Archive | October, 2013

Burma and the US: Where are we now?

30 Oct

*This piece originally appeared on the STAND blog.

Myanmar and the United States have not always had the friendliest bilateral relations, but just in the last two years, that is beginning to change.  Following ongoing, partial democratic reforms that began in 2011, the United States has gradually moved toward restoring a functioning relationship, sometimes called normalizing relations.  However, the United States should be cautious in its approach: there are still serious issues that the democratic reforms have not addressed.

The current cycle of relations between the United States and Myanmar (Myanmar commonly refers to the government, and Burma to the country) began in 1988, when the recently-installed military government brutally cracked down on the nascent pro-democracy movement.  Two years later, Myanmar refused to honor the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in national elections, placing her under house arrest instead.  In protest of the coup and the fraudulent elections, the United States removed its ambassador to the country.  The crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution led to the further deterioration of relations.

In 2011, Prime Minister Thein Sein was elected as President of Myanmar.  Though he had previously served in the military and his political party has connections to the military, he is the first civilian president in forty-nine years. His administration has slightly rolled back military control of government, freed some political prisoners, and opened up Burma’s commercial and media sectors.  In response to these changes, Hillary Clinton, then-Secretary of State, visited Burma in 2011, and in early 2012, announced that a United States ambassador would return to Burma.  The United States has also cancelled some economic sanctions on the country, allowing for US dollars to enter the country.  The prospect of resuming military collaboration has been discussed, but so far there hasn’t been any concrete action.

While there has been some thawing of recent relations, some impediments to normalization remain in place.  American businesses are allowed to invest in the state oil company, but this is contingent on notifying the State Department.  Similar restrictions apply to businesses with large investments in the country.  President Obama has also issued an executive order that has strengthened sanctions against individuals that work to prevent democratic reform.  Finally, the United States still does not provide Myanmar with military aid due to the presence of child soldiers within the Myanmar army.  Unlike Yemen and the DRC, it has not received a waiver to continue aid on the basis of American national security.

The United States should be wary of further normalization because of three main problems that remain in Burma.  First, the democratic reforms that began two years ago are largely superficial.  The military has a mandated 25% of seats in Parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for President because of an obscure constitutional clause designed specifically to target her, and the government continues to imprison prisoners of conscience.  Second, the military continues to violate ceasefires with ethnic minority groups and commit human rights abuses in those areas.  These grievances were highlighted in a recent open letter signed by 133 ethnic minority organizations.  Third, the government has failed to stop violence against Muslim (primarily Rohingya) residents of Burma, and in many cases the government is complicit in the attacks.


Filling in the Gaps: Advancing DRC Peacebuilding and Advocacy

13 Oct

*This piece was written by myself, Sean Langberg, and Katy Lindquist.

In his article “The Price of Precious,” which recently appeared in National Geographic’s October issue, Jeffrey Gettleman attempts to tell the story of how minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) make their way into our electronics.  Drawing on personal experience in DRC, Gettleman paints a vivid picture of what he perceives violence to look like on the ground, while simultaneously offering a history of Congo since King Leopold and an overview of conflict mineral legislation in the United States – all in less than 1000 words.

The article adopts an all too familiar “Western explorer in Africa” narrative.  As an intrepid outsider, Gettleman is shocked by the danger and chaos.  Based on the article, Congolese are mere stereotypes: helpless villagers, brainwashed child soldiers, or greedy opportunists.  However, Gettleman’s position as a Westerner allows him to (supposedly) see the reality hidden from the ignorant Congolese.

The first half of the article reads like an adventure story in order for the reader to fully appreciate the danger he faces.  He goes out of his way to describe the utter poverty and hopelessness of the situation.  Gettleman then extrapolates from his experiences with a few child soldiers and a corrupt mining official over the course of a day that minerals must be the most important cause of conflict in a homogenous eastern DRC.  “The Price of Precious” is just one link in a long chain of simplistic understandings of Africa.

Unlike Gettleman and many others who write about DRC, we take a different approach.  While so-called “conflict minerals” certainly play a role in the conflict and grassroots advocacy efforts are morally commendable, a broader strategy is needed.  For years, academics and other experts have rightly pushed a multiscale agenda that addresses primary, secondary, and tertiary conflict drivers under the umbrellas of governance, security, sovereignty, and justice.  Conceptually, there exists a dynamic and intersectional pyramid of violence.  At the local level, land conflicts and equitable access to resources must be prioritized alongside the expansion of mobile courts and local reconciliation projects to address injustices and sexual violence perpetrated within communities. At the regional level, the dozens of armed groups operating in eastern DRC must be addressed separately, attending to the specific grievances and histories of each group. Specifically, the M23 rebellion must be addressed through sustained diplomacy, economic pressure, and smart peacekeeping. At the national level, President Kabila and his administration must increase their accountability by facilitating free and fair elections and drastically reforming the security sector to improve the command and control of state soldiers and police. At the international level, immense pressure must be put on Rwanda to end its support of all armed groups in the Kivus, while also pressuring the Congolese government to cooperate with international courts and participate in good-faith regional negotiations.

Advocacy on the DRC has traditionally orbited between two primary entry points: conflict minerals and sexual violence.  Though minerals and sexual violence are parts of the equation in DRC, they by no means constitute a holistic picture.  We must ask ourselves then why these two narratives of the violence in DRC continue to persist?  There are of course many answers to consider, but perhaps the driving motivation for the prevalence of these narratives is their relatability to our daily lives.  The challenges of DRC advocacy in the future then becomes making the complex roots of violence relatable to advocates, and broadening the policy scope while focusing on targeted results. To be clear, there are numerous laudable advocacy organizations and initiatives that are already advancing an agenda that will benefit DRC and civilians targeted by violence.  Incorporating these initiatives into the mainstream, diversifying media coverage, and prioritizing expert voices are potential next steps.  There are no easy answers, but continuing to ignore deep forces at work in DRC in favor of simple narratives of violence will not only fail to improve the situation in eastern DRC, but risks making the realities on the ground worse.

Are We Violent By Nature?: Reconciling Milgram, Browning, Collins, and Grossman

1 Oct

Stanley Milgram, Christopher Browning, Dave Grossman, and Randall Collins have all provided important contributions to the academic debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence.  All of these projects have attempted to answer the same question: “How willing are we to commit violence?”  On the surface, it would seem they provide contrasting answers.  The Milgram experiment and Browning both show that no matter whether individuals are opposed to violence, they tend commit violence when told to do so by an authority figure.  Collins and Grossman, however, paint a different picture.  In their work, individuals do their best to avoid killing, often going to incredible lengths.  Despite these differences, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins actually make complementary arguments that when aggregated, provide a good explanation for why individuals commit violence.

I’ll briefly sketch out the arguments presented in the three books (the Milgram experiment is well-known enough to omit).  Browning examines the experiences of Reserve Police Battalion 101 during WWII.  The battalion was made up of individuals unfit for regular combat, and contained few hardcore Nazis.  However, it was one of the most deadly units that made up the Einsatzgruppen, killing thousands of Jews on the eastern front over the course of the war.  He writes that while many soldiers expressed disgust and even disapproval of murdering Jews at the beginning, over the course of the war, the incidence of refusals decreased.  Browning argues a mixture of authority, peer coercion, and a warped morality structure that saw killing as the moral thing to do made the men of Reserve Battalion 101 kill with alarming efficiency.

Collins and Grossman, in Violence: A micro-sociological theory and On Killing, respectively, both examine the way soldiers react to killing opponents.  Many of their arguments are similar, so to prevent repetition, I’ll summarize them as if they were a single narrative.  They write that most soldiers do their best to avoid killing others in combat.  They will likely find the act of killing more traumatic than the fear of being killed.  In WWII, firing rates among soldiers stood at only 15%, with no difference between new and seasoned troops.  Troops unable to see the consequences of their actions, such as artillery units, have much higher firing rates.  Following studies of this phenomenon, militaries changed their tactics.  Larger fighting units were divided further into smaller, groups to encourage interdependence.  This, along with other changes, increased firing rates in the Vietnam War to 95%.

Despite different approaches to studying human dispositions toward committing violence, Milgram, Browning, Grossman, and Collins all have overlapping arguments.  Ultimately, in each project, they present a picture of most humans as reluctant to commit violence, but at the same time, vulnerable to social processes that promote the use of violence.  These social processes can be broadly divided into three categories: authority, values, and interdependent coercion.  Milgram is the canonical example of authority.  However, as Grossman and Collins demonstrate, even the strict authority structures of WWII militaries was not enough to convince the vast majority of soldiers to attempt and kill opponents.  In chaotic battlefield situations, the ability of leaders to exert their authority and punish those who resist is limited, differentiating it from a laboratory setting.  As for values, Browning argues that the Nazis were at least partially successful in creating a new morality in which getting past inherent adversity to killing, while difficult emotionally, was the correct thing to do.  However, Ben Valentino has demonstrated that for regular perpetrators, ideology is seldom a primary motivating factor for combatants to commit atrocities, and this logic can be extended to killing in general.  Finally, interdependent coercion is likely the most powerful factor in convincing the large percentage of civilians who avoid killing to do so.  In Ordinary Men, Browning shows how soldiers did not want to appear weak in front of their colleagues or leave unpleasant work to others.  Therefore, most chose to participate in killing.  Another facet of in-group coercion is interdependence.  If a small unit of soldiers feels that any hesitation by one soldier will likely mean death for another, firing rates will be much higher.  Militaries picked up on this phenomenon, and sought to create more cohesive and interdependent fighting units.

The debate on the attitudes of humans toward violence is not new and will not end anytime soon.  But to me, asking “are we violent?” is flawed, as answers to the question are too prone to over-generalization.  Collins, for example, writes that soldiers at the front lines tend to treat prisoners much more humanely than rear-guard soldiers, demonstrating the variation of human attitudes toward violence, and thus problematizing an all-encompassing conclusion.  The better question is “what makes us violent?”  As someone who’s interested in applying lessons learned from academic methods of study to decrease violence, hypothesizing on true human nature has little applicable value or even intellectual significance.  Hobbes’ theory of human nature was flawed because it imagined an ideal world, the state of nature, in which true human nature could be revealed.  We know, as Kalyvas argues, that even in ‘ungoverned spaces’, mutually understood rules govern the nature of conflict.  Ultimately, the world is not a laboratory, and attempting to strip away the complexity of human interaction to make it such is methodologically dubious.  We will always have violence and the absence of violence in this world, and scholars of conflict are better off understanding what makes human oscillate between the two rather than speculating on what is natural.