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Nobel Peace Prize

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Aung San Suu Kyi and the Rohingya

Nobel Peace Prize winners sometimes go on to undistinguished later careers, and some seem to have got the prize by mistake. Barack Obama, for example. But there has never before been one who went on to become a genocidal criminal.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s elected leader, richly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for her thirty-year non-violent campaign (much of it spent under house arrest) to restore democracy in the country. Two years ago, when she finally became the de facto prime minister, her reputation was as high as that of Nelson Mandela.

Hardly anybody had noticed an interview she gave in 2013 in which she said that Buddhists in Rakhine province live in fear of “global Muslim power”. You know, the same global power that lets Muslims dominate the world’s refugee camps. (Muslims make up three-quarters of the world’s refugees, although only a quarter of the world’s population.)

Back then, this was merely a bizarre remark and Suu Kyi was still a saint. The Muslims of Rakhine state, known as Rohingya, were having a hard time at the hands of the authorities, but it wasn’t her fault, and there was no ethnic cleansing yet. There is now, however, and she is fully complicit in it.

When at least 7,000 Rohingya have been murdered, thousands more have been raped, and 700,000 have fled across the border into Bangladesh, leaving behind another half-million of whom many are in ‘internment centres’ (concentration camps), you can legitimately call it ethnic cleansing. Or genocide, if you want to get legalistic about it.

The Burmese government claims that the Rohingya are really illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It even refuses to use the familiar word ‘Rohingya’ any more, insisting on referring to them only as ‘Bengalis’ or ‘Bengali terrorists’. That is a despicable lie.

Rakhine state, between the Arakan mountains and the Indian Ocean, was a separate empire until the Burmese army came over the mountains and conquered it in the late 18th century. Most of its people spoke a dialect of Burmese, but a big minority spoke Rohingya, an Indo-Aryan language related to Bengali.

The Rohingya have been in Rakhine at least since the 1660s. The fact that they were Muslims posed no problem for the Buddhist kingdom of Arakan (Rakhine), which was heavily influenced by the Islamic sultanates of eastern India. The Burmese conquerors of Rakhine, and the British empire that followed, didn’t see the Rohingya as a problem either.

The independent Burmese republic founded in 1948 was different from the start. Only two-thirds of Burma’s 53 million people are Bamar (ethnic Burmese), but most of the other ethnic groups share the same Buddhist religion. Nation-building requires a common identity, so Buddhism got the emphasis – and the Rohingya, as Muslims, were automatically excluded.

Bit by bit the military regime that had seized power in 1962 took away the Rohingyas’ land rights, their civil rights, and in 1982 even their citizenship. They were redefined as illegal immigrants, and the local Buddhist population launched occasional pogroms against them.

The anti-Rohingya policy always played well with Bamar nationalists, who are obsessed with the alleged threat posed by Islam. (Only 4 percent of the country’s population is Muslim, and only half the Muslims are Rohingya.) It’s the one regime policy that is genuinely popular with most of the population, so the army resorts to it whenever it hits a rough patch. It’s losing power now, so it reflexively turns to the old remedy again.

Two years ago you could still argue that a wobbly democratic government led by Aung San Suu Kyi had to pick its battles carefully. The Rohingya was one that it couldn’t win, so best avoid it and let the military have its way. But that was before it turned into a full-blown genocide last August.

Tactical calculations of political advantage cannot justify mass murder, and it has become clear that Suu Kyi is willing to ignore mass murder if the victims are Muslims. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has known her for more than 30 years, is close to despair.

“She’s changed,” he told CNN last week. “She’s become, unfortunately, a politician afraid of the military and afraid to make the tough decisions to resolve one of the worst humanitarian crises in history.” And (although Richardson didn’t say this), she also probably feels the same unjustified hatred and fear towards the Rohingyas, and Muslims in general, as the general population.

Meanwhile, the 700,000 Rohingyas suffering in rudimentary refugee camps in Bangladesh have been told that they can start going home next month, but people who have seen their villages razed and family members raped, shot or burned to death are a bit reluctant to trust the Burmese army. Especially when they have no guarantee that they won’t end up in grim ‘detention centres’ back in Rakhine.

Taking the Nobel Peace Prize back from Aung San Suu Kyi wouldn’t help matters in Rakhine at all, but it would do the standing of the prize a lot of good.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“Rakhine…Bengali”; and “The anti…again”).

Burma: The Generals Win Again

It’s game, set and match to the Burmese generals. On Wednesday they finally announced the date of the general election that was once seen as the real dawn of democracy in Burma: 8 November. But the army will emerge as the winner once again.

The political party that was created to support the generals, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, will not win a majority of the seats in the new parliament. Indeed, it may win very few. But serving military officers will still have 25 percent of the seats, in accordance with the 2008 constitution (written by the military), and that will be enough to preserve military rule.

The spokesman of Burma’s president, former General Thein Sein, tried to put a positive spin on this in an interview last month. “In the past the military was 100 percent in control of the country,” he told Peter Popham of The Independent. “Today it is only 25 percent in control.” But that’s not true: it is still 100 percent in control.

Those military officers (who wear their uniforms in parliament and vote in a bloc as the army high command decrees) will continue to dominate politics, because 25 percent of the votes, according to that 2008 constitution, can block any changes to the constitution.

And if they can’t find or buy enough allies in parliament to muster a majority and pass legislation that the military want, they have a fall-back position. The constitution still allows the military to simply suspend the government and take over whenever they like. Well, whenever they perceive a “security threat”, technically, but soldiers are usually pretty good at doing that.

Two weeks ago the civilian parties in parliament tried to change those parts of the constitution. They also tried to drop the clause that was written to stop “Burma’s Mandela”, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, from becoming president. (She has two sons with British passports, and the constitution says that nobody with “foreign” ties can be president.) The soldiers just used their 25 percent blocking minority to reject all the changes.

Aung San Suu Kyi now has until Saturday to decide whether she will lead her National League for Democracy into the November elections, or boycott them as she did in 2010. In principle, it shouldn’t be a tough decision. Her party could win by a landslide – indeed, it probably would – but she still couldn’t be president, and any NLD-led government would be permanently under threat of removal by the generals if it challenged their privileges.

When she was asked in a press conference last year how the democracy project was faring, she gave a one-word answer: “Stalled”. And in an interview in April she put the blame squarely on the countries that used to support her: “I would just like to remind you that I have been saying since 2012 that a bit of healthy scepticism would be very, very good, and that too many of our western friends are too optimistic about the democratisation process here.”

It’s quite true that just the promise of democratisation was enough to end the long-standing Western economic sanctions against Burma and unleash a tidal wave of foreign investment in the country. After fifty years of military rule during which the soldiers got very rich, Burma is the poorest country in South-East Asia (it used to be the richest), but it does have huge, mostly unexploited natural resources.

So the foreign investors piled in and the economy is being transformed, even though the military are really still in charge. But Suu Kyi has made some serious errors too. She took the generals’ promises seriously enough to let her party run in by-elections in 2011, and even took a seat in parliament herself. She undoubtedly understood that it was a gamble, but unfortunately it failed.

So now she has no practical alternative to going down the road she chose in 2011: taking part in the November elections despite all the limitations on civilian power, and working for change within the military-designed system even though she lends it credibility by her cooperation.

Aung San Suu Kyi used to be a symbolic leader of great moral stature; now she is a pragmatic politician who has to get her hands dirty. It cannot feel good, but it was inevitably going to end up more or less like this if she ever made any progress in her struggle to make Burma a democratic country. She HAS made some progress, and the military were inevitably going to push back. They never thought she was their friend or their ally.

The Burmese army has ruled the country for fifty years, and it has done very well out of it. It has won this round of the struggle, but Burma is changing: all the foreign influences coming in, all the new money, and a more or less free press are creating new dynamics in the society. Aung San Suu Kyi is still in the game, and the game is not over yet.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3and 9 (“The spokesman..control”; and (“It’s quite…resources”)

The Meat of the Matter

4 February 2012

The Meat of the Matter

By Gwynne Dyer

Four decades ago Norman Borlaug, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on raising crop yields worldwide (the “green revolution”), said: “I have only bought you a forty-year breathing space to stabilise your population.”

In 1970, when Borlaug got his prize for postponing the onset of famine for forty years, the world’s population was 3.7 billion. Today, it is 7 billion. The US Census Bureau expects only two billion more in the next 34 years, and we might actually stabilise the population by the end of the century – but we will have to feed almost three times as many people as there were in 1970. How on earth can we do that?

Actually, you don’t need to panic right away. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) recently estimated that the extra people can be fed, at least until we hit 9 billion, if crop yields rise by one percent a year and the world’s farmland expands by 13 percent.

There is enough potentially arable land for that, although it would involve cutting down the forests over an area the size of South Africa. Grain yields probably can go on rising at one percent a year if we manage irrigation and fertiliser use much better than we do now. And if the grain production expands, so does the meat production.

This takes no account of the ecological damage done by removing even more land from the natural cycles, and it omits details like the looming collapse of most of the world’s big fisheries. Given the frequent forecasts of doom by over-population, however, it is a surprisingly reassuring assessment.

But this is a forecast that ignores the probable impacts of global warming on food production, and those will be dire. In some places a hotter climate will actually increases food production, but in far more places crop yields will fall.

The rule of thumb is that we will lose 10 percent of global food production with every rise in average global temperature of 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F). Since we are virtually bound to see an increase of 2 degrees C before global average temperature stops rising (if it does), that’s one-fifth of world food production gone.

It will be considerably worse in some places. In India, for example, a rise of 2 degrees C means a 25 percent loss of food production. In China, it will probably be worse than that. And a crash in food production doesn’t just bring hunger. It brings chaos: collapsing governments, waves of starving climate refugees crossing borders, even wars between countries that depend on the same river for irrigation water.

Military planners in many countries think that this may be the dominant factor in world politics in 25 years’ time. That will make it even harder to get global agreement on measures to stop further warming, so they are making contingency plans for really ugly outcomes. But what if you could make food production independent of climate?

Specifically, what if you could make meat production independent of climate? Don’t use 70 percent of the world’s agricultural land to grow grain that feeds the animals we then kill and eat. Just grow the meat itself, taking stem cells from a cow, a sheep or a chicken and encouraging them to grow in a nutrient solution.

It’s already being done in labs, but the quantities are small and the meat is still a long way from having the taste and texture that would make it a real candidate to replace meat from live animals. But those are details that can be sorted out with more research and more money. The point is that this could allow people to go on eating meat without trashing the climate in the process.

People are not going to stop eating meat: demand is going up, not down. But if “cultured” meat can be made identical in taste and texture to “real” meat from animals, and if it can be grown in large quantities at a competitive cost, the ecological benefits would be immense. The political benefits might be even greater.

If half of the meat people eat was “cultured”, greenhouse gas emissions would drop sharply (about one-fifth of global emissions from human sources come from meat production). About half the land that has been converted to grain-growing in the past century could be returned to natural forest cover. The famines and wars that would come with global food shortages could be postponed for decades, and even the warming itself might be stopped.

“Cultured” food may be commercially available in only a few years if the research is pushed hard. Indeed, the animal welfare group Peta has offered a million-dollar prize for anybody who can demonstrate lab-made meat in commercial quantities by June 30th this year, and they think that one of the research teams now working on the problem may claim the award.

But it isn’t being pushed fast enough. “There is very little funding,” Professor Julie Gold, a biological physicist at Chalmers Technological University in Gothenburg, Sweden, told the “Observer” newspaper recently. “What it needs is a crazy rich person.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“There is…production”; and “It will…water”)

The Pope’s Legacy

12 October 2003

The Pope’s Legacy

By Gwynne Dyer

“I thought this was a peace prize and not a prize in sexual ethics,” protested an irate Vatican official, giving voice to the widely held belief that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to an Iranian human-rights advocate rather than the dying Pope John Paul II because the selection committee disapproved of his hostility to homosexuality, abortion, contraception and women priests. It may be true, for he must have been a leading contender: in the past year no Western leader spoke out so firmly against the invasion of Iraq. But that is not what he will be remembered for.

The man really is dying. Reports that the Pope is now suffering from intestinal cancer in addition to Parkinson’s disease have not been denied by the Vatican, and one of the 31 new cardinals he recently created, Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyons, bluntly said last month: “The Pope is reaching the end of the road. It’s a big responsibility for us. The Pope is in really bad shape.”

Since it will be almost impossible to say harsh things about him when he dies, perhaps we should take advantage of Karol Wojtyla’s 25th anniversary as pope this week (16 October) to make a franker assessment of his impact on the Catholic church, which still commands the obedience of half the world’s Christians. It has been enormous. Almost single-handedly, he has expelled every trace of modernity from the institution.

The Catholic church on the eve of Wojtyla’s reign in 1978 was in the midst of a great and promising transformation. The rigid centralism that began with the 16th -century Counter-Reformation and culminated in the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 had been greatly undermined by the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Local languages replaced Latin in the mass, ritual was downgraded in favour of spiritual commitment, and the whole church was in theological ferment.

I did a sort of world tour of the Catholic church in 1978 as part of a documentary series on the likely impact of the new pope, and though I am not a believer it was a fascinating experience. In southern Africa, Catholics were playing a leading role in resistance to apartheid. In Latin America, the phenomenon of ‘liberation theology’ was reconnecting the church with the impoverished peasant millions whom it had long ignored. In Europe and North America the old hierarchies were all under challenge, but especially the hierarchy of gender. Justice and equality were the themes, and the energy was astonishing.

Twenty-five years later, it is all gone. The collegiality promised by Vatican II is dead, replaced by top-down rule and a stream of decrees on faith and morals handed down by a pope who brooks no argument. Nobody knows how many Catholic priests, nuns and lay theologians have been bullied into remaining silent under threat of excommunication, for neither their names nor their offences are made public, but the victims of what amounts to a new inquisition probably number in the thousands. And liberation theology has been crushed as heresy, leaving the Latin American poor to seek help and hope elsewhere.

The result is many Catholics in the developed world, especially women, have become internal emigres, clinging to their Catholic beliefs but silently rejecting the authority of a Vatican that, in the words of Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung (whose license to teach theology in Catholic institutions was revoked by the Vatican in 1979), “has waged an almost spooky battle against modern women who seek a contemporary form of life, prohibiting birth control and abortion (even in the case of incest or rape), divorce, the ordination of women and the modernisation of women’s religious orders.”

Latin America, home to almost half of the world’s Catholics, used to be a place where no other religion had a substantial presence. Under John Paul II, however, the reimposition of the old Catholic hierarchies and orthodoxies has opened the door for evangelical Protestant sects, mostly Pentecostals and charismatics, to snap up millions of poor people who might once have been attracted to liberation theology. In a single generation evangelical Protestants have come from almost nothing to capture the loyalty of about a quarter of Latin America’s population, and they continue to grow very fast. This has happened almost entirely on John Paul II’s watch.

Then there is the fact that Wojtyla has created almost five hundred saints, more than all the other popes of the past four centuries together. His candidates for sainthood often mirror his own deeply conservative beliefs, like the hundreds of Catholic ‘martyrs’ of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, all supporters of General Francisco Franco’s fascist revolt against the legitimate government, whom he beatified in 2000. Even devout Spanish Catholics were embarrassed.

Much of this has been obscured by the pope’s rock-star charisma and his constant touring, but John Paul II certainly does not leave the church as he found it. Whether he leaves it either stronger or better is open to question, but it will certainly continue on the course he has set for at least another generation, for an overwhelming majority of the cardinals who will choose his successor are men who share his deeply conservative and centralising views.

They ought to, for he chose them himself. In fifteen years on the throne his predecessor, Paul VI, made only 26 new cardinals. In twenty-five years, John Paul II has made 226.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The result…orders”; and “Then there is…embarrassed”)