Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Plight of Myanmar's Rohingya People

In recent years, Myanmar has begun to open up and embark on a laudable path towards democracy. Despite this trajectory, however, another disturbing narrative exists which is increasingly coming to the world’s attention. The plight of the Muslim minority Rohingya people is one of systematic repression teetering on genocide. In 1982 a law was passed denying citizenship to the Rohingya people, who now live in camps or cordoned off villages. Widespread hostility towards the Rohingya and government repression of the group threatens to escalate to systematic violence if relations deteriorate.

Widespread prejudices persist against the Rohingya, who are seen as foreigners by the Buddhist majority. Many believe the Rohingya to be interlopers from Bangladesh who followed British troops into Myanmar in the 1800s. This notion legitimizes those continuing to deny the Rohingya people citizenship and equal rights. The Rohingya are a small minority group, yet are not recognized as one of Myanmar’s 134 ethnic groups. The danger for these people is that continuing anti-Rohingya sentiments in the population could lead to a genocide. There have already been instances of anti-Rohingya violence which have resulted in dozens of deaths.

Myanmar, with its Buddhist majority, comprised part of British India bordering Muslim-majority Bangladesh. People moved fluidly within the common imperial political structure, but the establishment of modern borders caused many groups to be isolated from one another. Today, the danger for the Rohingya is that their perceived status as outsiders and parasites on Burmese society leads to similar rhetoric found in areas ravished by genocide.

For instance, in Rwanda, Tutsis were often labelled foreigners in the country, brought in by imperial powers and lacking legitimate historical or social ties to Rwanda. Such rhetoric facilitated the Rwandan genocide as Tutsis were easily portrayed as sub-human outsiders. Similarly the mass slaughter of Muslim Bosnians at Srebrenica in 1995 was facilitated by views of Muslims as foreign, relics of Ottoman imperial control over the Balkans, and therefore legitimate targets.

The situation in Myanmar is more akin to Bosnia than Rwanda due to the fact that identities are constructed around ethno-religious ties. However, the Rohingya’s plight is also unique because, despite the ethnic pluralism in the country, the Rohingya remain non-citizens due to Buddhists’ fears about Muslim influence on Burmese culture and society. In this case, religious strife – already a dangerous factor – has been linked to ethnic identities, as most Muslims in Myanmar are Rohingya. Whereas religious identity is fluid, ethnic identity is permanent, and herein lies the greatest threat to the Rohingya.

By conflating the two identities Burmese Buddhists come to view the Rohingya as not only different in degree, but also in kind. Their otherness is in turn fundamentally tied to their very existence as people, which denies the possibility of change or compromise, for how can one compromise elements at the very defining core of one’s being? Historically when large segments of society reach this conclusion about a minority, the potential for ethnic cleansing and genocide drastically increases. The international community is beholden to ensure such actions do not transpire in Myanmar.

This piece was originally written for STAND Canada

Friday, 14 November 2014

Managing Emissions from the Middle Kingdom to the Midwest: The China-U.S. Climate Deal

An important step in countering global climate change was reached this week as China and the United States agreed to cooperate on reducing emissions. Beijing and Washington are the two largest polluters, which magnifies the importance of the aforementioned deal. Previous efforts to cut emissions have been stymied by alternating Chinese or American intransigence, yet this latest bilateral pact appears promising. Specifically, China has pledged to see its emissions peak around 2030, thereafter declining, as well as committing itself to generating twenty percent of its energy from renewable sources. The United States promised to reduce emissions between twenty-six and twenty-eight percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

The scale of these promises has caused many to both laud and critique the deal, with proponents stressing the progressive scope of these bilateral commitments, and skeptics arguing that either more can be done, or that the stated goals are not enforceable. Li Shuo, a researcher for Greenpeace East Asia voiced his approval of the plan, yet called on both countries to do more, stating that the China-U.S. deal “should be the floor on which [both countries] work, rather than a ceiling.” Furthermore, while both Xi Jinping and President Obama have praised the deal, local politicians in both countries have raised concerns.

Xi Jinping & Obama in Beijing
Image Credit:

In America, the newly emboldened Republican opposition is concerned over the perceived untrustworthy nature of Chinese government. Republicans argue that Beijing cannot be trusted to fulfill its half of the bargain, and that American efforts to reduce emissions would merely hurt the economy. This view is not entirely unjustified, as recently the Chinese government blocked U.S. embassy Beijing air pollution data from popular websites and apps used by many Chinese in the polluted metropolis. The exclusion of American data forces the populace to rely solely on official Chinese data, seen as less accurate and often displaying lower pollution levels. This data blockage coincided with the signing of the emissions deal, and can be seen as part of China's efforts to showcase Beijing in a good light whenever the international spotlight is focused on the national capital.

Republicans are also concerned about the impact of the deal on the U.S. economy. House Speaker John Boehner characterized the China-U.S. emissions deal as “jobs crushing”. Similarly, incoming Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell expressed doubts over the pact. McConnell represents Kentucky, a coal rich state, and successfully campaigned for re-election as an opponent of Obama's supposed “war on coal”. Moreover, Senator Jim Inhofe, the incoming chairman of the Senate committee on the environment and public works is a professed climate change denier. Inhofe has also stated that “it's hollow and unbelievable for China to claim it will shift twenty percent of its energy to non-fossil fuels by 2030.”

It is interesting to note that while American politicians view GDP growth and jobs as inexorably linked, recently Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stated that “China cares more about jobs and livelihoods than the GDP target.” While the reality in China is more complex than this, this statement remains important because it disconnects notions of well-being from economic growth. While hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty by Beijing's economic policies, there is growing dissatisfaction over pollution related issues. The Chinese government is highly pragmatic and intent on maintaining stability; citizen unrest due to pollution is taken seriously by Beijing.

Congressional Leaders: John Boehner (left) and Mitch McConnell
Image Credit:

In China many regional and provincial leaders are also worried that the emphasis on the environment will impact GDP growth. Given the single party nature of the Chinese system and the stated acknowledgment by the central government of the problem of pollution, Chinese politicians do not espouse anti-climate change views. In China the concern amongst Chinese officials is due to the fact that efforts to reduce emissions slow down GDP growth. This is particularly important because the promotion prospects of regional and provincial officials are highly tied to meeting GDP growth figures. While Beijing may want to lessen emissions it still overwhelmingly grades officials on economic matters: local bureaucrats are caught in the middle.

While China hawks like Sen. Inhofe put little stock in Chinese promises, it is important to note the actions which Beijing is taking to counter pollution. In 2013 China generated 9.8% of its energy through renewable means, with non-fossil fuel energy production slated for 15% by 2020. Moreover Shandong province is adding air quality as a criterion to the evaluation process of local officials. Similarly Gansu province is reassessing its evaluation process to focus less on economic expansion. The central government is keenly aware of the costs associated with unchecked growth. Since 2004 China has funded the Green GDP project which tracks the impact of environmental damage on national growth. A 2006 report showed that 338,000 premature deaths across 600 cities were attributable to pollution. The project has tracked the environmental cost of development, which stood at $83.51 billion in 2004 and $251.21 billion in 2010, or 3.5% of GDP.

Image Credit: Alicia Parlapiano

Despite the misgivings of domestic politicians, individuals at the federal level in both China and the United States are seeking to move closer on climate issues. According to Sun Zhe, head of the Centre for U.S.-China Relations at Tsinghua University, “the bilateral relationship is mature enough that we understand even if we don't have political trust for another five to ten years, we need to live and work together. That's a new way of thinking by Chinese leaders.” Similarily, it is important for American leaders to realize that they cannot continue to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they refuse to implement policy because they prematurely accuse others of non-fulfillment. This merely dissuades China of the opinion that America is a credible partner, thereby leading Beijing to not participate in initial bilateral proposals. This in turn only retroactively validates the aforementioned obstructionists.

Congressional resistance to the climate deal has important repercussions because it undermines Chinese efforts to style itself as a responsible partner in Asia. The Chinese government certainly considers the deal important, with Xinhua quoting Frederic Hauge, (president of Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian think tank) claiming that “probably this is greater than the Kyoto Protocol.” For the Chinese this statement has a double meaning. The explicit message is that this new deal could overshadow the oft cited Kyoto Protocol, demonstrating the importance of dealing with China. The second message is that by overshadowing Kyoto, China is overshadowing the accomplishments of Japan, long an environmental advocate and touchstone for the U.S. when Washington wishes to deal with Asia.

The environmental front offers an opportunity for Beijing to present a positive image of itself and increase its profile in the West. By championing environmentalism the government can make an effort to make itself more accountable, diffuse popular unrest, and score points with the West without touching on human rights issues. China-hawks in Congress claim China is not accountable, yet by blocking environmental legislation, the same people are blocking a means for Chinese civil society to foster accountability and citizen participation in domestic policy. Moreover, if China is encouraged by American actions to partake in environmental pacts, this allows Washington - given the transnational nature of pollution - a very rare opportunity to critique and influence Chinese domestic policy without allegations of foreign meddling.

An abridged version of this article was written for Sharnoff's Global Views

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Land of the Unsettling Sun: Japan's Slide into Revisionism under Shinzo Abe

In recent years Japan has been stepping up its efforts to break out of two decades of economic and political stagnation characterized by negligible growth, deflation, and successive short-lived governments. With the election of Shinzo Abe in 2012 the government has made a determined effort to reform the Japanese economy, as well as shift the nation's political culture. Whereas Japan has maintained a pacifist outlook since WWII, in recent years the conservative government has sought to chart a more assertive course. Japan has increased it's defense spending and procurement, and the government has made it clear it wishes to review Article Nine, the pacifist clause in Japan's post-war constitution. Abe's efforts to revitalize Japan have also seen efforts to alter the country's relation with its wartime history. The government touts the image of a strong Japan, in the process downplaying war crimes and reinforcing the notion of Japan as a victim.

Far-right revisionist views, once the purview of fringe elements, have gained legitimacy as the government either tacitly consent to, or openly espouses similar ideas in public. Recently the minister for national law enforcement - Eriko Yamatani - was photographed with a prominent member of the far-right online activist group, Zaitokukai. The government did not comment on the incident, yet such groups are often tolerated, undoubtedly because they act as proxies for the government, extolling similar revisionist views. This loose coalition of online groups, known collectively as Net Right, are drawing substantial support from younger citizens who have grown up in a stagnating Japan, unable to find previously common employment-for-life, and tired of Japan being portrayed as a villain by the United States and China (among others), when both do not acknowledge their own war crimes.

Far-right activists at the Yasukuni Shrine

In recent weeks Net Right activists have harassed a small village in northern Hokkaido where residents have, after years of research, uncovered the graves of eighty Korean laborers press-ganged into constructing a military airport in the area. The village of Sarufutsu has been inundated by calls accusing locals of being traitors following village efforts to build a monument in honour of the Koreans. Far-right activists also threatened a boycott of the local shallot industry, prompting the mayor to halt construction of the memorial.  A similar backlash saw the local government in Nagasaki delay permission for the construction of a memorial to Korean laborers killed in the atomic bomb blast. Mainstream historians estimate that some 700,000 Koreans were press-ganged into service by the Imperial military, yet the far-right denies these claims, stating that the Koreans voluntarily aided Japan.

These actions of the far-right have been legitimized because the Abe government has also embraced a similar revisionist stance. Despite recent efforts to improve relations with China, Abe still continues the tradition of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine which houses Japan's war dead, including war criminals. This year Abe sent an offering but did not attend in person; however, almost two hundred other officials attended in person. This yearly visit has led to an annual condemnation from China and South Korea, repeatedly damaging relations. Alongside the issue of Korean workers, the plight of former Korean (and other nationalities) sex-slaves, euphemistically called 'comfort-women' has been a serious issue in Japanese-Korean relations. Many thousands of women from occupied territories were forced into prostitution by the Japanese army during WWII. No official apology has ever been issued by Japan. In 2007, during Abe's first prime-ministership, he stated that there was no evidence that these women were coerced to work for the military.

Since 2012, the Abe government has made further steps to revise Japanese history. Recently the government removed a document from 1995 posted on the government website which called for compensation for former comfort women. Moreover, two months ago the government was given an unfortunate boost after the Japanese newspaper of record, Asahi Shimbun, issued a front page retraction of its series of articles about comfort women. An investigation into the sole source behind the stories – a soldier who claimed to have been involved in capturing said women – found his claims to be fabricated. This scandal greatly aided the revisionist position, whose proponents, including the government now hold aloft this incident as proof of comfort women related falsehoods. In the aftermath of this scandal, the Japanese government asked the UN to partially rescind a 1996 report on comfort women. The author refused citing the testimonies of hundreds of women, and the fact that she had not consulted the now discredited Asahi Shimbun source.

Comfot Women Memorial, Glendale California
Image Credit: Tetsuya Mizuno (AP)

While the Asahi Shimbun scandal benefited the government, the fact that the story was printed at all irks the regime. The government has been attempting to alter the way the media talks about the country's wartime legacy. Abe has filled the oversight committee of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) with like-minded individuals. An internal NHK memo shows that the corporation has been instructed not to use the words 'coerce', 'sex slaves' or 'prostitutes' when talking about comfort women. Moreover, the government has for a long time been pushing for the Nanjing Massacre (which saw the imperial army kill 50,000-300,000 people in 1937) to be referred to as the 'Nanjing Incident.'

This lingering issue is one of the chief impediments to Japanese-Korean accord, and is part of a larger Japanese refusal to officially apologize for its wartime activities in Asia. The cool state of bilateral relations is apparent in the fact that both Abe and his Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye have been office since 2012, but have yet to meet. In response to the Japanese government's actions, Noh Kwang-il, spokesperson for the South Korean Foreign Ministry stated that; “however hard the Japanese government tries to distort the true nature of the comfort women issue and play down or hide past wrongdoings, it will never be able to whitewash history."

Kishi as Prime Minister: Jan. 25th 1960
Image Credit: Time

Abe's efforts to 'whitewash' Japan's wartime history is not a new phenomenon, yet the prominence of such efforts within government policy is a new development. It is important to note that many Japanese are fully aware of their country's misdeeds, and notable Japanese academics have called for official apologies. The key to understanding the government's position on WWII is the fact that following the war, the United States took a very pragmatic stance vis-à-vis Japan. The U.S. did not abolish the monarchy, even retaining Hirohito has Emperor. Furthermore many wartime bureaucrats were pardoned in order to quickly rebuild Japan as an anti-communist bulwark. Interestingly, Abe's grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a class A war crimes suspect who has briefly detained, but later released, in large part due to his anti-communist sentiments. Kishi later served as prime minister from 1957-1960.

American pragmatism in dealing with the Imperial regime was mirrored by an independent Japan post-1952 in which development and reconstruction were prioritized over societal introspection. The Japanese legacy in WWII is split into two parts, that of Japan's fight against the Americans, and Japan's campaigns on the Asian mainland, where some twenty million people died. The latter was fought out of sight of the Japanese populace, complicated by the fact that Japan's actions in (primarily) China have become a vehicle for political maneuvering, with Beijing playing the history card to discredit Japan. Over the years Japan has become tired of being asked to apologize by China, which due to its own human rights violations forfeits any moral high-ground in the eyes of the Japanese. Consequently the legitimate need for redress is buried and discredited by contemporary political machinations.

Conversely Japan's war with the United States dominates the public consciousness, because only the U.S. managed to defeat Japan: China may have eventually ousted Japan from the mainland, but could not have forced Japan to unconditional surrender. Japan remains the only nation to have been attacked by nuclear weapons, and it is this legacy that dominates the Japanese psyche. Japan is tired of being portrayed as the sole purveyor of evil in the war. Pearl Harbor is defining moment in American history and justification for all subsequent actions against Japan. The death toll from Pearl Harbor was (only) some 2400 people, almost all military personnel. 

Japan lost between 124,000-246,000 (overwhelmingly civilians) people in the two atomic bomb attacks alone; more than the U.S. lost in the whole Pacific war (approx. 111,000). Victor's justice sees these attacks written off as necessity and Japan's actions as war crimes, something which Japan strongly disagrees with. The emphasis on its war with America, and de-emphasis on actions in Asia has led to Japan conflating its sense of victim-hood vis-à-vis the Americans and its memories of empire in Asia. This has resulted in an across-the-board resistance to accusations of Japanese war crimes by powerful countries which themselves do not adequately address their own actions.

Originally written for Sharnoff's Global Views

For further reading see The Role of Historiography in Sino-Japanese Relations: The Nanjing Massacre