Memuna Moolla* of Battleford recently gave a presentation at the North Battleford Public Library. The topic was the plight of the Rohingya people, many of whom must migrate from Burma to escape violence, much of which human rights groups expect is carried out by the state.
After the talk, Memuna was selling copies of a book she’d written, with proceeds going to the Rohingya cause.
I approached her and asked a few questions. She gave me her business card, and asked if I wanted to buy a book for $20.
“I’m a reporter, I have no money,” I said.
As I put her card in my wallet, she saw a $20 bill I had inside.
“You have $20 right there,” she said.
I gave it to her. I couldn’t say no.
“I’m very interested whenever there are human rights violations,” Memuna said. “I write about it and I think about it and I try to do something about it.”
Burma is Memuna’s home country. Memuna was born in the Shan states in Burma’s northeast, which shares a border with China. She traces her family roots to the Northwest region of Pakistan on her mother’s side and back to Oman and India on her father’s side.
Memuna with her husband Hasan left Burma in 1964, and after living in Britain for 12 years, has since lived in Canada for more than 40 years.
They chose Battleford as their home and have been here since 1992. Her husband has a medical practice in Battleford. In addition to writing, Memuna spends time managing the practice and other real estate properties, and participating in community activism.
Memuna completed writing a book in 2015 called Where Flowers Bloom: Memories of Burma, which weaves personal history and images with nonfiction to give readers a look at how her life has played out.
Independence and Oppression
Burma was a British colony until 1948. An independence movement, promoting democracy, was led by Aung San, although he was assassinated shortly before Burma gained independence.
In 1962, army leaders gained control of the country in a military coup. General Ne Win, who came to be in charge, acted as a dictator and made Burma into a single-party state. He also isolated the country from the rest of the world, suppressed the free press and nationalized enterprises, including banks.
Memuna said before banks were nationalized, there were rumours circulating about the government enacting demonetization. People withdrew their funds from the banks en masse, but the notes eventually were valueless.
Over the years, Burma went from a prosperous nation to a poor one.
Other changes by the junta, Memuna said, included changing the language of instruction in schools and universities, leading to absurd outcomes in, for example, medical textbooks.
Protests against the junta and its actions occurred in the 1980s, culminating in 1988, in which a number of protestors were killed. In 1990, the National League for Democracy won some four-fifths of the legislature’s seats. However, the junta didn’t allow the parliament to convene.
Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the assassinated Aung San, and a leader of the NLD, was put under house arrest in 1989. Suu Kyi is known internationally, particularly due to her 14-year house arrest, and for winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
The NLD proved to be popular in subsequent elections, and Aung San Suu Kyi has occupied different government positions.
Despite the presence of democracy in Burma, the military still maintains significant influence and power.
Throughout the years, ideas of distinct Burmese people and ethnocentrism emerged, to the detriment of ethnic minorities, especially those along the country’s borders in which a variety of groups live. The majority of the country’s people are Buddhist. Burma’s name was changed to Myanmar in 1989 by the regime, a name by which ethnic Burmese recognized the country.
One notable figure in these goings-on is Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who has promoted anti-Muslim measures. A popular Time magazine article described Wirathu as “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
Some actions carried out by the state have been described by human rights groups as ethnic cleansing.
The mostly Muslim Rohingya people, the subject of Memuna’s presentation, live in the northwest of Burma in the Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh. Memuna said the people have been mistreated since Burma’s independence. In the mid-20th century, the Rohingya wanted to join the Muslim Bangladesh as the country was formed, but were denied.
In 1982, the Rohingya were denied all rights to citizenship, and according to Al-Jazeera, about 1.1 million Rohingya have become “effectively stateless.”
International attention toward the situation has recently increased, particularly as a result of violence against the Rohingya. People have been killed and left in mass graves, villages have been burned and women have been raped. Much of the violence is thought to have been carried out by the military.
Commentators have said actions by the Burmese state toward the Rohingya meet the United Nations’ definition of ethnic cleansing. Some organizations say it’s genocide.
The waves of violence resulted in hundreds of thousands Rohingya fleeing Burma, often into Bangladesh, but also to other neighbouring countries.
Suu Kyi has generally avoided publicly discussing the situation of Rohingya people. Memuna has reservations about Suu Kyi, saying that while democracy was important to Suu Kyi’s come-uppance, the leader is now close with the political elite that has caused significant problems, particularly to ethnic minorities. Memuna also noted Suu Kyi, after an interview with the BBC’s Mishal Husain in 2013, allegedly said “No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.”
Memuna relates to the lack of belonging in Burma experienced by Rohingya people, and said it was a reason she and her husband left the country .
“When we were in Burma, after the military coup, we were made to feel that we didn’t belong because we weren’t ethnically Burmese, especially with all the drastic measures that were apparently ethnic cleansing,” Memuna said.
After leaving Burma, Memuna and her husband lived in Scotland, Wales and England. Memuna worked as a community relations officer in England, mediating between the native English and new immigrants, including Jamaicans, Ukrainians, Poles, Pakistanis and Indians. Racism, Memuna said, could be overt.
England didn’t fulfill a sense of belonging, and the Moollas decided to live permanently in Canada after living in the country for six weeks during winter.
In addition to working as a community relations officer, Memuna’s jobs have included teaching in Burma, England, Scotland and Wales. Memuna has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Education, an honours degree in social administration and she wrote a thesis on the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s while studying at the University of Nottingham.
When Memuna returned to Burma after an absence of 30 years (for the week she was permitted to), she said some things remained the same, such as her childhood home. Rangoon, the country’s capital, was more dilapidated than when she left and Memuna guesses now the city is quite different and less cosmopolitan.
Memuna feels sadness toward Burma “because of what’s happened to the country.”
“The land that you grow up in, you become very attached to it, you’re part of it actually, you don’t even think you belong anywhere else,” Memuna said. “And then when the majority in the country start looking at you as you’re different, then you suddenly get a sense of ‘Hey wait a minute, where do I belong?’”
Memuna said the country has been destroyed and disintegrated, along with Buddhism that emphasizes respect, kindness, gentleness and tolerance.
Sadness also comes as a result of Burma’s treatment towards other ethnic groups, such as the Kachin and the Kayah peoples.
“The beauty that was there is lost,” Memuna said.
Memuna also sees the possibility of state-based violence in the future.
After searching the world, Memuna said she’s found a place where she belongs.
“I feel like I belong in Canada, but I don’t feel like I belong in Canada anymore in that narrow sense,” Memuna said. “The world is my oyster actually. I feel like I’m a human being on the Earth, all the borders are so artificial, and all the divisions between us are artificial. Underneath it all we’re just the same skeletal structure with all that flesh over us that cloaks us in different shapes and forms.”
Memuna likens our physical characteristics to “wearing a dress.”
“Just because someone wears a different dress doesn’t mean they’re different.”
*Memuna: “In the Muslim culture the wife does not take on the husband’s last name and is only used for convenience for legal purposes in the Western system.”