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Bangladesh

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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The Rohingyas’ citizenship was revoked in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a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”)

Pakistan: A Mistake?

It was never my plan to tell Pakistanis their country had been a mistake. I was nineteen years old at the time, in Pakistan for the summer with 40 other young Canadian university students on a trip to foster international understanding. I had already realised that this was a completely pointless exercise, but it was a free trip and I had never been out of North America before.

I also already knew that sticking up handbills in Lahore announcing a public debate in which the visitors would argue that the creation of Pakistan had been a bad idea would be a very bad idea, but nobody asked my opinion.

So there were rent-a-crowd riots in Lahore, and the military dictator of the time had us all arrested and shipped up to a boys’ school in Abbotabad, empty for the summer, until they could find enough seats on Pakistan International Airlines to expel us all. (The same town was also, much later, the last refuge of Osama bin Laden, but I digress.)

Anyway, this month marks the 70th anniversary of the partition of India and the independence of Pakistan, so maybe it’s time to revisit that aborted debate. Especially since the 18th prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, has just been forced out of power by Pakistan’s supreme court. In all those 70 years, not one of Pakistan’s prime ministers has ever managed to complete one full term in office.

Pakistan is not exactly a “failed state”. It provides a very comfortable life for around five million privileged people, including the immensely rich Sharif family. (Nawaz Sharif’s brother Shahbaz will take over as prime minister as soon as he can quit his job as chief minister of Punjab state and get elected to the National Assembly). Another 30 or 40 million people have a modest but tolerable life, and the other 150 million just scrape along the bottom.

India is not rich either. Per capita income in India is only about 20 percent higher than in Pakistan, and the per capita income of India’s 190 million Muslims – who are the poorest of the country’s major religious communities – is probably slightly lower than average income in Pakistan. But it’s still worth asking if everybody would have been better off if British-ruled India had not been partitioned in 1947.

First of all, it was the best educated and most prosperous part of India’s Muslim population that moved to Pakistan in 1947. If their 20 million descendants were still in their ancestral homes, average Muslim incomes in the truncated India of today would be a good deal higher.

The proportion of Muslims in the population of an undivided India would have been so high that they could not be ignored politically. If Pakistan (and Bangladesh, which broke away from Pakistan in 1971) were still part of India, Muslims would not be 13 percent of that un-partitioned India’s population. They would be more than 30 percent.

Such an India, assuming it remained democratic, could never have ended up with a sectarian Hindu nationalist like Narendra Modi as prime minister. One-third of the electorate would instinctively vote against him. By the same token, Muslims who stood on a religious platform would not succeed – but lots of Muslims would be elected to high office on their merits.

Is this naive? Wouldn’t the evil Hindus just massacre the Muslims? That was, after all, the implicit reasoning behind the demand of a separate state for Muslim Indians.

If the Hindu majority haven’t massacred the 190 million Muslims of today’s India, then how were they going to massacre the 530 million Muslims of an undivided India? An estimated 10,000 people have been killed in Hindu-Muslim communal violence in India since 1950, and three of the victims were Muslims for every Hindu killed – but these numbers hardly compare with the immediate and long-term cost in lives of Partition

At least a million people were slaughtered in the mutual Muslim-Hindu massacres of 1947, when ten million people moved from India to Pakistan or vice versa. Another million civilians were killed in the 1971 war that broke Pakistan apart and led to an independent Bangladesh. And although the four India-Pakistan wars only killed about 30,000 soldiers, both countries now have nuclear weapons.

One other thing. No partition would probably have meant no military coups in the subcontinent. India has been the world’s largest democracy for 70 years, whereas Pakistan and Bangladesh have been ruled by generals for almost half of their independent histories.

Could it have happened differently? Both Gandhi, for all his saintly status a profoundly sectarian Hindu leader, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All-India Muslim League and the founder of Pakistan, were dead within a year after Partition. If the British government had not been in such a panic-stricken rush to get out of India, there might have been time for more moderate Hindu and Muslim leaders to negotiate a different outcome.

Or not, as the case may be. This is purely a hypothetical game, because once partition happened it was irreversible. But it would have certainly been an interesting debate.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 13. (“First…higher”; “Is…Indians”; and “One…histories”)

Iraq: Failed State

Property prices in central Baghdad are as high as London’s, even though Iraq’s national income is down by 70 percent since the collapse in the oil price. Islamic State’s bombs regularly devastate parts of the capital, and still the real estate market booms. Why?

Because there is so much “dirty money” in Iraq that needs to be laundered. If you lack the political clout to get your stolen money out of the country, then the safest course is to put it into residential property. Although that’s not a very safe bet either when the entire pseudo-democratic system bequeathed to Iraq by the US invasion is on the brink of collapse.

Last weekend’s intrusion into the Green Zone, the vast (10 sq. km) blast-walled government compound in Baghdad, by thousands of angry Iraqis was probably the beginning of the end of the current dispensation in Iraq. After only two days they left again after delivering an ultimatum calling for wholesale reform of the government, but they vowed to return if it does not happen.

It will not happen, and they will be back in the streets soon. Former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, forced from power in 2014 after Islamic State forces conquered the western half of Iraq, has been plotting a comeback with other parties in parliament. He may not succeed, but he and his allies are certainly able to block the passage of most measures they do not like.

The cement binding Maliki and the other plotters together is their determination to retain the utterly corrupt system that has allowed them to loot the country’s oil wealth for so long. The oil wealth is a great deal less now, but it is still practically Iraq’s only source of income and they have no intention of giving it up.

The man who replaced Maliki, President Haider al-Abadi, is in relative terms a reformer. He belongs to the same Dawa Party as Maliki and cannot afford to get too far out of touch with his power base. Nevertheless, almost a year ago he promised that he would replace many of his cabinet members, drawn from the various parties in the ruling coalition, with “technocrats” who would (theoretically) be less likely to steal the government’s money.

He couldn’t deliver on his promise, however, because any cabinet changes have to be approved by parliament. None of the parties there were willing to give up their own cabinet ministers, and with it their ability to divert the government’s cash flow into their own pockets. Three times Abadi’s proposed reforms were rejected by parliament.

It was after the last time, in April, that Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist cleric with a big following among Baghdad’s multitudinous Shia poor, ordered the invasion of the fortified Green Zone. That did force parliament to approve of five of Abadi’s cabinet changes, and more will probably follow.

But changing the figureheads in the government ministries will not end the looting of public funds, which permeates the system from top to bottom. Indeed, you might say that corruption is the system in Iraq.

Like several other oil-rich countries, Iraq distributes some of the cash-flow to the citizens by means of paying them to do non-jobs. Most of the rest is stolen by the 25,000 or so people who hold senior administrative, political or military positions, leaving a small amount for public works.

There are seven million government employees in Iraq – in other words, a large majority of the adult male population – and most of them do little or no work. Indeed, some of them don’t even exist, like the “ghost soldiers” whose pay is collected by their officers. Collectively they were paid around $4 billion a month, which was all right when monthly oil income was up around $6 billion.

The oil revenue is now down to $2 billion a month. The Central Bank has been making up the difference from its reserves, but those are now running low. The system is about to go bankrupt and the economic crisis is now more urgent and more dangerous than the military confrontation with Islamic State, but that does not seem clear to many of the major players in Iraq’s dysfunctional political system.

It is so dysfunctional that little is being done even to repair the Mosul Dam, which requires constant work on its foundations if it is not to break and drown Mosul, four hours downstream, under a 24-metre-high wave. The wave would be much lower when it reached Baghdad two days later, but it would still be big enough to wreck property values for a long
time to come.

All this talk about the Iraqi army driving Islamic State back is just hot air. The only Iraqi military advances have happened under the cover of massive US air strikes, and the government’s own attention is elsewhere. So, increasingly, is that of the population. But Islamic State is still paying attention.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 13. (“Like…works”; and “It is so…come”) .

Bangladesh in Trouble

How’s this for a staunch defence of free speech in a secular state? Earlier this month, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh denounced anyone who criticised religion or expressed their own lack of religious faith in striking terms: “I don’t consider such writings as freethinking but filthy words. Why would anyone write such words? It’s not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions.”

So does she mean that it’s all right to kill people who write such words? Hack them to death with machetes, usually? She didn’t say yes, but she didn’t exactly say no either. And this is regrettable, because quite a few people are being hacked to death in Bangladesh these days.

In the current wave of murders, most of the victims have been “secular” bloggers who publicly stated that they were atheists and offered reasons for their lack of belief. They did not criticise or mock Islam directly, but merely insisting that religious faith was not necessary or rational was enough to “hurt religious sentiment”. For some people, it was reason enough to kill them.

Four high-profile secular bloggers were hacked to death in separate attacks in Bangladesh last year, in a campaign of murder that was clearly more than just random incidents of religious rage. What was remarkable was the response of the government – or rather, its lack of response.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina leads a country of 160 million people that is officially committed to defending the freedoms of speech and belief of citizens of every religion (and of no religion at all). But while she publicly deplored the murders, she was careful at the same time to insinuate that the bloggers were outrageous people who had in some way deserved to be killed.

She also insisted that these murders were the work of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), or more precisely of its political ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party. She firmly denied that foreign extremist forces like Islamic State or al-Qaeda (which would certainly approve of the killings) are active in the country.

This probably seems to Sheikh Hasina to be sound practical politics in a country where 90 percent of the population is Muslim. So while not openly approving of murder, she publicly sympathises with conservative Muslims who think they have the right to live in a society where their beliefs are never publicly questioned.

It’s also good politics for her to blame the violence exclusively on the opposition parties, since admitting that foreign Islamists are involved would mean that she was failing in her duty to defend the country. But the result of her pragmatism and passivity has been a rapid expansion in the range of targets that are coming under attack by the extremists.

On 23 April Professor Rezaul Karim Siddique, who edited a literary magazine and founded a music school – and never blogged about religion at all – was murdered by machete-wielding men as he left his home in the northern city of Rajshahi to go to the university. He was an observant Muslim, but he was involved in cultural activities which many hardline groups condemn as “un-Islamic”.

The following day gay rights activist Xulhaz Mannan, editor of a LGBT magazine, and actor Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy were hacked to death in the magazine’s offices in the capital, Dhaka. In other recent violence religious minorities have been attacked: Shia and Ahmadi mosques, Christian priests and Hindus. (Several of the murdered bloggers belonged to the 10-percent Hindu minority, and their issue was religious belief in general, not Islam in particular.)

So is Bangladeshi society drifting into the chronic terrorism against minorities of all sorts that afflicts its former ruler, Pakistan? The answer, unfortunately, is probably yes – and the blame lies mainly with the two women who have polarised Bangladesh’s political life for so long.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is one of only two survivors of the family of Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Bangladesh’s independence struggle and its first prime minister. (He was massacred with all the rest of his family in a military coup in 1975.) The opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of General Ziaur Rahman, who led a subsequent military coup and declared Islam to be the state religion, only to be killed in yet another coup in 1981.

In theory, at least, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League represents the ideal of a secular Bangladesh that embraces its minorities, and Khaleda Zia’s BNP depends mainly on the support of conservative Sunni Muslims whose ideal society is explicitly Islamic. Such divisions exist in every Muslim society, but they are made far sharper by the mutual hatred of the two women who have utterly dominated Bangladesh’s politics for the past 25 years.

The BNP’s alliance with Islamist parties pushes it ever closer to the religious extremists, and Sheikh Hasina’s pandering to conservative Islamic sentiment (in order not to lose devout Muslim voters to the BNP) is taking her party in the same direction. And Islamic State and al-Qaeda definitely are active in the country. Bangladesh is in deep trouble.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 12. “In the current…kill them”; and “Prime…1981″)