Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for November, 2016

Myanmar: a wider insurgency is born

While much of the media – especially in the Anglophone world – has been focusing on the American election and the implications of Donald Trump’s victory, there’s been a new outbreak of violence in western Myanmar that needs urgent attention before it escalates and undermines the country’s ongoing reform process.

Last month, the authorities in Rakhine state reported an attack on several police posts near the western frontier with Bangladesh in which nine policemen were killed.

The attack was blamed on Muslim insurgents – who have posed little of a threat during the country’s long history of unrest.

Last week saw  serious clashes between the army and these insurgents, who have yet to be firmly identified, but do seem to be Rohingya, that has left more than thirty dead, among them at least two soldiers.

Ever since its independence from Britain in 1947, Myanmar – or Burma as it used to be known – has experienced ethnic conflict.

At that time, several of its ethnic minorities rebelled against the central government – dominated by the Burman majority – and have been fighting ever since for greater self- government.

Until recently, Rakhine in the western part of the country had not been a major centre of unrest.

But since 2011, when the country has started to open up to the wider world and the military has gradually stepped back from running the country, Rakhine has seen an upsurge in communal violence.

It began with members of the Buddhist majority attacking and harassing people from the Muslim Rohingya minority who they regard as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

This prejudice was fuelled by the central government, which failed to take action against Buddhist extremists inciting hatred against the country’s Muslim minority.

The government has also refused to recognise the Rohingya as citizens, arguing they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Most historians, on the other hand, argue Muslims have been living in the area for hundreds of years, although in what numbers is unclear.

The argument is more than academic with the Rohingya rendered effectively stateless given they are not Bangladeshi citizens either.

The chaotic violence and international criticism of its failure to protect people forced the central government to intervene and set up camps for Rohingya who’d been driven from their homes by Buddhist violence.

Since then, Rohingya have languished in camps and many others have attempted to flee by sea to neighbouring countries.

This new wave of boat people have not been welcome in the countries where they’ve landed, principally Thailand and Indonesia, which has dimmed the prospect of finding refuge abroad.

Assuming the recent attacks are being carried out by armed Rohingya, it should  hardly come as a surprise.

All the roots of a wider insurgency have been gestating for a while.

Attacked by their neighbours, left unprotected by the security forces and with the option of seeking asylum in nearby states limited, it looks like some have decided to fight fire with fire.

By the evidence being gathered by rights groups, the Myanmar military – which has been fighting ethnic insurgent groups for seventy years – is responding in time honoured fashion.

The danger is that an insurgency based among Muslims could attract outside support and end up taking a more radical turn, as it has in other countries, like Nigeria where the Boko Haram group ended up aligning themselves with ISIS.

The fact that the country is now run by a civilian-led government under the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi since historic elections just over a year ago, makes this turn of events even more disturbing.

Ms Suu Kyi has called for calm, but she has ducked supporting Rohingya demands for citizenship – her moral compass seems to have been distorted by electoral considerations with her desire to avoid alienating Buddhist voters overcoming her commitment to human rights.

This refusal to take a tough line in their defence has disappointed many Rohingya and may have contributed to more concluding violence is the only way to defend their community – after all if a leader who has been admired around the world for her commitment to democracy won’t help you, who will?

If this is the judgement against her, it may be a bit harsh.

Under the constitutional deal that led to the end of sixty years of direct military rule and the first competitive elections in decades which catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD into office, the military retain control over key ministries, including defence, and still have considerable freedom of action.

So the civilians don’t seem to be driving the response to the insurgency in Rakhine.

Whatever the politics in Naypyidaw, the latest violence and heavy handed response of the army pose a challenge to the authority of Ms Suu Kyi’s government and threaten to undermine her international reputation even further.

However, Ms Suu Kyi has not shown much inclination to use the clout she possesses from her own personal popularity and her party’s overwhelming electoral victory to restrain the military.

Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had been brought in to try to find a political solution before the recent attacks on the security forces.

His efforts clearly haven’t yielded much so far– it’s time Aung San Suu Kyi put more weight behind the veteran diplomat’s push for a compromise before things get much worse.

Clinton or Trump: global instability is set to get worse

If I had a vote in the American presidential election, I would cast it for Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump’s opposition to action on climate change is enough of a reason to do so on grounds of policy alone

On top of that Trump has – how can I put it politely – character flaws beyond the dreams of avarice, which should disqualify him from occupying any political office, let alone the Oval one.

But, I would vote for Clinton with some trepidation for what it means for the rest of the world.

While she has one of the most progressive domestic policy platforms of any recent mainstream candidate and wouldn’t renege on climate change commitments, Clinton’s approach to foreign policy is another matter.

So whoever wins this week, the world is likely set for even more instability than we’ve seen in recent years.

Both candidates are firm believers in American exceptionalism – even if the way Clinton translates that worldview into policy is more conventional than Trump – and so international frictions will almost certainly rise over the next four years.

Why do I say that when the conventional media view is Trump poses all the risk?

Let’s take relations between the US and other major powers, like Russia and China.

Russia is the country that’s attracted the most attention during the campaign – allowing officials and media commentators to dust down the old Cold War stereotypes about the Russian threat.

Under President Obama, who came into office promising to reset the relationship with Moscow, relations have tanked and confrontation escalated, particularly over Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, as well as over allegations of interference in each other’s internal affairs. Washington has even accused the Kremlin of attempting to influence the outcome of the election in Trump’s favour.

This may not be unconnected to the Republican candidate’s approach to Moscow.

A Trump win could well see the strains in relations with Russia ease given he clearly doesn’t see Russian actions – from Ukraine to Syria – as a threat to US national security.

But if Hillary Clinton wins, these tensions are likely to rise.

She has promised to intensify sanctions against Russia over Ukraine in particular, and the continued standoff over Syria is also likely to continue with the rhetoric turning even sourer between the two nuclear powers.

This matters because Obama’s signature policy of reducing the risk of nuclear conflict – and Russia and US have by far the largest arsenals – has made little headway and neither of his putative successors is going to pursue it.

When it comes to China, where Obama’s famous pivot, or rebalance, to Asia has seen a gradual deterioration in relations between Washington and Beijing in the past few years, things are set to get even worse – only here it is indeed Trump who poses the greatest risk to global stability.

Unlike Russia, for Donald Trump, China is a direct threat to American national interests.

If he sticks to what he’s proposed during the campaign – an even greater military build-up around China’s coast and retaliation for alleged unfair trade practices – we are headed for a major escalation in tension.

And with the impetuous, unpredictable and untested Trump as commander-in-chief, the risk that an accidental clash in the South China Sea could blow up into a major conflagration is much greater.

But given her record in office and what she’s said on the stump, even with Clinton in the White House, relations with China will probably continue their downward trajectory – if less dramatically.

Despite what she has said about increasing cooperation with Beijing in areas of mutual interest, candidate Clinton has promised a stronger line on China’s human rights record – which won’t go down well there.

On top of that, as Obama’s Secretary of State we know she was usually on the side of the greater use of American military muscle than her boss, and, as her previous dealings with Beijing indicate, her approach to the South China Sea is pretty much guaranteed to be seen by the Chinese as more provocative than the current administration’s.

Whether it’s Clinton or Trump who enters the White House next January, the first thing in the in-tray is most likely to be the campaign against Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq.

Both candidates have indicated they would intensify air strikes – which would inevitably lead to more civilian casualties.

The difference between them comes over the use of ground troops. Trump says he would commit more Americans, whereas Clinton would seek to continue Obama’s approach of supporting local allies to do the fighting.

Of course, all this comes with the proviso that Trump is an unknown quantity when it comes to foreign policy.  So were he to become president, there is a degree of doubt that he’d do all the things he’s said he would.

We know much more about Hillary Clinton. Her approach to the rest of the world was forged during her husband’s presidency in 1990s when the lesson she took from the crises in Bosnia and Kosovo was that military intervention stops wars and saves lives.

Given her views on Syria and Libya when she was Secretary of State it’s a fair bet she has not changed this view much, despite all the evidence that the results of large scale armed intervention are unpredictable at best and usually incur a much greater cost to civilians than anticipated.

Also – in spite of lip service to the way the world has changed with the re-emergence of the likes of China and India and the need for multilateral cooperation, under a President Clinton, we can expect the US to continue to fail to adjust its actions to rise of the rest and the shift in relative balance of power.

Here she was speaking to the American Legion a couple of months ago: “when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead”.

After all if President Obama, who has been castigated for weakening the US role in the world still believes “the question we face …. is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead” as he told military cadets in 2014, it would be naïve to expect a departure from this way of looking at the world under Clinton.

This doesn’t bode well for the rest of us over the next few years.

A true acceptance in Washington of how the world has changed is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition to restoring some sort of order to global affairs.

As for Trump, he shows no sign of having applied much thought to such questions at all and seems inclined to shoot from the hip – and we can only hope that he’d only do that metaphorically.

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