What is happening in Myanmar?

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 7, 2021 - 12:00am

It should be my daughter Veronica who should be writing this column.

Even during the early days when the military regime was making friends with other countries in the region, she looked deeper and resolved to write the truth and what she saw and heard when she went to Myanmar herself.

She has made the fate of the Rohingyans her cause.

When we were at the party given by Amal’s parents in a posh suburban hotel, we were seated with ambassadors and their wives. Our table was adjacent to the where Amal and George Clooney were seated. I went out for a while and found that Veronica was not in her seat. I need not have been frantic.

She approached George Clooney to ask help for the Rohingyans (who were Muslims) and thought it would be great if the newly wed couple could help in the Rohingyans’ cause. They were then very popular, George from Hollywood and Amal, an international figure, was Muslim. The couple could take up their cause but George, handsome and charming as always, just gave her a buzz on the cheek, probably asking what does this pretty Filipina lady want us to do.

Later, I was talking with the other ambassadors and their wives who said “brave girl, you taught her well.” I have not heard any public statements from Amal about the Rohingyan Muslims’ cause, which is a pity.

Most disappointing precisely because Amal has made a reputation defending human rights victims. Baria is a personal friend and I arranged meetings for her with every Philippine president except Noynoy. She asked me if Veronica could help her meet Aung San Suu Kyi. It would have been embarrassing for me to make the link.

I met the Myanmar ambassador to the Philippines at a lunch hosted by former Speaker Jose P. de Venecia Jr. He was very friendly and told me then and there, my husband, the late ambassador to Brussels, Luxembourg and the EU, to visit Myanmar.

I did not know much about Myanmar except what the Western press said about it. It would be an exciting experience and so off we went. The first stop of our visit was at the house of a man described as one of the richest Myanmarese. He was not in the military but his wife was related to a rich and powerful military general.

There were about a dozen of the most expensive sports cars in the driveway. Amazing for a poor country like Myanmar.

We were the only guests and were quite surprised when he came to greet us with an apron because he would be cooking our breakfast. There were other Filipinos in the group but my husband was our spokesman and thanked the ambassador and the plutocrat for the invitation.

We were interested in doing business with them under acceptable terms. In our ride around the country there were no gasoline stations. We had to drive miles before we found a crude one and what we could buy was limited. There were also fruit stalls but with little buyers, most of the fruits rotted by the wayside.

As far as most of the world outside was concerned, it was the country that imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of a revolutionary in the British colonial period. She was under house arrest and not allowed to receive guests but it was in a rich neighborhood. She was a human rights activist.

Ambassador Thang Tun eventually invited Veronica and I remember him saying her “being a journalist and a fearless one.” He understood the risk but trusted she would use her discretion when citing Western journalists’ sources.

After the visit and a few years, I never met the ambassador again. We parted ways as what happens with diplomats leave the Philippines for other assignments.

He served as Myanmar’s ambassador to the Philippines from 2005 to 2008. His last post was Brussels where he served as ambassador to the European Union and the Netherlands.

Following his retirement from the foreign service, he was a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Veronica eventually visited Myanmar. She spent time studying and writing about the Rohingya refugee crisis.

The Rohingya refugee crisis is caused by the Rohingya people having long faced violence and discrimination in Myanmar. Armed conflict escalated in August 2017 in Rakhine State, causing Rohingya to flee to nearby Bangladesh.

Not long after Suu Kyi’s ascension to the role of state counsellor, the international community began looking into a series of escalating attacks on the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar’s coastal state of Rakhine.

In October 2016, soldiers and civilian mobs banded together to terrorize and destroy Rohingya villages. A larger wave of violence erupted in August 2017, resulting in more than 600,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing across the border to Bangladesh.

Previously known for her courage in the face of military abuses, Suu Kyi now drew criticism for seemingly turning a blind eye to these atrocities. Following a November 2017 report by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Fortify Rights, which referred to the acts of “genocide” being committed in Myanmar, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Suu Kyi and publicly called for investigations into the violence.

Late in the month, the British city of Oxford, where Suu Kyi attended school, voted unanimously to revoke the Freedom of the City of Oxford award that was bestowed upon her in 1997, for her refusal to condemn the human rights violations occurring under her watch.

In March 2018, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum followed suit by announcing it was rescinding the Elie Wiesel Award given to Suu Kyi in 2012. In a letter sent to the Burmese leader, the museum noted her failures to speak out against the brutal military campaigns that devastated the Rohingya population. The museum urged her to cooperate with international efforts “to establish the truth about the atrocities committed in Rakhine State and secure accountability for perpetrators” in her country.

It is time we know more about the crisis and how we can help the victims, especially the women and children.

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