The historian’s curse

Historians and students of politics will aways be cursed to take the long view, and not succumb to the passions and emotions of the moment, condemning them for eternity to the realm of the indifferent.

As the masses rampage with anger and despair, the historian is cursed to remember what came before: the back stories, the inheritance, the wider picture, the context, condemning them to the fraternity of the distant and aloof.

And so it is that that the historian and the student of politics in turn recall the messy conflicts of a multitude of nations, friend and foe, which defy simplistic analysis, and in their response to the latest developments they are always cursed, for they find themselves in the company on the haughty and heartless, always detached from the emotions that sway all others.

As all around them people fray with temper, jumping up and down at a reality suddenly made real, the historian laments that they know too much to ever rest easy with the simplified narrative foisted on them from all directions.

They are all too familiar with the state of the broken nation: a state that has been ripped apart by civil war since independence from British rule in 1948. This is the Burma they know.

They are all too well aware of the human rights abuses of the military junta across the board. They recognise — although they regret their knowledge — that the military response to separatist movements in Kachin, Kayah, Kayin and Shan states has been as equally brutal as in Rakhine state, causing thousands of civilian deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Thailand, China and Bangladesh, and internally displacing hundreds of thousands more.

The historian and the student of politics appreciates — though this knowledge is a curse — that it is a nation that, for nearly seventy years, has been ripped asunder by different ethnic groups, constituencies, political ideologies and vested interests jostling for power, wealth and control of resources, and others fighting for self-determination, respect for human rights and human dignity, in the face of a brutal military fighting — it says — to maintain the integrity of a nation against that ever present imperialist plot of divide and rule, invoked by every autocrat in the world.

The masses by contrast are blessed. Moved by the latest news reports, they are oblivious to the long-running civil war. They know nothing of the ongoing insurgent movements and ethnic conflict in five separate states. They are unaware that the Chin, Rakhine and Rohingya ethnic minorities have all been fighting against the government for self-determination and each other for over sixty years in Rakhine state. They have not heard of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army or its guerrilla insurgency fighting to create a Muslim state for the Rohingya people. They know only of the simplistic binaries presented to them by those suddenly animated by hideous brutality and conflict.

If only the historian and the student of politics had that defence. If only they were not cursed to see beyond romantic visions of a glorious past. If only they had not been hit by complex realities, smashing them to smithereens. If only they could taste that blissful ignorance that others speaks of.

The historian does not mean to be detached from events. They yearn for that empathy enjoyed by the passionate masses. They want to rally to the defence of innocent civilians facing unimaginable brutality, whoever and wherever they may be, be they friend or foe. But they are cursed by the spectre of the mighty how to in an environment of such complexity. Do they help them by siding with separatist insurgents, or by sending in foreign armies, or by forcing them to make dangerous journeys across perilous seas?

And what then, asks the student of politics? The masses berate Bangladesh for its callous inaction and indifference to the fate of its Muslim neighbours, as it shut its door closed, insistent that the 400,000 refugees it had already taken in were enough. But the student of politics, is cursed to ask complex questions.

How would Bangladesh deal with two catastrophic emergencies at the same time, they ask: the refugee crisis and two-thirds of the country flooded, affecting 7.4 million of its people, with 700,000 in need of shelter immediately. Though little-reported, Bangladesh finds itself in the midst of a humanitarian crisis of its own following the worst floods in 40 years, with millions of people affected and hundreds of thousands of homes damaged or destroyed.

None of this satisfies the Muslim masses, seeing only excuses and their complicity in the suffering of their Muslim brothers. If only Bangladesh were more like Turkey, with its endless generosity, its religious spirit and respect for human dignity — and its willingness to speak up for the destitute in their hour of need. Mirrors are not helpful here, but short-term memory loss saves the day. And again, the historian and the student of politics is cursed.

For they recall that everything Bangladesh is accused of, the self-proclaimed voice of the voiceless has been accused of itself. It too has closed its border to refugees attempting to flee Syria, and yes, it has opened its doors to 2.5 million refugees too. And it too has been accused of human rights violations with respect to its decades-old conflict with ethnic separatist groups seeking self-determination. But Turkey, like Myanmar, says it is defending itself against terrorist groups, that are supported by hostile nations, that seek the fragmentation of their state.

The historian and student of politics is cursed by all they know. The masses, by contrast, are blessed. Blessed as long as they do not delve too deeply or think too hard, allowing their simple binary narratives to fall apart and everything that they thought they knew to come crumbling and tumbling to the ground. Blessed to know only of the moment, and of trifling conspiracies, spurious claims and absolute confidence in their absolute truths.

For them political saviours — who will lift us out of our morose situation and bring back that glory that never was — these are the answer to every problem. The masses are blessed to believe in every word uttered by their favourite ideologue, as they appear to rush to the defence of the wronged, allowing themselves to ignore those that they ignore, or to overlook the wrongs perpetrated by their allies. Blessed are the ignorant and unlearned, for whom “It’s the Illuminati, Freemasons, Rothschilds and Islamophobia” is an adequate explanation of all that is happening in the world.

Pity the historian and the student of politics, forced to live with the complex realities that made them callous and apathetic, impervious to the emotions that demanded action right now, based on part of the story, detached from context and separated from reality. The historian is cursed to live with the guilt of thinking too deeply about unfolding events, when all they were required to do was act. Pity the historian and their curse.

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