In Myanmar, Echoes of Past Horrors Are Amplified

Posted December 14, 2017 8:49 p.m. EST

PANTIN, France — The horrors of Myanmar’s recent ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority Rohingya summon to memory the harrowing tales I grew up with of the persecution my Indian family faced there decades ago, when it was called Burma, and of their exodus from a land they called home. What they experienced, terrible enough, was less horrific than the campaign of mass rape, murder and arson inflicted on the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military in recent months.

But the goal was the same, to purge the country of people of an ethnicity considered foreign: drive them out, confiscate their assets and take their land.

My father was born into a family of Indian merchants — Gujarati Jains, to be precise — in Rangoon, Burma, in 1930, when the British ran the show. He remembers the terrible rioting between Burmese and ethnic Indians in the 1930s and the nights when my grandfather didn’t come home from his office and no one knew if it was because he had decided it was too dangerous to take the train to the suburbs, where he’d moved the family for safety, or if he’d been killed, as hundreds of Indians were.

My young father and his family fled Burma after the Japanese bombed Rangoon (now Yangon) in December 1941. The Japanese invasion prompted some 450,000 ethnic Indians to undertake a harrowing trek overland to India and safety. Between 50,000 and 100,000 perished on the way. After World War II, my grandfather and other Indians returned to try to recover their properties and businesses and start life anew. Burma became an independent country in 1948, and the hope was that the resentment many Burmese felt at the outsize role Indians had played in the country’s economy under the British rule would fade.

When my great-uncle, Mangalji Khara, returned to Burma in 1947, U Nu, who became Burma’s first prime minister, told him: “You are a Burmese, born and raised here. Now do something for Burma.”

It was not to be. In the heady period of nationalist fervor, the situation for Indians in Burma deteriorated sharply. “We never knew in the morning when we woke up what would happen that day,” one relative told me. “People were being denounced right and left. They could just come and take you away and take everything away from you. There was, what do you call it, ‘summary justice.'”

Yet, my grandfather persevered, still sending letters to my parents in the United States after my birth in 1957 on letterhead printed “P.B. Kamdar & Co., 71 Mogul Street, Rangoon.”

After Gen. Ne Win seized power in a military coup in 1962, he moved to nationalize assets under what was called the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” A new exodus of Indians began, with all valuables confiscated at dockside as they boarded ships for India. By 1964, the government of India had identified some 300,000 Indian refugees from Burma. Many, including my grandfather, had lost everything.

Yet, bad as it was, my family and other ethnic Indians never faced a military scorched-earth campaign to destroy their homes and obliterate every trace of their presence on Burmese soil, as the Rohingya have. When I visited Myanmar in 1997, I found the homes where they’d lived and the offices where they’d run their businesses quite intact. The women in my family never faced mass rape by Burmese soldiers, as Rohingya women have.

And whatever they’d suffered in Burma, my family had the education, the means and the connections to rebound in India.

The Rohingya have no comparable prospects. To many in areas of Rakhine state from which they have been driven, the Rohingya never existed at all, and every trace of their past is being eliminated. Meanwhile, Bangladesh — a poor, populous country, where some 640,000 Rohingya have taken refuge since August — says their welcome is a temporary one.

A repatriation agreement signed in November is a sham, with no assurances that returning Rohingya refugees will be treated under international standards.

Myanmar is threatening to house returned Rohingya in “temporary shelters,” an ominous threat given the squalid concentration camps where more than 100,000 Rohingya are already confined.

Myanmar’s military chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, and the country’s civilian leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, appear indifferent to condemnation by the U.N. Human Rights Council last month and by the threats of sanctions by the United States and the European Union. Their recent visits to Beijing may indicate that they believe the Chinese will back them up, whatever crimes may have been committed.

This puts an added burden on the rest of the international community not to abandon the Rohingya to the unkind mercies of Myanmar’s leadership, which in turn will condemn an entire people to unimaginable suffering.

For the sake of the Rohingya and in the name of basic humanity, the United States and the European Union must keep the pressure on Myanmar and insist that any repatriation of Rohingya who have fled to Bangladesh has the full backing of the United Nations to ensure their safe return to rebuilt homes and the restoration of their businesses and lands.

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