Guest Column

The Vicious Cycle of Extreme Nationalism

By Igor Blazevic 8 April 2013

Following the wave of anti-Muslim violence that swept through parts of central Burma late last month, 88 Generation leaders came forward with an important statement. At a press conference on March 29, Min Ko Naing said it was “very clear” that the riots did not represent a communal conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, but that they were instigated by “well-trained terrorists.”

I learned the same painful lesson in my own Bosnia in the early 90s. Ethnic cleansing is never done by the spontaneous violence of a “mob” or by grassroots communities that allegedly hate each other. It is usually the work of well-trained paramilitary groups organized by elements of the security apparatus. Their task is to do the dirty work without showing the direct link with the regular forces, officials and their political patrons.

What happened in the former Yugoslavia cannot be mechanically used to explain what is happening in Burma. But the role which paramilitaries (“well-trained terrorists”) played in the former Yugoslavia and the way they interacted with the regular army is a chilling warning for all responsible people in Burma, whether they sit in the government, Parliament, opposition, media or civil society.

Ethnic cleansing is a logistically and organizationally complex operation which cannot happen without the tacit involvement of at least some elements of the state apparatus. Nationalistic intellectuals, zealot religious leaders and “patriotic” media play their role as well, but it is the visible and invisible power apparatus of the post-authoritarian state which is an indispensable co-player.

I do not know who is responsible for the terrifying events in Burma and I cannot make any indications based on the parallels with the former Yugoslavia. But there are lessons learned which offer relevant warnings.

Nationalism as Authoritarianism’s Last Line of Defense

With democratization, tense ethnic relations are usually the first skeleton out of the closet. With political opening, the grievances and demands of the suppressed and discriminated groups surface in an open space characterized by a multi-party system, free media and freedom of association. Many of these demands and grievances fuel passionate nationalism which can create a lot of pressure on emerging democratic institutions.

But there is another type of nationalism that is much more dangerous for emerging democracies. In many places, nationalism, sometimes in its extreme form, became the last defense of the previous authoritarian structures. Allow me tell the story of how Slobodan Milosevic used nationalism to prolong the rule of the communist party and what price was paid by the nations of the former Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was not a part of the Soviet bloc, but it was a communist country. With the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, even the relatively soft communist rule in Yugoslavia could not hold any more.

Communist parties were basically confronted with two choices. One was to abandon their leading role and transform themselves into socialist parties. They could accept the rules of democratic competition and face a highly probable defeat in the first free elections. But by becoming part of the opposition, former repressive communist parties could clean their own ranks and put forward more competent technocrats and managers. Meanwhile, the new parties elected in the first free and fair elections would soon disappoint their voters. Former dissidents would prove to be less than capable, and daily politics would compromise their popularity. Then the former communist, now socialist, center-left parties stood a good chance of winning the second or third elections after the democratic change. If we look into the transition trajectories of many ex-communist European countries, this is what happened.

Another option the communist parties had was to cling to power at any cost. That was the road that Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian Communist Party took. Communism had evaporated and gone, but the well-organized party machinery was still there and it had control over the economy and media as well as over the army, police and secret services.

Managers of the factories and agricultural farms, directors of banks, heads of trade companies, chief editors and general directors of television and national radio stations, generals in the army, heads of the police, spies and the secret police officers who had for decades persecuted members of the opposition were all afraid of what the change would bring for them. Milosevic offered them survival and ongoing positions in power, as well as a “piece of the cake” in the privatization. They were ready to follow.

The self-preserving interest of the former privileged class of mid- and higher-ranking party members and technocrats would not suffice to generate enough votes to win free multi-party elections. The “apparatus” still controlled all important tools of state power, but it did not have an ideology or any positive image to offer to the voters. The easiest and the most effective new ideology was nationalism.

The Role of Nationalistic Intellectuals and “Patriotic” Media

In order to unite people behind the president and the ruling party, it was necessary to create an atmosphere of fear and anger. The first move of the ex-regime, which still controlled the media and public space, was to let nationalistic intellectuals and religious leaders out of the shadow where they were kept for decades. Suddenly, people who were before persecuted for their nationalistic and religious beliefs started to appear on TV, make public speeches, hold debates and write in the print media. They talked mainly about old historic grievances, including all the injustices and crimes that the “others” had done to “us.”

The atmosphere in the society started to heat up. The revived nationalism of “one side” found the other side ready to respond with their own sense of nationalism. The “others,” too, had their own (his)stories and their own grievances. They had their own writers and intellectuals fostering their collective memory and identity. They also had their own aspiring politicians preparing themselves for the first post-authoritarian, “democratic” elections. Many of them were ex-communists.

Old injustices and crimes committed by “others” upon “us” and the stories of our past glory were successful in energizing the public because they were presented in large doses by the new and dynamic private and “free” media. The public was totally unprepared for such an onslaught. They were only used to the old type of dull socialist state propaganda. New private media offered them a magnetic mix of entertainment, showbiz, gossip, manipulative tricks of the yellow papers and well-dosed political messages packaged in a “patriotic” wrapping.

Extreme nationalistic parties were allowed to emerge as well, with at least some of them being led by former secret agents. Their inflammatory rhetoric just increased the level of what was allowed to be said. Communists-turned- nationalists let the smaller dogs bark first, and let them bark as loudly as they could. Mistrust between different ethnic groups started to grow even more.

Murky Rape Case as a Trigger

However, all of this would not be enough to win the elections. It was necessary to rub new salt into old wounds. What you need next is a trigger event, some ugly incident. Then you need to repeatedly broadcast images of that ugly, outrageous event through the media. Even normally cautious, reasonable and moderate people became blind to reality and ready to volunteer for self-defense or army units. They became ready to go and kill others and to burn their houses.

The alleged rape case of a Serbian villager Djordje Martinovic was one such trigger event used to bolster Milosevic’s popularity and mobilize almost the whole Serbian nation behind him. Allegedly, the Serbian villager was kidnapped by Kosovo Albanian radicals, who raped him with a beer bottle. The whole story was pretty murky and until today nobody knows what really happened. But for the Serbian nationalists and “patriotic” media, there was no doubt that the perpetrators were Albanians and that all Serbs were endangered.

International criticism of Milosevic’s discriminatory policies in Kosovo just helped to deepen the feeling among the majority of Serbs that they were a nation under threat, encircled by enemies from within and outside. Anybody who dared to criticize Milosevic’s policies or to challenge him in the political arena was simply branded as a “traitor of the nation.” There was no space for democratic competition or democratic dialogue between different opinions. What remained were only “they” and “us.” “Us” meant all people uncritically uniting behind the country’s leaders.

The Complementary Roles of the Army and Paramilitaries

Interaction between the regular army and paramilitaries played a crucial role in executing ethnic cleansing. For many foreign observers, it was easiest to conclude that the horrific acts that characterized this episode in late 20th century European history were the result of ancient hatreds between Balkan “tribes” that have always fought and slaughtered each other. But there was nothing irrational in the ethnic cleansing tested first in Croatia, and then applied on a massive scale in Bosnia and Kosovo. On the contrary, ethnic cleansing was a highly rational, planned and well-organized endeavor. Prominent members of the other community were targeted and horrific crimes were committed publicly, so that everybody else would flee en masse. Houses were burnt down or bulldozered, so that there was no property left to be reclaimed later on. All religious, cultural and historic monuments needed to be reduced to dust, leaving no trace of the “others” ever being present on what should be our and only our territory.

Paramilitaries were well-equipped and highly mobile units consisting of elements of ex-intelligence officers, former soldiers in foreign mercenary armies, criminals released from prisons, football fans and unemployed youth. The paramilitaries were often joined by the local mob, which was keen to take part in killing, raping and looting.

The army was also deployed, but at least in the beginning, it did not take part in the killing and burning. It was deployed to “bring security and protection,” to “calm things down,” as it was said. In reality, the role of the army was to control the militarily strategic points; to secure roads and other important infrastructure; to block the entrance of any unwelcome intruders, such as journalists, activists or observers (paramilitaries were free to move as they liked); to block any attempts to arm or organize the targeted minority population; to manage the mass flow of the people; and finally, to secure the territory once it was “cleaned” of “others.”

With paramilitaries doing the dirty work, the military, government and president Milosevic could always say to the international community and domestic audience that they were not responsible, that they were doing all they could to calm the situation. The “problems,” they said, were created by local self-defense groups, which were provoked by the attacks of others.

At a certain point, it was no longer necessary to fabricate stories about rapes and killings. Such occurrences became real and were happening on a massive scale. “Our” forces committed horrific crimes against the “others,” but the “others” did not remain passive victims. They organized themselves as well and retaliated with the same ferocity against “our” defenseless civilians. Domestic, “patriotic” media never reported about the atrocities committed by our own paramilitaries and our own drunken mobs. But “our” media were quick to report about the crimes committed by others. This created even more fear and anger, which meant even more readiness to “defend” our endangered nation by killing and expelling others.

This is how the vicious cycle of extreme nationalism rolled through the former Yugoslavia for a decade. In the meantime, Milosevic and his now “socialist” party won without any problems presidential and parliamentary elections in 1990, 1992 and 1997. For almost a whole decade, Milosevic was the popularly elected president. The price paid for former communists staying in power in Serbia for 10 more years was the break-up of the country and four aggressive wars. Two hundred thousand lost their lives, thousand of villages were burned, cities were shelled by heavy artillery, millions of people were ethnically cleansed from their land and homes and the economy was completely destroyed.

Finally, Milosevic was toppled in a popular uprising led by the Serbian youth movement Otpor (Resistance) and by a united opposition that reacted strongly when he tried to steal 2000 elections. He was handed over to the International Court in The Hague to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He died in his cell from a heart attack before the court case against him came to a conclusion.

To avoid any misunderstandings, let me conclude that I do not want to draw a parallel between Milosevic, the Butcher of the Balkans, and President Thein Sein. What I wanted to share is that ethnic cleansing does not happen out of the blue and as a spontaneous eruption of communal violence. Ethnic cleansing—and what is happening in Burma with its Muslim population has all the parameters of ethnic cleansing—is usually prepared in advance through “psychological warfare” and cannot happen without the involvement of at least some elements of the state apparatus.

To break the vicious circle of extreme nationalism before it is too late, courageous and responsible initiatives by civil society leaders such as Min Ko Naing and his 88 Generation colleagues are not enough. Civil society, respected personalities, moderate religious leaders, responsible media and the opposition can and should help to reject violence and call for calm. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government and state not to let ethnic cleansing happen on its territory and to stop with quick and decisive action all state and non-state forces which are instigating it.

Igor Blazevic is a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin and the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.