Tag Archives: democratization

This is not just in theory

TW: ethnic cleansing, islamophobia, genocide

On Monday, I discussed just how much violent rhetoric the Muslims of the world, particularly anglophone ones, are subject to, on an increasingly frequent scale. It’s become commonplace to discuss mass murder, for instance. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just a matter of thoughts and statements, as in some places, Muslims are being killed or otherwise systemically endangered because of their religious faith. Al Jazeera has been doing some excellent reporting for the past couple of months on the situation in Burma or Myanmar, specifically approaching the “democratization” of the country from that angle.

In the past couple of days, especially, they’ve covered the dangerous potency of islamophobia in the country, starting with a renewed look at the nativist and islamophobic violence against the Rohingya people, who tend to live in the westernmost province of Myanmar. Much of their recent history is quite depressing – from first colonialist exploitation by the British (who “imported” their labor into British Burma) to modern xenophobic otherness by their compatriots of some half century (if not longer). It’s one of the cases where the separate socio-economic classes laid out by Harm de Blij in The Power of Place seems particularly salient. Unfortunately, following the departure of an imperialist “global” class, the “mobile” Rohingya laborers and “local” Burmese peoples have targeted each other, instead of cooperating to repair the colonial era damage to the country.

(From Human Rights Watch’s online report on the killings, an image of civilian forces that drove out or killed Rohingya in western Myanmar in the summer of 2012.)

Today, however, Al Jazeera provided some excellent analysis of the broader regional implications of this conflict, both for Buddhist-majority countries like Sri Lanka and Muslim-majority ones like Indonesia. In a nutshell, while there are ethnic dimensions to this and nearly every ethnic conflict in neighboring countries, many of those tensions between groups are increasingly talked about as religious. The Rohingya might not be exclusively targeted for being Muslims, but like many people in the area and ultimately around the world, their religious identity makes them only even more acceptable as targets. While the Rohingya have born the brunt of anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar, it is not unique to regions where they live and has led to recent killings of Muslims with other ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, there’s a question of acceptable to whom – and the potential answers to that are distressingly broad. With prior reports showing deliberate government inaction and subsequent efforts to restrict Muslims facing communal violence in Myanmar, it seems wrong to excuse the actions of various official and unofficial political leaders. But beyond them, Al Jazeera seems to be asking whether the international community is culpable as well. Today, their official twitter account explained, “We ask if the EU is [sic] liftting sanctions on Myanmar prematurely“. Sanctions are difficult to justify in any situation, but the fact that a wave of violence against Muslims hasn’t phased narratives in the “Western” media that Myanmar has democratized seems to indicate something about the perception of Muslims in not only that country but ours as well.

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Morsi’s presidency is disintegrating

TW: graphic depictions of state killings

Mouin Rabbani has an excellent run-down of the major developments over the course of the past three years of the “Arab Spring” which you can read in full over at Jadaliyya. The key bit, however, is his third point, which I’ll reproduce in full:

“[W]hile the Muslim Brotherhood may yet emerge victorious in Egypt, the increasingly widespread opposition to it signals not so much a disillusionment with Islamism as it does a revulsion for any attempt to establish and practice unfettered power. These uprisings are first and foremost about establishing the rights and rites of citizenship as inalienable and indeed inviolable. Any attempt to once again make citizens servants rather than masters of the state will require massive force and subterfuge to succeed.”

Rabbani was careful to hedge his assessment in the prediction of extensive resources being required to prop up the existing government, without noting that the government is nothing if not cash-strapped, among other issues. Likewise, he has done an excellent job of pointing out why Mohamed Morsi’s presidency is unlikely to last, but has failed to specify which arenas he was thinking of when he spoke of “unfettered power”. Still, the current example of the Sinai Peninsula makes starkly clear the economic, political, social, and regional dimensions of inequality in Egypt to this day, particularly in the light of how support for Morsi’s presidency is likely receding.

To provide some background, the Sinai Peninsula was by no means against Morsi’s victory in the relatively narrow final round of the presidential elections in June. North Sinai, which contains the vast majority of the peninsula’s population handily provided Morsi a 22 point lead. While the far less populous South Sinai, in contrast, broke for his opponent, it provided Ahmed Shafik with his smallest advantage of governorates he won, with his lead being fewer than two hundred votes. While it’s a statistical stretch to credit Sinai with Morsi’s election, it’s clear that he enjoyed a healthy degree of support, at least among those who participated in that final round of elections.

But as recent, excellent, and gruesome reporting by Al Jazeera shows, Sinai’s economic and political status within Egypt seems to be defined by exploitation or exclusion. The more pronounced social conservatism of its primarily Bedouin population and the consequent security-influenced response of the Egyptian state to nearly every major event  in the region reveals additional social and regional dimensions to Sinai alienation from the existing state. Surely, the environmental, economic, and political struggles faced by many in Sinai are common to many in Egypt, but the additional complicating elements seem to be accelerating distaste for Morsi’s presidency to profound levels across the peninsula.

(The view of Egyptian-occupied Sinai from Israel-occupied Palestine, from here.)

Morsi’s presidency seems destined by its failure to clearly end the failings of the Mubarak regime to be radically reformed, quickly ended, or beleaguered into irrelevancy. Sinai is merely the canary in the coalmine with the highest number of potential grievances to raise against Morsi’s rule. If Morsi doesn’t dramatically shift his political focuses, he should expect these problems to only grow and spread.

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The Rohingya World is on fire too

TW: ethnic cleansing, genocide, nativism, class warfare, erasure

Amy Chua’s World on Fire, first published in 2002, quickly captured the imagination of a wide swathe of the media and has continued to be a subtle force in political analysis since then. From the almost establishment liberal press to the moderate and internationalist conservatives, a consensus emerged that for all its faults, the book was quite an insightful examination of the trials many developing countries faced. With economic globalization, the prior decade had seen something of a race to the bottom as markets “reformed” or “opened” around the world. As post-Cold War democratization began to speed up and seemed poised to accelerate given Bush’s lofty language of a plan to democratize the Middle East, ethnic competition within electoral contexts had increased. Her idea that the class war and ethnic electoral competition in many places could collapse into a single, potentially very violent struggle seemed not particularly unreasonable, even if she presumed a certain model of a given less developed country.

The Guardian hailed that conception of the world’s poorer nations, actually, as it noted-

“Her starting point is that in many developing countries a small – often very small – ethnic minority enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. As she points out, this is not true in the west: on the contrary, we are accustomed to small ethnic minorities occupying exactly the opposite situation, a very disadvantaged economic position.”

If you accustom yourself with those other countries, primarily defined by what they aren’t (in this case, “Western”), you’ll quickly realize the illusion at play here. The assumption is that demographically large ethnic groups are typically impoverished, which is unsurprising given that we’re talking about less wealthy countries. Likewise, small ethnic minorities may install themselves as a type of local elite, which isn’t terribly surprising given many of the examples Chua turns to are either former colonizers (as the Whites of Latin America and much of Southern Africa are) or colonial-era managerial classes who were empowered by colonial rule. Missing from the mental diagram however are those who are both outnumbered and impoverished. That’s apparently a concern exclusive to the “West”.

Al Jazeera for quite some time has been among the few international news outlets to pay much attention to one particular set of events in Myanmar. As others, including this blog, focused on the geopolitical ramifications of Myanmar’s warming relations with the US and complex relationship with China or the possibility of democratization, Al Jazeera has covered the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, mainly isolated in the coastal western districts of Myanmar, along its border with Bangladesh. They have been effectively stripped of their legal rights and branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many were born in Myanmar, and had ancestors living in Myanmar prior to colonization even. Bangladesh similarly denies them citizenship, leaving them essentially a stateless people. Without a political entity to appeal to, they have been recently subject to campaigns of violence, which left many of them homeless, if not injured or killed. A few experts on the issue have started using the word “genocide” as local authorities have started implementing punitive measures for every birth in the community.

(Remains of Rohingya villages burned down during anti-Rohingya riots in October. From here.)

Apparently the struggles of groups like the Rohingya are invisible to Chua’s analysis. They don’t have the demographic numbers to swing a national election in Myanmar, assuming they were even granted suffrage. But that isn’t compensated for the kind of opulence displayed in the mansions that Chua visits through the course of her book. Instead, they have neither political nor economic power, so they apparently don’t even register for her and her many fans. Yet, for the moment at least, they still exist.

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Myriad facts about Goma that you didn’t hear today

TW: ethnic cleansing/genocide, warfare

In case you haven’t heard, amid all the coverage of the on-going conflict along the Gazan-Israeli border, there’s also a growing conflict along the borders of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Yesterday, after days of fighting between government forces and the “M23” rebels in Goma, DRC ended with a decisive anti-government victory. Both the UN and the military forces have stated they won’t immediately contest the city, which has already seen enough fighting and doesn’t deserve another week if not longer of it. The UN and the DRC are sticking to condemnations for the time being.

The comparative silence from the “Western” world over this is intriguing, since we’re not even a year past the infuriating Kony 2012 campaign, which concerned itself with a national situation quite similar to this one. In both cases, a terribly undemocratic government of a former African colony is locked in an incredibly destructive struggle against extremely violent would-be revolutionaries. It’s the ultimate debate between a pair of astoundingly bad “lesser of two evils” – and I’ll be the first to admit I had no idea which one is actually worse. In any case, despite these clear similarities between the two cases, there’s no talk of launching a Ntaganda 2013 campaign, and I suspect that’s more than just motivated by the difficulty anglophones would have with this name.

What’s also interesting, however, is that we’re not seeing the inverse. The M23 is a predominantly Tutsi force, supported by the Tutsi-friendly government of Uganda and largely Tutsi political elite of Rwanda. The military regimes of both of those countries receive a surprising amount of sympathy from their former colonizers, in spite of both of their political use of mass violence.

The awkward fact remains that Kony’s LRA was formed in response to ethnic cleansing in Uganda and that anti-Tutsi sentiment in Rwanda is clearly tied their disproportionately higher society economic status throughout the region during and following colonial rule. It must be added of course that both the efforts at protecting the Acholi and Hutu people of the region have frequently become justifications for killing large numbers of people belonging to those ethnic groups, who are perceived as traitors to the cause. The reactions to these systemic inequalities are sometimes just as indiscriminately violent as the inequalities themselves.

Consequently, it’s hard not to see fertile ground in the DRC for the unilateral understandings of these conflicts which are very prevalent in the US. But there are no reports on the violence that glorify the M23 as a great liberating force for the people of the northeastern DRC, because there’s no reporting at all. This issue is so chronically undervalued in “Western” media, that its presentation isn’t flawed so much as nonexistent.

There are so many reasons to look at this and try to learn something. What’s immediately obvious is that much of sub-Saharan Africa faces the detestable choice between eliminationist revolutionaries and astoundingly violent and insular regimes. Or, to phrase that slightly differently, the choice between military rule and military-to-be rule. What’s less apparent though is how much of this political race for the bottom has been driven by colonial and neo-colonial influence. In Rwanda and Burundi, Belgian rule transformed historical dominance by hazily defined social groups into an immobile racial system that could determine your job, your prospects, and your life. In Uganda, US-based groups have bankrolled gradually more and more fundamentalist Christian politicians, creating a very heterosexist and cissexist political culture.

But what’s more, the example of the DRC shows that the social structures and political boundaries established during the mad dash to colonize Africa still has consequences. Geographically large and diverse, the DRC clearly has multiple population centers beyond the most densely populated band stretching from the capital of Kinshasa in the southwest over to the border with Zambia in the southeast. The rest of the country was largely incorporated together by Belgium to facilitate foreign control over its various useful resources.

(The population density of the DRC, originally from here.)

The political life of the country has not only been concentrated within the political elite but also within that region. Colonization not only favored different ethnic and social groups but also regional ones, leaving the also densely populated areas along the Ugandan, Rwandan, and Burundian borders out in the cold. Dissatisfied with their government on so many fronts, apathy towards the state’s disintegration or even active support of revolutionaries seems understandable.  Perhaps it was inevitable for Uganda and Rwanda to spread their spheres of influence into technically DRC territory that borders theirs given that it’s so politically disconnected from the power center of the country.

While Uganda’s and Rwanda’s pasts have been terribly bloody, the driving forces have typically come down to determining which ethnic group will monopolize power and wealth, rather than where within the country that wealth is and will remain. For all their flaws, Uganda and Rwanda are still countries with borders that don’t blatantly contradict the existing population distribution, and that’s an advantage they have over the DRC.

Maybe in addition to colonialism intentionally establishing certain ethnicities’ dominance through favoritism, it also unknowingly set up a hierarchy of states when it drew their borders.

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Ill omens for Suu Kyi?

Just to review, if for the past week you stuck exclusively to American media you’d probably have heard either nothing about President Obama’s recent trip to Myanmar, or saw an awful lot of this image:

Helpfully, Al Jazeera can provide you with a more nuanced look at the talks in which multiple issues are clearly at play. Obama has done a lot of work in opening Myanmar to democratic influences from namely the US but the broader world. But there’s also speculation around the world about what else will happen now that the country with the world’s tenth largest natural gas reserves has been opened up. Aside from potentially exchanging isolated exploitation for a globalizing variation on the same theme, there’s always the possibility of a close bond between the US and a democratized Myanmar to further politically contain China. As we’re still trying to extract resources from the region and contain Chinese political influence, it seems worth asking if this is just a smarter version of the same US policies that brought us the Vietnam War.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the effective leader of the democratizing movement in Myanmar brilliantly said, of the gains made while Obama has been in office, “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success and that we are working towards genuine success for our people.” With brave talk like that, from someone who’s been under house arrest almost continuously for the past twenty years, we should all have hope. But for her to provide the tenacious leadership that won’t settle for exchanging a Myanmar run at the behest of China for a Burma designed for the benefit of the United States, she’ll have to beat the odds.

Suu Kyi will have to avoid the fates of former Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and former Chilean President Salvador Allende. She’ll also have to overcome the temptation to avoid challenging the powerful that daunted the still lauded Nelson Mandela. There’s actually been another democratizing female politician from a politically dynastic family trying to fight against military rule in a former colony in subtropical Asia – former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who seemed to combine the worst of Mandela’s subverted democratization and Allende’s and Mossadegh’s inability to avoid assassination. That’s not a very positive predictor of either Myanmar’s or Suu Kyi’s futures.

Perhaps a better question than why some Burmese people created a mural of Obama is why didn’t they create one of her? And how does that bode for any emerging democratic government in Myanmar?

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