India’s Bilateral Turn (or, why IR scholars need to get out more)

The Hindu has its Year in Review overviews of different topics for 2016. Suhasini Haider’s piece on Indian diplomacy makes the point that India is moving away from multilateralism toward bilateralism as Modi tries to position India is a very uncertain international environment. This is not a vague move; it is quite explicit:”“Global blocs and alliances are less relevant today and the world is moving towards a loosely arranged order,” said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar in an address to the press this year” (from the article).

2016 and, I suspect, 2017 strike me as showing the further fracturing of an international order that many international relations scholars, particularly those emerging from the liberal institutionalist tradition, viewed as inextricably moving toward ever greater institutionalization and “rules-based” governance. Something that I think many of these scholars missed is how deeply this order did not appear particularly “rules-based” to rising , non-Western powers like India. They have had incentives to engage with, and try to benefit from, this order, but view it as stacked against them from its very origins – a way to keep the US, Europe, and other American allies on top, articulated through hypocritical rhetoric and gauzy self-regard. Now as American and European power declines amid domestic political chaos in both, it should be no surprise that the rising powers will try to substantially shift which institutions matter and how they work. The seemingly-natural, obvious world of the 1990s, and the intellectual projects it fostered, are collapsing around us.

I don’t know if this blindness to the profound fragility of the 1990s-style order was because of institutionalist scholars’ deep normative commitment to a vision of an institutionalized world operating through robust organizations, or because most American IR scholars don’t spend much (any?) time doing research outside of America. Either way, it strikes me as a good reason to get out and talk to scholars, analysts, policymakers, and everyday citizens in other countries, read their work, and try to see the world through the eyes of others.  What seems like a straightforward, technocratic, functional solution to people sitting in Princeton, DC, and Chicago often seems like a form of obviously distributional conflict to those in Delhi or Beijing.

Revolutionary Courage

From C.A. Chandraprema’s book on the second JVP revolt, discussing the JVP’s use of coerced demonstrations in 1989, which were often be fired upon by security forces (p. 279):
“The JVP cadres who ordered the villagers out, however never went in front but always stayed in the rear so that they would not get killed in the forces did open fire. . . . the logic behind this was that the patriots had a duty to live in order to fulfil [sic] the great task of national liberation and could not afford to take unnecessary risks”

More on Rohingya insurgency

This by Bertil Lintner in The Irrawaddy. An interesting note on how to sort through claims of violence and abuse emanating from murky conflict zones (and Mathieson is no shill for the Burma Army. . .):

“Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has released genuine pictures of villages that have been burned down in Arakan State and other confirmed reports of abuses, has had to be careful to sort fact from fiction. According to David Mathieson, who has covered human rights abuses for HRW for 15 years, said many photos and videos they had been sent were “crude fakes.” By doing so, some Rohingya-support groups are actually undermining the work of internationally-recognized human rights organizations such as HRW. “One bad set of reporting gives the government ammunition to smear serious rights reporting and discredit professional reports,” said Mathieson. “It also shows that social media can be misused as a platform for transmitting information of complex human rights issues and users should automatically question every report and image instead of immediately posting anguish and invective. Too often people feed off their emotions during crises, and don’t rely on balanced reporting.””


Emerging Rakhine insurgency

I don’t know what to make of the surging violence in Rakhine/Arakan state, and I’m no expert on that area. The conflict seems shrouded in opacity and dubious government claims, against a backdrop of sustained human rights abuses. All of which is to say, I don’t have any way to know if this new International Crisis Group piece in Time is right or not, but I found it very informative:

“The group refers to itself as Harakah al-Yaqin, or Faith Movement in Arabic. It was established following the 2012 deadly riots between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012, which killed some 200 people and displaced over 120,000, almost all of them Muslim. Most have long been denied citizenship and face draconian restrictions on freedom of movement — limiting their access to government services and jobs.

This new armed group is overseen by a committee of Rohingya émigrés based in Mecca. . . .

Though there have been some small insurgent groups in recent decades, mostly based out of Bangladesh, in Burma — which is officially called Myanmar — the Rohingya have never been a radicalized population, and the majority have eschewed violence, seeing it as counterproductive to improving their lot. But impoverished and oppressed, they struggle to survive and have little hope for their future; over the past year, the sense of desperation has been increasing. The fact that more people in northern Arakan are now embracing violence reflects deep policy failures over many years, rather than any sort of inevitability.”


Violence data and analytical aggregation in S. Asia

These passages from (1) Jagath Senaratne’s book on political violence in 1977-1990 Sri Lanka (p. 146) and (2) Nandini Sundar’s new book on anti-Naxalite counterinsurgency in Bastar (p. 209) provide a lot of food for thought:

1) “evaluating conditions in the southern areas of the country in late 1989, Amnesty International reported that:

‘Violence is now so widespread that it is often difficult to establish with certainty who the agents of specific killings were – or even to identify the victims whose bodies are sometimes grossly mutilated, burned to ashes or transported long distances form the scene of arrests or abduction before being dumped” (Amnesty International (ASA 37/21/89) 1989:5).’

The confused, unstable, and dangerous situation led many to believe that the violence was random and meaningless. The imputations of randomness by some observers (mainly journalists) was a result of an inability to see the many different strands of violence: ‘The Violence’ was, in fact, a bundle composed of many separate strands of violence.”

2) this is Sundar interviewing a former policeman in Chhattisgarh:

“Me: Were all these Naxalites [people shot in Bijapur]?

Ex-policeman: Of course not. None of them were Naxalites. Sometimes an SPO would point out someone and tell us to shoot, sometimes we shot simply because the villager was running away and refused to stop when we called out. We call out in whichever language we knew – Telugu, Hindi, but the villagers didn’t understand.

Me: Did you record those deaths somewhere?

Ex-policeman: [Sounding shocked]. Our jobs would be in trouble if we did. We left the bodies in the jungles. We recorded it as an encounter only if someone was actually wearing a uniform or carrying a weapon. I personally never killed anyone, but if by chance my bullet hit anyone in an encounter, I hate to think of it.”

Two things are going on here. The first is the extraordinary difficulty of gathering clear, accurate data on patterns of violence.  I have found this in great detail on my own Sri Lanka research – even getting the Army and, now, Police fatalities data only captures a tiny amount of the overall violence, much of which didn’t involve security forces. In India, the only data I even vaguely trust is the self-reporting of their own deaths by the security forces; Drew Stommes and I are doing a lot on MHA and state police records.

Yet, as Anit Mukherjee has shown in the case of the Indian Army, even those are open to question. Press accounts are deeply problematic, since the press has limited or no reach into numerous physical and social spaces in conflict zones, self-censors or is intimidated, and/or is otherwise politicized. Talking to journalists in Kashmir and Nagaland has been revelatory on these questions.

So while there are hugely impressive micro-level events data projects ongoing that should be supported and encouraged, they are likely to be limited to a set of contexts that are well-studied and well-covered in the contemporary period or have unusually good primary documentation. That, I suspect, captures only a small, non-representative, subset of the universe of cases.

The second is Senaratne’s analytical claim that, despite these challenges, there are distinguishable logics of violence within this opaque political environment. The open question this then begs is how we can pursue these logics in the face of the first problem. I don’t have a great answer. At a minimum, I would suggest that we make sure to not equate the study of micro-level events data with the study of political violence. Aggregating up to meso- or macro-level politics may be the only tractable strategy in the cases where this is an insurmountable challenge.

Moreover, this move can offer distinctive theoretical leverage on the broader political incentives and contexts facing individuals and communities: the elite politics of national leaders, the bureaucratic politics of security institutions, the electoral politics of local political competition, etc. These tend to be taken for granted as natural, fixed features of politics in much recent literature, but they themselves are hugely variable. A turn to the micro has been enormously valuable, but I suspect we’re at a point in which disaggregation is hitting the flat of the curve in some domains. There is an opportunity to scale back up, and to bring bigger picture politics back in while retaining a sensitivity to the complexities and importance of micro-dynamics.

Uyangoda on Sri Lanka’s future

Jayadeva Uyangoda is an astute critical examiner of Sri Lanka’s politics. In this piece in Groundviews he offers a disquieting prognosis of the country’s current predicament:

“Particularly sad is the ways in which President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe are ruining whatever little that remains in the political potential of their yahapalanaya (’good governance’) regime. President Sirisena is doing it with a little loyalty to the constituencies that enabled him to win the presidential election in January 2015. He has been going after the mirage of establishing his leadership over the SLFP, which fought tooth and nail to defeat him at the last presidential election. The Prime Minister is doing it by deploying a deadly combination of personal arrogance, managerial incompetence and school-boyish skills for trivialising crucial issues of governance.

Meanwhile, ever since the Sri Lankan voters toppled the Rajapaska regime January last year, the possibility of the autocratic, corrupt and unrepentant combination of Rajapaksa brothers defining again the path of the country’s politics as well as the terms of political discourse is now becoming real.

In parallel and certainly more seriously, less than two years in power, the dark side of the yahapalanaya regime is getting gradually institutionalised and also increasingly exposed.

Looking at Sri Lanka’s current politics with a definite sense of unease, I detect four disquieting trends in the country’s current politics.

The first is the regime’s unchecked alienation from its own constituencies. This process has been hastened by the continuing disregard that the government’s two leaders and their ministers – actual number of the latter is anybody’s guess – demonstrate towards the mandate of reform and good governance which the electorate gave them at the presidential and parliamentary elections, held last year. The shallowness of the regime’s commitment to its own promises can no longer be concealed.

The second is the lack of political direction for the regime which both the President and the Prime Minister have failed to provide. Judging by their regular public speeches, one can only conclude that these two gentlemen do not seem to have the political and intellectual capacity even to comprehend their own failures in power. Worst, they seem to be rejoicing over, and even proud of, their inability to be self-critical.

Third is the re-emergence of the defence establishment as a key and silent player in re-shaping and undermining some crucial public policy commitments which the yahapalanayaregime made last year. If the regime change last year re-calibrated the lopsided civil-military relations in Sri Lanka in favour of some measure of democratic equilibrium, that crucial good governance trend is now halted, largely, as it seems, at the behest of the presidential secretariat.

The fourth is the increasing possibility of the Rajapaksa brothers, backed by a remobilisation of Sinhalese nationalist constituencies within both the state and in society, pushing the regime to a state of paralysis and chaos. The yahapalanaya leadership does not show any capacity, or even willingness, to counter this threat.”