Global overreach of domestic conflict

Racial and religious conflict is at an ebb: Let’s keep it that way


Yes Mano! You’ll have to get down to civic education

by Kumar David

This piece is not centred on the UNHRC resolution cum hybrid war-crimes tribunal nor is it about the Paranagama and Udalagama Reports. Readers have had saturation coverage on these. This article deals with ethnic (an umbrella term for race, religion and language) conflict and war in other parts of the world, principally the Middle East and notes that the relative quiescence in Lanka should not lull us into naive complacency or insensitivity that could aggravate the return of conflict. I say up front and will not repeat it, but implicit in this article is the demand that ethno-haters such as Wimal and the BBS be dealt with firmly if and when they incite violence. The Ranil-Sirisena government must not repeat the criminality of SWRD and JR whose slackness, or in truth calculated inaction in refusing to put down hoodlums at the first sign of trouble, encouraged widespread carnage. Let’s call a spade a spade; SWRD and JR are culpable of opening the door to ethnic bloodshed.

The thesis in this essay is in three parts: (i) Poverty and agony (eg. war torn Syria and Iraq) in the ‘poor-world’ breed ethnic confrontation. (ii) Poor countries in particular are fractured into hostile religious and racial segments – Sunni-Shia, Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim, European-Slav, Han-Uyghur and more, embroiled in localised conflicts. (iii) It is entirely, absolutely (find more adverbs if you can) inevitable that, either for humanitarian reasons or in pursuit of their own gains, global and regional actors will be drawn into such conflicts; thereafter the trumps are in the hands of the big players.

From 1948 to 2015 we failed to sort out these concerns within our own spaces, so India, the West and UNHRC became involved. Eventually they dictated terms. If now we fail to conduct rigorous investigations via the domestic (or hybrid, I don’t care what it is called) mechanism, then prosecute and finally punish the guilty, hostility with the Tamils will resume, will grow and foreign intervention will resume. Make no mistake; the domestic mechanism does not mean culprits are off the hook. Quite the contrary, it means that Lanka has a last chance to identify perpetrators and hang them with a local rope; otherwise the crisis will go global again.

This country has experience of regional and international interventions from the 1987 Indo-Lanka Agreement, then a global pariah status and now to this domestic/hybrid tribunal; but the degree of such intervention has not been as profound as the Balkans (ex-Yugoslavia) from 1990 to the de facto secession of Kosovo in 2008, or what is now happening in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and parts of Turkey). Though the term Levant (from the French for ‘rising’, that is the east) also includes Palestine cum Israel and Jordan, this essay, which focuses on the intervention of foreign actors in the current war in the Middle East, pays no attention to these three.

Russia: Putin’s game plan

In the hey-day of the Soviet Union Moscow was a great power in the Middle East whose writ extended from Nasser’s Egypt through Baathist Syria and Iraq, Kurdish regions in Turkey’s east and south, to Afghanistan after 1980. That’s all gone. De facto neutralisation of Iran, the most important nation in the Middle East in 1979, played to the advantage of the Soviets; but Ayatollahs are sworn enemies of godless communists, so the gain was minimal. Afghanistan seemed at first to be a gain - I remember the NSSP rejecting my assessments early in 1980 and making ludicrously wrong judgements – but it was the graveyard of the Soviet military. In line with the theses underwriting this essay the CIA did its bit to bury the Soviet military.

Putin’s game plan is to restore a degree of Russian influence in this region and he has caught Obama and the West with their pants down. But let us inquire; what is primary in this theatre, foreign intervention or sectarian conflict? Did internal distemper open the door to foreign involvement or is great power rivalry the primary cause of conflict. At first sight moron Bush’s invasion seems the origin of it all, and there is merit to that view, but the actual roots of conflict are much older hostilities involving Sunni Arabs, the Shia, Kurds Christian and Moslem, Alawis (Bashar al-Assad’s Shia sect) and the Turks, a people of Central Asian origin. Yes, dynamite waiting to be lit; but the idiocy of George W Bush was that he prematurely lit the fuse prior to Iraq’s anti Saddam Hussein revolution which was coming to fruition and explosion of the Shia majority versus Sunni minority (Saddam was a ruthless reviled Sunni) powder-keg that would then light up.

Putin’s advantage is that he is intervening on behalf and at the invitation of the ‘legitimate’ government which sits in the UN and is recognised by most countries including Lanka. America and its allies are hamstrung in their intervention on behalf of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because no one recognises FSA as the legitimate government; they are ‘good guys’ struggling against a homicidal dictator. The US, Russia and the key regional power Iran, have Islamic State (IS) in their sights as a common enemy, but Russia in addition liberally targets FSA much to Assad’s delight. The US cannot hit Assad’s military assets without a Security Council resolution; that would be an act of war with all sorts of complications. Things could get worse; Putin could commit ground troops to Syria without concerns of legitimacy at the invitation of the Syrian government in the certainty that he will not come up against American forces. He is unlikely to send ground troops into this quagmire because of the bloody nose the Soviets suffered in Afghanistan but Iran has a military presence in both Syria and Iraq. But who knows the long run; the stakes are high for Russia and Iran if they emerge as the heroes who vanquished IS, the likely endgame seems to be a political solution in which Assad survives at least transitionally, Russia recovers its lost position in the region, and Iran graduates as regional kingmaker. For the West, not a nice picture of changing global balances.

What about the people?

While this drama is played out among the gods what of the people? Refugee flow into Turkey and thence to Europe is the tip of an iceberg; millions have been bombed out of homes and cities and forced into mud and squalor or refugee camps abroad. The world is so interconnected that the refugee flood has become Europe’s biggest crisis in 25 years. At the same time IS, a Sunni extremist semi-loony outfit, is gaining popularity among Sunni radicals for reasons traceable to items (i) and (ii) of my three point thesis. IS will not disappear quickly though it will be exterminated eventually as it is fanatical, irrational and psychopathic. In the meantime, calamity upon calamity is descending on all the peoples of the region. The restructuring of power between the West, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States may be resolved during a putative Hilary Clinton presidency, but internal tragedy will persist much longer.

In the Ukraine too the root was confrontation between Russian speaking Crimea cum two provinces in eastern Ukraine and the rest of the country; again ethnic conflict, this time in the shape of language driven fratricide. Moscow’s fret and fear was that NATO was (how foolish the West has been) creeping right up to its borders. At some point in the future Moscow and Kiev will reach a deal, Western sanctions will be lifted and NATO will promise guarantees. That side of the matter will fade from the headlines; the internal agony of the Ukraine will persist.

I could go on with the complex story of Iraq where a marginalised Sunni minority sees IS as its saviour. The Shiite state in Baghdad has support and troops from Shiite Iran but the only effective force in the country are Peshmerga fighters of the northern Kurdish minority Province. The Kurds are an effective force against IS in Iraq and Syria and there is no love lost between them and Assad; the Turks too want to see an end to IS and Assad; but Turkey abhors Kurds, has treated them abominably for generations and is now locked in civil-war against Kurdish movements within Turkey. Sunni-Shia-Kurdish-Turkish, can you see your way through this maze? Where will this mad sectarianism end? Libya defies description; west-central Africa including Nigeria is a new twist – converted Muslim extremists versus more recently converted Christians. International intervention in this part of Africa is still minimal because no great power has a loaded agenda in these sub-Saharan desserts or in Ebola affected tropical rain forests along the river Niger.

It does not need a magic wand to prevent such disasters in Lanka, only common sense and firmness; the two go together. If the government is firm people will support accommodation. People will come out and speak up. I have written before of the need for a concerted plan of action and it bears repetition. Public awareness has to be raised. Chasing out racist mobs without completing the task of raising understanding is like taking aspirin without curing the root of an ailment. Civil society and government must together evolve a programme of sustained civic action and education to teach pluralism, ethnic and religious tolerance, recognition of minority status and a bold commitment to justice. Appropriate government ministries, including Mano Ganesan’s I guess, have to gird up their loins and shoulder the responsibility. Schools and religious bodies must be drawn in, civil society energised. Mano’s predecessor Vasudeva achieved little of note in this respect; how could he, it would have meant flying in the face of the Rajapaksa ethos. A civic action and education programme will cost less than one-tenth of one percent of budgeted government expenditure. A large increase in the education budget has been promised; a small portion could be set aside for two or three years to get this done. All this is doable; the shortfall is political vision and leadership will.


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