Five years ago this week, Burma’s most fertile region was devastated by a ferocious tropical storm and at least 138,000 people lost their lives. Peter Popham went to one of the villages where life will never be the same.
(Independent on Sunday 5 May 2013)
In few places does Burma look more idyllic than the Irrawaddy Delta.
We’re on the road from Pyapon to Bogale, a single-track lane fringed by banana and rattan palms. There is water everywhere: the stream that runs alongside the road, crossed by bamboo bridges, ponds full of ducks or pink lotus flowers, a river where black water buffalo wallow in mud to their shoulders. The flimsy wooden farmhouses, each with its big glazed pot to collect rain water, are fronted by gleaming padi fields and framed by coconut palms. Everything one’s eye falls on shrieks of life and fertility.
Yet more than anywhere in Burma, this is a place of death.
Two hundred years ago the Delta was a huge malarial swamp, a wilderness of no use to anybody. But after being drained during British times it became the rice bowl and melting pot of the nation, home to hundreds of thousands of Burmans and Karen, and many Hindu and Muslim migrants from the subcontinent as well. Watered by Burma’s greatest river, the immensely fertile soil provided a living to farmers willing to brave its fierce climate and wandering water courses.
But the Delta is too close to the sea ever to be really safe – as its inhabitants discovered five years ago this week.
The cyclone they dubbed Nargis – a Hindi word (and a popular girl’s name) meaning Narcissus – made landfall in the town of Pyapon at 6 o’clock on the evening of 2 May 2008. “We heard the warning on the radio,” said a young man in the office of the opposition National League for Democracy, “just 30 minutes before it arrived. The government said it was travelling at 40 to 50 miles per hour. But DVB” – the Democratic Voice of Burma, an alternative broadcaster based in Norway with underground correspondents all over the country – “said it was moving at 120 to 150 mph. It moved through the Delta like a snake. At 7.30 a huge wave crashed through the town. The eye of the cyclone came swirling through the town…”
It was a disaster for which Burma was strikingly ill-prepared. The poorest country in South-East Asia, it had been ruled for half a century by a military junta whose priority was combating insurgencies on the borders, cutting lucrative secret deals with crony businessmen, and keeping the population in fear and ignorance. Civil defence was a long way down its list of priorities. And massive aid from abroad – the sort of huge, air-lifted operation that had rescued Sumatra and southern Thailand after the 2004 tsunami – was not something Burma’s ruling generals were likely to contemplate. Burma had gone into its shell after the coup d’etat that brought General Ne Win to power in 1962. Now it rivalled North Korea as the hermit of Asia. Yet without aid from outside, Burma would struggle to recover from a blow like this.
The official death toll from the cyclone was 138,000, though many believe the true figure to be much higher. Five years on, I took a boat trip through the Delta’s waterways to hear the tales of Nargis survivors.
At Bogale children bathe in the Gone Nyin Tan river, deep brown with silt, as we board long-tailed boat no. 2013 and head south towards the village of Sat Saw, a two-hour journey through this web of vast rivers. Little has changed here in half a century of military rule. A fisherman throws his net from the stern of his small, sleek rowing boat. More rowers propel a boat stacked with logs upstream. On the breeze comes the smell of burning rice stubble. As we head away from the Delta’s small towns towards the sea, activity both on the shore and the water dwindles. Then at the far end of a narrow inlet, on the southern bank, we see the gleaming roofs of the little village of Sat Saw.
Along the village footpaths – there are no motorable roads and no wheeled vehicles here – we are taken to meet a man called Phoe Swe, aged 50, in the dingy rattan hut that he and his surviving children call home.
“Nargis hit this village at 8pm and it washed many people into the sea,” he recalls. “I ran out of my house with my family to take shelter in a nearby Buddhist monastery, but after an hour another big wave came and smashed the monastery’s pillars, so with one of my kids on my back and two in my arms I climbed a tree. We stayed up the tree all night and when the morning came we saw that everything was destroyed.” Amazingly, eight of his nine children survived up that tree, clinging to each other. Only his wife and their youngest one, 10 months old, failed to make it.
For the next four or five days they survived on coconuts. After that, help arrived from a Buddhist ngo. And the army? “They didn’t help at all,” he says. “We didn’t even see them in the village.” Five years on, he says, “I’m still struggling. It’s hard to get back to a normal life. The year after Nargis we had no rice crop because the fields were soaked in salt water.”
In another hut nearby, Thein Win, 56, tells of his lucky escape. “We were all sleeping over in our hut by the padi field when the cyclone struck,” he said, “the cyclone didn’t hit us there. But our house here was destroyed, and five of our friends who were staying in it all died.” In all 530 villagers, more than one-third of the population, lost their lives. “It’s because our village is so close to the sea,” explains Tun Lin, who owns a store in the village. “We are in the front line. Even now if it rains hard, the children get scared and hide under the blankets.”
The military junta was slow to respond to the disaster, slow to release information – and slow to the point of criminal about admitting the foreign aid agencies that were clamouring to help. They released bizarrely detailed casualty figures, posed in front of Potemkin IDP camps for the cameras of the state-controlled media, but actually bringing aid to the desperate survivors, hundreds of thousands of them clinging to life without food or fresh water – that did not seem a task worthy of their attention.
Instead Burmese civil society, almost wiped out through the decades of army repression, leapt into the breach, with dozens of ad hoc groups organising missions to bring food, water, medicine and other necessities to the devastated communities. The Buddhist monks’ organisation which saved the lives of Phoe Swe and his children were one of many. The most celebrated was the flotilla of boats organised by Zarganar, the nation’s most popular and subversive comedian, which took aid to 42 remote villages. But when, in June 2008, he spoke to foreign media about the plight of millions of survivors in the Delta left to fend for themselves, he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to 59 years’ imprisonment for “public order offences”.
Some of the larger international agencies eventually prevailed on the generals to let them in, and in the village of Sat Saw, their legacy is plainly visible: solid concrete bridges over the waterways, courtesy of Care International; a new primary school, built on stilts to double as a refuge in the event of another disaster, thanks to UNICEF. The Swiss Red Cross provided mosquito nets, a Japanese ngo gifted a water tank. The NLD, though at the time still a persecuted and semi-legal party, dug a drinking water pond, helped rebuild village houses and concreted the main pathway through the village.
And the military government? What was their contribution? “Nothing,” says Tun Lin, the shopkeeper, who is today the head of the local branch of the NLD, established in December 2012. “On account of Nargis, they didn’t tax the rice harvest that year. But they taxed us double the next.”
‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ at Tate Britain, 26 June to 20 October 2013
Contrary to the stereotype, Laurence Lowry was of middle-class, not proletarian stock. A Tory voter, brought up in a home straining towards gentility, he collected the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and painted with the arias of Donizetti and Bellini ringing in his ears. Although he possessed a cloth cap, in every published photograph of him, whether at his easel or pounding the Lancashire streets, he is dressed in a dark suit and tie; out of doors, he wore a trilby. His job of rent collector with the Pall Mall Property Company, which he held down for more than 40 years, placed him squarely on the capitalist side of the class barricade.
Yet it was his family’s sudden tumble down the class ladder that triggered his genius.
It was in 1909, when Lowry was 22, that he, his mother Elizabeth and his father Robert moved from the salubrious greenery of Pine Grove, Victoria Park, to 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, on the north-west outskirts of Salford, on the way to Bolton and Wigan. The move was “for business reasons” – the failing finances of Robert Lowry that were to burden his family with debt after he died. His mother, a gifted classical pianist who had found the means to have her only son educated privately, had no illusions about the humiliation of the move. She “hated the mean streets, the terraced houses, the sight and sound of the busy mills,” Lowry’s biographer wrote. She took to her bed.
To begin with, her son felt the same way. “At first, I detested it,” he said years later. “And then after a few years I got pretty interested in it and began to walk about.”
He described that moment of awakening many times over the years, how his eyes were opened to the landscape in which his family was now embedded. “I was with a man and he said ‘Look’ and there, I saw it. From then on I devoted myself to it. I have never tired of looking. It is always fresh.”
Another time he told a BBC interviewer how, one afternoon in 1916, he missed the train from Pendlebury to Manchester. “It would be about four o’clock in the afternoon and perhaps there was some peculiar condition of the atmosphere…As I got to the top of the steps I saw the Acme Mill, a great square red block with the little cottages running in rows right up to it – and suddenly, I knew what I had to paint.”
Whatever the precise occasion – or if, as is more likely, it was more a drawn-out process than a bolt of lightning – this change of scene was to transform a hobby painter of modest talents who had been turned down by Manchester Municipal College of Art into the most original English figurative painter of the past century. Lowry is also without doubt our most popular 20th century painter – but the extreme accessibility of his work, together with the tightly circumscribed world he chose to paint, has made it easy for critics to relegate him to the status of a peculiar provincial, quite outside the currents of modern art. And they are still at it: in The Guardian – the paper which, as the Manchester Guardian, was for many years his most enthusiastic backer – last November, Jonathan Jones wrote, “Lowry deserves a place in art history, but let’s not go nuts. He is not some British Van Gogh…why can’t Lowry just be ‘the man who painted industrial Britain?’”
There are many ways to damn Lowry with faint praise. Another is to be found on the plaque adorning his final home on the edge of the Peak District: “The paintings of Lowry document the lives of ordinary people in the industrial communities of the North-West.”
In a sense there’s no arguing with that, yet in another it’s quite wrong, and fatally limiting. Lowry himself was in no doubt about it: he knew that, when he turned his attention from life drawings and to the hellish reality in which he was immersed, that something extraordinary happened. And at last that something is to get its reward, in a major exhibition entitled “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life” at Tate Britain which promises for the first time to give him his due in international terms. It is no surprise that it has taken two top-ranking foreign curators, T J Clark and his partner Anne Wagner, to pierce the miasma of metropolitan snobbery and inverted provincialism that for the best part of a century has obscured the true worth of this compulsive and compelling artist.
One of the things that corrals British art into a dingy corner away from the continental mainstream is our lack of light: that’s why so many artists headed for Cornwall, the brightest spot in a gloomy land. But Lowry made of our painful penumbras a bizarre virtue. His bleached-out skies are reflected in his bleached-out streets. Once he had discovered the colour known as flake white, which he used both for the skies and the streets, he had also discovered a unique way to paint the city. He then set about radically simplifying what he saw.
Gone from the city as he painted it were signposts, wheeled traffic, any remaining vestiges of the natural world, any mitigating features suggestive of culture and civilisation; gone, too, was conventional perspective: very often he views the city from some imaginary scaffold high above it, flattening the entire scene. All that remains are the handful of elements that were his obsessions: block-like industrial buildings, boorishly cheek-by-jowl with others far smaller, with no concern for proportion or harmony; the ubiquitous chimneys belching smoke; pools of effluent in which the buildings may be sinking; and, above all, people.
It has taken a century for critics to get to grips with Lowry’s people: let’s see if Clark and Wagner are up to the job. Michael Howard, art historian and author of an authoritative tome about Lowry’s work, describes his people, weirdly, as “automata”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conventional term for them is “matchstick men,” so common now that it has been adopted as the name for a Salford pub. Yet that, too, is quite wrong.
The bleached sky, the white ground and the diffused light allow Lowry to abolish shadows, which feature in none of his mature works. This in turn gives him the freedom to crowd his scenes with extraordinary numbers of people, each clearly delineated. Yet if they really were just matchstick men or automata, how unbearably dull these paintings would be! What is amazing, and what confounds all efforts to cram Lowry into boxes marked ‘pessimism’ or ‘nostalgia’, are that all these masses of people, delineated so simply and sparely, are electric with individual life. No two are alike. They are no more realistic, conventionally speaking, than the caricatures in a strip cartoon, yet each of them is alive. Try this as an experiment: look at the figures in these paintings with concentration for some minutes, then turn to look at actual people walking in the street. Suddenly they all look like Lowry people, each instinct with desire, goal, daydream or preoccupation.
The same is true of his cityscapes as a whole. Contrary to the faint praise that would pigeon hole him as a documentary painter, none of these smoky scenes is realistic. Everywhere he went he sketched, in a sketch book or on any scrap of paper that came to hand. But he never sat with his easel in front of one particular aggregation of mills and chimneys to set it down. As he explained, he used what he had sketched as raw material for what he termed his “dreamscapes”: realistic enough to convince plodding critics and curators that these were literal depictions of real landscapes, but in fact quite other than that, with preposterously large aggregations of factory buildings, with chimneys stretching to the horizon, in one case with the cooling towers of a nuclear power station surrealistically installed in the heart of a town. Lowry was fascinated by surrealism, sometimes referring to himself jokingly as “Salvador Lowry”. And in his sly, shy northern way, he was indeed a most unusual English surrealist, happy and amused (though also at times no doubt maddened and tormented) to be dismissed as “the man who painted industrial Britain.”
The reason people were able to make that mistake, despite the glaring fact that his cityscapes are not realistic at all, was that, as with his minimal, dabbed human (and canine) figures, these dense urban aggregations do catch and incarnate something real and alive: they belong to dream but not to fantasy; they succeed in inhabiting both the reality we stare at dully from the tram window and the frightful dream that scares us awake. Nobody else did that. Nobody else even tried.
Salford has become a monument to Laurie Lowry, while at the same time doing everything in its power to erase all traces of the landscape he made famous. The smart new Metrolink tram from central Manchester passes the Matchstick Man pub before arriving at Media Centre UK; a few steps away across the Manchester Ship Canal is the wildly over-expressive Lowry Centre, its porch like an outsize cattle trough, competing in already somewhat dated ostentation with the nearby Imperial War Museum North. Across from The Lowry is a shopping centre called the Lowry Outlet Mall. And so it goes on. Near Salford Central station is the Lowry Fish Bar. Opposite the house in Pendlebury which Elizabeth so hated is Lowry Drive; behind stands the city’s last remaining red brick mill, formerly Newton Mill, now re-christened Lowry Mill, offering “refurbished office space” in this “truly remarkable mill conversion.” Probably more to Lowry’s taste – he was known to cry with laughter at the antics of music hall comics – is the sign stuck up in the unimproved cobbled alley behind the mill: “DANGER: if you must enter these premises uninvited will you please remove your dentures as our dogs find them difficult to digest.”
Manchester may both idolise and trivialise its most celebrated artist, but at least The Lowry complex, alongside its plays and musicals, offers a permanent and rotating (though rather small) exhibition of the man’s work, and actively lobbies on behalf of his reputation. Michael Simpson, head of galleries at the Centre, tells me that it was the Lowry that made the first approaches to the Tate. “The Lowry started talking to the Tate five years ago, the first conversations came from us,” he tells me. “The show at the Tate will be a key moment for Lowry. He is hugely popular with a lot of people but hasn’t managed to get accepted by the art establishment. As an artist whose work appears on a thousand chocolate boxes, he’s completely outside the accepted trajectory of British art. The easiest thing is to box him off as a popular artist whose work doesn’t have much to say to us. The Tate exhibition is designed to rectify that, which is why it is good that they have found such eminent academic curators: Lowry needs to be laid bare, to be tested. That debate will now happen.”
One of the many misconceptions about Lowry is that he was a naïve, untrained painter. Yet although turned down by the local art school, he studied drawing and painting part time for many years, life study in particular. Most crucially, he studied for a time with an obscure French impressionist called Adolphe Valette, known to his witty Manchester students as Mr Monsieur. Valette, , who taught life drawing at the Manchester School of Art where Lowry was a student, was the first artist to turn his attention to the wet, gritty, smoggy, metropolis in which he had landed. Lowry was loth to admit Valette’s influence but Michael Howard is in no doubt about. “The most significant shaping factor on Lowry’s style was undoubtedly…Valette,” he writes in his monograph “Lowry: a Visionary Artist”. “His shift from traditional Corot-like landscapes…could only have come through his assimilation and reinvention of Valette’s paintings.”
The curators of the Tate Britain exhibition reach the same conclusion. “The show,” says the Tate, “aims to reveal what Lowry learned from the strange symbolist townscapes of his French-born teacher…and demonstrates important parallels with late 19th and early 20th century French painting.”
Lowry’s pride, and perhaps also his lack of self-confidence, led him to disavow any continental influence, thereby making it easier for him to be seen subsequently as a solitary provincial eccentric. But thanks to Valette, and thanks to Lowry’s Pendlebury epiphany, he became the first British artist to devote his sustained attention to the city and the meaning of the city – and because this was already a French preoccupation, he was picked up by Parisian galleries and collectors long before London showed any interest in him.
As Michael Simpson puts it, “He was accepted in Paris because they French artists, unlike English ones, were interested in modern life.” Yet with Lowry’s relegation by British critical watchdogs to the ranks of the popular and provincial, his international reputation failed to develop; Simpson recalls how he recently saw with excitement that Christie’s had sold a Lowry to an “overseas” buyer – only to learn that it was going no further than Jersey.
Lowry painted many other subjects besides the cityscapes of the industrial north. Perhaps under the inducement of his mother, who refused to have those pictures in the living room – “it’s bad enough living here without you bringing it home,” she used to moan – he painted vivid scenes of sailing boats and bathers in Lytham St Anne’s, where they went on holiday. In his later years he turned away from the city to paint vast empty green rural landscapes and equally empty, turbulent seascapes. He made funny and disturbing drawings of the grotesque figures who had often been found in his urban crowds, and erotic drawings of busty, puppet-like young women which were only discovered after his death.
But if Lowry is ever to get onto the international map, it is with his paintings of the industrial city that he will do so. Places like this were unknown until Britain invented them. It was to Manchester that Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, came to study the appalling conditions in which the working class lived, predicting from his observations “the grim future of capitalism and the industrial age.”
Lowry recorded all that, unflinchingly, but he also saw how humanity survived in these grim streets; how, despite poverty and deracination and the death of nature, the humanity of these people was irrepressible, erupting in fights and larks and processions as well as in the rituals of football matches and Whit Sunday. We gave the world the industrial poison; here’s the antidote.
published in The Independent on Sunday, 21 April 2013
The bizarre spectacle of the man who once bestrode Pakistan fleeing from an Islamabad court room before being arrested and locked up was of a piece with the rest of Pervez Musharraf’s career. Gifted, courageous and strong willed, he has made a habit of riding his luck too hard and too far, until fortune collapsed into disaster.
In Pakistan’s incessant game of chicken between politicians and the army, he was promoted to Chief of Army Staff because it was thought he was the one general who would never stage a coup. He was seen as a man with no political connections or axe to grind, merely a tough former commando, a hands-on soldier. Another reason was because he was a mohajir, a Muslim born in what is now India under the Raj who emigrated to the Muslim majority areas with his family in the chaos of Partition, a stigmatised and discriminated-against minority within the new Islamic Republic.
But the man who gave him the top job, prime minister Nawaz Sharif, fatally misread and under-estimated him. General Musharraf was a turbulent and mischief-making head of the army, who refused to go along with his civilian boss’s attempts to mend fences with India. While Nawaz was grinning his way through border diplomacy with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee, Musharraf was plotting war, and bounced Pakistan into a wildly ambitious attempt to wrest possession of Indian Kashmir.
The Kargil mountain war in the summer of 1999, the first Indo-Pakistan conflict for 28 years, saw the two bitterly antagonistic nuclear-armed neighbours come to the brink of all-out war. It ended when the US forced Nawaz into a humiliating climb-down. It was the first of many demonstrations of Musharraf’s recklessness and lack of judgement.
The coup d’etat the same year that saw him drive Nawaz into exile and seize power came out of the blue, but few Pakistanis shed tears for the departure of their incompetent elected leader. Military power grabs have been so frequent in Pakistani history that there was neither surprise nor shock at this latest one. I covered it for The Independent and I recall the eerie quietness of Islamabad after the event, the streets empty both of soldiers and civilians and a sense almost of general relief that the other shoe had dropped.
What sort of man was Pakistan’s new generalissimo? The architect of the Kargil fiasco now tried to re-invent himself as a grinning, secular family man, Pakistan’s ‘Chief Executive’, photographed with his fragrant wife and the family lapdog at home, where it was widely rumoured that (like many upper-class Pakistanis) he was not at all averse to a drop of whisky. Pervez Musharraf once again demonstrated what a poor reader he was of his situation, creating an image that baffled and alienated devout Pakistanis while failing to win over the outside world, which refused to see him as anything but another Pakistani usurper.
Surrounded by flatterers and subordinates, Musharraf was already, it seems, dreaming of converting his brute military power into popular celebrity and a landslide election victory. It is a fantastic dream that has possessed him ever since. It is the infatuation of a man of extraordinary vanity.
In the mean time, however he found himself in a mine field, with India which hated and feared him on one side and Islamist militants growing ever more resentful on the other, as he tried to rein them in. When I interviewed him in June 2002 he had survived more than one assassination attempt and was said to be forced to remain in his small, well-guarded corner of Rawalpindi simply to stay alive. He denied it robustly. “That’s absolutely untrue,” he said, “I move in accordance with my plan of movement, in accordance with what I want to do…I keep going around here in ‘Pindi and Islamabad, I go and have a coffee in Marriott or PC [Pearl Continental Hotel]. I’m moving very comfortably around.” The idea that taking coffee in Islamabad’s poshest hotels was a way of rubbing shoulders with the real Pakistan shows what kind of a bubble the Pakistani elite inhabited, Musharraf included.
The terror attacks against the US in 2001 made Musharraf’s position exquisitely difficult, as he attempted to persuade President Bush that he was a reliable ally against al-Qaeda while hanging onto the loyalty of the military and the support of ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom were convinced that 9/11 was an Israeli plot. The only solution was to be very economical with the truth – by denying that Pakistani still supported the Taliban and promoted terrorist attacks in Indian Kashmir. Perhaps it was the smoothness with which he carried off such lies that convinced Musharraf that he was a natural-born democrat.
When the Supreme Court insisted in 2002 that elections must be held, Musharraf took off his uniform and attempted to re-make himself as a politician, wearing gleaming starched sherwani jackets and turbans and addressing thousands of bussed-in farmers at election rallies.
But although a party that supported him won the general election he called in October 2002, Musharraf has never enjoyed mass support: rallies in Islambad boosting his candidacy drew pitifully small crowds. Yet such was his vanity that the penny never dropped.
He served as President until 2007, then to hang on to power declared a state of emergency, sending troops into the Supreme Court to arrest the judges and seizing control of the mass media. But this latest manifestation of his attempt to have it both ways – to pose as a democrat until things went awry then to show the iron fist – was his undoing. In 2008 he was forced to stand down under threat of impeachment and went into exile in London.
His return to Pakistan last month in the hope of regaining the Presidency was the most Quixotic episode yet in his long and strange career. The idea that he might out-Benazir the Bhuttos in terms of popular support was deranged. “Musharraf evidently overestimated his popularity,” commented Raza Rumi, a political analyst. “There are certainly people in urban Pakistan who think that things were better under his tenure, but the majority do not find him a credible leader. He ruled on the strength of his uniform. Now that uniform has gone, and Pakistan has changed.” By humiliating and incarcerating Pakistan’s most senior judges Musharraf had made powerful enemies, and he lacked the mass support that might have enabled him to browbeat them into submission. At the age of 69, his swaggering days are done.
World View column in The Independent, 26 April 2013
China has long been serenely confident of its centrality, and this will be bolstered even further by the news that Stephen Schwarzman, an American billionaire, has set up a $300 million scholarship scheme for students from all over the world to study in the country.
The scheme will be based at Shanghai’s elite Tsinghua University, alma mater both of the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his predecessor. Designed to rival and perhaps eclipse the Rhodes Scholarships that sent the likes of Bill Clinton to Oxford, it will bring 200 students from around the world for a one-year master’s programme, all expenses paid.
But what might the Schwarzman Scholars actually learn? What does China, in its present mighty manifestation, have to teach us?
‘Uses of a redundant ideology’ would be one fascinating module. Besides Deng Xiaoping’s pithy “to get rich is glorious”, is there a more inflected explanation of how the class struggle culminated in the re-establishment of the Chinese bourgeoisie, this time around as the clients of the Communist Party? And if so, could it be taught in Shanghai without both teachers and students risking imprisonment?
Other items on the syllabus might include:
Managing minorities: the Chinese approach to Tibet seems to be closely based on how the Americans dealt with their Indians, but the American pioneers could at least claim that they were strangers in a strange land, and that some of the Redskins were armed and dangerous. The Tibetans and the Chinese, by contrast, have been neighbours for millennia, and while Tibetans did once, very long ago, invade Han China, Tibet was for several centuries a sort of guru country to China, the role it once played for Mongolia, too. Nor are Tibetans renowned for their aggression: the Chinese have difficulty persuading the outside world that self-immolation – more than 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight in the past four years – is a terrorist act.
China’s Tibet policy is pitiless, relentless and apparently unstoppable, so for any students wishing to acquire those attributes it would surely repay close study.
Futurism, Chinese-style: the Chinese have always taken a far longer view than the rest of us, thanks to extreme venerable age of their civilisation. So what do the modern Chinese sages see when they gaze into their crystal balls? Once they have dammed every river, covered the countryside with new cities and airports; once the one-child policy has borne its final fruit in a population where the aged vastly outnumber those of working age; and once the few, or few hundred million, young people that remain prefer swanning around Beijing’s chic Sanlitun Road in their Maseratis to assembling i-pads at Foxconn – then what? Where will China go from there?
Foreign policy: the point of foreign countries is to bring tribute to the central kingdom. If they don’t do that, they might as well not exist. That, in a nutshell, has long been China’s view of foreign affairs. The question everyone wants to know, from President Obama down, is whether, with the creation of a so-called “string of pearls” – a network of hospitable ports - in the Indian Ocean, with the on-going spats over the Spratly and Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and with the rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy, that ancient and largely passive posture is set to change. Everyone hopes not.
But undoubtedly the most useful lesson China has to teach is enshrined in the Schwarzman scholarship itself. It is said to represent one of the biggest single educational endowments in the world, and one of the biggest philanthropic gestures China has ever received. While Mr Schwarzman is giving $100 million of his own money, other big donors include Boeing, Caterpillar, the bulldozer people, JP Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse Banks, BP, and the personal foundation of Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York. The scholarship’s advisory board includes Henry Kissinger and the ubiquitous, if not-yet-knighted, Tony Blair.
None of these people or institutions is known for chucking money around carelessly. All have or desire a stake in China’s future, and know how to go about getting it. In the old days, excellent presents and the kow-tow were required to obtain the Emperor’s attention. Today $300 million will probably suffice.
Terrible news from Italy: that old fox Berlusconi has done it again. He may have failed to get elected either as President or Pope, but the deal stitched up this week between his party and the centre-left Democratic Party ensures that he will continue to bulk large in Italian politics, at least for as long as the new government survives. He will be there, as he has been ever since his debut in 1994, to protect his and his family’s and his companies’ interests, and those of the tax-dodging, state-hating business world in general, and to continue his long and remarkably successful campaign to stay out of jail.
He will also be better poised than ever to quietly and charmingly eviscerate what remains of Italian social democracy, which he calls Communism. Cutting deals with Berlusconi has been the fatal temptation of the left for 15 years and more; Massimo D’Alema was the first to succumb, flunking the opportunity to pass a conflict-of-interest law as the price of his friendship with the Cavalier. It will be argued that Italy’s gaping governmental vacuum had to be filled with something. But never have comedian Beppe Grillo’s warnings about the stink of corruption from the ancien regime seemed more apposite.
published in The Independent, Monday 22 April 2013
The anti-Rohingya violence in Burma last October was not a spontaneous eruption of communal rage but a carefully planned and coordinated assault, involving Buddhist monks, Burmese security forces, Arakan nationalists and the general public, according to a major report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, which entailed interviews with more than 100 people on both sides and visits to all the major camps where displaced Muslims are living, concludes that there was compelling evidence of official involvement. “The absence of accountability against those to blame lends credence to allegations that this was a government-appointed campaign of ethnic cleansing in which crimes against humanity were committed,” the authors write.
This week the European Union is due to eliminate all the trade and economic sanctions on Burma – except the arms embargo – which were suspended one year ago. But in light of the report’s findings, David Mepham of HRW in London told The Independent, “Lifting all the sanctions on Burma is premature and unjustified. European governments are relinquishing their leverage over Burma when concerted pressure is most needed to investigate anti-Muslim violence and crimes against humanity.”
The spark for the violence in the far west of Burma last June was the rape and murder of a 28-year-old Arakanese Buddhist woman by three Muslims. Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims that have simmered and periodically erupted for generations quickly exploded in an orgy of violence in which lives and homes on both sides were destroyed.
But when violence returned in October 2012, it was in the form of simultaneous attacks on Muslim communities in nine of Arakan’s 21 townships. “On 22 October,” says the report, entitled “All You Can Do Is Pray”, “after months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing, Arakanese mobs attacked Muslim communities in nine townships, razing villages and killing residents while security forces stood aside or assisted the assailants. Some of the dead were buried in mass graves, further impeding accountability.”
In July President Thein Sein, the former general who was building a reputation as a democratically-minded reformer, had appeared to approve the plan to expel Rohingyas from Burma. “We will take care of our own nationalities,” he said, “but Rohingyas who came to Burma illegally are not of our nationalities and we cannot accept them here…They can be settled in refugee camps…If there are countries that would accept them, they could be sent there.” That proposal was echoed in crude pamphlets distributed in the state. Once of them was baldly headed, “Arakan Ethnic Cleansing Program of bad pagan Bengalis…taking advantage of our kindness to them.”
HRW documents other attempts during the summer of 2012 to inflame the fear and hatred of the majority community against the Muslim minority, while security forces demolished mosques and homes abandoned during the June violence, making the return of the Muslims to the areas where they had previously lived problematic.
Then on 22 October came the coordinated assault. “Carrying machetes, swords, spears, home-made guns, Molotov cocktails and other weapons, sizeable groups of Arakanese men simultaneously descended on Muslim villages in several townships in a coordinated fashion,” the report describes. “Far from being a brief flash of violence, the carnage lasted over a week in nine of the state’s 17 townships….Most of these areas had not experienced violence in June.”
In perhaps the worst case, in Yan Thei village in the township of Mrauk-u, Arakan’s historic capital, the day-long massacre led to the deaths of 70 Rohingyas of whom 28 were children, 13 of them under the age of five.
The upshot of the violence today is that, with the rainy season about to descend, around 120,000 Rohingyas are living in hastily improvised camps around the state, barred from returning to their homes or to go anywhere else. Many of the most desperate have fled: the United Nations refugee agency estimates that some 13,000 people, including Rohingyas and Bangladeshi nationals, took to the Bay of Bengal in flimsy boats during 2012.
After October’s murderous attacks, President Thein Sein softened his rhetoric. In a letter to the UN Secretary-General last November he promised that “once emotions subside on all sides” his government was prepared to “address contentious political dimensions ranging from resettling of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But suspicion that this more emollient tone was aimed at the ears of President Obama on the eve of his historic visit to Burma in November were heightened when the Foreign Ministry released a tough statement the following month, referring to them as “so-called Rohingyas” and “Bengalis” and denying that the government had played any part in the attacks on them.
INSIDE ARAKAN STATE: comment by Peter Popham
Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state, is little more than a sleepy, dusty, overgrown village. Time appears to have stopped not long after the British left in 1948. Opposite the town’s golden zeydi, its Buddhist stupa, are the green-painted ruins of a mosque, but today there are few other obvious signs of last year’s violence. The great bulk of the town’s Muslim population has been banished to the outskirts: a long line of fishermen’s shacks, succeeded by a sprawling camp where 7,000 men, women and children live under canvas. Army roadblocks hem them in, but a bazaar has sprung up selling provisions of every sort. Life in the camp is basic, but the population is not being starved.
Seen from afar, the violence in Arakan was shocking and incomprehensible. Up close it remains shocking, but one begins to understand what lay behind it.
As in other border areas, there is longstanding resentment at the dominant position of Burma’s largest ethnic group, the Burmans. The Arakanese nationalists who now control the state parliament look back nostalgically to the years before 1824 when the Burmans conquered the state, and dream of independence. During the half-century of military rule, the generals knew they were hated, and deliberately kept Arakan in a primitive state of development in response. Meanwhile the population of impoverished Rohingyas, many of whom came in during the British time, grew rapidly, threatening the numerical superiority of the Buddhists.
This was the local variant of the game the junta played on other borders, keeping estranged local populations poor, anxious and paranoid about the future and the military’s intentions. Elsewhere the result was bitter civil war; here it was the twin fears, as one local nationalist put it to me, of Burmanisation and Islamisation, which resulted in frequent attacks on the Rohingyas over the years. In 1977 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh; repulsed there, 12,000 of them starved to death.
Last year’s violence was particularly widespread and atrocious because Arakan state, like the rest of Burma, is at a very challenging moment. 2010’s elections put 45 Arakanese nationalists in the state parliament, and the lifting of censorship allows them to publish any vile propaganda they choose, whipping up the chauvinistic feelings of a badly educated majority population which is just as poor as it was under military rule. With 2015’s general elections in view, the local nationalists and the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are in a race to the bottom to harness local chauvinistic emotion. The startling rise of militant Islam in neighbouring Bangladesh, with which Arakan shares a long border, only heightens the mood of paranoid hysteria, making it easier to stigmatise local Muslims as “terrorists”. The Rohingya, as ever, are the fall guys.
The West needs to maintain pressure on Thein Sein to reject chauvinism and seek an inclusive solution. But his vice-president Sai Mauk Kham probably hit the nail on the head when he said, “Only when the socio-economic life of both sides [has] improved can the two societies stay together.”