Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct



            Yesterday I listened to the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( mainly known in the West as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Myanmar (aka Burma). The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.


            The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.


            The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Myanmar, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.


            What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.


            Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.


            I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.


            When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende.  


            Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:


Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure


Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.


            Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:


…..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly    

15 Responses to “Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy”

  1. Ray Joseph Cormier October 15, 2012 at 7:43 am #

    Richard, as to your closing words in this wonderful and enlightening article, how old is old when a human sees the connection with the Eternal? A sinner dies in their Youth, but a Child of God dies at 100!

    Reading your reflections on this meeting, I had a sense of Being there. I am struck by these words;

    “Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.”

    Reading your perception of Mrs. Erdogan brought to mind the root idea of these similar words;

    When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

    And before him shall be gathered ALL nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats:

    And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

    Then shall the King say to them on his right hand, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

    For I was an hungry, and you gave me meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in:
    Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me.

    Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see you hungry, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink?
    When did we see you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you?
    Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and came unto you?

    And the King shall answer and say to them, Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.

    Then shall he say also to them on the left hand, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
    For I was an hungry, and you gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink:
    I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and you visited me not.

    Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when did we see YOU hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to YOU?
    Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say to you, Inasmuch as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.
    And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
    Matthew 25

    This goes way beyond religion, Jewish, Christian, Islam, Buddhist or any other traditional, ritual religion. This is a matter of the human heart.

    As you so aptly put it, “a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.”


  2. Laurie Knightly October 15, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    As I read it, the Rhihingya in the federal state of Arakan formerly Rakhine in Burma aka Myanmar claimed by Rangoon as illegal are muslims abused by Buddhists and supported by the Mazlunder Turks with Muslim affinites and all should be weighed by words of a Catholic priest because UN reports are drained by emotive content and need replacement by words of a poet.

  3. Laurie Knightly October 15, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    OK did that – sorry on spelling of Rohingya. The above directive was much easier than a geopolitical analysis of who and what……..and how or why……

  4. rehmat1 October 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

    Muslim minorities within Buddhist Maynmar, formally Burma (8 million), Cambodia and Thailand have been suffering for centuries. The Buddhist rulers in those countries continue to carry on the ethnic-cleansing of Muslim population by killing and terrorising Muslim communities, raping Muslim women, burning their houses, mosques and agricultural land.

    Arakan, an Islamic State established in 1430 CE, was occupied by Burmese Buddhist forces in 1783 CE. The Buddhist regime immediately embarked on a policy of oppression and physical elimination of the native Muslim population. Under British rule, Buddhist mob carried Muslim massacre in 1942 CE, which resulted in the death of over 100,000 Muslims. Since Burma’s independence in 1948 — the violence against Muslims has increased. Some 20,000 Arakan Muslims were killed between 1962 and 1984. In 1990s, 200,000 Muslims were forced to migrate to neighbouring Bangladesh.

    Burmese Army officers received training in the UK and the US. The UK and Israel also reportedly trained intelligence personnel. The US State Department had developed quite friendly relations with Ne Win regime by 1965. Ne Win was received at the White House by president Johnson in 1966 and Ne Win later bought houses in the UK, Germany and Switzerland. The US supported the military dictatorship while China against it until President Nixon’s visit to China arranged by Pakistan in 1972. It was agreed during that visit that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would stop suppor regional Communist parties if Washington refrain from becoming involved in S.E. Asia – something the Jewish Lobby could not abide by much longer. No wonder the Israeli-firsters supporting the democracy in Myanmar, such as, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Senator Jim Webb and Professor David Steinberg (Georgetown University and associated with the powerful Jewish think tank, Council on Foreign Relations), who did not like the results of democratic elections in PA Territories (2006), Hizb’Allah (2009) and Islamic Iran (2009).

    Israel Lobby is using both Myanmar and Sudan to blackmail China for its cordial relations with Islamic Iran – as it created a war between Georgia and Russia a few years ago to blackmail Moscow for its nuclear technology transfer to Tehran.

  5. peripamir October 16, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    We thank Richard for reminding us of the tragic plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Arakan, Myanmar, whom most of us discovered when violence erupted between them and ethnic Buddhist Rakhines last June. Given the scale of man’s inhumanity to man and the subsequent senseless suffering in the world, the Turkish govt’s decision to support these “virtually friendless” peoples is commendable. Troubling is Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence, and the Buddhist monks recent protest against the efforts of the OIC to extend a helping hand.

    However, I find it somewhat hard to believe in the supposedly “altruistic” nature of the AKP’s decision to adopt the Rohingyas. Rather, given the vast choice of oppressed peoples in the world eligible for assistance, it is hardly an accident that those selected by the Turkish govt to date ALL happen to be Sunnis. This applies to govts which the AKP has befriended as well (the most controversial being the Sudanese one), which leads one to conclude that Erdogan is poising himself to become the “spiritual” leader of the Sunni global community – a highly worrisome ambition given the drift towards heightened sectarian tensions in the region and in other parts of the world.

    PS. Mrs Erdogan is not Turkey’s “first lady” Richard, the wife of the President is. Was this, by any chance, “a Freudian slip” ? 🙂

    • Richard Falk October 18, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Dear Peri:

      Thanks for pointing out that Mrs. Erdogan is not the First Lady of Turkey. You are, of course, correct, and I altered the post accordingly.

      But your point about Sunni sectarianism is quite unjustified. Tureky in the last several years has sided with Shi’ia on several occasions: e.g. in condemming the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, in trying to find a solution to the Iran nuclear problem that annoyed Washington in 2010, in its relationship with the Assad regime until it began killing its people. You seem determined not to grant credit where credit is due when the AKP acts.

  6. monalisa October 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    Dear Richard,
    sure, emotional speeches should move the hearts of the listeners.

    However, I don’t think that this was just accidental at this present time and especially in the light of the acting powers in the Middle East.

    The subtle way to influence people is a speech with emotion. And females – as you already stated – are more apt to transfer the right emotions to the listeners/public.

    As I already stated before, Turkey has to follow US commands within NATO. Not less not more. This and Erdogans personal aspirations I think are enough to maybe more sceptical about the political ways Turkey will take in the near future.

    Dear Richard, I don’t think that this speech was just because the federal state of Arakan has been visited. Both visit and speech were well planned. It should fit somehow in the present political game.

    I feel very sorry for the plight of the Rohingya.
    I never had the opinion that the monks of Buddhism belief are any better than monks of other religions.
    Here I would like to draw to the fact that the Dalai Lama has been pushed into the lime light by CIA over the times. He had been on the pay roll of the US government for decades in order to manipulate the way of thinking in Western countries. This was – to my astonishement especially in Europe – very successful.
    I think from this point of the manipulated view of Buddhism maybe stems the generally regarded religion of Buddhism that those people are very peaceful. However, reading history of Asia tells otherwise.

    Whatever the reason was for this speech (and support by the Turkish) it is clear that minorities are still suffering worldwide.
    They are too victims of the political powerful states shuffling the cards for the great political game.

    Dear Richard, I think you are still far away crossing a line in the sands of time.

    Take care of yourself,


    • Richard Falk October 19, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

      Dear monalisa:

      I agree that it is important to contextualize a presentation of this sort, but having spent
      considerable time in Turkey, and having some contact with those who are shaping Turkish foreign
      policy on behalf of the AKP, I am convinced that this presentation was genuine on Mrs. Erdogan’s
      part. It fits with the Turkish effort at the highest levels of government to reach out to peoples
      who are enduring great privation to render assistance. Somalia is the most notable case. The leaders
      of Turkey went to Mogadishu a year or so ago when it was considered too dangerous to visit and had
      been written off as the worst of ‘failed states.’ Now, although still beset by problems, it is in
      much better shape. Also, Turkey is the first non-European country to take over for the next ten years
      responsibility for UN efforts to help the Least Developed Countries. Of course, there are ways to
      interpret these initiatives as motivated by certain strategic or economic ambitions, but I find such
      explanations far-fetched or subordinate to an effort to demonstrate the possibility of a post-realist
      foreign policy. The future will, to some extent, reveal whether I am being too naive or optimistic.

      Best always,


      • monalisa October 20, 2012 at 5:11 am #

        Dear Richard,

        thank you for your explanation of your point of view.

        Sure, to be in touch with politicans and people involved with certain political actions gives a different impression and view than being from outside as my position is.

        However, maybe I am too pessimistic (shaped by looking at political actions and wars during the second half of the 20th century as well as the first ten years of this new millenium) and maybe you are too optimistic.

        We both can just hope for the best of our globe and its population.

        PS: My points of view are also maybe more shaped as I lived in Egypt for a longer time.

        Take care of yourself,


  7. peripamir October 20, 2012 at 6:50 am #

    And you, dear Richard, seem determined not to admit to any other interpretation of the AKP’s policies or record than the overly positive one you seem to have adopted and which, unfortunately, jars more and more with a wide range of appraisals, coming also from foreign sources.

    The latest is the EU’s Progress Report for 2012 which is highly critical of issues I have repeatedly raised here.

    The Sunni-Shia axis which you also deny has developed over the last few of years. Turkey and Iran are today on opposing sides of the religio-political barrier each supporting their own denominational communities in the region and beyond.

    Nor am I persuaded that proximity to centers of power making necessarily endows one with a clearer understanding of what is truly going on and why. Your particular contact may have good intentions but, quite frankly, I am not sure you are privy to all the necessary knowledge and insight. In the meantime, they are lucky to have your powerful pen at their disposal.

    So as your exchange with the above reader also implies, let history be our judge… I just hope you will not one day be compelled to explain your convinction as you felt the need to do so with respect to Iran….

  8. Beau Oolayforos November 10, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    When you speak about ‘thinking with the heart’ and the role of women in public discourse, you remind me how, while I look to you for enlightenment and instruction on world issues, Ms Abulhawa, well, she speaks to people’s hearts and souls…

    • Richard Falk November 11, 2014 at 9:47 am #

      I too share your deep appreciation of Susan Abulhawa, and all that she conveys and represents and embodies.


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