injured, displaced, and fearful. For Fatema Khatun, for Dildar Begum, for Moyna Khatun, for each soul and life.
For Mohammad Solaiman and his wife, daughter, and everybody in their village. Their Rakhine chairman had announced the military’s impending arrival but also assured them of safety, assurance given in words with no weight, stressing there was no reason to be afraid while offering promises of protection. When the military arrived soon afterwards, a morning as Solaiman recalled, gunfire and explosions heralded their inauspicious entrance and then unfurled into absolute terror. Villagers were ordered into a swampy ground, young men picked apart and executed. Next, women were separated from men and from the group of women, several where ordered into a house, Solaiman’s wife and daughter among them. For the next five hours soldiers went in and out of the house, the culmination of which was a house on fire with the women locked inside. In the following hours with soldiers and Rakhine collaborators still shooting, Sulaiman managed to jump into the water and swim without knowing if and when he would find a shore of safety.
In Thaingkhali, Cox’s Bazar, he shows me his only possession besides the clothes on his back — a laminated photo of his family from more ‘peaceful’ times. There is Solaiman and eight others in the family lined against a blue background and in front of them, a wooden sign on wood stands. It’s a government issued photo, a count of family members with official signatures at the back from one of numerous Myanmar government schemes to sort Rohingyas as outsiders. Arraying and sorting are always foundational tools of violence, instruments of systematic oppression. And the emotional tenor of the photo’s subjects reveals the nature of that systematic oppression; this was the ‘peace’ which Suu Kyi alluded to. Herded and ordered to stand in line, forced to accept the terms of their persecution, Sulaiman and his family are costumed in defiance as they face the camera with muted but visible fury, indignity met with indignant expressions. Loaded with a complicated burden, the object presents as photographic evidence of a family that is no longer, but it’s also an artifact of the kinds of control that ultimately resulted in his family’s annihilation. Peace was and remains elusive for Sulaiman.
These stories, however, are at once extraordinary and quotidian. They are extraordinary given the calculated depravity unleashed, acts and actors without redemption. In their patterns and particulars, through repetition, they betray a devious architecture of violence. So it’s tempting to think of these as mindless and thoughtless. Who would do this and well, the answer to that is, plenty of people and institutions. They are in fact products of mindful and thoughtful ness to the extent those are produced through deliberation. Easy as it seems to pronounce such atrocities as inhuman and those who commit them as monsters granting both act and actor a mythic status, they are simply human and quotidian. Thinking of them as monsters and monstrosities can be self-exculpatory, as if they are distant and separated from us. But if we acknowledge their presence here, right now, among us, it doesn’t detract from specific and extravagant violence, instead it clarifies how violence is normalised and perpetuated.
The other temptation of course is to ascribe almost a parodic conception of human nature (whatever that means though almost always veering towards nihilism and pathology) to these brutalities — a Hobbesian understanding percolates such ascriptions. A royal sympathiser, Hobbes used violence as a primordial human state to justify a strong government, essentially an authoritarian (sovereign, state) political community to rein in human excess. But Hobbes has it backwards; it is his idealised political communities that produce those excesses. Baked into these sovereign polities — and their modern iterations, states — are structures of violence, both cause and excuse for much of the worst of excesses. And often they are invisible and standard. So as extraordinary as they are, actions of Myanmar government also typify state operations, not because humans are pathologically brutal but because institutions like states are birthing grounds for cruelty. If there’s a coherent creed states embody, it’s violent extremism.
Writing in A Not-So-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (2005), Joseph Nevins demonstrates how the occupation of East Timor bred institutionalised and ‘seemingly normal practices’ of violence only achieved when ‘a purveyor of violence has sufficiently won the upper hand.’ There ‘the violence was in the structures built upon the corpses of the dead and the collective trauma of those who had survived.’ ‘The brutality in East Timor,’ says Nevins ‘was of an established sort.’ More blatant acts, the Santa Cruz massacre for example, stood on and also created those normalised practices. In Myanmar, violence of an established sort against Rohingyas is too long — stripping of citizenship, restrictions on mobility, indiscriminate and calculated harassments and violence, daily humiliations, all against a generalised and ambient Islamophobia. Atrocities of the extreme kind commingle with and are the result of those foundational atrocities.
Which is why a fixation with the most gruesome and traumatic refugee experiences told in isolation ignores the scaffolding responsible for those experiences. Telling and retelling of trauma are also necessitated by certain cultural-juridical conditions. Calls to action, demands for justice must produce systematised, digestible documents, evidence, and witness accounts. And these documents are configured within a formal structure, so if General Min Aung Hlaing or Suu Kyi or any of their subordinates and foot soldiers were to be held responsible, and there is no question that they should, their culpability will have to be linked to the most gruesome actions. Who then will be responsible for the normalised practices? At this point it’s worth noting how arbitrary and power- inflected legal apparatuses are when Radovan Karadžić can be tried and convicted for war crimes (justifiably), but Henry Kissinger attains the status of an elder statesman. Also worth considering are the limitations of individuated remedial actions leaving structures of power intact.
And then there’s distribution of trauma. Traumatic narratives are scripted and circulated within a specific cultural landscape and the demands of this landscape are also particular. At its most basic level, we want victims to share their stories so they don’t disappear, so their testimony is collected as evidence, so, to use that ambivalent term, we know. But it’s an uncomfortable gambit since as we bear down on traumatic stories insisting on specificities and gruesome details, each of these stories attached to a face and person, the narrative force of victimhood comes to dominate the person. And that narrative force eclipses any other subjectivity a person may hold. Stories are also told with an audience in mind and as Pramod K Nayar argues in Writing Wrongs: The Cultural Construction of Human Rights in India (2012), ‘cultural legibility involves us not as passive recipients or listeners but as co-producers of the narrative.’ That co-production involves construction of a legible identity cantered on victimisation for us to consume and for them to perform. Sympathy and attention are garnered through constant production and circulation of trauma narratives, otherwise who would pay attention? Would we?
Permeating through all this, the central issue at stake is redress, a desire for correctives. But band-aid like correctives can only ameliorate so far, when the malady has metastasised. And when notions of redress, desires for redress, those desires are entrapped within what we call the system, systematic violence survives any attempt to restrain it.
Parsa Sanjana Sajid is a writer, editor, and researcher.