Tragedy can be defined as the destruction caused when a person’s better qualities and instincts are so overwhelmed by one weakness as to betray the ideas or people for which he/she had once stood. In which case, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi are currently such tragic figures.
The grim-faced chief executive has almost certainly been following orders but that merely shows that she is more concerned with staying in power than listening to the people or healing such wounds as the “umbrella movement” in 2014 reflected.
To write off the mass of opposition to the extradition bill as based on “ misunderstanding”, as her underling Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung has done, displays nothing less than contempt not merely for the hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers who took to the streets, but the lawyers, the chambers of commerce, and the diplomats concerned about Hong Kong’s separate status.
Equally insulting is the insinuation from government sources, let alone Beijing, that this is all part of a Western plot against China. However, foreigners have less to lose than others. They can move. Not so most Hong Kong people. There is real concern, already reflected in the property market, that mainland money is worried about the economic and social stability impact of the bill.
Now, Hong Kong’s future as an international business hub has been put further at risk by Lam’s vastly excessive use of force. Like the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the administration was determined to clear the streets, whatever the cost, as the huge phalanxes of heavily armoured police officers advanced following repeated barrages of tear gas and rubber bullets. For this bystander at Admiralty, a journalist who has felt tear gas before, it was deliberately brutal.
Lam knows perfectly well that not a few of the pro-government members of the Legislative Council are almost as worried about the bill as the pro-democracy ones. But the former’s Faustian bargain is that they must provide the rubber stamp in return for the sweet deals that big business continues to reap. Many of them have plentiful assets overseas and a foreign residence of some kind.
The unseemly haste to force through the bill with minimum discussion illustrates the moral bankruptcy of the rubber-stamp legislators, not satisfied that the ranks of elected pro-democracy legislators have been thinned by politically motivated legal and administrative actions which themselves have sullied Hong Kong’s reputation.
The convictions for “ incitement to incite” to create a public nuisance must remain one of the most contrived prosecutions in the modern history. Instead of attempting post-umbrella movement “healing”, Lam has presided over a series of very belated and targeted criminal prosecutions.
So, here we have Lam, product of the Catholic Church and its education system, with a lifetime behind her of hard work as an honest civil servant now betraying the expectations of the people by becoming the mouthpiece and agent of the antireligious autocrat now in charge of the Communist Party. Such is tragedy, with or without her crocodile tears.
While Hong Kong’s tragedy was building, another Asian one was acquiring focus far away in Budapest, Hungary, where that nation’s authoritarian, xenophobic prime minister Viktor Orban was hosting Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Since saying nothing and doing even less to stop what has been described as a genocide against the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s westernmost Rakhine province, she has been unwelcome in most European capitals, hence the Budapest trip.
The woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her refusal to compromise with the country’s military rulers has now confirmed that she is a racist and anti-Muslim bigot. Her silence over the Rohingya massacres was explained in a joint statement issued with Orban at the conclusion of the visit. They concurred that “the greatest challenge at present for both countries and their respective regions – Southeast Asia and Europe – is migration”. The two then linked this to the issue of “the continuously growing Muslim populations”.
This was a statement gratuitously insulting to Myanmar’s fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where Muslims constitute about 40 per cent of the combined population. Three of them are Muslim-majority and most others have substantial Muslim minorities.
Instead of being a source of migrants into Myanmar, Bangladesh has been on the receiving end of some 700,000 Rohingya driven from their homes by Myanmar’s military. Meanwhile, Thailand is host to perhaps 2 million Myanmese.
Aung San Suu Kyi seems driven by Buddhist organisations increasingly intolerant of religious minorities. There is also a racist prejudice against the Rohingya who are of darker complexion than the Bamar majority. Hongkongers may recall that the Rohingya were once described by Myanmar’s consul-general here as “ ugly as ogres” dark-skinned people not like the “fair and soft, good-looking” people of Myanmar. If not so officially spoken, the sentiment prevails.
As Myanmar shows, organised Buddhism can be just as intolerant as other religions, or communism. So too does Sri Lanka where Buddhist-organisations have been fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the recent church bombings in Colombo. Another tragedy simmers in Malaysia where the change of government has yet to produce any changes in backward-looking official religious rules and ethnic privileges which demean the Malays they are supposed to help.
But for now the focus of tragedy is on Carrie Lam, the proconsul of Hong Kong.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator