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Bangladesh

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Which Non-Violent Revolutions Will Succeed?

20 September 2020

The old calculation was simple and brutal: if you want to overthrow a tyrant, you must use violence. There was an occasional exception, like Gandhi’s use of non-violent protest to gain India’s independence, but people wrote that off as being due to the fact that the British empire, being ruled by a democratic government, was too soft.

Tell that to the descendants of the tens of thousands of Irish, Kenyans, Malaysians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Afrikaners and sundry others who were killed for trying to leave the British empire. It would be truer to say that Ghandian non-violence obliged the British to avoid massive violence in India (and Pakistan and what eventually became Bangladesh got a free ride out on the same ticket.)

And then, after bubbling underneath for four decades with a few partial successes like the American civil rights movement, non-violent tactics exploded into a kaleidoscopic range of peaceful revolutions in the later 1980s. From south and southeast Asia (The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh) to Iran and the Communist-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the technique seemed unstoppable.

Peaceful protest was drowned in blood in China in 1989, but it kept notching up victories elsewhere: the Soviet Union itself, most of France’s sub-Saharan colonies, South Africa and Indonesia in the 1990s; Serbia, Philippines II, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Lebanon in the 2000s; and Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine II and Sudan in the 2010s.

But all the non-violent uprisings of the 2010-2011 ‘Arab Spring’ except Tunisia’s ended up being crushed by military coups or civil wars. And none of the current crop, in Belarus, Thailand and Algeria, are heading for a rapid or easy victory. Indeed, they might all fail. What is happening to this technique that once swept all before it?

It’s more than three decades since this new technique startled the world, and dictators are not usually fools. They see what happened to their former colleagues who got overthrown, and start working out counter-strategies that weaken the determination and cohesiveness of the protesters.

For example, all but the stupidest dictators now know that while violence can scare individuals and small groups into silence, it is almost always a mistake to use it against very large groups. It just makes them angry, and they’ll usually be back the next day in much larger numbers.

Your real objective, as a dictator, should be to trick the protesters into using violence themselves. Then the thugs who love a street-fight will rise to leadership positions in the protests while most other people withdraw, disgusted by the violence – and then you can use massive violence against the violent protesters who remain.

Dictators have also learned to block the internet and mobile phones at the first sign of protest, or to mine electronic communications between the protest organisers to stop small groups from uniting into an unstoppably big crowd. Keep that up long enough, and you may just wait them out.

Harvard politican scientist Erica Chenoweth is the go-to expert on this, and she has two very useful numbers for us. The first is that whereas non-violent movements to overthrow illegitimate regimes used to succeed half the time, now they win only one time in three. The other, more encouraging, is that if they can get 3.5% of the population out in the streets, they almost always win.

By this measure, the Belarus movement is still within reach of success. 3.5% of Belarus’s population is about 300,000 people, and the Sunday demonstrations since early August, including those in cities outside Minsk, probably come close to that figure most weekends. People are not yet bored, cowed, or in despair.

The protests in Thailand against former general and coup-leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha have not yet spread significantly beyond Bangkok, and the mostly student protesters are certainly not even 1% of the population. The movement continues to expand, but its long-term prospects are doubtful.

As for Algeria, the recent election of a new president closely linked to the last one (whom the protesters forced to resign last year) has brought the students back out into the streets in force. The Covid-19 lock-down robbed the movement of its momentum, however, and it is unlikely to regain it.

So maybe one success in three for regime change, just as Erica Chenoweth predicts. But her most important insight is that the 3.5% number probably applies to any popular protest movement, including those in democratic countries. The goals of those movements need not be limited to overthrowing dictators.

As she told the Harvard Gazette last year: “(3.5%) sounds like a really small number, but in absolute terms it’s really an impressive number of people…Can you imagine if 11.5 million (Americans) were doing something like mass non-cooperation in a sustained way for nine to 18 months? Things would be totally different in this country.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“Tell…ticket; and “Dictators…out”)

A Less Crowded Planet

20 July 2020

If you wanted evidence that reasonably competent government – not great, not corruption-free, just not awful – produces good results in the end, here it is.

Back in 1971, when the two countries split apart, Bangladesh had 65 million people and Pakistan had 60 million. By the end of this century, Bangladesh will have around 80 million people – and Pakistan will have 250 million.

Bangladesh is usually seen as a seriously over-populated country, and it still is today: 160 million people. But its birth-rate is dropping so fast that its population will halve by 2100, leaving it with no more people per square kilometre of farmland than the United Kingdom.

It has achieved this mainly by educating its girls and young women and making contraception easily available. That’s what’s driving the global numbers down, too. The latest population predictions, published last week in the British medical journal The Lancet, forecast a global population in 2100 of only 8.8 billion.

That’s just one billion more than now. True, we will reach a peak in about forty years’ time of 9.7 billion, but by century’s end we will be sliding down the other side of the population mountain quite fast.

These are ‘surprise-free’ predictions, of course, and the future always brings surprises: wars, pandemics, a new religion or ideology. The forecasts don’t even factor in the impact of foreseeable calamities like climate change. Nevertheless, these numbers are not just fictions, and they really are good news.

The numbers come from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation of the University of Washington, and they predict an end-of-century world population that is two billion lower than the UN Population Division’s forecast last year of almost 11 billion people. As they say: a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real numbers.

Even better, the assumption is that the global population will continue to go down after that. Give it another century of gentle decline, and we could hope for a global population of four or five billion by 2200, which would make the task of dealing with the long-term impacts of climate change a lot easier. Meanwhile, there are three other big things going on right now.

The first is that more than two dozen countries will lose around half their population by the end of this century, including all the countries of East Asia (China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan) and most of the countries of central, eastern and southern Europe (e.g. Italy, Poland, Spain and Greece).

Some will fall even further: Bulgaria from 7 million to 2.6 million, Latvia from 2 million to less than half a million. Russia, however, will only drop from 145 million to 105 million.

The problem for all of these countries will be a huge overhang of elderly people as the younger population shrinks. The ‘population pyramid’ will be stood on its point, more or less, with each person in the working population having to support at least one retired person (unless retirement ages are raised radically, as they may well be).

The second group are countries, almost all in Africa or the Middle East, where population growth is still out of control. These are the only regions where some countries will triple their populations (e.g. Israel and Angola), or quadruple them (Afghanistan and Nigeria).

Many countries in this category have more modest growth rates, but if just these two regions were excluded from the count, the population of the rest of the world in 2100 would be lower than it is today.

And finally comes the oddest group: the countries where birth rates are already far below replacement level, but the populations will hold steady or even grow somewhat by the end of the century. They include not only the rich countries of Western Europe, North America and Australasia, but also many of the Latin American republics.

What’s their secret? Immigration. They almost all have a well established tradition of accepting immigrants from other continents and cultures, and they’re prosperous enough to be attractive to immigrants.

So Sweden, Norway, France and the United Kingdom will each add a few million people by 2100. Canada, Australia and the USA will each add around ten million (and New Zealand gets an extra million). The rest, apart from Germany and the Netherlands, will attract at least enough newcomers to plug the holes left by their very low birth rates.

This may seem unfair, but it gets worse. When the researchers factored predicted economic growth into the study, the ten countries with the biggest GDP eighty years from now were, in order: the US, China, India, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Australia, Nigeria and Canada.

Six of those ten countries use English as their primary national language. To them that hath shall it be given.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“These are…news”; and “Many…today”)

Bangladesh: End of Democracy

1 January 2019

It always looks bad when the ruling party jails the opposition leader just a few months before the election. If only Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), had decided to boycott this election like she did the last one, she’d probably still be a free woman. But she decided to run, and so was sentenced to jail time on various implausible corruption charges.

Her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, could probably have won a fair election against the BNP, but even with Khaleda Zia in jail she took no chances and arranged a ‘landslide’ in which her Awami League and its allies won almost all the 300 seats in parliament. The BNP only got seven seats, which is also pretty implausible.

After a decade in power, the Awami League is getting arrogant and careless. In Chittagong, the country’s second city, a BBC reporter actually saw the pre-stuffed ballot boxes being delivered to a polling station. (Hint: when pre-stuffing ballot boxes, ensure that they are opaque, not see-through.)

Just another fake election, you might think, no better and no worse than the shambolic vote in the Democratic (or just Dreadful) Republic of Congo on the same day. The outcome in the DRC hasn’t been announced yet (half the voting machines were burned), but you may be sure that the government will win there too. So why should anybody care?

The DRC has the highest extreme poverty rate in the world, with six out of seven people living on less than $1.25 a day. In six decades of independence, the country’s 88 million people have never seen a democratic transfer of power. They hold elections anyway – even China has ‘elections’ – but nobody expects them to change things. Bangladesh is a very different place.

When Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan 48 years ago after a bloody war, it was seen as an economic ‘basket case’, because its only natural resource was its people – and there were too many of them. There are even more of them now – 167 million –but the pessimists were wrong.

Bangladesh works. It is still a very poor and very corrupt country, but its economy has been growing at an average of 6.5% for the past ten years and is now at almost 8%, second highest in the world. Unemployment is low, inflation is low and steady, and it has its population growth under control.

The region now called Pakistan and the region now called Bangladesh had exactly the same population when they were part of the same country. Today’s Bangladesh has 167 million, while the Pakistan of today has 202 million. Bangladesh’s population will stop growing at about 200 million in 2050; Pakistan will have 300 million people in 2050 and still be growing fast.

Even more impressive is Bangladesh’s literacy rate, up from 47% to 73% in the past ten years. And who has been the prime minister for the past ten years? Sheikh Hasina, that’s who.

She may have locked up her rival, arrested hundreds of BNP party workers and brought charges against tens of thousands of BNP party members. She may have rigged the election. But the country is doing fine. It just has this endless civil war going on between its two main political leaders, both now in their 70s: Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

The ‘battling begums’, as the Bangladeshi press calls them (‘begum’ is a title used to refer to a Muslim woman of high rank), did not start out as enemies. Shortly after the country got its independence in 1971, it fell under military rule for almost two decades. Sheikh Hasina’s father was the prime minister murdered in the first coup; Khaleda Zia’s husband was the ruling general assassinated in the second coup.

The two women managed to cooperate in removing the last military ruler in 1990, and they have been the most important politicians in the country ever since. They quickly became first rivals and then enemies, but they alternated in power in a more or less functional democracy until 2014, when Sheikh Hasina decided she would prefer to stay in power permanently.

Contrary to previous practice, she declared that it would be her government, not a neutral and temporary caretaker government, that ran the 2014 elections. Khaleda Zia protested that the election would be rigged by the Awami League government, and her party boycotted the vote. That was a bad mistake: she handed everything to Sheikh Hasina on a plate.

This time she tried to correct her mistake and said that the BNP would run in the election – so Sheikh Hasina sent her to jail, and rigged the election so ruthlessly that the BNP only won seven seats out of 300.

So what? The country is doing well by all the usual indicators, isn’t it? Yes, it is, but the street violence grows with every election, and BNP supporters everywhere are afraid to let their views be known.

Bangladesh is now effectively a one-party state in which somewhere around half the population hates and fears the ruling party. For the moment the fear predominates, but sooner or later the Awami League will stumble and the hate will be expressed in actions. It would have been better to stick with democracy, even if that meant winning only part of the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“Just…place”; and “The region…fast”)

The Reluctant Rohingyas

The Rohingyas are around a million Bengali-speaking people who used to live in Rakhine state in Burma – until late last year. Then the Burmese army attacked them, claiming they were illegal immigrants. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands were raped, their villages were burned – and at least 700,000 of them are now in refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh.

The United Nations has described these Burmese actions as ‘ethnic cleansing’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’, but the Burmese army denies any wrong-doing. So does its civilian political partner, ‘Special Counsellor’ Aung San Suu Kyi. (Remember her? She used to be a secular saint.)

Bangladesh doesn’t want all these refugees, most of whom have no ties with the country although they speak Bengali, so last month it made a deal with Burma to send them back. But Burma doesn’t really want them back either. If it did, why would it have bothered to drive them out in the first place?

The United Nations has no part in this great ‘repatriation’, nor any of the NGOs either. It was a private deal between Bangladesh and Burma, and the Burmese army knew perfectly well that the refugees would be too terrified to go back. Agreeing to take them back just made the generals who planned the atrocity look a little less vile.

The Bangladeshi authorities fell for it, and chose 2,200 Rohingya refugees to go back in the first contingent. The Rohingyas weren’t fooled, and most of them immediately went into hiding, changing camps or fleeing into the woods.

A loudspeaker truck went around the sprawling Unchiprang camp near Cox’s Bazar last week imploring the ‘approved’ refugees to come out. “We have six buses here. We have trucks. We have food. We want to offer everything to you.” But nobody stepped forward, and the crowd chanted “We won’t go.”

The Rohingya won’t go back because they are quite understandably afraid for their lives. It wasn’t just the army but their own non-Muslim neighbours who turned on them and took part in the slaughter. If you are recalling images of the massacres and expulsions of Bosnian Muslims by the Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s, you are absolutely right. It’s happening again, and again nobody is doing anything effective to stop it.

How did it come to this? All the South-East Asian countries contain minority groups, but Burma takes it to extremes. Bamars (ethnic ‘Burmese’) account for two-thirds of the population, but there are eight other recognised ethnic groups, most with their own language or languages. And there are the Rohingya, who were stripped of their citizenship by Burma’s military dictatorship in 1982.

Why them? They were only 2 percent of Burma’s population, they were a minority even in Rakhine state (formerly Arakan) where they almost all lived, and they never did any harm to the majority. They are, however, Muslims, and the Buddhist majority in Burma is paranoid about Muslims.

It goes back a long way. Buddhism once dominated Asia from the Indian subcontinent to Indonesia, but it has been in retreat for a long time. First Hinduism made a comeback in India, and then Arab conquerors brought Islam to north-western India.

Islamised Central Asian conquerors spread Islam as far east as Bengal, and finally Malay traders carried it throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The only Buddhist-majority countries left in Asia today are Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Burmese Buddhists should feel their faith is jeopardised by the presence of even a single million Muslims – especially if rabble-rousing Buddhist monks advance their careers by preaching fear and hatred.

It’s also utterly irrational and reprehensible. The Rohingya are just as Burmese, in the broader sense, as any of the recognised minorities. The first Bengali-speaking Muslims arrived in Rakhine state in the 15th century as soldiers helping an exiled king regain his throne. The last significant wave of immigration was in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s now the 21st century, and there is no excuse for what the Burmese army has done: to understand all is NOT to forgive all. Neither is there any excuse for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Yes, she was trying to preserve a hard-won democratic opening that might close if she openly criticised the army. Moreover, the average Burmese heartily approves of what the army has done. (Shades of Serbia again.) But she is condoning and covering up a genocide. Shame on her.

So will they take her Nobel Prize away? Well, no, because it doesn’t matter what she does after she gets it, and she got it in 1991. As Olav Njoelstad, the secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said last year, the Prize “is awarded for some prize-worthy effort or achievement OF THE PAST.” Once you get it, you can commit any crime you want.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“A loudspeaker…go”; and “So…want”