Archive | July, 2013

On The Act of Killing

23 Jul

I saw Joshua Oppenheimer The Act of Killing on Sunday with The Sentinel Project.  The documentary follows several men that participated in mass killings of suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals following an attempted coup in 1965.  Like Hetzfeld’s Machete Season, Oppenheimer’s film provides an intimate portrait of mass killers.  Slate’s Dana Stevens describes the result, “The Act of Killing is among the most profound, formally complex, and emotionally overpowering documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also, by turns and sometimes at once, luridly seductive and darkly comic and physically revolting—a movie that makes you want to laugh and cry and retch and run out of the theater, both to escape the awful things the film is showing you and to tell everyone you know that they need to see it, too.”

Unlike many other portrayals of mass killings, the film does not show any footage of the massacres or speak to victims.  Rather it allows the perpetrators to act out the atrocities 45 years later in whatever film genre they wish, creating a disturbing yet meaningful detachment from the actual atrocities.   The killers, instead of bloodthirsty monsters, are often immature and pathetic.  Sure, they praise and rationalize their own actions, but they are not beyond showing unease at the past.  Instead of reviewing the film, I’d like to focus on a couple key issues that are relevant for studying violence and politics.

Oppenheimer’s documentary does little to provide context, and everything has to be gleaned from prior viewer knowledge or tangential remarks by the film’s subjects and therefore there are some truly puzzling parts of the killers’ stories.  The three main characters, Anwar, Herman, and Adi were once petty gangsters that made their livings scalping movie tickets.  However, communists banned American films, seriously reducing their income.  This seems to have been the first step on the path to becoming mass killers.  Interpersonal conflicts also seem to have played a role.  Adi, for example, tells Anwar how he stabbed his girlfriend’s hated step-father because he was Chinese.

Beyond these petty economic and personal, a fairly basic ideology also is used by the killers to rationalize their actions.  All of the characters share an aversion to communists (and ethnic Chinese to a lesser degree), but it’s unclear why.  No one ever gets past the surface-level “Communists were a threat to the nation”.  Why were they a threat to the nation?  It’s doubtful the subjects could answer the question.  In fact, a character begins to describe the communists’ actions, but is interrupted by another for painting Communists in too good a light.  There’s no “well, think about all the terrible things the Communists did” or “well, the Communists wanted to kill us”.  It’s simply left at that describing the Communists positively is wrong.  In the context of solely the movie, the most convincing explanation would seem to be the subjects’ desire to demonstrate their masculinity and power.

Because the film doesn’t examine the structural factors involved in initiating the mass killings, it’s impossible to draw a firm conclusion on the killers’ motivations from the movie alone.  Deeper societal cleavages likely played a role in elevating the subjects into the role of mass murderers, and so personal grievances, a flimsy ideology, and psychological essentialization don’t explain the events in full.  Even without a complete understanding, mass atrocity scholars (including myself; I’m trying to answer this question in my thesis) can draw an important, if anecdotal, lesson from The Act of Killing.  As Browning concluded in Ordinary Men, in violent and chaotic settings, ordinary individuals experiencing fairly weak influences pulling them toward violence can in fact commit genocide.

The remembrance and celebration of violence is a central theme in the film, but it comes across as quite foreign to American/Canadian audiences.  In the US, we celebrate violence regularly.  Soldiers are presented as national heroes for undergoing hardship and danger to protect the rest of the nation.  The killing itself escapes the public lens.  Drone operators, for example, aren’t heroes to the American public because they themselves were never in danger.  The film’s portrayal of Indonesia paints a very different picture.  Anwar and his fellow executions are indeed public heroes.  When interviewed on public television, the host praises Anwar and Herman  for developing more humane way to eliminate Communists.  Anwar and his cronies weren’t in danger themselves, but they nonetheless are the subjects of public adoration without having to hide the exact nature of their past actions.

On a similar theme, the film reflects very poorly on the current state of Indonesian politics.  Politicians are both publicly and privately  supportive of mass murderers and their ideological inheritors, the paramilitary organization Pancasila.  The film includes a speech by an Indonesian Vice President at a Pancasila rally in which he says the country needs more gangsters (which is consistently and bizarrely translated proudly as “free men” by Anwar and the other executioners) to “get things done”.  The film also includes numerous examples of political corruption.  Herman runs for office, but rather than examine how he’ll do the job, he ponders how much money he can make through bribery and threats.  Along the campaign trail, citizens care little about his platform and ask if he comes bearing “gifts”.  The film also portrays some good-ol’ extortion of Chinese businessman by the former mass murderers.  Oppenheimer implies that these actions are taken with the full knowledge and cooperation of big time politicians.  All of these examples point the existence of a mafia state in Indonesia, where murderers, gangsters, and other unsavory characters collude with the highest levels of power to enrich themselves without worrying about public accountability.

The film is an unsettling masterpiece with Warner Herzog saying, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade… it is unprecedented in the history of cinema.”  Along the way, it presents several insights on the nature of mass atrocities, and I highly recommend The Act of Killing.


The Gaping Hole in Genocide Scholarship

19 Jul

My thesis topic, nonviolent responses to mass atrocities and genocide, is not the most straight forward.  Few scholars have written about it in depth, and, if I do say so myself, it’s very conceptually difficult.   The idea does pop up frequently in related literature, but it’s almost always dismissed within a paragraph.  Luckily for me, these claims don’t hold much water.

When authors do address nonviolence in response to genocide (as opposed to mass atrocities or civil war violence, which gets more nuanced attention), the standard line is that nonviolence is powerless against an enemy committed to killing a certain group.  In the face of this type of single-minded hate, violence is the only defense.  At first glance, these conclusions make sense, but authors often contradict themselves later in the works where they make these claims.  Two examples here are political scientist Oliver Kaplan’s dissertation on civilian autonomy in Colombia and Chirot and McCauley’s Why Not Kill Them All?  I pick on these two works not because they’re problematic; both works, and Kaplan’s in particular, are great works of scholarship, but they both make the mistake of dismissing nonviolence as a response to genocide.

Kaplan cites Valentino on why civilian resistance to genocide is futile.  He contradicts this, however, by proposing that creating community processes for conflict resolution reduces the chances residents will use armed actors to settle local grudges.  This happened, for example, during the Armenian genocide, when Kurdish tribes allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire to eliminate Armenians.  The same thing happened with Banyamulenge, the Rwandan army, and Congolese Hutu.  Community conflict resolutions processes aren’t a silver bullet for stopping genocide, but they could potentially contribute to a decrease in violence by eliminating community divisions that can be exploited by armed groups with genocidal intentions.  Perhaps an even better example is in Why Not Kill Them All?, where Chirot and McCauley make a similar argument as Valentino.  They examine how “contact programs” and a strong civil society can provide a bulwark against the rise of genocidal ideologies and a fear of the “other” that lead to mass killing.  Both works outline nonviolent strategies that can prevent or mitigate genocide despite their claims to the contrary.

There are two central causes for this inconsistency in works on genocide.  The first is an overly simplistic conception of what stopping genocide entails.  Doing that is a long process that doesn’t commence in the middle of atrocities.  Basically, the authors have forgotten about genocide prevention, most of which is done nonviolently.  Secondly, these dismissals are based on a mistaken interpretation of nonviolence.  Nonviolence in response to genocide is so much more than unarmed civilians physically confronting their would be murderers, because we all agree that wouldn’t be very effective.  Conflict resolution programs, anti-hate education, finding employment for young men, the dissemination of truthful news, and humanizing portrayals of a potential victim group can all be used to prevent genocide (and it’s important to remember that all these strategies can be used after violence has started, because genocide develops gradually, meaning there is no point before which it’s “prevention” and after which it’s “response”).

So yes, it’s very much possible to prevent and respond nonviolently to civil war violence, mass atrocities, and even genocide.  Genocide is not a unique phenomenon, as compared to other types of violence, that only responds to force and not to “reason”.  It’s time modern scholarship accepted that.

Mali: A Country to Watch

12 Jul

*This post originally appeared on the STAND blog.

Though violent insurgency in northern Mali is not a new phenomenon, the current crisis in Mali started in January of 2012 when Tuareg separatists, an Arab ethnic group in northern Mali, allied with Islamists and launched a rebellion against the Malian government in Bamako.  In the face of the Tuareg advance, the Malian army retreated without much resistance.  In response to a perceived lack of government effort in funding and organizing the war effort, Malian officers mutinied, and the mutiny ended up toppling the government.  The leaders of this mutiny installed a military junta to rule the country.  This new government was also unable to stop the rebel advance.  Over the course of the war, Tuaregs, mostly represented by the National Movements for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), lost internal power to Islamists from Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).  As the rebels approached Bamako, former colonial power France stepped in at the request of the junta, driving the rebels back into the northern desert with the help of Chadian troops and crucial air support.  French troops pulled out recently, leaving security work to Malian and African forces and a UN peacekeeping mission.

There were multiple causes of the conflict.  Many Tuareg had fought in Libya as mercenaries for Gaddafi, and following his fall, heavily-armed, well-trained Tuaregs flowed back in northern Mali.  Tuaregs have been historically neglected by the Malian government, and numerous Tuareg rebellions have happened in the past.  While Tuaregs constituted a type of economic elite in Northern Mali, they had comparatively little political power.  Tuaregs are spread out across several countries, but they do not form a majority in any (they are not even the majority in sparsely-populated northern Mali).  A struggle for control of trade and smuggling networks was also a main cause of the rebellion.  Finally, following initial military success of Tuareg separatists, local and Algerian-based Islamists joined the cause when they sensed the opportunity to implement Sharia in an entire country.  While the situation on the ground is much changed from the height of the rebellion, many of the conflict’s drivers continue to create tension.

The French intervention was crucial in upending the rebel advantage, but it did little to address the root causes of the crisis.  The French approach was a short intervention aimed at nothing more thangaining a military advantage.  The lack of a diplomatic front meant the metaphorical can was just kicked farther down the road.  Local tensions, which caused splits even within rebel groups, continue to fester.  While racial frictions within Northern Mali remain an issue, north-south tension threatens the precarious stability and territorial integrity of the country.  Though the MNLA supported the French during the latter stages of the intervention, the government in Bamako and Mali’s non-Tuaregs are still deeply suspicious of the organization.  A preliminary agreement was signed between Bamako and MNLA, but political pressures have prevented most major southern politicians from endorsing the deal.  With further negotiations after the national election scheduled for July 28th needed to solidify the agreement, the chances for a future, inclusive peace deal aren’t looking up.  And while the Malian army has finally gained the permission of the MNLA to enter the organization’s stronghold town of Kidal, there is not a clear disarmament plan for former rebels.

Many problems produced during the pre-crisis period and the French intervention remain in Mali, and the proposed solutions look unlikely to fix most of them.  The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is currently short of funding due to the inertia of the US budgeting process, and will take awhile to reach its full strength of 12,640 soldiers.  In the meantime, much of northern Mali will remain as ungoverned spaces.  The lack of state presence, in the form of both governance and military force, allows many former combatants (mostly Islamists) to fade back into the general population.  Without an effective demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) program for northern Mali, many of these ex-combatants will become active in moments of instability in the future (though it will be because of national issues rather than international jihad).  The upcoming elections have more riding on them than any other proposed solution, but they are almost certainly destined to fail.  The distribution of national ID cards needed for Malians to cast their votes is behind schedule, and many Malian politicians have been frank with the fact the country is not ready for elections.  Due to the delay, Malian professor Issa N’Diaye told the VOA, “The vote will be legal, but it won’t be legitimate.”  These elections are therefore unlikely to give the Malian people much confidence in their new government.  Unsecured sham elections could well instigate another crisis.  As Severine Autesserre warns in her book The Trouble with the Congo, Western peacebuilders often push elections too quickly on societies coming out of episodes of severe violence, leading to a broken political system.  She argues that the massive resources required to organize an election would be better spent on local peacebuilding initiatives that stabilize a country and help prepare it for future elections.  This mistake looks set to be repeated again in Mali.

Analysis, Activism, and My Experiences with the Two

8 Jul

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Solomon wrote this in an email to me, “…I see myself as an analyst, an institutionalist, and an advocate; never as an activist, in the sense that my “theory of change” is intra-hegemonic (within the institutions of power), rather than counter-hegemonic. So, I approach my work on mass atrocities through that lens–morally problematic, perhaps, but as I see it, much more effective in achieving what I see as foundational goals. We can go rounds on this, but suffice it to say that when de Waal chides human rights activists for their proximity to power, I disagree, at least partially.”  While Daniel’s thoughts on a theory of change for atrocities prevention deserves its own blog post, these lines did get me thinking about how I identify personally as an activist or an analyst.  This post then is a rumination on that topic.

I first got involved with what can be classified as atrocities prevention in high school (though the phrase probably would have been lost on me then), though I had always been interested in international affairs (which, at an earlier age, was embodied in soccer) and human rights.  I participated in Amnesty International and this experience was important in influencing future decisions, but at that point, my understanding of the issues was minimal.  In college, I got involved in STAND, which ended up being the experience that really drew me into the atrocities prevention field.  I quickly became interested in involving myself further with STAND, but it wasn’t immediately clear in what way.  At first, I conceived of STAND in an activist context, but I never really found a role positioning myself as an activist in the broader anti-genocide movement.

There was a strong activist culture at Swarthmore and I shared a lot of the same values, but I didn’t really fit because I was interested in international rather than domestic issues.  I also didn’t have much experience with or enthusiasm for organizing work (and when I did try, I learned I wasn’t very good at it).  I found myself, for example, more interested in the politics and logic of nonviolent struggle rather than its actual execution.  I thought about starting a conflict minerals campaign at Swarthmore, but soon after that, I saw the David Aronson article that challenged the core tenets of the conflict mineral approach.  I’m not sure if it was solely this incident, but that article was certainly an important moment in making rethink my previous approach to genocide prevention activism which pretty much boiled down to this: learn that people are dying, and look up strategies to help without doing too much organizing, spending more than a few weeks on the project, or leaving Swarthmore’s campus.  This theory of change obviously has its limitations, and so the more I realized that, and the more I got involved in Swarthmore’s intellectual culture, the more I moved away from a purely activist mindset (not a pejorative, but just a descriptive term for lack of a better word).

Though many friends at Swarthmore like myself are interested in working with oppressed communities to help improve lives, international issues, and mass atrocities in particular present a special challenge.  The advocacy entry points are limited by borders, bureaucracy, apathy, language, and money in a way domestic issues aren’t.  Making changes then, simply becomes much harder.  Bec Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur made me deeply skeptical of the ability of mass movements to affect positive change on atrocity prevention and demonstrates that an intention to do good is not nearly good enough when it comes to genocide and mass atrocities.  The barriers I mentioned mean that more time and expertise is required to influence and create atrocity policy in comparison to domestic policy (though I am no expert on domestic activism so I welcome any challenges to this conclusion).  This realization swept over me gradually, and so I began to change the way I looked at atrocities prevention.  Reading about the issues took up more of my time, and actually engaging academically with current events became important.  And so over time, perceived effectiveness influenced my personal preferences (I have a genuine intellectual interest in studying violence and international politics that goes beyond any specific goal) and vice versa to push me in more analytic direction.

Returning to Daniel’s quote: while I’ve thought a lot about how different approaches to atrocities prevention work influences outcomes, the dichotomy between activism and analysis is not entirely defined.  Personally, I came to atrocities prevention work in an activist mindset influenced by my then-theory of change and other influences, such as my grandfather’s history as a Holocaust survivor.  And while I seriously changed the way in which I think I can create change, my goal, to prevent atrocities, remains the same.  That goal is inherently activist as it seeks to change current societal conditions.  However, changing mass atrocities prevention and response largely involves getting involved with national and international institutions or creating other organizations that can work directly with communities at risk.  To do this, speaking the language of international politics scholarship is a must.  Therefore the methods to reach the goal of preventing atrocities are beyond the scope of what’s traditionally considered activists’ realm.

Has Burma Reached the Extermination Stage of Genocide?

4 Jul

The Rohingya in Rakhine state, a Muslim ethnic group in a predominantly Buddhist country, are one of the most persecuted minority groups in the world.  Their situation has worsened in recent months with the rise of the ultra-nationalist 969 movement, led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu.  The movement’s goal is fight against what they perceive as the increased influence of Islam in Burmese society.  The current wave of violence began in May of 2012, when rumors of a rape/murder of a Buddhist woman by Rohingya men set off a series of incidences of inter-communal violence.  Though Rohingya have been involved in violence against Buddhist civilians, Buddhist mobs attacking Rohingya are responsible for the majority of the violence.  While there is an international consensus that the Rohingya face heavy discrimination and persecution, there is debate over the chances of the future genocide and the existence of a current one.

To help frame this debate, Gregory Stanton’s theory that genocide has ten stages (updated from eight) is useful.  The original eight are classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, and denial.  Discrimination and persecution were added later on.  These stages often happen out of order and/or concurrently.   This article from UN dispatch provides an excellent summary of how each of the first six stages are happening, while a Rohinyga two child policy and the presence of Rohingya ghettos demonstrate discrimination and persecution, respectively.

While I fully agree with Greenwood’s post on the first six stages, her statement that the extermination stage is underway (though she includes the qualifier “arguably”) merits further examination.  Based on current events, it’s hard to argue that extermination has begun.  The killings have happened in bursts, and incidences of violence have happened mostly in response to specific incidents.  These factors indicate that extermination mechanisms have not yet been fully activated.  The rhetoric, the organization, and the ideology are all in place, and while the organization of Buddhist mobs can be utilized in the future to carry out mass killing in conjunction with government forces, killings, when they happen, remain on a small scale.

Extermination, however, does not have to happen through violent killings.  Extermination can be carried out through reducing a population’s birthrate and creating physical conditions that are likely to lead to widespread deaths.  The two child policy is clearly an attempt at the former.  As for the latter, many Rohingya are forced to live in squalid IDP camps.  Similarly, many Rohinyga have fled Burma in rickety boats, leading to many deaths, or at the very least permanent displacement due to a lack of Burmese citizenship.  While these two issues may be products of discrimination, polarization, and persecution, they may also be part of larger strategy to eliminate the Rohingya.  Without fully knowing the long-term intent and plans of Buddhist and government leaders, making informed judgments on whether the extermination stage has been reached is difficult.