Crisis in Burma

Burmese Rohingyas sat in the boat they used to flee persecution

Burmese Rohingyas sat in the boat they used to flee persecution

This month we land in Myanmar, more typically known by its pre-military dictatorship name ‘Burma’, where decades of government-stoked prejudice against a Muslim minority have flared into violence, then humanitarian crisis, as some observers chillingly predict genocide.

Junta-ruled since its army seized power fifty years ago, Myanmar stands out as one of south-east Asia’s most profoundly troubled countries. Awareness of Burma’s repressive military leadership is unusually high in the West, largely thanks to high-profile political prisoner turned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Less publicised is its often abject poverty, widespread use of both child workers and child soldiers, popularity among human traffickers and, topically, institutionalised racism.

Last year, violent riots broke out in the country’s Arakan region. Buddhist and Muslim Burmese clashed after it was alleged that a group of the latter gang-raped one of the former. In retaliation, ten Muslims were murdered by incensed Buddhists. Thereafter violence quickly escalated and the Burmese army was sent in to keep the peace. It wasn’t long before soldiers were accused of leading rather than preventing attacks on Muslims. Continue reading

Grisly Arithmetic: humanitarian crisis in Mali

Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger - almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere

Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger – almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere

Crisis-riddled post-colonial Africa once looked to Mali as a heartening example that the continent could have peace and social stability. Now, as various ethnic and religiously driven factions fight for independence, the country looks set to tear itself apart.

Last year, sectarian violence in northern Mali forced 450,000 people out of their homes and left 1.2 million struggling to feed themselves as fighting disrupted food supplies in what was already one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

The crisis began with Mali’s Tuareg ethnic minority, cattle-herding Saharan nomads mostly living in country’s northern Azawad region. The Tuareg have spent decades chafing for independence and, last January, Tuareg militia groups took a bold stride towards realising that aspiration by rising up and expelling central government troops from their home province. Continue reading

Looking Back on Somalia

Somalia-famine-007Between October 2010 and April 2012, Somalia was wracked by the world’s worst famine in 25 years. The humanitarian response on the ground was typically heroic, but international donations were sluggish. Last week, new figures released suggested thousands more were killed than originally thought.

Somalia – another arbitrary geographic unit where people fundamentally no different to anyone anywhere else on the planet have been left to endure decades of abject suffering.

Independence from the British Empire brought a brief but dysfunctional flash of Western-style Somali democracy in the 1960s, before an army coup replaced it with a dictatorial pro-Russian regime. The seventies saw stuttering attempts to meld Soviet-style economics with Islam, but after a war with more straightforwardly Marxist Ethiopia lost it the USSR’s backing, Somalia’s rulers became increasingly violent and repressive, largely binning ideology in favour of clinging on to power anyway they could. Continue reading

Grisly Arithmetic – Syria

A district of Khalidiya devastated by pro-Assad forces

A district of Khalidiya devastated by pro-Assad forces

This month, we turn to the protracted humanitarian horror show in Syria, worsening by the day as the ‘reformist’ al-Assad regime throws everything gun-shaped and deadly it has into wiping out a ramshackle insurgency and half the country along with it.

Since April 2011, the Syrian government has been at war with a significant portion of the people it claims to represent. For over two years, Bashar al-Assad’s Damascus-based dictatorship has used all the force at its disposal to try and put down a rag-tag popular rebellion – a rebellion that sprouted from its own brutal handling of peaceful anti-government protests. Continue reading

Grisly Arithmetic – ignorance, apathy and humanitarian disaster

starving-children1The Bemolution is staunch in its grouchy belief that the worst thing about civilisation is how sickeningly easy it is for one group of human beings to ignore the abject suffering of another. Horrendously, it’s not just socially acceptable to ignore the suffering of others – determined ignorance is society’s default position.

Bawling about injustice, inequality, poverty and war is a highly adaptable way of committing conversational suicide in an excellent range of social situations. For disastrously many, far-off suffering just doesn’t compute. People are puzzled at the notion they should know or care about humanitarian catastrophe, let alone try and do something about it. We’re conditioned not to criticise the world we find ourselves in beyond impotently grumbling, and we shrink from anything too bleak or upsetting that might make us question the way things are.

Given what goes on on our planet, this is very bad. It’s this blog’s position that a less horrific world, if it ever arrives, isn’t just going to be about dry economics. Bypassing our ingrained individual selfishness would require nothing less than a grand, socialism-enabling ethical overhaul – more specifically, a major compassion transfusion.

And thus, to further its pseudo-Buddhist fixation with suffering, the Bemolution is going to start a new item on the reasons why the world needs to shoved, firmly, in a less humanly disastrous direction.

Crudely, it’s going to have a go at roughly working out just how many members of our species have died unnecessarily over the previous 30 days or so, and how many are wobbling on the brink. It will try and highlight particularly grotesque humanitarian crises in an effort to spread the word. And it will spend considerable time moping about the horror of it all.

Forcing yourself to dwell on the suffering of others, no matter how personally unpleasant that might be for you as an individual, is a most vigorous way of exercising your empathy muscles. Buddhists have been doing it for over a thousand years.

Trying to comprehend the anguish of other people, and imagining yourself and those you like in those same terrible situations, is a way of training yourself to be more compassionate – and, on the side, of battering down the daft cultural barriers that mean we don’t see far-flung suffering as our concern, and only show basic human decency within driving distance, if that.

And now, to end, the Bemolutionary theme tune.

New Crisis in Sudan

displaced camp darfurDisplaced persons’ camp, Darfur

This month our roving humanitarian spotlight stops over Sudan, where a fragile and widely-flouted ceasefire agreement is collapsing and sparking a new phase of horrendous ethnic violence.

Sudan has internally broiled for over a decade, ever since a rag-tag alliance of indigenous African militias declared war on the Arab-dominated Sudanese government they accused of racial apartheid.

For hundreds of years Sudan has been ruled by the descendants of Arab migrants who came to the region in the twelfth century. Today Sudan’s population is 70% Arab, and over 90% are practising Muslims.

But Arab-African relations have been far from harmonious. Arabic culture is treated as supreme, while that of indigenous Africans is trampled over and demeaned. Sudan is oil-rich, but while the Arab north enjoys the proceeds, the impoverished African south goes without. In early 2003, rebels attacked police stations and military outposts in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Civil war was the result, and initially anti-government forces did spectacularly, state-embarrassingly well.

To save itself, the Khartoum-based regime had to radically rethink its strategy. It chose to fight guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics, calling on armed cattle herders known as the Janjaweed it had used to suppress previous inconvenient uprisings to tackle this latest insurrection.

Armed and funded by the state and backed by the Sudanese Air Force, the Janjaweed scythed into rebel-held territory. Arab settlements were left untouched, while the indigenous African population was slaughtered. Their towns and villagers were looted, bombed and burned, and suspected anti-government fighters were dismembered if they were lucky, summarily executed if they weren’t. Women and children in rebel areas were often (and, horrifically, often still are) systematically raped. Other times they were just executed. As time went on, the Janjaweed slash-and-burn campaign started to look like ethnic cleansing – a concerted attempt to wipe Darfur’s non-Arab Sudanese out of existence.

Today, we look back on what happened in Darfur as genocide. Approximately 400,000 people were killed, harrowingly many of them non-combatants, over 400 settlements were completely destroyed and over 2,500,000 people were uprooted by the violence.

A peace treaty was eventually signed in May 2006. In 2011, South Sudan, a hub of anti-government resistance, declared itself an independent state. But the region was left coping with a humanitarian catastrophe.

By its (official, sadly not actual) end, some were estimating that as many as 2,000,000 had been killed and 4,000,000 left homeless. Approximately 1,700,000 people are still living in makeshift aid camps in the region, with nearly 300,000 more in neighbouring Chad. Foreign aid is the only thing keeping them alive. The social fallout will be felt for generations – in one camp of 22,000 refugees, 20 babies conceived through rape are abandoned by stigma-fearing mothers every month.

What’s more, South Sudan has entered existence as one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 5,000,000 South Sudanese, roughly half the population, have dangerously little food to eat and approximately 250,000 are thought to be at serious risk of starving to death in border regions where renewed fighting has shredded vital farming areas.

war criminal omar al bashir

President Omar al-Bashir

An already dire situation is further compounded by the actions of the regime back in Khartoum. Under Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, government forces are continuing to hound rebel elements still inside Sudanese borders. As violence reaches levels not seen since the 2006 peace agreement, indiscriminate bombing raids, looting, pillaging, and the rape and slaughter of innocents continue. 

People displaced by the latest round of fighting on the Sudanese side of the border are fleeing en masse to their newly-founded impoverished Southern neighbour. A fledgling country incapable of feeding itself is now left coping with 19,000 more refugees.

NGOs are working heroically to provide life essentials like food and clean water, but the burden is increasing and UN commanders tasked with protecting homeless civilians are complaining they lack the manpower to do the job effectively. Sudan needs more aid, more peacekeepers and more media exposure to grab the attention of both the public and the Western political class.

At the moment, a situation even more horrific than the Syrian conflict we see splashed all over the newspapers is steadily worsening and getting shamefully little media attention. It’s terrifyingly possible that the international ‘community’ could, yet again, self-obsess its way through another preventable human calamity.

Oxfam is at the forefront of the bid to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive across Sudan and South Sudan. You can donate to their Sudan appeal here.

New Crisis in Sudan

displaced camp darfurDisplaced persons’ camp, Darfur

This month our roving humanitarian spotlight stops over Sudan, where a fragile and widely-flouted ceasefire agreement is collapsing and sparking a new phase of horrendous ethnic violence.

Sudan has internally broiled for over a decade, ever since a rag-tag alliance of indigenous African militias declared war on the Arab-dominated Sudanese government they accused of racial apartheid.

For hundreds of years Sudan has been ruled by the descendants of Arab migrants who came to the region in the twelfth century. Today Sudan’s population is 70% Arab, and over 90% are practising Muslims.

But Arab-African relations have been far from harmonious. Arabic culture is treated as supreme, while that of indigenous Africans is trampled over and demeaned. Sudan is oil-rich, but while the Arab north enjoys the proceeds, the impoverished African south goes without. In early 2003, rebels attacked police stations and military outposts in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Civil war was the result, and initially anti-government forces did spectacularly, state-embarrassingly well.

To save itself, the Khartoum-based regime had to radically rethink its strategy. It chose to fight guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics, calling on armed cattle herders known as the Janjaweed it had used to suppress previous inconvenient uprisings to tackle this latest insurrection.

Armed and funded by the state and backed by the Sudanese Air Force, the Janjaweed scythed into rebel-held territory. Arab settlements were left untouched, while the indigenous African population was slaughtered. Their towns and villagers were looted, bombed and burned, and suspected anti-government fighters were dismembered if they were lucky, summarily executed if they weren’t. Women and children in rebel areas were often (and, horrifically, often still are) systematically raped. Other times they were just executed. As time went on, the Janjaweed slash-and-burn campaign started to look like ethnic cleansing – a concerted attempt to wipe Darfur’s non-Arab Sudanese out of existence.

Today, we look back on what happened in Darfur as genocide. Approximately 400,000 people were killed, harrowingly many of them non-combatants, over 400 settlements were completely destroyed and over 2,500,000 people were uprooted by the violence.

A peace treaty was eventually signed in May 2006. In 2011, South Sudan, a hub of anti-government resistance, declared itself an independent state. But the region was left coping with a humanitarian catastrophe.

By its (official, sadly not actual) end, some were estimating that as many as 2,000,000 had been killed and 4,000,000 left homeless. Approximately 1,700,000 people are still living in makeshift aid camps in the region, with nearly 300,000 more in neighbouring Chad. Foreign aid is the only thing keeping them alive. The social fallout will be felt for generations – in one camp of 22,000 refugees, 20 babies conceived through rape are abandoned by stigma-fearing mothers every month.

What’s more, South Sudan has entered existence as one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 5,000,000 South Sudanese, roughly half the population, have dangerously little food to eat and approximately 250,000 are thought to be at serious risk of starving to death in border regions where renewed fighting has shredded vital farming areas.

war criminal omar al bashir

President Omar al-Bashir

An already dire situation is further compounded by the actions of the regime back in Khartoum. Under Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, government forces are continuing to hound rebel elements still inside Sudanese borders. As violence reaches levels not seen since the 2006 peace agreement, indiscriminate bombing raids, looting, pillaging, and the rape and slaughter of innocents continue. 

People displaced by the latest round of fighting on the Sudanese side of the border are fleeing en masse to their newly-founded impoverished Southern neighbour. A fledgling country incapable of feeding itself is now left coping with 19,000 more refugees.

NGOs are working heroically to provide life essentials like food and clean water, but the burden is increasing and UN commanders tasked with protecting homeless civilians are complaining they lack the manpower to do the job effectively. Sudan needs more aid, more peacekeepers and more media exposure to grab the attention of both the public and the Western political class.

At the moment, a situation even more horrific than the Syrian conflict we see splashed all over the newspapers is steadily worsening and getting shamefully little media attention. It’s terrifyingly possible that the international ‘community’ could, yet again, self-obsess its way through another preventable human calamity.

Oxfam is at the forefront of the bid to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive across Sudan and South Sudan. You can donate to their Sudan appeal here.