The facts of the matter could hardly be clearer. Many thousands of people have fled Burma to seek a better life elsewhere and are now becalmed in mid-ocean, at serious risk of dying a slow and dreadful death from dehydration and starvation. Yet this country, whose the most profitable way of earning hard currency during the socialist years was from foreigners coming to study the wisdom of the Buddha, cannot bear to look these facts in the face.
Some, maybe half, of the boat people are Bangladeshis; Burma seizes on this fact to claim that they are all from Bangladesh, to which country they should speedily return. Half the boat people, on the other hand, call themselves Rohingya, and have lived in Burma for a long time. Yet Burma goes to extravagant lengths to pretend that this population does not exist: it excluded them from the recent census, refuses them citizenship, is in the process of withdrawing their temporary ID cards, and locks many of them into squalid camps far from the gaze of other Burmese.
This week Burma agreed to attend a one-day international summit on the issue, held yesterday in Bangkok, on condition that there would be “no finger-pointing”. Yet where else is the finger to be pointed? It’s as if Syria’s President Assad were to be so eccentric as to claim the Mediterranean’s boat people had nothing to do with him and his little local difficulties. It would be laughable if it were not tragic.
And it’s not just the Burmese government, former generals with a long record of denying the bleeding obvious, who are guilty. Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman whom the world long saw as the heroic face of resistance to Burmese army tyranny, can also find no words for this unfolding humanitarian disaster. Her friends and fellow Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama have given up making excuses for her.
Last week her party, the National League for Democracy, teetered on the edge of saying something decent about the problem. Its spokesman, U Nyan Win, told me that citizenship should be given to those who have been resident for generations. Yet he quickly hedged, saying this was only his private opinion. And Ms Suu Kyi has refused to go even that far.
At the Bangkok conference, the UN’s Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, Volker Türk, made the same point, declaring that “granting [Burmese] citizenship is the ultimate goal”. The Burmese government’s representative, Htin Linn, shot back that Mr Türk “should be more informed” and said he doubted whether “the spirit of co-operation is prevailing in the room”. The meeting failed to break the deadlock and broke up with no consensus on how to deal with the hundreds of boat people floating around the region, except to keep talking.
The proximate cause of Burma’s coalition of the hard-hearted is that the general election is only five months away. For many years, monks have fed the 85 per cent of Burmese who are Buddhists with the narrative that Buddhism has entered a period of long decline. Islam – demographically prolific thanks to polygamy, and eager to convert by the sword or otherwise – would rejoice in burying Buddhism in Burma, as it buried it before in India and elsewhere. Islam, the story continues, is world-class at portraying itself as innocent victim when it is anything but. And the West falls for it every time.
At a delicate political moment like this, with elections close, there is no political capital to be gained from offering another view. That makes Ms Suu Kyi appear a calculating politician like any other. Or perhaps she sincerely believes the story of Buddhist victimhood.
In fact, the roots of the tragedy are historical. For centuries Burma’s western borders were fluid. Under British rule, the country was for a long time part of the Indian Empire. Until 1937 people could move freely from India into Burma, and many Muslims moved into Arakan state. Like Hindus and Chinese, they became part of Burma’s dense ethnic tapestry.
But after independence, Arakanese Buddhists feared that the Muslims’ faster rate of reproduction, plus illegal immigration, would turn Buddhists into a minority in the state. The legalisation of political parties in 2010 opened a Pandora’s box, leading to the pogroms of 2012. An academic who has studied the situation at first hand told me that the attacks on Muslims occurred precisely in those constituencies where Arakan’s nationalist party feared being outnumbered by the Muslims.
Democracy can be a dirty business in the developing world. It was electoral calculation that encouraged the Hindu nationalists of Gujarat in western India to massacre local Muslims in 2002 – under the gaze of Narendra Modi, who was then the state governor – and it was electoral calculation that precipitated something very similar in Arakan. After all, it didn’t do Mr Modi any harm: he is now India’s Prime Minister.
But surely Ms Suu Kyi is above such machinations. After all, her famous vision for Burma was entitled “Freedom from Fear” – yet it is blind fear that drives Burma’s Buddhists to turn a cold eye on their benighted, drifting brethren. They seem to believe, with the media full of jihadi atrocities in the Middle East, that giving the Rohingya even a chink of legitimacy would throw open the door to terrorism. The truth is precisely the opposite: by refusing to behave with common compassion they are likely to induce fanatics to come to the country, to take revenge. And while they may hope to preserve Buddhism from harm, in practice their lack of compassion tramples it underfoot.