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Lines of conflicts – Indentured labour in Sri Lanka and Myanmar

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By Jayasri Priyalal

Rohingya crisis and influx of refugees to Bangladesh is headline stories in the media at present. This article is to analyse the similarity of the conflicts of statelessness that prevailed in Sri Lanka then and Myanmar at present, with a view to identifying a framework as a means to resolve the issues through dialogue and discussions. 

Statelessness creates hopelessness and helplessness in any person irrespective of one’s economic status. An uncertainty arising from such situations brings untold miseries to those who are caught up in conflicts; many of them are poor and destitute as seen in the tense situation between Myanmar and Bangladesh. In the modern world there cannot be any human being identified as a stateless person. But the world is full of migrants who are labelled as refugees, undocumented migrants who are running away from conflict zones for survival and build up a new life. 

The UN agencies are grappling with the challenges to provide help and assistance to a huge number of refugees running out of Myanmar. Media reports that the Myanmar Army is behind all the atrocities leading to violence in Rakhine state targeting Rohingya community. Myanmar Government responds; as the Muslim extremist, identified as Arkhine Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked 35 police posts, and one military camp in the Myanmar Bangladesh border on 25 August, the day Advisory Commission of Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, committee, was scheduled to release the interim report (http://www.rakhinecommission.org).

As claimed by Myanmar Government the military crackdown was initiated to protect all citizens in Rakhine, including the Bengalis who are now living under pathetic conditions subject to all forms of violence.

Media and lobby groups are blaming Myanmar State Counsellor Aung Sang Suu Kyi for not taking steps to prevent a textbook case of an ethnic cleansing. Blame and criticism are two sets of functions; usually, take cognisance to dramatise issues to make stories newsworthy to attract attention to win public sympathy.

But, policymakers need to maintain the right balance between the emotional and rational approach to come up with lasting solutions to issues often have roots from the colonial rule. 

If one study the timelines of the events; the 25 August attack by militants of Arkan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) coincided with few important incidents, first being, the release of the recommendations of Advisory Commission of Rakhine State, headed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Myanmar, and the media campaign (attack) on Daw Aung San Suki for not responding and taking actions to prevent human rights violations in Myanmar in the eve of her visit to address the UN General Assembly. Her critics and the human rights lobby groups are blaming her for remaining silent as the State Counsellor did not yield to pressure tactics. We should not forget that Myanmar citizens were almost stateless on their own soil for over half a decade during the Military Dictatorship. 

There are three infamous historical lines of divisions created in the 20th century by colonial powers that embedded seeds of rivalry, birth of terrorism resulting in wars, leading untold human sufferings even up to this day. First, between India and Pakistan on (15 August 1947).The Second Division, on 15 May 1948, between Arabs and Jews and creation of the state of Israel. The third separation, in the same year 1948, separation of Burma from India. This is the history.

These geopolitical decisions opened up to numerous separation struggles, with the feeling of statelessness and lack of ownership amongst the population living within these territories surrounded by the lines of conflicts. Often, mythical beliefs, distorted historical facts were used to legitimise cases for separation fanning flames lobbying for opinions to justify the cause of freedom struggles and supporting and aiding groups to resort to violence to resolve issues. 

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) Myanmar (then Burma) had to face the challenge of awarding citizenship to the indentured labour, brought in a cheap source of labour to the plantations by the British during the colonial rule. 

Indentured labour was the alternative method to replace slave trade by the colonial masters; executed professionally, by getting the labour families identified as “coolies” and getting them to sign a contract written in English and getting them to agree with a thumbprint. None of them knew what was in the contract; they were assured of a job/work but did not know where they were heading for when they were packed into steamers. 

Many of them, being Indian origin, did not realise they will never return home, and end up as stateless citizens in faraway places, such as in Caribbean Islands, Fiji to work in sugar cane plantations, nearer places such as Burma and Ceylon. These groups of indentured labour introduced two Tamil language words starting with letter ‘C’ into the English dictionary they are curry and coolies. Fortunately, in many of these colonial plantation economies, the statelessness has been resolved but there are tensions between minorities and majorities to seek socio, economic and political power.

The stateless situation of the Indian indentured labour working in tea plantations in Sri Lanka was resolved in 1964 by way of a pact entered between then Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Ceylonese Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Both countries agreed to absorb the stateless citizens’ part through repatriation and awarding citizenship. By 1980 statelessness issue was resolved completely. But in Sri Lanka, there is a lot of work to be done to improve the quality of life of these marginalised groups in the plantations. 

Similarly, Bangladesh and Myanmar have entered into an agreement in 1993, but Bangladesh government has difficulties in dealing with the dictatorial military government in Myanmar. We should welcome the statement made by Myanmar State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suuki, during her address on 19 September 2017, indicating to absorb legitimate Rohingya community back to Rakhine state. 

Similarly, due credit also should be given to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheik Hasina for welcoming the Rohingya victims and providing support and care, comforts to the refugees now taking shelter in various makeshift camps in Cox Bazar in trying conditions.

Therefore the International Agencies should push both governments in Bangladesh and Myanmar to resolve the issue through dialogue and discussions. As explained above how India and Ceylon resolved the problem under Sirima Sashtri pact in 1964 (http://www.onlineresearchjournals.com/aajoss/art/82.pdf).

It will be disastrous to justify violence means supporting terror on either party with a twist as the conflict is between Buddhist and Muslims in religious and communal beliefs. The problem needs to be seen as humanitarian issues arising from statelessness and hopelessness leading to poor economic conditions. There are numerous case studies to prove that people belonging to the same religion, speaking the same language competing to establish identities to secure their rights to improve economic status for future prosperity. As reported in the media; the plight of refugees crossing many African territories to reach Europe as migrants can be quoted as a living example. 

Right diagnosis is half of the solution, provided the causes and effects supported with facts are established. This writer is of the view that both the ladies in power in Bangladesh and Myanmar have the capacities to find creative and innovative solutions with a rational approach for longstanding peace and prosperity in their respective countries. What is necessary is to create an enabling environment not leading to emotional actions and reactions fanning the flames of discrimination based on ethno-religious differences.

(The writer is Director, Finance Sector, Professionals and Managers Group Activities, UNI Asia and Pacific.)

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