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Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

Nobel Peace Prize winners sometimes go on to undistinguished later careers, and some seem to have got the prize by mistake. Barack Obama, for example. But there has never before been one who went on to become a genocidal criminal.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader, richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for her thirty-year non-violent campaign (much of it spent under house arrest) to restore democracy in the country. Two years ago, when she finally became the de facto prime minister, her reputation was as high as that of Nelson Mandela.

Hardly anybody had noticed an interview she gave in 2013 in which she said that Buddhists in Rakhine province live in fear of “global Muslim power”. You know, the same global power that lets Muslims dominate the world’s refugee camps. (Muslims make up three-quarters of the world’s refugees, although only a quarter of the world’s population.)

Back then, this was merely a bizarre remark and Suu Kyi was still a saint. The Muslims of Rakhine state, known as Rohingya, were having a hard time at the hands of the authorities, but it wasn’t her fault, and there was no ethnic cleansing yet. There is now, however, and she is fully complicit in it.

When at least 7,000 Rohingya have been murdered, thousands more have been raped, and 700,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, leaving behind another half-million of whom many are in ‘internment centres’ (concentration camps), you can legitimately call it ethnic cleansing. Or genocide, if you want to get legalistic about it.

The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are really illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It even refuses to use the familiar word ‘Rohingya’ any more, insisting on referring to them only as ‘Bengalis’ or ‘Bengali terrorists’. That is a despicable lie.

Rakhine state, between the Arakan mountains and the Indian Ocean, was a separate empire until the Burmese army came over the mountains and conquered it in the late 18th century. Most of its people spoke a dialect of Burmese, but a big minority spoke Rohingya, an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali.

The Rohingya have been in Rakhine at least since the 1660s. The fact that they were Muslims posed no problem for the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan (Rakhine), which was heavily influenced by the Islamic sultanates of eastern India. The Burmese conquerors of Rakhine, and the British empire that followed, didn’t see the Rohingya as a problem either.

The independent Burmese republic founded in 1948 was different from the start. Only two-thirds of Burma’s 53 million people are Bamar (ethnic Burmese), but most of the other ethnic groups share the same Buddhist religion. Nation-building requires a common identity, so Buddhism got the emphasis – and the Rohingya, as Muslims, were automatically excluded.

Bit by bit the military regime that had seized power in 1962 took away the Rohingyas’ land rights, their civil rights, and in 1982 even their citizenship. They were redefined as illegal immigrants, and the local Buddhist population launched occasional pogroms against them.

The anti-Rohingya policy always played well with Bamar nationalists, who are obsessed with the alleged threat posed by Islam. (Only 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, and only half the Muslims are Rohingya.) It’s the one regime policy that is genuinely popular with most of the population, so the army resorts to it whenever it hits a rough patch. It’s losing power now, so it reflexively turns to the old remedy again.

Two years ago you could still argue that a wobbly democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi had to pick its battles carefully. The Rohingya was one that it couldn’t win, so best avoid it and let the military have its way. But that was before it turned into a full-blown genocide last August.

Tactical calculations of political advantage cannot justify mass murder, and it has become clear that Suu Kyi is willing to ignore mass murder if the victims are Muslims. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has known her for more than 30 years, is close to despair.

“She’s changed,” he told CNN last week. “She’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.” And (although Richardson didn’t say this), she also probably feels the same unjustified hatred and fear towards the Rohingyas, and Muslims in general, as the general population.

Meanwhile, the 700,000 Rohingyas suffering in rudimentary refugee camps in Bangladesh have been told that they can start going home next month, but people who have seen their villages razed and family members raped, shot or burned to death are a bit reluctant to trust the Burmese army. Especially when they have no guarantee that they won’t end up in grim ‘detention centres’ back in Rakhine.

Taking the Nobel Peace Prize back from Aung San Suu Kyi wouldn’t help matters in Rakhine at all, but it would do the standing of the prize a lot of good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“Rakhine…Bengali”; and “The anti…again”).

Congo: Drifting into Dangerous Waters

You have to admire Joseph Kabila’s cheek, if nothing else. On Saturday, at his first press conference in seven years, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of Congo said: “We have to have elections as scheduled.” But they were scheduled for December of 2016.

Kabila had been in office for fourteen years by then, but somehow he had forgotten that you need an up-to-date voters’ list before you can hold an election. So he generously offered to stay in office as president for another year while this was done, even though he was not allowed to run for a third term as president.

The various opposition parties and the Catholic Church, which has immense influence in the DRC, were not greatly pleased by that. However, they reluctantly agreed to go along with it and the election was rescheduled for December 2017 – last month.

As it became clear that the deadline would not be met the demonstrations and protests multiplied, and the ‘security forces’ grew more repressive: a recent UN report found that state agents had carried out 1,176 killings in 2017. And late last year Kabila declared that the elections would have to be postponed again, to December 2018.

“Kabila does not have any intention to leave power,” said Felix Tshisekedi, a prominent opposition leader, after the latest postponement. “His strategy is to spread chaos across the country and then delay elections because he’ll claim there is too much violence.” The violence is certainly increasing, and there is a serious risk that Congo is sliding back towards civil war, but it’s too simple to blame it all on Kabila.

Joseph Kabila came to power when his father Laurent-Desire Kabila, a warlord who had emerged victorious in the first civil war in 1997, was assassinated in 2001. He was only 29 at the time (although his father had already made him army chief of staff), and he had no political following of his own.

He has subsequently become very rich, but he is still not a powerful figure in his own right. He was put in office by the security forces, now dominated by the men who led his father’s rebel army, and he remains largely a figurehead while they make the real decisions. The problem is that they can’t decide who should replace him.

Kabila didn’t actually forget to change the law that restricted him to two terms of office. Doing that would have been simple enough if the men who really run things had all wanted him to stay in office. (Three other African leaders have changed the rules on term limits so they could stay in office in just the past year.)

Nor is there much doubt that Kabila would have won if there had been an election last year or the year before. It’s the regime’s own people who are slowly compiling the voters’ lists, and the choices they make will doubtless guarantee a victory for the regime. The situation is drifting towards chaos because the various factions within the security forces cannot agree whether to keep Kabila in power or switch to another figurehead.

It’s all about who has access to resources (for which read money) within the regime, but meanwhile 81 million Congolese are being dragged towards another civil war. The last one, in 1998-2003, killed at least 5 million Congolese, mostly from hunger and disease. They do not need another.

There is already heavy fighting between militia groups and the army in the east and south-east, with the majority of the casualties, as usual, being civilians. It would be comforting to believe that an election could stop all this, but it can’t. What is required is a strong and reasonably honest government that can reassert control over this huge country, the poorest in the world.

It is sheer fantasy to imagine that a country bigger than all of western Europe, but with less in the way of all-weather roads than tiny Luxembourg and a per capita income of about a dollar a day, can be saved by a free election. Communications are so poor that there is no genuine ‘public opinion’, and beyond Kinshasa, the capital, almost all political loyalties are tribal.

Democracy is important, and for most African countries – for most countries anywhere – it is the best solution. But the Congo is too big, too poor and too ethnically fragmented for that to work yet. Elections are symbolically important because they embody the principles of popular sovereignty and the rule of law, but everybody who might actually get elected belongs to a small privileged elite.

A relatively small part of that group, the ‘security elite’, have actually been running everything since the turn of the century, and the first order of business must be for them to make a deal on who their candidate will be at the next election. Whoever that is will certainly win, and it hardly matters whether it is Kabila or somebody else. Those behind the scenes will still pull the strings.

But until they reach an agreement about the regime’s candidate, the country will continue to drift, and it is drifting into dangerous waters.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Kabila…figurehead”)

Syria: A Carnival of Treachery

There are comical elements in the current Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Its name, for example: Operation Olive Branch. Or the frantic back-pedalling by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about the announcement that triggered (or at least provided a pretext for) the Turkish offensive.

A week ago the US declared that it was building a new 30,000-strong ‘border security force’ in the territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border. It would be backed by 2,000 US troops, who would remain there indefinitely. Whereupon Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded, and declared that his army would strangle this new Kurdish ‘terror army’ in its cradle.

Tillerson, who had been attending a pointless meeting in Vancouver of all the countries that sent troops to fight in the Korean War 67 years ago, was caught on the hop, and quickly denied it all. “That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said on the way to the plane. The lack of adult supervision in Washington extends beyond the White House.

In any case, too late. The Turkish army is now fighting its way into the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, with further operations promised to eliminate the rest of the Kurdish-led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ that the United States used to destroy Islamic State’s troops in eastern Syria. From Erdogan’s point of view, all Kurds are bad Kurds.

And Washington, as predicted, is betraying and abandoning its Kurdish allies. They were useful at the time, but it’s more important to keep Turkey happy. It’s the most powerful country in the Middle East, it’s a NATO ally (with the second-biggest army in the alliance), and it controls the Straits that give the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean. So the United States confines itself to urging ‘restraint’ on the Turks.

That’s what great powers say when they have no intention of intervening to stop something bad from happening – and the Russians are also urging restraint, so they are not going to stop the Turks either. The ally the Russians are betraying is the Syrian regime led by Bashar al-Assad.

“We warn the Turkish leaders that if they start fighting in the region of Afrin, it will be seen as an aggression by the Turkish army against the sovereignty of Syria,” said Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad last week, adding that Syria would shoot down any Turkish planes bombing Afrin. But then Turkish military and intelligence chiefs flew to Moscow on Thursday and got Russian and Iranian approval for their bombing campaign.

The Damascus regime hates Turkish tanks on its soil, but it accepts Moscow’s hands-off policy because it still depends on Russian and Iranian military support for its remarkable come-back in the Syrian civil war. Besides, it suspects that America really was planning to create a Kurdish-ruled protectorate in the north-eastern part of Syria as a US base and counter-weight to the Russian presence in the country.

Why has Russia given the green light for the Turkish invasion? Because Vladimir Putin senses an opportunity to prise Turkey out of NATO and make it a Russian ally. That’s probably not going to happen, but Turkey has just bought $2.5 billion of Russian arms so he has some reason to hope. And he too suspects that the United States was planning to use the Kurds to maintain a foothold in Syria.

The Syrian Kurds are also lying. They insist that their army, the People’s Protection Units (YFP), has no links with the PKK, the nationalist and sometimes separatist movement of the Turkish Kurds, which is listed as a terrorist organisation by NATO, the United States and the European Union (although not by the UN). But of course they have links, and they share the same long-term goal: an independent Kurdish state.

In fact, everybody is lying, everybody has ulterior motives, and the Syrian people’s best interests are the last thing on anybody’s mind. Business as usual, in other words, including the usual betrayals.

This is a very old game, so old that the rulers of the first Sumerian city-states would recognise it. Indeed, even the head-men of warring aboriginal tribes in the New Guinea highlands would understand what is going on in Syria now – and realise that it is probably inevitable but generally futile.

A few thousand people get killed, a few pawns move on the strategic chessboard, and then it’s time for the next round. Once in a while things get out of hand and a great deal of death and destruction ensues over a broad area, but not often: maybe every second generation. And there is no final outcome: the leading players change from time to time, but the game never ends.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 9. (“The Syrian…state”)

Macedonian Name Game

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare wrote, but it doesn’t smell as sweet in Macedonia. In a display of national insecurity with few parallels, Greece has denied that the country to the north has the right to use the name Macedonia ever since it got its independence when Yugoslavia broke up in 1991.

Athens insisted, with very little evidence, that by calling the new country the Republic of Macedonia (the same name it had as part of the federal state of Yugoslavia), the Macedonians were laying claim to the Greek region of the same name. But recently there were signs that common sense was starting to break through.

The Macedonians were willing to negotiate on the issue, because Greece has blocked its applications to join the NATO alliance and the European Union since 2008, and only let it to join the United Nations under the ridiculous name of ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM). But Athens and Skopje (the capital of FYROM) have been talking compromise for almost a year, and it was looking good.

Interior minister Panos Skourletis, a prominent figure in the Syriza Party that dominates the coalition government in Athens, said:“It is a silly dispute that has to be solved. They [the Macedonians] want to solve it, and I think it will be solved in 2018. If not now, then when?”

The dispute has been complicated by the fact that the Macedonians, a small ethnic group who have inhabited the area they now possess since the Slavic invasions of the 6th and 7th centuries, have claimed Alexander the Great as their founding father. It’s understandable, since they can claim no other historical figures of note, but it has immensely irritated the Greeks.

Alexander, who conquered half the ‘known world’ before he died more than 2,000 years ago at the age of 32, is also seen by modern Greeks as their most important world-historical figure, mainly because they too have no more recent candidates. Homer, Socrates, Euripides, and Plato are all very well, but they lived even longer ago and conquered no foreigners.

So in addition to the preposterous notion that Macedonia lusts after the Greek province of the same name – ‘FYROM’ has only two million people (of whom a quarter are ethnically Albanian), whereas there are ten million Greeks – Greek nationalists are further aggrieved that their neighbours are trying to steal their great national hero. And indeed, there has been some attempted larceny.

Under the last prime minister, an ultra-nationalist called Nikolas Gruevski, the Republic of Macedonia started naming airports, highways and stadiums after Alexander and erecting large and remarkably clumsy statues to the great conqueror. Gruevski lost the Macedonian election last June, however, and the new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, has taken a very different line.

“I give up the claim of Macedonia being the sole heir to Alexander,” Zaev said in a TV interview last month. “The history belongs not only to us but to Greece and many other countries.” He has denounced the previous government nationalist binge and even suggested that he will dismantle statues that offend the Greeks.

This is only reasonable, as Alexander really was Greek. He spoke Greek (his tutor was Aristotle), and he was born on what is now Greek territory.

On the other hand, the multi-national empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, that ruled the entire region for over 2,000 years until the 20th century usually included the territory now occupied by FYROM in their Macedonian province, so that name can be claimed by anyone whose ancestors lived there. And by late last year, reasonable people were working on a sensible compromise.

By this New Year’s Eve Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia, was entertaining Macedonian president Zoran Zaev in his city. “For too long we have been obscured by this nationalistic foolishness and populist propaganda,” he said, and the problem looked well on the way to being solved.

The solution, according to sources inside the negotiations headed by U.N. negotiator Matthew Nimitz, would be to rename FYROM ‘New Macedonia’, which implies no claim to ‘old’ Greek Macedonia. But then Pannos Kammenos, the founder of the small ‘Independent Greeks’ party that is in coalition with Syriza, demanded an immediate referendum.

Kammenos’s party is polling so low at the moment that it wouldn’t even make it into the next parliament, so he needed to boost his standing with his right-wing supporters. The opinion pollsters promptly asked the Greek public if they would accept any name for FYROM that included the word ‘Macedonia’, and between 68 percent of respondents (poll of 15 January) and 77 percent (poll of 20 January) said ‘no.

So Syriza, which is currently trailing the opposition New Democracy party in the polls by 10 percent, is unlikely to go any further with this proposal. (63 percent of its own voters said ‘no). The foolishness will therefore continue for some time to come.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Alexander…larceny”)