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Bamiyan Buddhas bypassed in southeast Asian front
Harvey Stockwin

HONG KONG (March 4, 2001): UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson this week sharply criticised Asian nations for remaining silent in the face of the horrendous communal violence in Central Kalimantan during the last two weeks. Questioned by the BBC, Robinson pointed out the inconsistency of worrying about where the chaos in Indonesia might lead, but saying nothing about the causes of the chaos.

Today the same criticism could be made of southeast and east Asian nations as they broadly remain silent in the face of the Taliban directive ordering the desecration destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.

Undoubtedly there is deep concern in southeast and east Asia, among devout Buddhists and those concerned with the preservation of art treasures over the Taliban's vandalism. But Afghanistan is a faraway land, and what little is known about it suggests that the Taliban are unlikely to respond to foreign pressures.

In southeast Asia, the largest Buddhist nation, Thailand, has been the only one to officially express a mild word of hope that ``the statues will be kept for the benefit of mankind''. Thailand's Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai has at least taken the trouble to write to UNESCO expressing concern. Other foreign ministers in the region have yet to do even that. But for the most part, the Thais, including the World Buddhist Fellowship, headquartered in Bangkok, have spoken more in sorrow than in anger.

Naturally Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid cannot bring the weight of the world's largest Muslim nation to bear on the issue. Wahid is under such heavy attack at home for remaining relatively silent overseas while hundreds and perhaps thousands of Madurese were being slaughtered in Borneo, that it would be totally incongruous for him to put in a word on behalf of some stone statues.

But for the most part, southeast Asians cannot break themselves of the habit of ``non-interference in the affairs of other nations'', an attitude which, as Robinson pointed out, is hardly relevant when great injustices or, as in the Bamiyan case, outrageous actions of vandalism are being perpetrated.

At first sight, East Asia is no different. China, too, was so preoccupied this week defending itself by asserting that criticisms of its human rights record by the US and others were an unwarranted interference, that it, too had little inclination to interfere in Afghanistan.

But at least there are indications that Japan, in which Buddhist influence is still strong, will give a careful reading to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's letter on the Bamiyan tragedy when it arrives.

An editorial in the Japan Times said the Taliban leaders had earlier promised to preserve Afghanistan's historical heritage and suggested that the motives for the current volte face ``far transcend religion''. Pointing to the January massacre of some 300 Hazaras by Taliban forces at Yakaolang, and to the fact that UN officials have warned that up to one million displaced Afghans are now facing death from hunger or cold, the paper suggested that the latest Taliban moves against the statues might have been timed ``to distract Afghans from their miseries''.

The Thai media, however, is silent on the issue. There is no sign of the story or any reaction to it on the websites of The Bangkok Post and The Thai Nation, the two English language dailies in Bangkok.


Updated: 3-3-2001

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