Catalans, Rohingyas and Other Minority Eruptions, By Owei Lakemfa
Minorities, no matter how small, should be heard, and majority nationalities, no matter how large or self-righteous they feel, must bend backwards to accommodate the minorities. They must address the fears of the latter, give them a sense of belonging and make them feel at home. A resort to violence may silence the minority for a while before another eruption takes place.
Minorities, or those who feel they have become minorities, are erupting across the world; English-speaking Cameroonians in Africa, the Rohingya in Asia, the Kurds in the Arab world and the Catalans in Europe.
Today in Catalonia, one of the wealthiest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, the right to self-determination is no longer a theoretical postulation; it is a practical political struggle being waged in the streets. The region which had held a non-binding referendum in 2014 with a 90 percent “Yes” vote for independence had decided to hold a binding referendum this Sunday October 1, 2017. However, the Spanish government secured a court order declaring the referendum illegal because it violates the country’s 1978 constitution, which guarantees the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”
On this basis, the central government sent in the police to seal off voting centres, seize the ballot papers and block websites and other communication sites that support the referendum. When these measures did not seem to be effective, the federal police was drafted into the region to physically stop the vote. The result was massive violence between the police, which used rubber bullets, truncheons and other crowd subjugation methods, and pro-referendum activists. This left 844 people, including 33 policemen, injured.
Spain faced the moral crisis of using violence against people who just wanted to vote. Perhaps realising the damage in using such force against people who, in any case, are Spanish citizens, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy tried to rationalise it by saying: “We did what we had to do.” But this was good ammunition for the separatist group. The Catalan Regional president, Carles Puigdemont argued: “The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans’ desire to vote … but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today…The image of the Spanish state has reached levels of shame that will stay with them forever. Today, the Spanish state has lost a lot more than it had already lost, and Catalan citizens have won a lot more than they had won until now.”
If the Catalans take the unprecedented step of declaring independence, it is likely that the Spanish government’s reaction would be to declare a state of emergency and send in troops. If it does so, the soldiers would become an army of occupation and the crises can escalate.
Despite the violent clampdown, an estimated 2.3 million persons or 42.58 percent of the voters managed to cast their ballots with 2,020,144 or 91.96 percent casting a “Yes” vote for independence, and 176,565 persons or 8.04 percent voting against it. To Puigdemont, with the vote, Catalans have earned the right to independence which may be declared in the coming days. Additionally, a general strike was called in the region with various groups, including footballers, turning out for mass protests against the use of state violence. They rallied under the slogan: “The Streets will always be ours”. It does not appear the Catalans are listening to King Felipe VI who warns that the declaration of independence is outside the law. It also appears that the decision of the Spanish government not to negotiate with the separatists would not be a wise one. If the Catalans take the unprecedented step of declaring independence, it is likely that the Spanish government’s reaction would be to declare a state of emergency and send in troops. If it does so, the soldiers would become an army of occupation and the crises can escalate.
When the 2017 United Nations General Assembly held from September 18-22, the Myanmar leader, and decorated Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi thought it better to stay away rather than be roasted for the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority.
Despite the ethnic cleansing, Kyi’s eyes are shut, so she sees no evil; her ears are blocked, so she hears no evil; and she is numb, so does not feel. With the world attention on her and the ethnic cleansing, she elected to stay at home allegedly to investigate if the Myanmar state is attacking the Rohingya, as she claims to be unaware. In anger, the city of Oxford had stripped her of the human rights award it had conferred on her because the city’s reputation is “tarnished by honouring those who turn a blind eye to violence.”
I had listened to her at the international Labour Organisation Conference in Geneva when she was the darling of the international community, was being feted across the world and decorated with the Nobel. She was soft spoken and made a warm speech, but I detected no principles in her presentation beyond bland talks about democracy. So I am not surprised she is playing the ostrich; burying her head in the sand while her fellow citizens are being massacred for being minorities.
What is clear to me is that the Myanmar government is quick to enter this agreement because it is embarrassed by world’s reaction, and would want the spotlight shifted from it. On the other hand, Bangladesh is not a buoyant country, and may be groaning under the weight of catering for the refugees.
Some 500,000 Rohingya refugees had fled to Bangladesh with tales of repression, mass rape and torching of their homes by security forces. This week, the Myanmar and Bangladeshi governments reached an agreement to return the refugees. There is no evidence that either the refugees or their representatives were consulted. Part of the agreement is that the refugees would provide identification that they came from Myanmar. The problems include the fact that Myanmar does not recognise the Rohingya, who since 1992 had been excluded from citizenship, and so many of them might not have been registered. Also, when they fled, many did so only with the clothes on their backs or few possessions, so picking their Myanmar identity would have been one of the last things on their minds then. The third problem is that they will not be returning to their former homestead, but to a new settlement and there is no indication for how long they would stay in such a place. There is also the issue of guaranteeing their safety.
What is clear to me is that the Myanmar government is quick to enter this agreement because it is embarrassed by world’s reaction, and would want the spotlight shifted from it. On the other hand, Bangladesh is not a buoyant country, and may be groaning under the weight of catering for the refugees. In any case, it might not think it is a good idea for the Rohingya to resettle in the country. So it might want to get them off its territory as quickly as possible. With many challenges in the world, the focus on the Rohingya may soon shift, and the people will be left in the limbo; left in a situation of statelessness, and abandoned by the international community.
Minorities, no matter how small, should be heard, and majority nationalities, no matter how large or self-righteous they feel, must bend backwards to accommodate the minorities. They must address the fears of the latter, give them a sense of belonging and make them feel at home. A resort to violence may silence the minority for a while before another eruption takes place. This is the lesson Spain and all countries must learn.
Owei Lakemfa, former Secretary General of African Workers is a Human Rights activist, journalist and author.
Image credit: Knowyourmeme.com.