A few months ago I wrote an article about my March visit to Burma. It was something of a follow up to the three part series I wrote about my last visit in 2013. Like the first time, I had written so much while I was there. In bed at night, when I woke up in the morning, on icy coach buses careening around dark mountain roads, I wrote about Burma. Reading through my notes now, so much of them seem to be an attempt to describe or explain its enchantment. I was, and remain, under its spell.
Bumping along rocky roads in the back seat of a sweltering minivan with no shocks, I wrote about travelling from Bagan to Inle Lake. Leaving the arid, pagoda speckled plains of Bagan, hot wind swirled dirt and dust through the thick, hazy air. A faint outline of mountains was sketched on the distant horizon.
It seemed like no matter how far we drove, vast swathes of flat, brown land sprawled in every direction. Even when we finally reached the mountains, the landscape remained largely barren. After hours of brown hued summits and descents, it became hard to imagine a lake might ever materialise.
But suddenly a final descent brought us into an emerald world teeming with life. The town of Kalaw’s densely packed colonial infrastructure was draped across the last of the rolling foothills. For the first time I’d experienced in Burma, the warm air was accompanied by a slight crispness.
As Kalaw’s hill town houses trickled back to farmland, small lakes began to appear amid white and gold pagodas. The bodies of water emerged simultaneously with bright red dirt. Then, just as suddenly, a green and gold kingdom began to unfold around me.
To the right, impossibly green rice paddies stretched to the horizon where they met imposing mountains reaching into the sky. A bright yellow and orange evening sun sat atop the mountains like a crown, its reflection shimmering in the watery spaces of the rice paddies.
To the left, a river ran alongside the road, its opposite shore alive with bustling villages of people cooking, washing, and fishing. Behind the village rose a twin mountain range mirroring the first, this one bathed in the setting sun’s soft pink light.
As we turned to enter Nyaung Shwe, blossoming trees cascaded purple and fuchsia petals to the ground, blanketing the earth in bright colours softened by the diffused light of the sunset. Gold light splashed down the narrow streets. It was heaven.
This was the memory of Burma that haunted my senses when I left; the memory of Burma that sprang to mind when I read that thousands of their Rohingya Muslims refugees were stranded at sea in May. As one million Burmese people and 1.2 million acres of rice fields have been affected by flooding over the past three months. When yet another mass grave of refugees was uncovered near the border. When the Australian prime minister said, ‘nope, nope, nope’ to offering refuge to the displaced.
To be so desperate to escape the closest thing to heaven I have ever experienced reveals only a fraction of the severity of the Rohingya’s plight. More than 140,000 Burmese Rohingya are detained in government camps. Many are being denied citizenship or the right to vote in Burma’s coming elections. The government regularly turns a blind eye to ethnically motivated violence.
Tens of thousands of Rohingya have risked their lives to flee Burma by sea over the past year. When Thailand closed a known trafficking route in May, the people smugglers abandoned their ships and left thousands of refuges at sea with no countries willing to accept them.
After a weeks-long standoff, Indonesia and Malaysia finally agreed to provide the stranded refugees temporary shelter and Gambia offered to resettle them.
Meanwhile, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said that they were not Australia’s problem and should be dealt with by Burma’s also socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbours, saying,
Nope, nope, nope. I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door. Don’t think that getting on a leaky boat at the behest of a people smuggler is going to do you or your family any good. We are not going to do anything that will encourage people to get on boats. If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better. Our role is to make it absolutely crystal clear that if you get on a leaky boat, you aren’t going to get what you want.
This is quite properly a regional responsibility and the countries that will have to take the bulk of the responsibility are obviously the countries which are closest to the problem. In the end the culprit is Burma, it is Burma where there is an issue.
In the midst of all of this, all but two of Burma’s 14 states have been affected by severe flooding.
At this point in history, the world has seen enough genocides to know it will regret inaction. To refuse to help or to pawn off responsibility is synonymous with complicity.
Burma is never far from my mind and I’m constantly telling people of its magic. But it is also going through hell. As great as humanity’s capacity for compassion is its capacity for callousness from positions of comfort. Its proclivity for malevolence is forcing people from heaven; the least we could do is open our doors.