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Burma: Rohingya Genocide

During the past 65 years of military rule in Burma, the army has killed thousands of people from almost every one of the country’s numerous minorities: Shans, Karens, Kachins, Karennis, Mon, Chin and many smaller groups. But the only ones who have faced a genocide are the Rohingya, and it is happening right now.

Only two-thirds of Burma’s 52 million people are ethnic Burmese, and almost all the other groups have rebelled from time to time because they have no autonomy. Indeed, the original military take-over in 1962 occurred to stop an elected civilian leader from creating a federal state where the minorities would have some control over their own affairs. But the 1.1 million Rohingya are special, because they are almost all Muslim.

The other minorities are all Buddhist, at least in theory, and the army only kills enough of them to quell their revolts. The Rohingya never revolted, but Muslims are feared and reviled by the Burmese majority. Now the army claims that the Rohingya are all recent immigrants from Bangladesh, and is trying to drive them out of the country.

The ancestors of the Rohingya migrated from what is now Bangladesh between the 14th and 18th centuries and settled in the Rakhine (Arakan) region of Burma. They were mostly poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. Since then, they have been treated as aliens and enemies.

The ultra-nationalist military regime launched its first open attacks on the Rohingya in 1978 and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape and the destruction of mosques. Even then, their civilian Buddhist neighbours in Rakhine helped in the attacks.

The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children. Another military campaign drove a further quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. Then things went relatively quiet until 2013.

The trouble this time started with anti-Muslim riots in Burma’s cities, where there are around a million other Muslims, mostly descended from people who immigrated from British-ruled India after Burma was conquered and incorporated into the empire in the mid-19th century.

These urban Muslims, many of whom owned shops or other small businesses, attracted the envy and resentment of poorer Burmese, and have been the targets of sporadic rioting and looting throughout the past century. Since independence, the Burmese army has often supported these riots, or even incited them.

What lies behind all this hostility is a deep-seated fear that Islam is going to displace Buddhism in Burma as it has done in other once-Buddhist countries from Afghanistan to Indonesia. It is a completely unfounded fear – Muslims are just four percent of Burma’s population – but many Buddhist Burmese are obsessed by it.

When the Taliban blew up the giant 6th-century statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, the Burmese army ‘retaliated’ by bulldozing the ancient Han Tha Mosque in the city of Taungoo. In the same year Burmese monks began distributing an anti-Muslim pamphlet called “The Fear of Losing One’s Race”, and since then Buddhist monks have been in the forefront of the attacks on Muslims – including in Rakhine.

The poor Rohingya farmers of Rakhine have little in common with the Muslim merchants of Burma’s big cities, but they are now the main target of the army’s wrath. This is probably because Rakhine is the only province of Burma where Muslims are – or more precisely were until recently – almost half the population.

The attacks on the Rohingya, initially explained as part of intercommunal rioting between them and the local Buddhist population, have escalated until this year they have become straightforward ethnic cleansing. The army does not aim to kill them all, just enough of them to force the rest to flee across the border into Bangladesh – but that is still genocide.

It’s now well on the way to accomplishing its goal, thanks to a small group of misguided young Rohingya men who formed a ramshackle resistance group called the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army and attacked several police posts on 25 August, killing twelve people.

They were armed with home-made black powder muskets and swords, but the Burmese government has proclaimed that it is under “terrorist” attack and launched a “counter-offensive” that is the local version of a final solution.

About 300,000 Rohingya have fled across the border into Bangladesh in the past couple of weeks, leaving behind an unknown number of dead in their burned-out villages. The remaining Rohingyas in Burma, probably still more than half a million, are almost all in refugee camps that the regime carefully does not call “concentration camps”.

And what about Burma’s secular saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, now in practice the head of a democratically elected government (although one still subject to a military veto on security matters)? She denies that there is anything wrong going on.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. “These urban…them”; and “When…Rakhine”)

Space Dreams

Some other contender for the title of Curmudgeon of the Year may emerge before the end of December, but at the moment it looks like Mark McCaughrean, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency, will win in a walk. When Elon Musk unveiled some details of his plan to create a large human settlement on Mars in the journal New Space in June, McCaughrean tweeted as follows.

“It’s a wild-eyed investment pitch, pumped up by the enthusiasm of fanboys brought up on comic-book sci-fi, wrapped in evangelism of saving humanity from itself and the problems we’ve brought on this planet, a kind of modern-day manifest destiny,” he said, waving his stick angrily in the air. (I made that last bit up.)

“I’m less concerned about making humans a multi-planetary species than I am about making the Earth a sustainable multi-species planet, before we go gadding off colonising the solar system,” he continued. Harrumph. Science journalists always have the phone numbers of grumps like this, because every science story has to have a quote from somebody saying that it’s a bad idea – but it does sound like McCaughrean is in the wrong job.

I’m writing this now, although McCaughrean’s rant happened almost two months ago, because I’m currently on Baffin Island, just about the least hospitable place on Earth that has sustained a long-term human presence.

The ancestors of the present Inuit inhabitants arrived here a thousand years ago without even metal tools, and it occurs to me that if they could make a go of it here, then people with currently available technologies can probably make a go of settling Mars.

The red planet gets much colder than Baffin, its air is not breathable, the water is frozen in the soil, and the lack of a magnetic field lets hard radiation get through to the surface during solar storms, but a human colony on Mars is not impossible.

It may never be the million-strong settlement that Musk imagines a century from now, but he never said he was going to build that himself. What he is building is an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) that would get people there for as little as $200,000 each. Then just stand back and watch as people with ideas about what could be done on Mars put their money down.

Musk is already building and testing elements of the ITS. He has a brilliant record as a high-tech entrepreneur (the Tesla electric car and the existing generation of Space-X launch vehicles). He has already successfully landed booster rockets, which is the key to making the system reusable. And this is his life’s work.

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin launch vehicles are also landing successfully, so the reusability problem is cracked – which will automatically cut launch costs at least tenfold. And other blue-sky space projects are practically tripping over each other as the ideas multiply.

Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner’s ten-year Breakthrough Listen project is buying thousands of hours of time on the world’s most powerful radio telescopes for researchers seeking signs of civilisations elsewhere in the galaxy. There is “no bigger question in science,” said Prof. Stephen Hawking, who is an adviser to the project.

The 100-Year Starship project, funded partly by NASA, was founded in 2012 to explore the technologies needed to make interstellar space travel a reality a century from now. It is now joined by Icarus Interstellar, whose Project Persephone is working on the design of a ‘generation ship’ that could serve as an interstellar lifeboat for some tiny portion of the human race if the Earth faced disaster in the next century.

Then there is the StarShot project, also backed by Yuri Milner. It’s a five-year, $100 million research programme to design a system of tiny probes consisting of single chips, no bigger than a postage stamp, that would fly to nearby star systems to do close-up observations as they sweep through.

Weighing only one gram, the SpaceChips would be put into orbit, then sent on their way by an array of ground-based lasers focussed on a small light-sail: only a few square metres. The lasers would blast them up to one-fifth of light speed in a few minutes, and then they cruise for twenty years or so until they reach their destination – in the first instance, Proxima Centauri, the nearest star

You couldn’t choose a better target, because astronomers have found an Earth-sized planet circling Proxima that is within that star’s “habitable zone” (where water remains liquid). “We will photograph it close-up,” said Avi Loeb, chair of the advisory committee. “Will it be blue from its oceans, or green from its vegetation, or yellow from its deserts? We will find out.” Get the technology right, and you could do it with thousands of stars.

Like all of these projects, StarShot will require the solution of dozens of difficult technical problems, cost a small fortune, and take years, decades or a lifetime. But it is exhilarating to know that all these projects are underway. At last, the ambitions of the innovators and the explorers begin to match the scale of the task.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 14. (“I’m less…job”; and “You…stars”)

Climate Creep and American Frogs

At least a decade ago, a retired general at the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies said to me that the rich countries will never take climate change seriously until some very big and apparently climate-related disaster happens in a first-world country. Hurricane Harvey was not that disaster.

At least twenty people have died in the Houston floods in the past few days, and the number will undoubtedly go up. In Bangladesh, at least 134 have died in monsoon flooding that has submerged at least a third of the country. But the latter fact will have no impact on opinion in the developed countries – “it’s just the monsoon again” – and the Texas disaster is not big enough to change minds in the United States. Nor should it.

Hurricanes are an annual event in the Gulf of Mexico, and their causes are well uderstood. Global warming has raised the amount of rain that this storm dumped on east Texas by 3-5 percent. (Higher sea surface temperature = more evaporation.) It also probably caused the changed wind patterns that kept Harvey loitering off the coast for so long.
But it did not cause Harvey.

The Houston floods are causing so much disruption and misery mainly because of human decisions: putting such a large population on a flood plain subject to frequent hurricanes, and then taking inadequate measures to protect those people from the inevitable consequences.

It’s the same story as Hurricane Katrina – and if more than a thousand dead in New Orleans twelve years ago didn’t change the way Americans deal with these threats, the current
pain in Houston is certainly not going to do so either. Indeed, just a couple of weeks ago President Trump scrapped Obama-era flood standards requiring infrastructure projects to take account of predicted global warming. There was no outcry.

Immerse a frog in boiling water, and it will immediately hop out. Put it in cold water and then slowly heat it, and the frog will not notice that it’s being boiled. The evidence is there, but it’s coming in too slowly to get its attention. Climate change is creeping in quietly, making normal weather a bit more extreme each year, and Americans haven’t noticed yet.

They get lots of help in maintaining their ignorance, of course.. Right-wing “think tanks” like the Institute of Energy Research, the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, financed by the likes of Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers, have already mobilised to deny any links between the Houston disaster and climate change.

“Instead of wasting colossal sums of money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, much smaller amounts should be spent on improving the infrastructure that protects the Gulf and Atlantic coasts,” said Myron Ebell, director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and formerly the head of Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, tasked with crippling it).

But do not despair: this is largely an American phenomenon, and the United States does not bulk as large in the climate equation as it used to. Almost all the other developed countries are taking the threat of large-scale climate change seriously, although they have left it a bit late and they’re still not doing enough.

Consider, for example, the Netherlands, which is almost as vulnerable to flooding as Bangladesh: a quarter of the country is below sea level. There is a sentence in the introduction to the annual report of the Delta Programme, which deals with the rising sea levels and other water-related issues that concern the Dutch, that would be quite unthinkable in a US government document even in Barack Obama’s administration.

It reads: “The Delta Programme is tasked with ensuring that flood risk management and the freshwater supply will be sustainable and robust by 2050, and that our country will be designed in a manner that enables it to continue to cope resiliently with the greater extremes of climate.” If the United States had started taking the Dutch approach twenty years ago, far less of Houston would be underwater today, but “designing our country”? It’s un-American.

The United States will get there eventually, but it will take a far greater disaster than the Houston floods – the loss of Miami, perhaps? – before it ends the ideological wars and starts dealing with the realities of its situation. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will have to cope with climate change without American help.

It can probably manage. The Paris climate summit of December, 2015 produced an agreement that was a good start in coping with emissions, and none of the other countries took advantage of Trump’s defection from the deal to break their own promises. New technologies offer more promising routes for cutting emissions, and the world still has a chance of avoid runaway global warming (+3-6 degrees C).

Even if we can stop the warming before +2 degrees C, however, it’s too late already to prevent major climate change. There will be bigger floods and longer droughts, food shortages and floods of refugees, and countries will have to work hard to limit the damage. Including, eventually, the United States.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Consider…un-American”)

Angola: All Change?

There is momentous change in Angola. The oil-rich country of 28 million people on Africa’s southwestern coast has just elected J-Lo as president.

There is also very little change in Angola. The new president is not Jennifer Lopez, the American J.Lo (which would definitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a member of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a general since the 1980s, and most recently the Minister of Defence. He can’t sing, either.

J-Lo replaces 75-year-old José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been president for the past 38 years (the second longest-ruling president in the world). But it’s questionable how much power he will really inherit from the outgoing president, who passed a new law prohibiting his successor from changing the heads of the army, the police or the intelligence service for eight years. Dos Santos wants no surprises after his retirement.

In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos Santos is retiring at all. He will remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, his daughter Isabel (Africa’s richest woman) runs the state oil company, and one of his sons controls the $5 billion state investment fund. Other allies and cronies dominate the rest of the economy.

J-Lo, by contrast, holds no positions that provide opportunities to steal massive amounts from state funds, and is widely believed to be non-corruptible or nearly so, a rare quality in the MPLA’s senior leadershiip. That may be why he was forced on Dos Santos by the party as a successor.

The MPLA has a little problem. After a devastating 27-year civil war between rival liberation movements ended with the death in battle in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), rapidly growing oil production and high world oil prices created a huge boom in the Angolan economy. In several years since then it has been the fastest-growing economy in the world.

A great deal of the new wealth went to senior MLA members and their allies, but enough trickled down to keep the impoverished masses quiet and obedient. But the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income and killed the private economy, such as it was. In the sprawling capital, Luanda, half-finished, abandoned apartment towers line the shore.

The poor are getting poorer, and they may eventually get angry. This is a relatively rich country where 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of the adult population is officially unemployed (unofficially, much more). There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match.

The opposition Unita party won 27 percent of the votes in last week’s election, ten percent more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. The rank-and-file of the ruling party is getting worried, and despite having made the transition from hard-line communist to free-market capitalist over the years the MPLA remains a disciplined organisation.

Dos Santos was invulnerable until he got ill, but for more than a year he has been receiving treatment for cancer. He had his cousin, Vicente Manuel, made vice-president in 2012 with the intention of making him the designated successor, but the party chose João Lourenço instead in 2015. And though nobody is admitting it publicly, it probably pressured Dos Santos not to run again in the 2017 election.

So change is probably on the way in Angola after all, despite Dos Santos’s strenuous efforts to protect his family’s own wealth and power and hamstring his successor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, because like all prominent MPLA members J-Lo has had to hide any contrary opinions he may have held during the long reign of Dos Santos.

One clue, however, is Lourenço’s reputation for honesty. Long-ruling parties faced with collapsing popular support often try to win it back by choosing somebody known to be clean and competent as leader: think of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union picking Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985.

But remember also what happened to the CPSU in 1991. It was already too late to “reform” the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by 1985. It may already be too late to reform the MPLA now. And Angola’s civil war is only fifteen years in the past: a transition to a less corrupt, more open, less repressive regime would be a tricky thing to manage.

Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he certainly has no intention of removing it from power. But he could be seduced by the idea of making it really popular again, and thereby holding onto power by genuinely democratic means.

In which case we must wish him luck, while knowing that he is likely to fail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12-13. (“One clue…manage”)