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Archive for June, 2019

Sudan: No Surprise

It’s like Tienanmen Square in miniature, and maybe not all that miniature. The official death toll in Khartoum after Monday’s massacre stands at 35, but the whole city is still locked down, with columns of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) vehicles driving through the streets firing at practically anything that moves. There may be a lot more dead.

The RSF used to be known as the Janjaweed, and they are not soldiers; they are professional killers. They are the local solution to the problem any dictatorship faces when it decides to end a non-violent protest by murdering the protesters. By that time your soldiers will usually have been on the streets for a while, and will have had personal contact with the people you want to kill.

The ordinary soldiers come from exactly the same society as the protesters and, knowing who these people really are, will by now be quite reluctant to kill them. Dictators know that you must never give your soldiers an order you know they will disobey, because that creates a dilemma for them that they can only resolve by killing you. So you must find some other group to do the massacre.

They may just be soldiers you bring in from out of town, who have had no previous human contact with the protesters before the order to kill is given. That’s what the Chinese regime did before the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

They may be special forces troops and secret police, left over from the old dictatorship and long rewarded for abusing and murdering the old regime’s enemies, who will gladly serve a new dictatorship. That’s who General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi used to kill at least a thousand non-violent protesters on Rabaa Square in Cairo after his military coup overthrew Egypt’s elected government in 2013.

In Sudan that group began as a bunch of camel-herding tribesmen, already at war with the local farmers, who were then recruited by the old regime to torch villages and slaughter their inhabitants in western Sudan. They acquired a taste for rape, pillage and murder and became known as the Janjaweed. They are now called the RSF.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator since 1989, originally created them to carry out a genocide in the separatist western province of Darfur, a crime for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. They were never seen in the capital in those days, but now they have uniforms of a sort and they are all over Khartoum.

They are doing the job that the soldiers of the regular army might have balked at: killing enough citizens, more or less at random, to frighten the rest back into submission. The ordinary soldiers’ reluctance was often on display in the early days of the Sudanese revolution, when they sometimes intervened to protect the protesters from the RSF.

The generals who have now unleashed the RSF never felt that reluctance themselves. Unlike the private soldiers, they have profited greatly under Bashir’s rule and have no intention of giving up their own privileges and power. They were happy enough to sacrifice Bashir to the protesters (he’s now under arrest and awaiting trial), but they don’t do self-sacrifice.

So they played for time, negotiating a ‘democratic transition’ with the protest leaders while waiting for the support to flow in from other Arab tyrannies. It duly arrived: an immediate gift of $3 billion from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to help Bashir’s military heirs buy back support, and the promise of political support for any killing that they saw as a necessary part of the process.

The military junta, calling itself the ‘Transitional Military Council’, kept up the facade of power-sharing with the opposition ‘Alliance for Freedom and Change’ right down to last weekend. On Sunday the TMC spokesman said that a deal was almost done: there would be an election in two years, and civilians would have a majority of the seats on the interim council.

Then on Monday morning the Rapid Support Forces/Janjaweed went in shooting and cleared the square in front of Army Headquarters that had been occupied by pro-democracy forces for the past two months. The TMC’s head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, declared on state television that the military had decided to “stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on.”

What had changed? Nothing. The military were never negotiating in good faith; they were just buying time. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), whic spearheaded the nationwide protests, is calling for a campaign of “sweeping civil disobedience to topple the treacherous and killer military council,” but unless it can take back control of the streets, it’s all over.

Can it do that? Probably not. The Janjaweed don’t care how many people they kill, and none of the most powerful governments in the Arab world do either.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They may…2013″)

The People’s Republic of Amnesia

Another of the five-yearly anniversaries has rolled around, and it’s time to write another think-piece about the long-term meaning of the massacre on Beijing’s Tienanmen Square on 4 June 1989. But 30 years later, what is there left to say?

Great changes were already underway in the Communist-ruled parts of Europe in 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Soviet leader, visited Beijing after the students had taken over the square in late April, and he obviously thought that the same process was underway in China. Maybe it was, but it was violently aborted – and it has still not recovered.

That’s not what people thought at the time. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of students
were killed on the square – the soldiers burned the bodies in a massive pyre right on the square, so there was never an accurate count. Hundreds or thousands more died elsewhere, because similar demonstrations were put down in every major Chinese city. And we all thought: this will never be forgotten.

The students weren’t counter-revolutionaries. Their hero, the man whose death they were honouring when they occupied the square, was Hu Yaobang, a lifelong Communist, a veteran of the Long March, who simply believed that it was high time to ease up on the controls four decades after the Communists took power in China.

For that Hu, then General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, had been forced into retirement by the Party’s hard-liners in 1987. But everybody knew what he wanted, and when he died two years later the students came out to demand it again: government accountability, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and free trade unions.

The dominant conservative faction in the Chinese Communist Party responded by killing them, and then set out to erase all popular memory of what had happened. It can’t be done, said all the journalists outside China: they will never be forgiven. The crowds will be back on the streets one of these days, and there will be a great reckoning and radical change.

Well, not. Thirty years later, most Chinese millennials are ignorant of exactly what happened in 1989. The older generation remember, but they dare not mention it in public and they are a dwindling minority. Journalist Louisa Lim has accurately described contemporary China as the ‘People’s Republic of Amnesia’.

Why did this happen, and has the notion of a freer future really gone down the memory hole in China? Start with the fact that the Soviet Union was 72 years old in 1989, whereas the Chinese People’s Republic was only 40.

That extra generation meant that there was nobody still in power in Russia who had actually ordered the deaths of thousands of people. Not only the revolutionary generation but also the Stalinist generation were gone, and by the 1980s the career Communists who had climbed the greasy pole of power were mere bureaucrats.

They thought they were hard men too, but in fact they weren’t anything of the sort. A few of them tried to carry out a coup and restore Communist rule in 1991, but they were actually trembling with fear as they spoke on TV, and they were seen off in a couple of days. Whereas China’s rulers in 1989 still had lots of hands-on experience with killing people.

Some of them, like Hu Yaobang and his successor Zhao Ziyang, were genuine idealists who felt that the Party’s controls must be loosened now that the revolution was an accomplished fact. Zhao actually went to the square at dawn on 19 May and addressed the students, urging them to hold fast to their demands.

“We are already old, we do not matter anymore,” he told them – but Zhao already knew that he had lost the argument, and that the Communist Party leadership had decided to clear the square by force. He had also been stripped of his own position, and would live the last 15 years of his life under house-arrest.

The actual massacre was delayed for a further two weeks because the soldiers in Beijing had been fraternising with the students and could no longer be trusted to kill them. It took two weeks to replace them with fresh troops who knew nothing about what was happening in Beijing and would obediently kill the ‘counter-revolutionaries.’

So Communist dictatorship survived in China while it peacefully expired in Russia. It still looks solid today: the current leader, Xi Jinping, has just effectively declared himself president-for-life. But Communist rule in China has now reached the magic age of 70. Is it immortal? Probably not.

Communist rule in the Soviet Union would probably have survived if the economy had been growing strongly. What brought it down was the insolence of absolute power combined with an abject failure to deliver the goods economically. The Chinese Communist regime is very insolent, but it will probably survive as long as it delivers the goods .

However, China has a market economy now, and market economies have recessions. The official Chinese growth rate is still 6%, but the real rate of growth has already fallen to somewhere between 3% and zero. The next five or ten years should be quite interesting.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11, 12 and 13. (“Some…counter-revolutionaries”)