News readers across the world suddenly discovered that Timbuktu actually exists. Unfortunately this was for the wrong reasons.
The half baked war to topple Muammar Gaddafi did topple the world’s longest serving non-royal ruler and few tears are being shed for his grisly demise. However, the fallout still reverberates over the Sahel. The mercurial Gaddafi had a romantic fondness for the Tuareg people. Libyan oil largess was spent in the region and the Tuareg were recruited as mercenaries for a dictator who was careful not to arm his people. The Tuareg of Libya were one of the only Libyan ethnicities (other than Gaddafi’s own tribe) to stick with him till the bitter end and Gaddafi’s dauphin Saif was captured as he tried to flee to Tuareg territory.
As the fighting in Libya drew to a close, many of the Tuareg mercenaries returned home. They brought along the military equipment Gaddafi paid for. The result has been turmoil in the region. In Mali, one of the relatively long lived democracies in the region, it turned a simmering rebellion into a hot civil war. The Tuareg inflicted a series of reverses on the poorly equipped and led Malian army. The frustrated soldiers mutinied and almost accidentally launched a coup.
This leaves Mali’s erstwhile allies in the horns of a dilemma. Without the cold war to rationalize it, supporting dictators is a no no – even for Mali’s African neighbors. Even though the coup leaders have promised to restore democracy (at an unspecified time) and not try to retain power, aid has been cut off. Then there is the ugly military reality on the ground. The legendary city of Timbuktu fell to the rebels this week. It appears very unlikely that Mali, even with the assistance of West African neighbors, can win the territory back by force.
For now the Tuareg in Mali are content with their ethnic homeland. But the conflagration could spread with regional involvement sparking a Tuareg revolt in Niger, Algeria and Libya. Even if the fighting does not spread, Mali is effectively partitioned by force.
In the post colonial era the African Union elected to suppress an ethnic free for all by retaining colonial borders. Secessionist movements like Katanga and Biafra were strongly discouraged. Even though Eritrea could claim an exception as an Italian colony before World War II, it took 45 years and the fall of the communist Derg in Ethiopia for Eritrea to break free. The effective partition of Somalia into three parts is ignored as if it does not exist. South Sudan has been the one carve-out from the colonial borders that has been grudgingly accepted. Now Mali could be the next. And accepting a Tuareg homeland creates the type of uncertainty that causes Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran to collude in preventing an independent Kurdish state.
This was not what the world wanted to see in the aftermath of toppling Muammar Gaddafi. The risks had been noted, but had largely been ignored. Now Mali reaps the whirlwind.
It should serve as a cautionary tale for the current drumbeat to get involved in the Syrian ethnic quagmire. The Assad regime is vile, but the Alawite, Shiite and Christian communities of Syria fear the alternative of a Sunni dominated regime. The Saudis who had no qualms in crushing a Shiite rebellion against the Sunni al-Khalifa despots in Bahrain have cynically become the apostles of human rights for the largely Sunni Syrian rebels. And the bomb everybody trio in the United States Senate (Messers. McCain, Lieberman and Graham) are chomping at the bit to suck the United States into another ethnic quagmire.
Good intentions can have unintended consequences. Beware those who would launch us into costly wars without weighing the consequences.
In 1990 the Burmese junta announced elections and decided to take on the recently returned charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi at the ballot box. To the surprise of most observers the elections were free and fair and not rigged. The result was a resounding victory of the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy. The stunned generals reacted petulantly and nullified the elections results. Ms. Suu Kyi spent 15 of the next 22 years under house arrest. Even when not under arrest she was not free and refused to leave the country for the legitimate fear that a return would be blocked.
Over the next 22 years the already isolated Burmese nation became an international pariah. Aung San Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize and became the conscience of the suppressed Burmese people. During the last two decades Myanmar’s secessionists wars continued. The junta displayed its brutality in suppressing widespread protests spearheaded by the respected Buddhist monks and its incompetence during Cyclone Nargis. In these years Myanmar became the latest international pariah befriended by a cynical China eager to harvest abundant Burmese resources. Unwilling to see another neighbor become a Chinese satellite, India swallowed its distaste and permitted economic ties with the Burmese junta. For all the bravery of the Burmese monks and the dignity of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar was the land the rest of the world largely gave up on.
And suddenly this year things changed. Possibly fearing life as a Chinese puppet and worried about its long term future, the junta sent out feelers to Ms. Suu Kyi and her supporters and transferred power to a nominally civilian government. Even though the 650 seat parliament is dominated by the uniforms it announced elections for 45 seats. As an additional carrot, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to run.
Even with attempts to rig the elections, it appears that the National League for Democracy may have won 44 of the 45 seats. If the result holds up, it is a stinging rebuke to the junta. The question is what happens next. The junta obviously has no legitimacy and for now will have given up control of less than 7% of parliament. Hosni Mubarak held on to power in Egypt for almost three decades by allowing the opposition to nibble at the edges of parliament. But until two years ago Hosni Mubarak never faced such a debacle at the ballot box. For the second time in 22 years the Burmese people have shown their contempt for the junta at the ballot box.
So will the generals fade away quietly into the good night? What assurances will the NLD be willing to give to hasten this transition? Given the thumping the junta has taken in what should have been its pampered strongholds, how much control do they retain on the rank and file? It is a time for statesmanship of the sort that allowed Spain in 1975 and Chile in 1989 to transition to democracy. Will the characters on stage step up?
This blog vented last week on Pakistan’s misplaced priorities in accounting for how Osama Bin Laden ended up in the cantonment town of Abbotabad. The farce continues. Now Osama Bin Laden’s widows and two of his adult daughters (who have been in custody since last May and formally arrested March 3) have been sentenced to 45 days in prison (with credit for time served) and fined about $110 each. The crime? Illegally entering Pakistan. After serving their sentences the women, and presumably their progeny, will be deported to their home countries.
No news on whether Pakistan’s crack investigative teams have come up with an explanation on how the women ended up in Abbotabad to begin with. The Pakistan farce continues.