T154. Ethnic Conflicts

 

Ready to read another transcript?
Click here to return to the transcription home page

 

Project Save the World Podcast / Talk Show Episode Number: 154
Panelists: Paul Copeland, Martin Klein, Louis Kriesberg, and Doug Saunders
Host: Metta Spencer

Date Aired:  29 December 2020
Date Transcribed and Verified:  10 March 2021 (DM) / 28 May 2021 (AW)
Transcription: Otter.ai
Transcription Review and Edits: David Millar and Adam Wynne 

 

Martin Klein  

Well, what are you thinking about Canada?

Doug Saunders  

It’s a question that’s been on my mind. The sense I get from Canadian foreign policy,  from the foreign minister, and a lot of other places, is that they’re basically biding their time until the next US president comes into office, particularly around issues surrounding China, although, of course, also climate and things like that, which also involves China. And there’s a sense that Biden’s approach to China will be less unilateral and more of a mixture of engagement and confrontation than the purely confrontational approach of the Trump administration. But I think that the question in the air is: how do you do that? And I think Metta asked that earlier. How does a US president interact with China in a way that brings a consensus of democratic countries together around the question, avoids a second Cold War, but also wields some sticks along with the carrots to deal with the ethnic prosecutions and human rights abuses and crushing of democracy in Hong Kong?

Metta Spencer  

If, there were no human rights issues, either in Russia or China, I wouldn’t have any problem. I mean, the economic competition shouldn’t be problematic, and let them do what they please, in terms of, you know, building roads in Africa, or whatever they want to do, or, you know, a silk road across Asia. It’s the human rights thing. And I don’t have an answer to how you try to impose any kind of pressure on any country to really effectively change the human rights policy. The question of what to do about defending the Rohingya is exactly the same question is how you would take care of the Uighurs, you know, if China were not being so hard on the Uighurs and on Hong Kong,

Doug Saunders  

Are there approaches that countries like Canada and the United States should be taking, that they aren’t?

Louis Kriesberg  

I wonder if a strategy of more positive benefits from not imposing nasty human rights violation, if you’re just exhorting people to be nice and decent and we will hit you if you don’t be nice — may be counterproductive rather than winning over some idea that if you want to be progressive and have wellbeing for your people, you’re better off, allowing them to become cooperative helpmates in production. And it’s hard to coerce people to be nice. And there are mutual gains to be had. You waste energy. The Soviet Union by being so harsh on its own people, obviously was self-destructive. But I think partly, in some cases, maybe in China, they’re afraid that one thing can lead to another and they don’t want to go the way the Soviet Union went, which they, I think, think of as a bad example.

Paul Copeland  

The Canadian Friends of Burma started falling apart in 2013, when the first attacks on the Rohingya occurred in western Burma. And what I found was that most of the Burmese in the group had no sympathy whatsoever for the Rohingya. And it just blew the organization apart. So, I’ve been following the Rohingya stuff a lot. And I don’t see any movement at all from Aung San Suu Kyi or people in Burma towards any relaxation of anything. You know, they talk occasionally about repatriation, but I think it’s all a myth as far as the Burmese Government is concerned. 

Metta Spencer  

Paul, I mean, I am always I’m looking for, you know, prescriptions. And I don’t know. I mean, it seems to me it’s a good thing the Gambia took this thing to the World Court. But that’s gonna take several years. What good is that going to do? Even Lou might say, that’s not a good idea, because that’s of coercive, I don’t know. What more can one do? Tell them that they would benefit more if they’d be nice? I mean, I’m sorry, I’m really looking for answers. 

Doug Saunders  

If I understand what I’ve heard Paul, saying right before and others on this topic. The problem with what Lou’s suggesting is that the regime in Burma vis-a-vis the Rohingya and I think equally as much, the regime in China vis-a-vis the Uighurs, they think they are being nice. They think within their own internal logic, that they are providing security for maybe somebody who’s not that particular ethnic group. They think they are keeping back something that’s a threat to their country. And, I think, within the perspective of the elites and leadership in Burma, what they hear from their internal circles is constant affirmation of this. And there’s this problem that if you’re a foreign government, trying to put them on the right path, and so on, it’s very easy to “code” those foreign governments as being part of this invasion or part of this threat from outside. It’s not just Aung San Suu Kyi who has decided to launch a violent campaign of expulsion against the against the Rohingya… it’s a consensus within the ruling class and ethnic groups in Burma, if I understand correctly, Paul. How do you break through that?

Paul Copeland  

I don’t know. I mean, that’s my impression is that the Burmese, the Burmans, are supportive of the harsh dealing with the Rohingya,

Louis Kriesberg  

Ethnic conflicts are serious and they just seem to be persistent, without resolution — and the Rohingya is, in my little knowledge, I kind of put that in the same order. There’s a dominant ethnic group which wants to be in charge of everything. And then there’s ideologies that support the dreadful stuff that happens. 

Metta Spencer  

They’re all united about hating the Rohingya. That’s maybe the main thing they all agree on. And I don’t know to what extent these ethnic conflicts have been overcome. And the current government is —

Martin Klein  

Is anybody within Burma sympathetic to the Rohingya? I mean, clearly Aung San Suu Kyi has been forced [and is] involved in an uneasy alliance with the military. And she doesn’t, whatever she would do, it’s politic for her not to support the Rohingya. But how about these other ethnic minorities? Do they support each other? Do they, I assume they want a federal state? 

Doug Saunders  

We’ve seen a resurgence of sort of Buddhist chauvinist politics that some people would say is sort of a set of ideas that have spread all around the Buddhist-triangle countries of Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand. And it does tend to view those ethnic minorities in those countries who are Muslim as being invaders, which is something you also see in China. The notion that the Uighurs are not just one of China’s many ethnic groups, but are somehow invaders who’ve arrived late on the scene. And you see that in India too, frankly, right? A lot of the Hindu politics is based on the idea that Urdu-speakers are invaders who came late to the game. And I think it’s a little bit like how Jews were viewed in early 20th century Europe as invaders, partly because people had witnessed a lot of refugees coming in from Ashkenazi populations driven out by pogroms, but mainly because it was an idea that once it caught hold, it was easy to say, even if it’s an ethnic or religious group that’s been there as long as anyone else. So I do wonder if this is a wider problem across countries that have Buddhist nationalist leadership.

Paul Copeland  

When I’ve been in Burma and also when I’ve been in Canada, I’ve been in contact and met with leaders of the Karen community, and leaders of the Kachin community. The Karin are on the Thai-Burma border and the Kachin are up on the northern border with China. And both of those groups are mainly Christian.

Martin Klein  

Does that mean they’re hostile to Islam?

Paul Copeland  

I don’t really know. It wasn’t an issue when I was meeting with them.

Doug Saunders  

And, Paul, do you feel that groups like the Karen get a more sympathetic treatment from the Burmese regime than the Rohingya do? Perhaps for religious reasons?

Paul Copeland  

I don’t know about religious reasons. There’s certainly been fighting with the Karen and the Burmese Government. It’s fairly mild right now. But I was in Manerplaw, which was the headquarters and met again with some of the leaders.

Metta Spencer  

Well, you know, they’ve got all these ceasefires, but what does that really amount to? Are these conflicts really over? And I don’t know whether all of them have even signed or reached a ceasefire agreement. But my impression is that most of the tribal or I don’t know what language I want to use for this, but ethnic conflicts other than the Rohingya have been sort of resolved, and the government would be functioning if it weren’t so screwed up about the Rohingya. Is that a fair way of looking at it?

Paul Copeland  

 No.

Metta Spencer  

No? Okay.

Paul Copeland  

Well, what they’ve been trying to negotiate in Burma is something called Panglong 2. Aung San when he first was in power negotiated Panglong 1, which contemplated the ethnic minorities staying in Burma for 10 years and then they could decide whether to get out. And they’ve been trying to negotiate Panglong 2, and I’ve been on — up until this month, actually, I was on the Board of the Associates to Develop Democratic Burma, led by a guy named Harn Yawngwhe. Aung San Suu Kyi has basically eliminated Harn Yawngwhe from participating and getting into Burma, although the organization is still working there. But it doesn’t seem to be getting very far on a Panglong 2 agreement. 

Metta Spencer  

And she’s excluding him because he’s basically a good guy?

Paul Copeland  

That would be my impression.

Louis Kriesberg  

After the horrors of World War Two, a lot of countries learned a lesson the hard way that such madness is self-destructive. And, I wonder if the vision of Europe, of an economic community really helped mitigate some of that for a while and in the longtime even. The immediate response in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was the Russians who would become settled there couldn’t really be citizens, because they weren’t ethically Estonian, Latvian, [ and Lithuanian] — and the European Economic Community said; “No, no, no, you can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that. And you can’t do that.” And they did make sure that it was possible that, yeah, those Russians could be Lithuanian and citizenship could not be denied because they didn’t speak that language at home. But there have been that kind of attempts in larger settled areas. In a way, for example: for Spain, dealing with minorities was eased by being part of Europe, the whole idea of what your identity was got layered in European. It doesn’t end all troubles, but it is perhaps one path.

Martin Klein  

You know, in Eastern Europe, the issue goes back to the breakup of the Great Empires, both the Russian and Hapsburg Empires. In the 1920s, the question came up with both Jews and Gypsies. And I don’t know the detail. Some of you may know better than I, the the Hungarian/Romanian issue in Transylvania. But the question came up of nationality. In Africa, there have been lots of wars. In most countries, the fact is that you can’t open the Pandora’s box. You commit suicide. In fact, wars have been disastrous, no matter — except the Wars of Liberation and even those have had problems – but where you have a multi-ethnic community… I mean, I tend to feel that people are better off in a multi-ethnic community, but only if there are rules of the game where you accept other people’s religions; and the tragedy of Yugoslavia is that it was working well, and that most people, most Yugoslavs, supported it. And when it broke down, the appeals to ethnic nationalism produce horrible, horrible results that came out of nowhere.

Metta Spencer  

The current equivalent to the Yugoslavia situation — except it’s not a matter of breaking up a country but reviving conflicts between countries —is the thing that started with the Nagorno-Karabakh situation. I did an interview last week with Irakli Kakabadze in Georgia, who runs now a Gandhian kind of foundation. And I’ll be doing something with him tomorrow, that’ll be relevant to that too. But he scared the daylights out of me. He said that, as you know, the Russians are now back in control of Nagorno-Karabakh, or rather the territories around it, this sort of buffer zone. And they’ve got the deal with Turkey and Azerbaijan, and they’re trying to make a relationship with about four or five other countries in the region. And he says the Armenians are convinced that there’s going to be a renewal of genocide, that the Armenians are going to be killed and are being right now. There are human rights violations and atrocities going on. So, I’ve got to try to figure out who in Canada knows a darn thing about what’s going on in that region. I don’t know of any organizations or groups of expatriates, you know, ethnic groups working on it, but clearly the Armenian situation doesn’t look very bright now and we’re not hearing about it.

Martin Klein  

But the problem in the in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is really the great flaw of nationalism. That it is almost impossible to create national borders. And it’s almost impossible because people move across borders. People move in ethnic niches, people move. The Israelis are committed to it being a Jewish state. And the Estonians want Estonia to be an Estonian state. And that’s impossible because there are always minorities. 

Metta Spencer  

There are murders going on even now. Then, what you do, you know, you can’t just, you know, get in a pulpit and start inveighing against nationalism, you got to do something much more, you know, muscular.

Doug Saunders  

I think Russia’s role… I mean, Turkey’s being unambiguous — in backing these areas, which it doesn’t really need to do. There’s no economic interest in this. And the geostrategic interest is, is a little hard to sort out because you’re in danger of pissing off Iran and getting them into the game too, just to make a further mess of things. While the Russians have nominally supported the Armenians in this, because Russia has a big military base in Armenia, it’s traditionally sided with Armenia in these things. And it’s, until recently it kind of stayed out of this one. What you’re hearing, Metta, and what I’m hearing is that Russia is now doing things — but it’s a little unclear what it is doing. And yes, there have been atrocities in Nagorno-Karabakh and the impartial people have documented them. I don’t think it quite amounts to a second Armenian Genocide or something like that, but it’s enough to be very disturbing. It’s the sort of it’s the sort of targeting of civilians that, as you said, resembles the Yugoslav wars a bit. And it certainly sounds like the ceasefire isn’t much of a ceasefire,

Louis Kriesberg  

Is there any chance of recovery of Canadian leadership that it really had for a while? I know it does do work in international development and it has some good reputation for that.

Metta Spencer  

Lou, I think that Canadians, and I say this as an American who has spent more of my life now in Canada than I did in the US. So, I’m a Canadian and American, but more Canadian now. And I would say Canadians are among the most parochial people in the world. There is no sense of wanting to be to be the Empire in charge of things. There’s something like, we go as far as our borders and we don’t aspire to leadership in the world, even though we aspire to be “good citizens” in the world. You know, I’m trying to be provocative and I’m sure Doug is gonna swat me down.

Doug Saunders  

No, I’m actually going to agree with you to an extent. I think, when you listen to what other countries with conflict want to learn from Canada, it’s not so much the multiculturalism thing, it should be probably and successfully being a polyglot, pluralist country and all that stuff. But it’s how we manage Quebec nationalism. And the funniest example of that was a maybe a dozen years ago, maybe a little longer, I was in northern Sri Lanka, in the area controlled by the LTTE, by the Tamil Tigers, which they sort of turned into a pseudo-state a little like North Korea or something. And there were hardly any signs or anything. There were no businesses or anything. It was just a militarized area. We drove past a giant billboard with faces of various leaders on it and a whole lot of writing in Tamil that I didn’t understand, but one English phrase written in boldface, which was “asymmetrical federalism”, which is a phrase I had not thought anyone outside of Canada used. And I asked one of our translators, I said: “What’s that billboard about?” And he said: “Oh, it’s to celebrate, there was a peace mission that came in and was led by some guy named Bob Rae.” 

[all chuckling] 

Metta Spencer  

I love that. 

Martin Klein  

Canada does play a role, largely in part because we never had colonies, except internal colonies. And my wife attended one of the ILO’s annual sessions. She was part of the Canadian delegation and Canada played a role in negotiating an agreement which Canada was not likely to support. Because they negotiate these agreements. And if they bind the government in ways the government doesn’t like, the government may play a role in negotiating them, but then they’re dead letter. We’re one of those countries that that plays a role because we can talk to everybody.

Doug Saunders  

The role of Canada as a neutral arbiter has been historically useful. There are a number of people now who say that just doesn’t work anymore, that there’s no place for a neutral arbiter

Metta Spencer  

The whole issue of indigenous rights and, and the need to honour their heritage and so on. I don’t really want to use this word, but I… ssh… don’t tell anybody I said this, I think it’s a fad. I mean, it’s the kind of thing that suddenly became – over the last couple… two or three years – an very important element of Canadian discourse. It’s not that I’m opposed to it as an issue. I think it’s great that we think about it, but I can’t, I don’t really understand why it’s happening now, in particular. Now, rather than 10 years ago, or, you know, 50 years ago.

Martin Klein  

I think Trudeau opened Pandora’s box and it’s hard to retreat. He awakened desires in the Aboriginal community that he wasn’t ready to fulfill. And, so he’s ended up getting his fingers burned. But I think he’s pushed the issue in the center stage. And I think there’s an articulate native leadership, that’s not going to let him back down. The aborigines don’t have votes in Parliament, they’re only about 3% of the population. But they have issues on which they can mobilize sympathy.

Doug Saunders  

First Nations and Inuit populations are the fastest growing populations in Canada by quite a wide margin. And it’s being experienced. And they’re largely an urban population. And it’s being experienced, I think, by them as a return from the decimation. Decimation is the wrong word. What do you call when something’s cut to 1/10th its former size? That having happened to its population in Canada’s first century and a half, is now recovering. And so, I think you do have a new generation and sort of political awakening, that, I think some of the seeds were planted in the 1970s, when you had a first political awakening. And you also had the Canadian Supreme Court’s recognition that the treaties reached between Britain especially and also France and the tribes of Canada are part of the constitution. That they are constitutional documents of Canada and therefore implicitly there’s a shared sovereignty between the First Peoples of Canada and the descendants of the settlers. And I think that the constitutional implications of those decisions have yet to fully play out, and they’re combining with that demographic surge in an interesting way.

Metta Spencer  

Is there anything equivalent in other countries? I mean, I don’t see it in the US on the same scale. 

Doug Saunders  

New Zealand’s gone much further in incorporating the politics and culture and language of its Indigenous peoples into the very fabric of the country itself, including it’s flag. 

Louis Kriesberg  

At Syracuse University, every meeting is introduced by reminding people that we are on Haudenosaunee land.

Doug Saunders  

Even in the States, I didn’t know title acknowledgements had — 

Metta Spencer  

I did not know either.

Louis Kriesberg  

— and Biden has appointed as the Secretary of the Interior, for the first time, a Native Indigenous person.

Martin Klein  

I’m amazed that in the long period of American history, she’s the first Native person appointed to a federal Cabinet Office. 

Louis Kriesberg  

Yes.

Doug Saunders  

You know, I should say Canada’s hardly virtuous in this area, too. I think our first Indigenous cabinet ministers are pretty recent and of course native Canadians [First Nations people] didn’t even have the vote until, I think, 1960 or 1961.