Blood is thicker than water
By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray, For The Straits Times
ACROSS BORDERS: Malaysian police firing water cannon at ethnic Indian protesters in Kuala Lumpur last November. The protest later prompted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to express his concern over the welfare of the minority community. -- PHOTO: AP
IT IS not widely known that on March 12, 1992, Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, then Malaysia's foreign minister, summoned Myanmar's envoy in Kuala Lumpur 'to express concern over Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya minority'.
The same day, Indonesia's then foreign minister Ali Alatas said the situation in Myanmar was 'threatening the stability of the region'.
A brief examination of the Rohingya position is necessary before considering the implications of those gestures that may have set a precedent for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's expression of concern over Malaysia's own ethnic Indian minority.
Myanmar's 800,000 Rohingyas have complained of repression since 1978, when the army launched Operation Nagamin (Dragon King) aimed at 'scrutinising each individual living in the state, designating citizens and foreigners in accordance with the law and taking actions against foreigners who have filtered into the country illegally'.
About 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh and a further quarter of a million followed in 1992. The Rohingyas are of Bengali stock, from the Chittagong region of what is now Bangladesh, who moved to Myanmar's Arakan district before South Asia came under British rule.
They could not go to Malaysia or Indonesia, which share no land borders with Myanmar. Nor are the Rohingyas ethnically connected to the Malay race in either country, as they are to Bangladeshis. There was thus no risk of Myanmar's troubles spreading to Malaysia or Indonesia. Being contiguous with Myanmar's Arakan Hills, Bangladesh saw this as a very real fear.
AGAINST THE FLOW
History shows that diplomatic propriety is frequently at odds with instinct and human obligations.
Why then were Datuk Seri Badawi and Mr Alatas so concerned about a remote people? The only explanation seems to lie in a shared religion. The Rohingyas being Muslim, like the bulk of Malaysians and Indonesians, the two foreign ministers felt entitled to express interest.
By that token, the government of any Muslim country can respond to anything involving Muslims anywhere on earth. This is English metaphysical poet John Donne's no-man-is-anisland ideal trimmed to only the Muslim segment of it.
It's forgotten today that Nationalist China propounded a similar principle. Its citizenship law based on the lex sanguini theory of an indivisible and indissoluble Sinic nationality held that though seas and frontiers separated the Chinese of China, its offshore islands and the diaspora, they were 'essentially one people with a shared heritage, the Chinese civilisation'.
That made Hong Kong and Macau the Second China, and Nanyang, the region of the southern seas where Singapore is located, the Third. One of several differences between the People's Action Party and the Barisan Socialis in Singapore was that while the former categorically rejected the Third China thesis, the latter viewed it with some sympathy.
Nationalist China's law had an amusing sequel when the British retaliated by requiring all ethnic Chinese refugees in India during World War II to register under the Registration of Foreigners Act. When Tan Chin Tuan of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation refused, the enraged British police officer in charge of security in Kolkata barked 'purple with rage' that all Chinese were shoemakers, restaurateurs and black-marketeers!
The situation was saved through the intervention of another Briton whom Tan had known in Singapore as a commercial artist but whose Cathay Building office was a front for the Special Operations Executive charged with sabotage missions behind enemy lines.
Though Communist China repudiated its predecessor's citizenship law, it protested when, during the 1962 Himalayan war, a resident of Kolkata's Chinatown was manhandled on a bus.
History shows that diplomatic propriety is frequently at odds with instinct and human obligations. Politicians are also people, belonging to particular races and religions.
Blood is thicker than water.
The writer is visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is a personal comment.
Copyright: Sunanda K. Datta-Ray