An anniversary story: Fall, dissolution, and political violence

Today, 9 November, celebrates another anniversary the Berlin Wall officially fell.

It has been commonly believed that the fall of the Wall was a peaceful one, and also marked a “peaceful” dissolution and transition of East Germany’s patron, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) – the Soviet Union – into independent countries (albeit now led by Russia in various iterations of economic/political organisations such as the Eurasian Customs Union).

That year of 1989, however, was really a different story, as were the years before and after.

Before November 1989, violence and death were  endemic to the crossing of the Berlin Wall – crossings from east to west. East German border guards were given a “licence to kill” to shoot at defectors, and more than a thousand people lost their lives.

In the years before 1989, as Soviet leaders were attempting to reform, there were riots in Kazakhstan based on a nascent ethnic nationalism, political protests in the Baltic states, and environmental demonstrations in Armenia. Then in April 1989, Soviet troops massacred demonstrators in the capital of Soviet Georgia, Tbilisi, which was followed by inter-ethnic violence in Georgia’s autonomous/breakaway territory of Abkhazia. In June 1989, riots again occurred in Kazakhstan.

After the fall of the Wall, in January 1990 ethnic tensions between Armenians and Azerbaijanis – which had been escalating for years prior – exploded into open warfare, killing Soviet soldiers in Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital) in the process. Gorbachev sent troops into Baku to regain control, but eventually Azerbaijan along with the other republics was to break from the Soviet Union.

T-80UD tanks in the Red square during the 1991 soviet coup d’etat attempt. Location: Northern ramp of Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge (not exactly Red Square, some 200 meters south from its formal southern edge, with Nabatnaya tower in sight)

– Photo and caption from Wikipedia (public domain).

The last major event was the failed hardliners’ coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, before the USSR fell proper.

Yes, there were many other non-violent, even peaceful events and incidents across the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. But it would be a mistake to forget the political violence that occurred, that the break-up of the Soviet Union was anything but peaceful, and that state and societal collapse is less straightforward, and more significant than most people expect.

Look at the state of play between Russia and Ukraine now, and international politics in general.

Other days of September (post-9/11 stories)

I’ve posted about ‘September 11’ before, here and here. This post includes other links and stories.

Perhaps what I remember most about that day in September 2001 was the sheer ordinariness of it all.

I had gone to bed that night where I was in the southern hemisphere, and awoke the next day, 12 September, feeling that nothing particularly of interest would affect me that day. Boy, was I wrong. 

The events of 11 September 2001 may not have changed the world; rather, as many commentators have argued, it re-defined the relationship of the pre-eminent world power, the United States, to the rest of the world.

Sadly, the US has been asserting its power and influence to the detriment of peoples in other states long before that. In the southern hemisphere, Latin America has suffered the worst of it for quite some time. One occurred on 11 September, 1973.

Other days: Chile, 1973

Remembrance at the 40th anniversary of the right-wing military coup on 11 September that overthrew Salvador Allende turned ugly as some protestors clashed with police. The basic message of human decency and rights should not be forgotten, however. The CIA-backed coup and regime resulted in horrific human rights abuses, including enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

As Americans remember Sept. 11, 2001 with video montages, scattered candlelight vigils, and an avalanche of #neverforget Facebook and Twitter posts, Chileans are remembering a different 9/11—Sept. 11, 1973, the day a CIA-backed military coup ousted a democratically elected president with a right-wing strongman.

Tensions in the South American country have been rising for weeks in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the morning in 1973 that Chile’s military, with the secret support of the United States, flew fighter jets over Santiago and bombed its own presidential palace. Within hours, Chilean President Salvador Allende—Latin America’s first popularly elected socialist president—was dead. He was replaced by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, whose regime killed, tortured, and exiled tens of thousands of Chileans. For the next 17 years, Chileans lived under an economically prosperous dictatorship that showed little regard for human rights.

The regime of Augusto Pinochet lasted nearly 20 years. In a country still split by that legacy, the sister of one of the regime’s victims

Reyes Manriquez noted that it is not usually the families of the victims that cause trouble for the police; often, it is young people who have no direct memory of the dictatorship.

“The families have lived through enough violence,” she said

There are other things that the younger generations and victim-families can do — strive towards making sure that such things can never happen again, in their own country as well as others.

Other links

On the Syrian crisis and the humanitarian-interventionist concept known as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, openDemocracy has published a series of articles:

“This week we are launching a series of articles that address the usefulness and relevance of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine in the current debate over Syria. R2P was first proposed in 2001, in the wake of NATO’s controversial intervention in Kosovo.  As eventually endorsed by UN Member States in 2005, R2P provides that the international community, acting through the UN Security Council, should act decisively – including as a last resort through the use of force – to halt mass atrocities. But the divided Council’s manifest failure to do so in Syria – even in the face of mass atrocity, 100,000 killed, and millions forced to flee – calls into question the relevance of the doctrine, even as it reignites support for a more robust R2P to support non-UN authorized military action.

Justice in Conflict, on Syria, where not all deaths are treated equally:

Even if you have not watched the videos of the alleged chemical weapons attack, it is not difficult to understand the intense desire to do something about what is happening to civilians in the Syrian conflict. Tens of thousands of Syrians are now dead, and it is increasingly difficult for many to continue to look away from that conflict. But the fact that the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died begs the question: why the current intense need to punish Syrian actors for these particular deaths? Violating Syria’s sovereignty in response to deaths from the chemical weapons attack without a UN mandate is an illegal act just as is a military intervention launched outside the UN in response to these other deaths. So, despite the international law violations committed by Syrian actors against civilians throughout the conflict, why is the United States contemplating violating another set of international laws in this instance but not the others? Why act in the name of nearly 2000 deaths from chemical weapons and not for the tens of thousands killed by other means?

In The New York Review of Books, Peter Beinart writes about the cocoon that many American Jews unknowingly find themselves in:

I used to try, clumsily, to answer the assertions about Palestinians that so often consume the American Jewish conversation about Israel. But increasingly I give a terser reply: “Ask them.” That usually ends the conversation because in mainstream American Jewish circles, asking Palestinians to respond to the endless assertions that American Jews make about them is extremely rare. For the most part, Palestinians do not speak in American synagogues or write in the Jewish press. The organization Birthright, which since 1999 has taken almost 350,000 young Diaspora Jews—mostly Americans—to visit Israel, does not venture to Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank. Of the more than two hundred advertised speakers at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) 2013 Policy Conference, two were Palestinians. By American Jewish standards, that’s high. The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum earlier this year, which advertised sixty-four speakers, did not include a single Palestinian.

His earlier article, ‘The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment’, is worth a read too.

From Iraq to Iraq: Political violence, recently

Protestors in Malaysia: The ‘969’ anti-Muslim movement in Burma has been identified as the main instigator of violence against Muslims in that country. Photo courtesy of ForeignPolicy.com

Some links related to and around news about political violence over the past few weeks:

AMERICA’S FALLUJAH LEGACY: WHITE PHOSPHOROUS, DEPLETED URANIUM: THE FATE OF IRAQ’S CHILDREN

FALLUJAH, Iraq, Apr 13, 2012 (IPS) – At Fallujah hospital they cannot offer any statistics on children born with birth defects – there are just too many. Parents don’t want to talk. “Families bury their newborn babies after they die without telling anyone,” says hospital spokesman Nadim al-Hadidi. “It’s all too shameful for them.”

“We recorded 672 cases in January but we know there were many more,” says Hadidi. He projects pictures on to a wall at his office: children born with no brain, no eyes, or with the intestines out of their body.


Contextualizing Media Claims in Boston – Registan.net

In attempting to place Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnaev into the mould of the stereotypical “Islamic fundamentalist bomber,” the media used several facts and claims about the brothers that, in my opinion, don’t ring true or were taken out of the Chechen and post-Soviet context and, thus, were misunderstood. I would like to draw attention to several such facts (certainly not all) and clarify them. While these details may seem small, they helped to form an image of the Tsarnaev brothers in the public’s mind, simplifying complex motivations that may exist behind this attack. Words have connotations beyond their direct meanings, and so the choice of something as small as the wrong word can change how we perceive the facts: …


The wrong kind of Caucasian – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

Ethnicity is often used to justify violent behaviour. But no ethnicity is inherently violent. Even if the Tsarnaevs aligned themselves with violent Chechen movements – and as of now, there is no evidence they did – treating Chechen ethnicity as the cause of the Boston violence is irresponsible.

One hundred years ago, the violent act of one Polish-American caused a country to treat all Polish-Americans with suspicion. Now, the Poles have become “white” – which is to say they are largely safe from the accusations of treason and murderous intent that ethnic groups deemed non-white routinely face. When a Polish-American commits a crime, his ethnicity does not go on trial with him.

But this change is not a triumph for America. It is a tragedy that it happened to Poles then, and a greater tragedy that we have not learned our lesson and it happens still – to Hispanics, to Arabs, to Chechens, to any immigrant who comes here seeking refuge and finds prejudice instead.

Continue reading

The contemporary National Service conundrum (Part one of…infinity)

Two recent articles in Singapore’s TODAYonline caught my attention.

In the first, a commentary piece, Yolanda Chin discusses how and why National Service (NS, i.e. conscription) policies pertaining to male Permanent Residents (PRs) of the country should be changed, suggesting that such policies should adjust to the reality of “today’s new migrant” and complex, evolving social and global phenomena.

This, incidentally, comes on the backs of other ongoing issues regarding NS.

Now: Most male Singaporeans (especially) will notice the snazzy new digitalised camo uniforms, SAR-21 carbines, and the, uhh, fingerless gloves. Photo courtesy of TODAYonline.

Unlike today, the conscription of PRs was non-controversial when it was first introduced in the Enlistment Act of 1970.

There was no question then that citizens were better off than PRs; PRs were required to serve NS alongside citizens, even though state-sponsored benefits remained the exclusive preserve of citizens.

The readiness of these PRs to die for the defence of Singapore was due to the fact that they were stateless individuals displaced by Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, and they aspired for citizenship which few qualified for.


Statelessness was a condition
that allegedly led many (men) to consider – and fulfill – the obligations of citizenship then. Never mind that citizenship in a state should have been first and foremost seen and implemented as a human right, as per Article 15 of the UDHR – and not merely a framework for invoking a set of privileges and responsibilities in policymaking. (For further reading, case studies such as this on ‘Statelessness and the Benefits of Citizenship’ is useful to both get a broader picture as well as an idea of specific country situations.)

Continue reading