Who are the Rohingya?


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The plight of the Rohingya in Burma has yet again surfaced and momentarily captured international attention. Tens of thousands of Burma’s Muslim minority, residents of the western Burmese province of Rakhine, are fleeing across the border into Bangladesh to escape persecution. Typically, global attention has been fixated on ameliorating the immediate human tragedy while ignoring the deeper causes for the periodic unrest. As a result, there has been the inadvertent yet inevitable conflation of several fissures such as separatism, a fear of Islamism, and Buddhist nationalism; it has largely escaped notice that the Rohingya are often the targets of not just the Burmese military but also Rakhine Buddhists. The previous round of violence in 2012, for example, was precipitated by the military government’s move to grant many Rohingya citizenship (although the cassus belli was the gang rape of a Buddhist woman).

The latest spiral of violence began on August 25 when over 150 Rohingya terrorists launched a coordinated attack on a military base that housed the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion and 24 police stations across Rakhine. The predictable military reprisal has left tens of thousands homeless and some reports suggest that half the Rohingya population may have fled Burma. Two observations need to be made here: the first is the obvious that the roots of this violence go far back to even before Burmese independence in 1948, and the second is that the nature of the conflict has been shaped by external political realities and evolved over time.

Early Arakan was ruled by Indian kings and the province served as a launching point for Mauryan Buddhist missionaries on their way to Southeast Asia. The Muslim kingdom of Mrauk-U was established in 1430 with the help of the Bengal sultanate, though Islam is said to have reached the region by the tenth century. Arakan was only peripherally a part of the Burmese empire until 1784 when Mrauk-U fell to Bodawpaya of the Burmese Konbaung dynasty. However, a predominantly Buddhist socio-cultural milieu pulled Arakan in a manner that political suzerainty did not.

With the British annexation of Arakan into the Raj after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826 came the first modern waves of Muslim migration to avail of new agricultural opportunities. Returning local peasants who had fled the wars found that their land had been given away by the British to Bengali immigrants. So severe was the migration that Muslims, who constituted barely 10 percent of the population of Akyab (northern Rakhine) in 1869, were well over 33 percent by 1931. A 1941 British Report on Indian Immigration noted with some concern that the rapidly changing demographics “contained the seed of future communal troubles” and had foreboding remarks on the Islamicisation of Arakan.

World War II crystallised the cleavages between the migrant Muslims and the local Buddhists as the former sided with the British and the latter with the Japanese. By the end of the fighting, Muslims found themselves concentrated in Akyab while the rest of Arakan was held by the Buddhists. The brutality of modern war in the jungle created wounds between the communities that never healed and rumours began to surface that Akyab may be ceded by the British to Bengal to become part of the future state of (East) Pakistan than join Burma. There is no evidence this was considered seriously but both Archibald Wavell and Mohammad Ali Jinnah briefly flirted with the idea before turning it down.

Interestingly, Rakhine Buddhists, who are of a different ethnicity yet same religion from the majority Bamar, began an armed agitation for independence the same time the Rohingya were rebelling for a separate state in 1946. Yangon managed to remove the sting from these groups by the mid-1950s but over 50 armed ethnic groups remain in Burma and have been the targets of periodic offensives by the military. Many of the grievances of the Rakhine were resolved by the 1974 Burmese constitution; Prime Minister Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council renamed Arakan as Rakhine with the understanding that Burma is a federation of ethnicities. The same reforms rejected Rohingya appeals as it was argued that the term ‘Rohingya’ does not appear in any British document during their 122-year rule over Burma. The closest word to the term was ‘Rooinga,’ derived from Bengali and referring to geography rather than ethnicity.

In the 2010 elections, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party won 35 of the 44 seats in the state legislature; it also became the second-largest bloc in the national House of Nationalities, which they have used to give voice to Buddhist concerns across Burma.

Such terms were not extended the Rohingya for a couple of reasons. The 1948 citizenship law clearly stated that only those whose ancestors lived within the borders of present-day Burma before 1823 would be eligible for citizenship, disqualifying the enormous wave of migrants that settled in Arakan under the British. While critics have argued that the 1982 law would have allowed a gradual, three-generation process of assimilation by recognising different classes of citizenship for those who moved to Burma before 1948 – associate, naturalised, and full – this was poorly implemented in the provinces due to the Rakhine fear of Islamicisation among the Rohingya.

Reports have surfaced at regular intervals of ties between Burmese Muslims and Pakistani intelligence, al Qa’ida, the Taliban, and Saudi Wahhabists. Fearing the introduction of jihadist tendencies in their country, the Rakhine have campaigned hard – politically as well as violently – against bringing the Rohingya into the Burmese fold. In fact, there was uproar in Burma when the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party tried to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas prior to the 2010 elections to counter the success of the RNDP in the polls.

As Anthony Ware of Deakin University has argued, the Rohingya-Rakhine hostility can best be explained by Michalis Michael’s theory of a double minority complex. In such a situation, the majority in a country feel as if they are a threatened minority competing for territorial survival and nationalistic autonomy. The Rakhine feel overwhelmed by the constant and centuries-old religious and territorial encroachment by their Muslim neighbours, their own minority status with respect to the ruling Bamar majority, and the international media that is hell-bent on ignoring their concerns for the sake of political correctness.

The minority Rohingya view of history is that Arakan was never Burmese until 1784 and the Muslim Mrauk-U kingdom validates their claim to the region. According to the Rohingya, the population influx from Chittagong was not of new migrants but the return of Muslims who had fled Burmese occupation. With the demographic and military power balance skewed against them, the Rohingya feel intensely insecure in a Burmese national narrative they neither wish to partake in nor belong.

Although it is easy for outsiders to proffer solutions to the Rohingya imbroglio, this is ultimately a question for the Burmese themselves: for the Buddhists if they can live with their Muslim neighbours as part of their nation or at least imagine Burma as a multi-national state, and for the Rohingya, if they can let go of Islam’s perpetuity clause on real estate, its harsh exclusivity practices, and belong to an infidel nation without making demands for special considerations and rights. Even then, this question may continue to fester as Burma’s demographic composition alters and may have to be revisited in a generation. After all, democracy does not reward who is right but only who is more plentiful. In that case, all we would have accomplished is to kick another problem on to our descendants.


Energy’s Holy Grail One Step Closer


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The recent announcement by scientists of a major breakthrough in fusion research has gone largely unnoticed or with jaded acknowledgement among energy analysts. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center obtained a ten-fold increase in energy output from the Alcator (ALto CAmpo TORo, High Field Torus) C-Mod tokamak in an experimental run last year. The results were so exciting that researchers at the Joint European Torus in Britain decided to replicate them. Success has raised hopes that the first commercial fusion reactors might be on the horizon by the 2030s.

Nuclear fusion is considered by many to be the holy grail of energy, promising limitless clean energy with little to no waste production. Unlike fission, which splits atoms and releases excess binding energy from the daughter products, fusion combines atoms and uses energy left over from a more efficient atomic configuration. However, it has substantial challenges and promises made from optimism than engineering grounding in the early days of the nuclear age – such as Lewis Strauss’ famous 1954 declaration that electricity will become too cheap to meter in the future – have not yet panned out, causing scepticism among lay observers.

One challenge is that it is not easy to induce atoms into undergoing fusion. Incredibly high temperatures – at least 100 million degrees Celsius – and pressures are required to achieve it and scientists have often described the process as igniting a small sun on earth. This is achieved most commonly in one of two ways – inertial (ICF) and magnetic (MCF) confinement fusion. In the former, a high energy laser targets a pellet the size of a pinhead to heat and compress the fuel; in the latter, radio-frequency heating is used and the fuel is contained in a torus-shaped device known as a tokamak. The famous International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France, is an example of the latter.

Generating such temperatures is no easy feat but to contain it within the confines of a small reactor is even more challenging. The ICF design bypasses this need by focusing a very powerful laser onto a few atoms of fuel for ten billionths of a second; the high energy and short time frame means that the fuel pellet reacts before it can explode. MCF, however, confines the plasma in a tokamak with helical magnetic field geometry, usually achieved by using superconducting magnets to contain the fuel.

The most common fuel for fusion is protium and deuterium, two isotopes of hydrogen, or deuterium and another isotope of hydrogen, tritium. Scientists focus on the lower total density portion of the mixture that is usually 95 percent deuterium because it can heat up to much higher energies. The researchers at MIT, however, decided to create a three-ion mixture with trace amounts, less than one percent, of helium-3 in the fuel. The energy output, in the realm of mega electron volts, has allowed scientists to study how such high energy ions behave under fusion conditions and how they might best be contained.

Despite decades of experimentation, it is still difficult to maintain plasma at sufficient temperatures for long enough to achieve efficient energy output. However, the tri-fuel is an exciting step in that direction. The results will allow researchers to make predictions about other fuel ratios and combinations that might yield even better energy output at lower energies.

Nonetheless, nuclear fusion is a technology that has always been around the corner for decades and present optimism regarding commercial fusion reactors within the next two decades should also be considered with caution. The Alcator C-Mod, for example, was mothballed soon after the successful testing of the helium-doped fuel. Substantial financial commitments will need to be made and results are still a long way from commercially viable.

Second, as scientists begin to maintain plasma in a high energy stage for longer periods (the longest period so far is six and half minutes by the French Tore Supra tokamak), new demands might be made on technology to withstand such intense heat and pressure for commercially viable duration. It is important to note that even with the latest energy output breakthrough, no fusion reaction has yet produced more energy than was required to initiate a reaction – the Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for this at 70 percent of input power. ITER hopes to push these boundaries of time and energy further.

Third, a regulatory framework will have to be created for safe operation. This will take time for a new technology and the cost of an insufficient safety environment could be high. Four, with so many unknowns about technology and regulations, it is as yet difficult to ascertain the economic viability of fusion reactors.

This is not to say that nuclear fusion is impractical or unviable. However, much like renewable energy and energy storage, it is a promise of times to come rather than an offer of immediate solutions to climate change and energy scarcity. That part of the nuclear spectrum remains the Gen III+ reactors and Gen IV designs such as molten salt reactors, thorium fuel, and small modular reactors that are awaiting only market confidence.

Fusion research is very promising and must be pursued with earnest. As one scientist explained it, fusion plasma performance has increased by a factor of 10,000 over 50 years; research is now less than a factor of 10 away from producing the core of a fusion power plant. However, it cannot be an excuse for inaction towards cleaner energy now. This is not a complicated concept – like in any other industry, current products must be optimised until new designs enter the market. The MIT experiment takes us that much closer to achieving limitless clean energy with virtually no toxic byproduct.

The Emperor’s New Words


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President Donald Trump’s speech on Monday in which he declared a new American policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia is a postmodern masterpiece – you can choose beforehand how you want to respond and find something in the address to validate your decision. The announcement was awaited with some trepidation by US and South Asia observers, accustomed by now to the 45th US president’s unceasing social and policy gaffes, but there was ultimately little need for concern at the end of the night.

The new US policy jettisons the previous administration’s phased withdrawal that was beholden to the calendar and instead replaces it with a withdrawal policy that considers local political and security conditions. This is exactly what regional observers had stressed to Washington over the years but had been disregarded by a weary Foggy Bottom that was eager to extricate itself from a war that did not seem to have any end in sight. “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump declared, reminding everyone of the American experience in Iraq where too rapid a US withdrawal precipitated in part the resurgence of terrorism and the birth of ISIS; scheduled US withdrawal from Afghanistan had caused a similar upswing in the Taliban’s fortunes.

While the Obama administration was willing to saddle the region with America’s mess, Trump has gone back to the thinking of George W Bush: a secure, stable Afghanistan and US withdrawal were desirable but in that order. In that sense, Trump’s new direction is actually a return to an old plan that had been abandoned by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The reasoning, Trump said, was that the security threats in the region were immense and the United States sought an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the sacrifices made.

Trump’s words will be met with approval in Afghanistan and India but with frustration back home. Despite near-total support among US parliamentarians (Senate: 98 ayes, 0 nays, 2 abstentions; House: 420 ayes, 1 nay, 10 abstentions), involvement in Afghanistan has steadily lost support among ordinary Americans over the years. Now, many would rather wash their hands off and forget about the whole misadventure than see it to an unforeseeable conclusion. The fundamental premise of Trump’s strategy – the use of military force to create a favorable political situation – was felt wanting by many the last time around.

Reminiscent of the George W Bush years, Trump emphasised that the United States was not there to “dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society” but as “a partner and a friend.” Afghans would be ultimately responsible for their own future, the United States did not want to build nations but kill terrorists.

More frustrating for many analysts was the lack of detail in the president’s Monday night address. Trump did not suggest what success in Afghanistan might look like nor did he mention any other details of how his administration was going to tame Afghanistan. To Delhi’s certain chagrin, who has consistently railed against the American concept of good and bad terrorists, the US president did not close the door on a negotiated settlement with the Taliban: “Someday,” Trump said, “after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.” India can only hope that US estimation of what “effective military effort” entails would be maximal.

Trump’s address comes in the wake of news that the United States is redeploying 4,000 additional soldiers to join the 8,400 already present in the country. This number will be seen as insufficient in some quarters and as unnecessary in others.

What has probably attracted most comments about Trump’s Afghan policy is his statements on Pakistan. Calling out Pakistan’s practice of providing safe havens for terrorist activity on its soil while taking billions in US aid, the president warned that the United States can no longer remain passive on such perfidy. The threat is worse, Trump warned, because Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and its actions cause tense relations in the neighbourhood that may well spiral into conflict. With uncharacteristic grace, Trump softened his rebuke by recollecting the Islamic republic’s contributions and sacrifices to the mission in Afghanistan.

Trump’s public rebuke to Pakistan has no doubt gladdened hearts in Afghanistan and India, where the afterbirth of Indian independence is seen as the greatest instigator of terrorism in its neighbouring realms. Peace in Afghanistan, many academics, bureaucrats, and politicians – from the United States as well as India and Afghanistan – have repeatedly stressed, can be achieved only after Pakistan has been effectively dealt with.

There is no cause for optimism, however. Trump is not the first US president to criticise Pakistan – and there have been countless other officials and analysts – for its links to terrorism and extremism and will unlikely be the last. Obama did the same – multiple times – and Bush ’43, Bill Clinton, and George HW Bush were all troubled about Islamabad’s ties to the Taliban and its support for terrorists in Kashmir. None of this concern manifested itself in any concrete manner and the United States continued to call Pakistan an ally in the global war on terror. Trump’s own flip-flop on China from campaign to presidency gives little reassurance that this time will be different.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Trump’s speech was his call upon India to do more in Afghanistan economically. In the past, the United States has usually sought a greater Indian military role in Central Asia but Trump’s call is a rare exception. Delhi’s military aloofness from Afghanistan has been criticised by many, myself included, in the past but it has been active in Afghanistan’s social and political recovery. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, India has extended over $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan, making it the fifth-largest donor to the country. Delhi has built roads, schools, hospitals, dams, and other vital infrastructure in its war-ravaged neighbour. The US president’s criticism of India in this regard is therefore puzzling.

What has jarred some observers, at least on Twitter, is Trump’s blatant and crass linking of Indian economic contributions to Afghanistan to the trade surplus it runs with the United States. The US president’s penchant of seeing the world through a prism of economic transactionality notwithstanding, it is unclear what the Trump administration’s larger economic role for India in Afghanistan specifically entails beyond the South Asian country’s already generous efforts.

What was left out of the Trump blueprint for Afghanistan is as interesting as what was said. One word the president did not mention at all is Islam, either as provocation or as platitude. The omission is striking because one of the first moves of this new US presidency was to restrict the entry of Muslims from certain countries into the United States. Although Pakistan was not in that original list, US visas have become harder to obtain even for legitimate visitors such as the Afghan robotics team in July.

A more consequential absence is China, widely accepted as Pakistan’s new godfather. Although the Trump White House is yet to publicly formulate how it intends to win Islamabad’s cooperation, it is unlikely that any coercion will succeed without some assistance from Beijing. And succour will not be coming from China, who has already proven unhelpful over North Korea, and feels threatened by Washington’s build-up of India and challenged by American proxies in the South China Sea. Although Beltway wisdom has been keen on impressing upon the president the seriousness of the Russian threat, China appears to be the one stuck in America’s craw.

Trump’s speech on Monday marks no new direction for American policy towards Afghanistan though it might still be celebrated as slightly more sensible than the earlier one to hie. As with all US presidents, it will be interesting to watch how Trump squares the Pakistani circle, especially now with China on stage. While success is doubtful, India and Afghanistan can at least hope that US policies will increase the pressure on Pakistan – a better alternative to sitting back and doing nothing.