How the New Revolutions May Have Failed
Column Stephen Suleyman Schwartz
At mid-June, the wave of democratic revolutions in “pre-emerging” countries – those that have not yet reached the status of “emerging economies” – had seemingly come to a halt. In economic and political commentary, the “emerging” states include, most often, the “BRICs” – Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia, and Turkey are considered close aspirants to the title. Yet the success of democracy is uneven in the “emerging” societies.
India has been democratic – with a short interruption by the Indira Gandhi “emergency” of the 1970s – since its independence in 1947. Brazil, South Korea, and Indonesia have completed rationally-organized transitions away from military rule. Mexico has established effective multi-party voting since 2000, after three quarters of a century under a barely disguised single-party ascendancy. Still, Russia’s political hierarchy continues to manifest an authoritarian character, and China labours under the changing, but tenacious hold of its peculiar form of “Confucian Communism.” Turkey wavers between its legacy of 20th century secularism and the “soft” (but politically aggressive) Islamist ideology of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP).
The “pre-emerging economies” include the Arab lands that have undergone an uncertain “spring” of popular sovereignty since the end of 2010, and, in the Far East, Myanmar, also called Burma. Erdogan and the AKP have served as mentors for Muslim Brotherhood (MB) parties, to which the AKP is affiliated loosely, in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere. None of the “Arab Spring” countries has attained the economic strength, vulnerable though it may be, of Turkey. But the regime in Ankara has been emboldened in its neo-fundamentalist assault on the existing political system while those in power elsewhere perpetuate or renew their despotic habits.
In Syria, the popular uprising against the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad has resulted in massive state and sectarian terror, with some 13,000 dead. The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), on June 14, dissolved parliament, two days before the commencement of presidential elections. On June 17, the MB claimed to have won the Egyptian poll for its candidate, Mohamed Morsi. A “revolutionary” victory by the Egyptian MB may revive, as a publicly-acknowledged fact, the informal toleration between the military and the MB that existed in Egypt for decades before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. This would not carry the Egyptian Revolution forward.
Observers blinded by the spectacular popular mobilizations of the “Arab Spring” ignored the absence from them of a feature of all successful revolutions of the last three centuries, including the Indian independence movement. That is, according to the classic paradigm, when civil society – commerce, industry, labour, and autonomous intellectual and religious strata – have become strong enough to challenge the limitations of the old, privilege-based polity, the latter crumbles and is replaced by one that encourages new and liberated private and collective initiatives. This was true even in India where Gandhiji and his colleagues organized patiently for the removal of the British Raj. But civil society cannot be constructed “after the revolution.” In the Arab struggles of the past two years, beginning in Tunisia, debilitated political elites fell apart under the pressure of the international financial and social crisis. None of the Arab countries, however, had produced civil society institutions prepared to supplant the existing dictatorships.
Since the end of the Soviet era in 1991 and the collapse, in particular, of Yugoslavia, another flaw in the process of democratic transition/revolution has reappeared. Artificial “nation-states,” grouping diverse communities under the dominance of one ethnic or sectarian component, may break apart. The ruling demographic entity may seize on communal rivalries to disrupt a historical development away from a long-established complex of subordination. Attacks on minorities may take place before, during, and after a revolutionary period. So the Russian tsars incited their Christian subjects against Jews and Muslims; and that gambit was repeated through many attempts at genocide in the succeeding decades.
In Syria, such a situation appears, superficially, reversed: a minority community in control has committed violence against the protesting majority. The ranks of Al-Assad’s apparatus are drawn from the Alawite sect, derived from an esoteric form of Shia Islam and counting only 12 percent of the Syrian census. Although the Syrian conflict did not originate as a sectarian confrontation, it has become one with Sunni Muslims (74 percent of the population) battling in self-defense against the Alawites in the army, government, and pro-Assad militias (shabiha). The Syrian Alawite minority has employed unrestrained slaughter to maintain its position within the state, which has little or nothing to do with differences, pronounced as they may be, between the Alawite faith and Sunni Islam.
The anti-Assad combatants appear to be infiltrated by Al-Qaida terrorists, but the majority of Sunni rebels seem to have risen in response to official and unofficial Alawite violence. Al-Assad’s Alawites have protected Syria’s Kurdish and Christian minorities, which fear the Sunnis. The Egyptian Coptic Christians are concerned similarly that an Islamist political triumph on the banks of the Nile will impose new restrictions upon them. While the Syrian Alawites are a minority bearing down on a majority, the principle remains: manipulation of differences to defend entrenched inequality.
Other lands that have experienced the “Arab Spring” suffer differing degrees of “revolutionary failure.” Notwithstanding political disarray in Libya, the much-predicted emergence of an Islamist dominion in the country has not occurred. Rather, the “people in arms” that defeated Mu’ammar Al-Qadhdhafi with the help of NATO remain divided between contending militias. If Libya has had an outcome favouring radical Islam, it is probably in the sub-Saharan country of Mali. There Berber (Tuareg) mercenaries of the Libyan regime took the large stocks of weapons left over from the Libyan Revolution and first sought to establish their own “liberated zone,” then allied, reportedly, with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Yemen stagnates in a war where Al-Qaida and other elements challenge U.S.-backed forces seeking to restore a framework of governance. Bahrain continues at a stalemate between its Shia majority and its Sunni rulers.
Outside the Muslim-majority lands, in Myanmar, Rakhine State occupies a slender strip along the west coast, isolated from the rest of the country, while bordering on Bangladesh, and, by road and inland waterway, within 300 kilometres of the Indian frontier. Indeed, India has invested since 2003 in transport projects at Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, under the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Facility plan.
But Rakhine State, with a population of some four million, is also inhabited by about 750,000 Rohingya Muslims. Since the second week of June, riots involving Rakhine (formerly called Arakan or Arakanese) Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have killed 29 people, with 2,500 homes burned and 30,000 people displaced.
The crisis in Rakhine began as such clashes almost always do. Rumours claimed that a Buddhist woman had been raped and killed by Muslims; a crowd of Buddhists stopped a bus and killed 10 Muslims, who were uninvolved with the rape case. And the outcome has been predictable: the Burmese army has occupied Sittwe. Censorship has been imposed on news from Rakhine.
Rohingya Muslims are stateless. They are denied citizenship by Myanmar, which claims that they are the offspring of alien intruders or illegal immigrants from today’s Bangladesh, much as the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic claimed the Bosnian Muslims were alleged descendants of Turkish colonists and that Kosovar Albanians were unlawful entrants from Albania, or their offspring. In 1978 and again in 1991-92, about a quarter million Rohingya Muslims fled to Bangladesh, which since the second influx of refugees has refused shelter to Rohingyas.
The Rohingya Muslims have been labelled “terrorists,” are no more bent on armed jihad than were the conventional, moderate Bosnian Muslims or the secularized and multireligious Kosovars. Without the Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina, the latter country, with its ethnic and religious diversity and economic resources, could have become a sturdy and prosperous democracy. “Great-Serbian” policy was aimed at impeding the economic vigour of its soon-to-be post-Yugoslav neighbours, including Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina. But Belgrade and Milosevic also needed means to appeal to their citizens for unity under the ex-Communist party.
A “master plan” for such a strategy may be traced to Moscow and its mischief in the late 1980s in the Caucasus, where various Muslim peoples (and later, Georgian Christians) have been treated as “enemies” to rally Russian opinion behind a new bureaucratic tyranny, supposedly representing stability. (A “rehearsal” of the scheme involved Bulgaria’s mistreatment of its Turkish and Slav Muslim minorities in the 1980s.)
Fighting in Chechnya retarded the full democratization of Russia, and impelled the ascent of Putin and his clique. Bloodshed in the former Soviet Central Asian republics, in which Kyrgyz and Uzbeks have clashed, has also served to keep a dictatorial Uzbek regime, aligned with Moscow, in place. Discontent among Uighurs and Tibetans in China is comparably employed to rally the Han majority. Muslim radicals are guilty of scapegoating non-Muslims in Pakistan, and the Sinhala Buddhists of Sri Lanka committed gross atrocities in suppressing the Tamil insurrection there; most Tamils are Hindu, and Sinhala discrimination against them was long visible.
Violence between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar may be used in the same manner, as a political weapon by those eager to halt democratization of the country. The Rohingya “issue” may provide the “pretext of chaos” the Burmese military would need to reestablish their coercive methods at large.
But regardless of its primary motivation, the denial of citizenship rights to the Rohingyas is not something even the most enlightened Burman (Bamar) representatives are eager to debate. Rohingyas have never been granted Burmese citizenship, and it appears that the new government in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) will not rush to assure its achievement. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, was asked during her current trip to Europe about citizenship for the Rohingyas. She avoided the question deftly, stating, “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them. All those who are entitled to citizenship should be treated as full citizens deserving all the rights that must be given to them.” For most Bamar people Rohingya Muslims deserve no such status.
Race appears to be a more provocative element in the Rohingya tragedy than religion. Bamar folk consider the Rohingyas as “Bengalis,” since they speak a dialect of that language, and as “black,” in contrast with the Bamar “Mongolian” phenotype. It is time to recognize that not all Muslims drawn into conflict with their neighbours are at fault, and that the inciters of homicidal prejudice can aim their actions in any direction. Assaults on Rohingya Muslims by Bamar ethnic agitators threaten all those, whether from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or China, who may be stigmatised as an “other.”
The Indian authorities, with their history of assisting Bangladesh, should now make clear to the transitional regime in Myanmar that “religious” brutalities will not encourage further Indian investment in Burmese infrastructure.
If there are lessons to be learned from the upheavals of the past two years, they are that political revolutions of the old kind are no longer sustainable, and that the decomposition of the historical revolutionary era has brought with it a withering of the ideal of the nation-state that once impelled democratic transitions. Such transformations were, in the past, presumed to put the interests of a whole society above those of ethnic and religious communities. The “local” was presumed to give way to the “global.” But instead, the promise of globalization has produced a rebirth of local particularism.
At the commencement of the current globalization wave, in the 1990s, I, like others, expected that it would enable the emergence of local, limited authorities, propelling the world toward greater freedoms. Instead, history has reinforced a “competition of differences” in a manner that has weakened both the world order and the security of minorities. The political and economic future is, at this point, bleak, notwithstanding the vision of political reform in Myanmar no less than in the “Arab Spring.” If a new upsurge of humanistic, democratic values is to come, we must look, as Allama Iqbal and Gandhiji did, to spirituality as its source. All else may succumb to a recurrence, and metastasis, of past oppression.