16 May 2012
Tibetans in Flames
By Gwynne Dyer
The number of Tibetans burning themselves to death in protests against Chinese policy has grown very fast recently: the first self-immolation was in 2009, but 22 of the 30 incidents happened in the past year. And while at first it was only Buddhist monks and nuns who were setting themselves on fire, in the past month both a teenage girl and a mother of four have chosen to die in this gruesome way.
The Chinese response has been repression and abuse. The affected provinces have been flooded with security forces, and Communist Party officials have condemned the protesters as anarchists, terrorists and rebels – or, in the words of one official, “rats” born of “weasels”.
The state-controlled media claim that the deaths are orchestrated by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who has lived in exile in India since 1959. They also insist that the Dalai Lama’s real goal is separatism – the revival of the independent Tibet that existed until the Chinese troops marched back in in 1951 – although the protesters themselves demand only the return of the Dalai Lama and respect for their culture and religion.
The Chinese media work themselves up into a lather of indignation about the alleged intention of these “separatists” not only to fracture the sacred unity of the Chinese homeland, but to expel the large number of Han Chinese settlers who have immigrated to Tibet. As the Xinhua News Agency put it: “How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!”
Well, not similar at all, really. Even though many Tibetans fear “cultural genocide” if the Han Chinese immigrants become a majority in Tibet (and they are probably right to suspect that this is why Beijing subsidises the immigration), there is still a distinction between Panzer divisions and extermination camps on the one hand, and monks and teenage girls burning themselves to death on the other.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama goes on doing what he does best: he keeps Tibet before the world’s attention. As part of that process he visits world leaders and collects various honours like the Nobel Peace Prize – and he never attacks the Chinese regime directly.
Instead, he patiently and politely insists that China must respect Tibet’s cultural and religious autonomy. He never demands Tibetan independence, nor does he let his followers in the large Tibetan exile community talk about independence. And, of course, he laments the self-immolations.
Yet the Dalai Lama also believes that he will one day return to Tibet. He is 76 years old, but he is in good health, “so I am expecting another 10, 20 years,” he told a BBC interviewer this week. “Within that (time), definitely things will change”.
What does he think will change? Surely not the attitude of the Chinese Communist regime, which will never allow him to return to Tibet since it fears that would unleash a great wave of anti-Chinese nationalism. Well, then, he must think the Chinese regime itself will eventually change.
Of course he does. Most people who know any history think that. Despite the death of Communist ideology in China, the regime has managed to stay in power for almost a quarter-century since the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989, but it has been helped by continuous, high-speed economic growth. Would it survive a major recession?
Nobody knows, but there is certainly a reasonable chance of regime change in China in the next ten or twenty years. And that would be Tibet’s great opportunity, as the Dalai Lama must know.
The precedent is what happened when Communist Party rule ended in the old Soviet Union twenty-one years ago. The Soviet Union was the old Russian empire under a new name, and only about half of its population was ethnically Russian. When it collapsed, all the republics with non-Russian majorities took their independence.
The People’s Republic of China is more homogeneous: 90 percent of its population is Han Chinese. But in the few areas that still have non-Chinese majorities, like Tibet, separation would be possible when regime change happens in Beijing – on two conditions. It would have to happen fast, and it can only happen if the Chinese people do not see Tibetans as enemies.
It has to happen fast because the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open long: once a new regime is firmly established, no politician who wants a long career will take the blame for negotiating “the division of the motherland.” And if the Chinese worry that an independent Tibet would fall under the influence of their great Asian rival, India, or if they are under attack by Tibetan terrorists, they will be very reluctant to let the Tibetans go.
The Dalai Lama certainly knows all this, too. His job, therefore, is to keep the spirits of the Tibetans up while waiting for the window of opportunity to open – and to keep the impatient younger generation from launching some futile “war of liberation” involving terrorist attacks in the meantime. He has been successful in that for a long time, but the wave of self-immolations is a warning that patience may be running out.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The Chinese…other”)
19 January 2012
The Risk of Islamist Coups
By Gwynne Dyer
The eastern half of what used to be Pakistan narrowly escaped a military coup last month. Brigadier Masud Razzak, the spokesman of the Bangladeshi army, announced on Thursday (19 January) that “A band of fanatic officers has been trying to oust the politically established government. Their attempt has been foiled.”
They had “extreme religious views,” he said, and revealed that some of the sixteen conspirators, all of them current or former military officers, will soon appear before a military court. For a country with a dismal history of military coups, some of them very violent, it was a heartening outcome. But it was also a reminder of where the real danger lies in the subcontinent.
If the country called Pakistan that got its independence from Britain in 1947 were still a single state, it would be the fourth biggest nation on the planet, with over 300 million people. However, its two halves were separated by 1,500 km (1,000 mi.) of Indian territory, and had little in common apart from having Muslim majorities. That Pakistan only lasted 24 years, and broke apart amid much bloodshed in 1971.
Since then, the two successor states have taken different paths. Bangladesh has no major disputes with its giant Indian neighbour, and spends relatively little on its military. The part that is still called Pakistan, on the other side of India, has a huge territorial dispute with India over Kashmir, a history of wars with its neighbour, and very serious armed forces. It also has a history of coups. And Islamist fanatics in the officer corps. And nuclear weapons.
There are reasons to hope that the worst days are past in both countries. The military relinquished supreme power in Bangladesh twenty years ago, and the country is a functioning (but very turbulent) democracy. Pakistan also has a democratic government now – the army officially left power in 2001, although a general went on running the government until 2008 – but the army still overshadows it.
But it is not generals seizing power in Pakistan that worries foreign governments. It is the fear that middle-ranking Islamist fanatics in the army might stage a successful coup and get their hands on those nuclear weapons. They would be people quite similar in their beliefs to the officers whose coup has just been foiled in Bangladesh – but Bangladesh doesn’t have nuclear weapons.
A coup by Islamist officers in Bangladesh would be seen by most foreigners as deeply regrettable but mostly of only local interest. A coup by Islamist officers in Pakistan would unleash the Mother of All Panics.
An Indian strategist once told me, off the record, what he thought would happen about six hours after news of an Islamist coup in Pakistan reached the rest of the world. There would be a huge “traffic jam” over Kahuta and other major Pakistani nuclear weapons facilities as the Indian, Iranian, American and Israeli air forces all tried to keep the nuclear weapons out of the hands of the fanatics by destroying them.
It wouldn’t succeed, because Pakistan already has more than fifty nuclear weapons, and it keeps them dispersed precisely to thwart that kind of attack. The Israeli air force couldn’t really reach Pakistan (although Pakistan has missiles that could reach Israel). A few other details in the strategist’s scenario also ring false – but it is basically credible.
So how likely is an Islamist military coup in Pakistan? About as likely as it is in Bangladesh, which is to say unlikely, but not unimaginable. In this one thing, the two armies are alike – and quite different from those of most other Muslim countries.
In almost all other Muslim countries, the armies take great care to ensure that Islamist officers do not rise very high in rank: they may make captain, but they won’t make colonel. This is because the generals know that they can’t be trusted. The generals themselves are mostly faithful Muslims, but they must protect the integrity of the military institution they serve, and that means no Islamists in positions of real power.
Islamists, by definition, cannot give their full loyalty to the army or the state. Ultimately, they serve an imagined Islamic caliphate that would sweep away even the country they are supposed to serve. Their lesser loyalties are purely tactical and transitory. So the armies have never let them near real power – except in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In both cases, this anomaly was created by military dictators who made pragmatic alliances with religious extremists as part of their strategy for holding on to power. General Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan and General Ziaur Rahman in Bangladesh allowed Islamists to be promoted into the higher ranks in their respective armies, and although they are now long gone that policy continues, especially in Pakistan.
All previous military interventions in politics in Pakistan have been done by the army as an institution, acting in obedience to its lawful commanders. That kind of thing would not radically change Pakistan’s policies towards the rest of the world. But if middle-ranking Islamist officers were to break the chain of command and seize power, like their comrades in Bangladesh intended to do, then all bets would be off.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 13. (“It wouldn’t…credible”); and (“In both…Pakistan”)
1 January 2012
Agony Aunt Passes Judgement
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s getting harder for freelance journalists to make a decent living, so recently I’ve had to branch out into the advice column business. The people who write in seem pretty flakey, on the whole, but sometimes their letters cast a useful light on larger issues. For example:
Dear Aunt Gwynne:
People say I am beautiful and my men friends tell me that I am very accomplished, but I have a problem. I married my high-school sweetheart, but he was in the construction business and he went bankrupt in the crash. We are now divorced and I have lots of new boyfriends, but I really want security this time and it’s so hard to choose.
My Chinese boyfriend comes from a rich family who are also in the construction industry. That means they have to give a lot of bribes, but I’m used to that. The problem is that he is not a Communist Party member, and nobody in his family is a senior regime official. What if they execute him for bribery?
I don’t really know what my Russian boyfriend does for a living, but I think it’s not exactly legal. He has tons of money, but his bodyguards never leave his side, so the bed is quite crowded. He bribes all the right people, he says, but sometimes he talks about politics and that scares me. What if the government decides he is an enemy?
The other guy is an Indian, and his family is in the construction business too. He’s really sweet and I like him best, but nothing works in India. Also, I just read that they’ve passed a law in India that would make it dangerous to bribe people, and then the whole family would go out of business. I don’t know what to do. Please help.
Perplexed of Beverly Hills
You have my sympathy: anguish can strike at every socio-economic level. Let’s take this one piece at a time. I agree that the Russian boyfriend is problematic. Criminality is no obstacle in itself, but if your boyfriend is thinking of dabbling in Russian politics, he will soon be neither free nor rich. You should move on.
Your Chinese boyfriend sounds better, but his lack of connections really is a potential problem. Bribery is as common as spitting in the street in China, but the regime does jail or execute somebody once in a while to show it cares. The chances are no more than one in fifty, but to be really safe one should be a Communist Party member. Only one in a thousand of them ever get punished. Can your boyfriend get a Party card?
If not, you really should consider the Indian boyfriend. Poor infrastructure is not a problem that affects the rich in India, and bribery is a perfectly normal part of life for everybody. I wouldn’t worry about the new law that the Indian parliament passed.
The lower house did vote in favour of a tough anti-corruption law, but they made sure that the new anti-bribery ombudsman would have no control over the Central Bureau of Investigation, which actually carries out the corruption investigations (when it feels like it). Besides, the upper house of parliament failed to vote on the new law last week, so it’s probably not going to happen at all.
Eight similar anti-corruption bills have failed to make it onto the books in India in the past 43 years, so why should this one be different? And why do you feel that you have to outsource your husband anyway?
You seem to be American, from your address, and there are plenty of rich Americans. In the United States bribery is called “political contributions” and it’s perfectly legal. And if Americans are rich enough, they don’t pay any taxes at all. So head up, chest out, stomach in, and get on with it. Corruption is only a problem for the little people.
Putting my journalist’s hat back on, I must admit that I was cutting a few corners in that answer. In Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index”, Russia is actually ranked as much more corrupt than China or India. It ranks at 143 (higher numbers means worse corruption) out of 183 countries, tied with Nigeria, East Timor and Togo.
India and China do much better, coming in at 95 and 75 respectively. And the United States, with a rank of 25, is only a little more corrupt than Chile, Qatar and the Bahamas.
Indeed, corruption in the United States is mainly a political problem. The petty corruption that make daily life so wearing in most developing countries barely exists there. Why don’t most Americans take bribes? Because they earn enough that they do not feel compelled to demand bribes to do their jobs.
Anti-corruption commissions and the like can make dents in the problem, but the only long-term solution is to pay people a living wage, which generally happens only when you give them a democratic voice. There is no moral gulf between New Zealand (ranked number one on the scale) and Uzbekistan (ranked 177); just a huge difference in politics and in living standards.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“The lower…at all”; and (“Indeed…jobs”)
NB: You may want to italicise the letter and response, as layout could be a problem with this one.
13 December 2011
Suicide Pact at Durban
By Gwynne Dyer
The Durban climate summit that ended on Sunday has been proclaimed a great success. The chair, South Africa’s International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, told the delegates: “We have concluded this meeting with (a plan) to save one planet for the future of our children and our grandchildren to come. We have made history.” Don’t be fooled. It was an almost total failure.
This time, the rapidly developing country that put up the greatest resistance to a binding global deal was India. (In 2009 and 2010, it was China.) The chief Indian delegate, Jayanthi Natarajan, held out against any legally enforceable treaty through three long days of non-stop, overtime negotiations. In the end, she agreed that an eventual deal would have “legal force” – but it would not be “legally binding”.
Lawyers get rich arguing over the difference between phrases like these, but that is for the future. The question now is: given what the Indian government already knows, how could it possibly have taken that position?
Three years ago, while I was interviewing the director of a think tank in New Delhi, she suddenly dropped a bomb into the conversation. Her institute had been asked by the World Bank to figure out how much food production India would lose when the average global temperature was two degrees C higher, she said – and the answer was 25 percent.
This study, like similar ones that the Bank commissioned in other major countries, has never been published, presumably because the governments of those countries put huge pressure on the Bank to keep the numbers secret. But the Indian government undoubtedly knows the truth.
A 25 percent loss of food production would be an almost measureless calamity for India. It now produces just enough food to feed its 1.1 billion people. If the population rises by the forecast quarter-billion in the next twenty years, and meanwhile its food production falls by 25 percent due to global warming, half a billion Indians will starve.
India will not be able to buy its way out of the crisis by importing food, because many other countries will be experiencing similar falls in production at the same time, and the price of the limited amount of grain still reaching the international market will be prohibitive. So India should be moving heaven and earth to stop the average global temperature from reaching plus 2 degrees C. But it isn’t.
Like almost every other country, India has signed a declaration that the warming must never exceed two degrees, but in practice the government acts as though it had all the time in the world. Maybe it just can’t visualise a future in which those numbers become the reality. Or maybe it is just too attached to the principle that the “old rich” countries must pay for the damage they have done.
That’s a perfectly reasonable argument in terms of historical justice, for the old rich countries emitted around 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere. But if only those countries act promptly, then the average global temperature soars through +2 degrees C and Indians start to starve.
Most developed countries do not face similar losses in food production at +2 degrees C, for they are further away from the equator. Their position is merely selfish and short-sighted; India’s is suicidal.
Over the past fifteen years of climate negotiations there has been a steady decline in the seriousness of the response. The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 committed the developed countries to stabilise their emissions and then cut them by an average of six percent by 2012. Developing countries were exempt from any controls, because they were not then emitting very much. And deeper emission cuts would come in a second phase of Kyoto, beginning in 2012.
Based on what we knew then, it was a cautious but rational response. In the meantime, however, developing country emissions have grown so fast that China now produces much more greenhouse gas than the United States. Global emissions are not in decline, as they should be. Last year, they GREW by six percent.
So what was the response at Durban? The 1997 Kyoto targets for the developed countries will be maintained for another five years (with no further cuts), and developing countries will still not accept any legal restraints on their emissions. Then everyone will sign a more ambitious deal (still to be negotiated) by 2015 – and the new targets, whatever they are, will acquire “legal force”, whatever that means, by 2020.
By that time, annual global emissions will probably be at least twice what they were when the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 – and the +2 degree barrier will probably be visible only in the rear-view mirror. The outcome at Durban could have been even worse – a complete abandonment of the concept of legal obligations to restrict emissions – but it was very, very bad.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“This…truth”; and “India…isn’t”)