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Tienanmen Square

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Sudan: No Surprise

It’s like Tienanmen Square in miniature, and maybe not all that miniature. The official death toll in Khartoum after Monday’s massacre stands at 35, but the whole city is still locked down, with columns of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) vehicles driving through the streets firing at practically anything that moves. There may be a lot more dead.

The RSF used to be known as the Janjaweed, and they are not soldiers; they are professional killers. They are the local solution to the problem any dictatorship faces when it decides to end a non-violent protest by murdering the protesters. By that time your soldiers will usually have been on the streets for a while, and will have had personal contact with the people you want to kill.

The ordinary soldiers come from exactly the same society as the protesters and, knowing who these people really are, will by now be quite reluctant to kill them. Dictators know that you must never give your soldiers an order you know they will disobey, because that creates a dilemma for them that they can only resolve by killing you. So you must find some other group to do the massacre.

They may just be soldiers you bring in from out of town, who have had no previous human contact with the protesters before the order to kill is given. That’s what the Chinese regime did before the Tienanmen Square massacre in 1989.

They may be special forces troops and secret police, left over from the old dictatorship and long rewarded for abusing and murdering the old regime’s enemies, who will gladly serve a new dictatorship. That’s who General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi used to kill at least a thousand non-violent protesters on Rabaa Square in Cairo after his military coup overthrew Egypt’s elected government in 2013.

In Sudan that group began as a bunch of camel-herding tribesmen, already at war with the local farmers, who were then recruited by the old regime to torch villages and slaughter their inhabitants in western Sudan. They acquired a taste for rape, pillage and murder and became known as the Janjaweed. They are now called the RSF.

Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator since 1989, originally created them to carry out a genocide in the separatist western province of Darfur, a crime for which he has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. They were never seen in the capital in those days, but now they have uniforms of a sort and they are all over Khartoum.

They are doing the job that the soldiers of the regular army might have balked at: killing enough citizens, more or less at random, to frighten the rest back into submission. The ordinary soldiers’ reluctance was often on display in the early days of the Sudanese revolution, when they sometimes intervened to protect the protesters from the RSF.

The generals who have now unleashed the RSF never felt that reluctance themselves. Unlike the private soldiers, they have profited greatly under Bashir’s rule and have no intention of giving up their own privileges and power. They were happy enough to sacrifice Bashir to the protesters (he’s now under arrest and awaiting trial), but they don’t do self-sacrifice.

So they played for time, negotiating a ‘democratic transition’ with the protest leaders while waiting for the support to flow in from other Arab tyrannies. It duly arrived: an immediate gift of $3 billion from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to help Bashir’s military heirs buy back support, and the promise of political support for any killing that they saw as a necessary part of the process.

The military junta, calling itself the ‘Transitional Military Council’, kept up the facade of power-sharing with the opposition ‘Alliance for Freedom and Change’ right down to last weekend. On Sunday the TMC spokesman said that a deal was almost done: there would be an election in two years, and civilians would have a majority of the seats on the interim council.

Then on Monday morning the Rapid Support Forces/Janjaweed went in shooting and cleared the square in front of Army Headquarters that had been occupied by pro-democracy forces for the past two months. The TMC’s head, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, declared on state television that the military had decided to “stop negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change and cancel what had been agreed on.”

What had changed? Nothing. The military were never negotiating in good faith; they were just buying time. The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), whic spearheaded the nationwide protests, is calling for a campaign of “sweeping civil disobedience to topple the treacherous and killer military council,” but unless it can take back control of the streets, it’s all over.

Can it do that? Probably not. The Janjaweed don’t care how many people they kill, and none of the most powerful governments in the Arab world do either.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They may…2013″)

Burmese Tragedy

2 October 2007

Burmese Tragedy

By Gwynne Dyer

Empty monasteries, severed telecommunications, and a sullen, beaten silence that seems to envelop the whole country. It doesn’t just feel like a defeat for the Burmese people; it feels like the end of an era. It was an era that began at the other end of South-East Asia two decades ago, with the non-violent overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines by “people power” in 1986.

For a while, non-violent revolutions seemed almost unstoppable: Bangladesh, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia all followed the Filipino example, overthrowing military rule and moving to open democratic systems after decades of oppression. China itself almost managed to follow their example in the Tienanmen episode of 1989, and then the contagion spread to Europe.

The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe melted away with scarcely a shot fired, and by 1991 the Soviet Union itself had gone into liquidation. It was the threat of similar non-violent action that finally brought the apartheid regime in South Africa to the negotiating table in the early 1990s. Right into the 21st century the trend continued, with undemocratic regimes being forced to yield power by unarmed protestors from Serbia to Georgia to Nepal. But there were always the exceptions, and exceptions are always instructive.

The greatest exception, in the early days, was Burma itself. Entranced by the seeming ease with which their South-East Asian neighbours were dumping their dictators and emboldened by the transfer of power from General Ne Win (who had been in power for a quarter-century) to a junta of lesser generals, Burmese civilians ventured out on the streets to demand democracy. The army slaughtered three thousand of them in the streets of Rangoon, whisking the bodies away to be burned, and the protestors went very quiet.

It was this success for repression in Burma that gave the Chinese Communist regime the confidence to do the same thing on Tienanmen Square the following year, and it worked there too. People went very quiet after the massacre on the Square, and the regime is still firmly in power eighteen years later. Non-violent protest is a powerful tactic, but no tactic works in every contingency. To be specific, non-violent protest does not work against a regime that is willing to commit a massacre, and can persuade its troops to carry out its orders.

The emotion that non-violence works on is shame. Most people feel that murdering large numbers of their fellow citizens on the streets in broad daylight is a shameful action, and even if the privileged people at the top of a regime can smother that emotion, their soldiers, who have to do the actual killing, may not be able to.

If you cannot be sure your soldiers will obey that order, then it is wise not to give it, since you present them with a dilemma that can only be resolved by turning their weapons against the regime. Better to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from power. So non-violent revolution often succeeds — but not if the army is sufficiently isolated from the public.

The isolation can be achieved by indoctrination, but physical separation helps too. Before the Chinese regime ordered the attack on Tienanmen Square, it withdrew the entire Beijing garrison (which it believed to be contaminated by close contact with the public), and replaced it with divisions brought in from the deep interior of the country. The killing was carried out by country boys to whom the sophisticated residents of Beijing looked like alien beings, people about whom almost any lie seemed credible.

The Burmese army is profoundly isolated from the civilian public. Its officers, over the decades of military rule, have become a separate, self-recruiting caste that enjoys great privileges, and its soldiers are country boys — not one in a hundred is from Rangoon or Mandalay. The regime has even moved the capital from Rangoon to the preposterous jungle “city” of Naypyidaw, a newly built place whose only business is government,  in order to increase the social isolation of its soldiers and servants.

So when the protestors came out on the streets again in the bigger Burmese cities after nineteen years, led this time by monks whose prestige made many believe the army would not dare touch them, the regime simply started killing again. The death toll this time is probably no more than a tenth of that in 1988, for people got the message very quickly: nobody who defies the regime is safe. Not even monks.

The Burmese are now pinning their hopes on foreign intervention, but that was never going to happen. It never played a decisive role in the non-violent revolutions that succeeded, either. Sooner or later the extreme corruption of the army’s senior officers will destroy its discipline, but meanwhile it is probably more years of tyranny for Burma, with only Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic symbol of Burmese democracy who lives under semi-permanent house arrest, to bear witness against it.

It is not the end of an era, however. In other places, against other repressive regimes, non-violence still has a reasonable chance of succeeding. It never did work in Burma.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“It was…orders”; and “The isolation…credible”)

NOTE: Some papers may be compelled to substitute Myanmar for Burma, and Yangon for Rangoon, but those terms were introduced by the current regime after the 1988 massacre in an attempt to wrap itself in the flag, and are not used by the Burmese democratic movement.

Last Communist

29 January 2005

Memorial for the Last Communist

by Gwynne Dyer

After two weeks of dithering and delay, the Chinese Communist Party permitted a low-key memorial ceremony for disgraced former premier Zhao Ziyang at Beijing’s Babaoshan cemetery for Communist heroes on Saturday (30 January). He was often portrayed as China’s lost Gorbachev, the reformer who might have democratised China if he had not been ousted from power at the time of the Tienanmen Square crisis in 1989.

That was why the country’s current rulers were so nervous about publicly acknowledging Zhao’s death, and why even now the regime’s police are beating up citizens who appear in public wearing white mourning flowers in his memory. But he was actually one of the last of the ancient breed of Communist true believers. They will not be missed.

Zhao’s passing, almost sixteen years after he was fired from all his posts and placed under permanent house arrest for his alleged support for the students on Tienanmen Square, raises two questions. One is whether the pro-democracy demonstrators could ever have succeeded in the face of a Communist Party that was then still run by true believers. The other is whether China would have been better off if the Communists had never gained power at all.

Zhao was born at a time when fanatical ideologies were sweeping Europe and Asia, and he never deviated from his loyalty to the Communist Party whose youth wing he joined at thirteen. He did not even object when his own father was murdered by Communists as a “rich peasant” in 1948.

When collectivisation led to famine in Guangdong province in 1958-61, he enthusiastically led the campaign to torture peasants whom Mao accused of causing the famine by hiding their (imaginary) grain reserves. His subservience to the Party was not even shaken when his elderly mother died after being denounced by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.

By the late 70s Zhao had become one of Deng Xiaoping’s allies in opening up the Chinese economy to capitalist ideas, and by the late 80s he was even dabbling in notions of political reform. When university students occupied Tienanmen Square in 1989 and demanded political change, he sympathised with them — but when the Party elders insisted that the protests must be suppressed, he submitted to Party discipline yet again.

Much has been made of Zhao’s tearful visit to the students on the square the night before martial law was declared — “I’m sorry; I have come too late,” he said — but he didn’t actually stay with them. Nor did he protest aloud when the army massacred them two weeks later on 4 June, 1989: he lived and died a loyal son of the Party.

Zhao spent the laszt sixteen years of his life in a comfortable courtyard house in central Beijing, emerging only to play golf and writing occasional letters containing mild requests that the Party “reverse the verdict of Tienanmen Square.” If this was a hero of democracy, heaven preserve China from its enemies.

But the last of the Communist true believers are dying off in China now. What has taken their place, in a Party as riddled with cynicism and corruption as the Soviet Communist Party was in Gorbachev’s time, is a band of careerists whose mutual loyalty mainly depends on the fact that they must hang together lest they hang separately.

Their only claim to popular support is the economic miracle that they have allegedly wrought in modern China — but the real question is whether China would be better off if their genuinely Communist predecessors had never seized power at all.

In the dying days of the old Soviet Union it became popular to calculate how much better off Russia would have been if the Communists had not seized power in late 1917. At the start of the First World War in 1914, Russia had reached about the same level of urbanisation and

industrialisation as Italy, and was growing about as fast. Despite two world wars and the Great Depression, by 1989 Italians were about three times richer than Russians, and the gap remains as wide even today.

It is harder to make the same argument for China, which was still scarcely industrialised at all when the Communists seized power in 1949. But Communist rule merely redistributed misery and produced very little net growth during their first thirty years in power — and they caused the deaths of about forty million Chinese through murder and starvation.

The subsequent twenty-five years have seen rapid economic growth, but it’s hard to believe that even the most corrupt and incompetent Nationalist regime would have delivered less net growth since 1949. In fact, if you consider Taiwan, which started out under exactly that sort of regime in 1949 and today enjoys three or four times China’s per capita income, it is quite impossible to believe.

Zhao changed as he aged, becoming less fanatical and abandoning his old enthusiasm for murder and torture as useful political tools, and he always meant to do good for China. But if he is the last of the ancient breed, good riddance.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8 (“Zhao’s passing…atall”; and “Zhao spent…its enemies”)

Hong Kong: A Very Instructive Cock-Up

10 July 2003

Hong Kong: A Very Instructive Cock-Up

By Gwynne Dyer

Historians generally divide into two schools: the paranoids, who believe that there is a secret plot behind everything that happens, and the realists, who think that most large events are the result of a cock-up somewhere. The remarkable events in Hong Kong over the past two weeks are a powerful argument for the Cock-Up Theory of History. They are also very encouraging.

It is not clear why Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Tung Chee-wha, chose this July to enact a draconian new law on sedition. The Basic Law that has served as a kind of constitution since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 requires the passage of a security law covering issues like subversion and spying eventually, but under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ deal that guaranteed civil rights and limited democracy in the former British colony, the Communist authorities in Beijing left both the details and the timing of those laws to local lawmakers.

Maybe some people in Beijing suggested that Tung should get a move on with an anti-subversion law, but there is no evidence that the orders came from the top, or that Beijing wrote the harsh clauses that horrified most people in Hong Kong. It’s more likely to be the old story of the over-zealous subordinate trying too hard to please the master, and making a major mess in the process. Anyway, Tung brought in the law, and the people of Hong Kong basically threw it out.

Hong Kongers have traditionally been seen as people who don’t care about politics so long as they can go on making money, but on the 1st of July, in the stifling heat of midsummer, half a million of them came out on the streets in a good-humoured but massive demonstration against the new law. The sheer number of people astonished everybody, including the organisers. It was the biggest demo anywhere in China since the Communist regime nearly lost power during the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989, and it changed everything.

Tung scrambled to save his law, offering to delete clauses that allowed the police to make searches and seizures without a warrant during “urgent security investigations” and gave the Hong Kong government the right to ban local groups with links to organisations that are banned in mainland China. The new crime of ‘theft of State secrets’ would remain, but Hong Kong journalists could plead the defence of ‘public interest (as their mainland colleagues cannot).

The opposition leaders were not impressed by the token concessions that Tung offered, but he insisted that his anti-subversion bill would still go before the Legislative Council on Wednesday the 9th. So the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong promised more and bigger demonstrations — and meanwhile, up in Beijing, however, surprise and confusion was rapidly turning to worry.

What if the demos get out of hand in Hong Kong, which still earns much of China’s foreign-exchange? What if they spread to China itself, where popular grievances are far bigger and the government has even less legitimacy in the public’s eyes? What has that fool Tung set loose? Soon Hong Kong businessman James Tien, an ally of Tung’s, was flying back from a visit to Beijing with some important news.

Two senior Chinese officials had told him, Tien said, that Hong Kong was free to decide both the timing and the content of the security legislation on its own. In these circumstances his Liberal Party could not support Tung’s law now. Without the votes of the Liberals (not elected politicians, but a group chosen by the business community who normally put ‘stability’ and good relations with Beijing first), Tung had no chance of getting his law through the Legislative Council, so late last Sunday he deferred it indefinitely.

Beijing will probably replace the badly damaged Tung in a few months’ time and no new attack on civil rights in Hong Kong is likely to happen soon. Good. But what does Beijing’s placatory response to this crisis tell us about the state of affairs in China itself?

It tells us that the new ‘fourth generation’ of leaders who took over most of the senior positions last November understand what thin ice they are skating on. This is good news, as it is in nobody’s interest that they fall in. What China and the rest of the world needs is not another Tienanmen Square, but a recognition by the ‘Communist’ leadership that the country must have gradual democratisation if it is not to have a political explosion whenever a serious economic downturn comes along.

China has not been Communist economically for many years: it already has lower taxes, less social welfare, and a bigger proportion of the economy in private hands than many European countries. In terms of the gap between rich and poor, it is less egalitarian than the United States, probably even less than Russia. Yet it has no free press, no independent democratic institutions, nothing that could act as a safety valve and an early warning system for the ‘Communists’ who still rule it with an iron hand.

President Hu Jintao and the men around him, having just attained supreme power, are not going to hand it over any time soon, but their response to the recent events in Hong Kong shows that they understand enough not to pour fuel on the flames. They will back up, compromise, make deals, anything that keeps the show on the road a little longer — and maybe that will win enough time for real political changes to start happening.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Tung…cannot”; and “China…hand”)

NOTE: The British phrase ‘cock-up’, used twice in the first paragraph, may not mean anything to some other audiences. Bolder papers may wish to substitute the phrase ‘screw-up’; more cautious ones will have to make do with ‘blunder’.