Category Archives: democracy

Kyrgyz–Uzbek Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4129-4150:

After much huffing and puffing about his popularity, Bakiyev flew into exile, vacating his ceremonial tent on the edge of Jalalabad. He and his associates and relatives now face criminal prosecution in Kyrgyzstan on charges that include murder and corruption. Hours after Bakiyev escaped, a crowd of protesters set his sprawling family home on fire. Though Batyrov says the place was already burning by the time his men arrived, the prevalent view in Kyrgyzstan is that it was Batyrov’s Uzbeks who did it. “I told them, ‘Don’t touch the house, it belonged to Bakiyev’s grandfather, and he’s a veteran of World War II,’” Ashukan Saparova, an elderly Kyrgyz woman who lives across the street, told me when I visited.

As word of the bonfire spread, the Kyrgyz grew infuriated. How dared the Uzbeks burn a Kyrgyz home? “They shouldn’t have done it. I’m a woman, but if someone burned my father’s house, I would also want revenge,” Mavlyanova, the Kyrgyz NGO activist who had a son in Batyrov’s kindergarten, told me. Though ethnic clashes had taken place even before the arson, they intensified in the following weeks. A Kyrgyz crowd rampaged through Batyrov’s Peoples’ Friendship University, burning classrooms, breaking windows, and decapitating the statue of the Uzbek leader’s father. It was late May, right around finals.

“Students started running away,” recalled Anara Samatova, a professor of literature, who is Kyrgyz. Samatova collected exam papers and followed her students out through the back door. In the next few days, Jalalabad descended into hell. Hiding in her apartment, Samatova peeked out the window and saw a group of armed Kyrgyz men interrogating an Uzbek teenager dressed in a black T-shirt. She knew the kid was Uzbek because his captors called him sart, a derogatory term the Kyrgyz use for Uzbeks, the local n-word. Samatova couldn’t hear what the gunmen were grilling him about, but she overheard the kid protesting: “But my house was burned too.” With that, the men shot him, put his body in a car, and drove off.

Next up in the war’s path was Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and a bustling hub of the south. Tensions had been brewing there for years, as the Uzbek commercial class dominating the city rubbed up against the influx of poorer rural migrants, most of them Kyrgyz. In fact, an element of class had seeped into the conflict. Many rural Kyrgyz resented the Uzbeks for their perceived wealth. It’s a deeply flawed stereotype, but one that proved very resilient.

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Filed under Central Asia, democracy, economics, education, nationalism

Kyrgyzstan’s Heckling Women Special Forces

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2888-2901:

Walking around Jalalabad, where mayors rose and fell based on the whims of the crowds, I thought of Kyrgyzstan as a bizarre case of direct democracy taken to its most absurd extreme in a society where institutions and laws are weak or nonexistent, where clans are strong, and where poverty makes people edgy, easily manipulated, and ready to attempt risky things.

The presence of loudly disposed women at rallies became a fixture of political life in Kyrgyzstan. Describing a recent rally where a heckling argument occurred between two rival camps, a local journalist mentioned something called OBON. The word sounded like the ubiquitous Russian acronym for Police Special Forces, and I assumed he was talking about riot police. It turned out the acronym stood for Heckling Women Special Forces. These histrionic commandos have been effective in Kyrgyzstan’s modern political history. They scream and drown out their opponents; they can land a punch if need be, or fall on the ground in a theatrical show of sorrow; security forces don’t quite know how to deal with them, they are just a bunch of middle-aged and elderly women. Waiting in a Defense Ministry reception area a few days later, I overheard two senior security operatives, both tough-looking men, discussing the challenges of OBON. “You know, in Jalalabad fifty women were able to seize the governor’s office—what the hell do you do in a situation like that?”

With the mayor’s job in play, a similar round of musical chairs occurred in the provincial governor’s office. After the music stopped, the man who ended up sitting down was Bakiyev’s former ambassador to Pakistan. A few days later, in a flurry of new decrees, the interim government announced the appointment of a new Jalalabad mayor. His name was not Asylbek Tashtanbekov, the OBON-backed running champion.

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Filed under Central Asia, democracy

From Political Prisoner to Police Chief in a Day

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 698-721:

The revolution here was so fast and surreal that a man who woke up on a prison bunk became the nation’s security czar by the time he went to bed. Shortly after protesters took over the presidential palace, Felix Kulov, a former police chief and mayor of Bishkek, was sprung from jail and found himself cruising the city’s mad streets in a white sport-utility vehicle, appealing to crazed crowds to stop the looting. “This turn of events was of course unusual,” Kulov, clad in blue jeans and sporting a buzz cut, said the next morning in front of his new digs at the Interior Ministry.

A career police officer who rose to the rank of general, Kulov served as vice president, interior minister, and head of the National Security Service. Just as his personal popularity began to threaten President Akayev, Kulov was convicted of corruption in a dubious trial that Western observers considered politically motivated. It is not that he was necessarily blameless. It is just that he was no worse than the average, so picking on him smacked of selective justice.

For the next five years, Kulov languished in jail with six hundred other inmates. Comrades from his political party, Ar-Namys, supplied the whole prison with food, books, exercise equipment, woodworking lathes, soccer balls, and even special trucks to pump out the sewage. Kulov’s party once gave the cash-strapped prison twenty tons of potatoes. The party wanted to keep its leader fit and healthy, and the easiest way to do it was to support the whole prison. Behind bars, Kulov kept himself busy. He once gave his party comrades a wooden scale model of a ship carved by him and his jail buddies.

The day of the revolution, his supporters drove forty miles to the prison, where the superintendent promptly released him. “This man will be promoted,” Kulov joked shortly afterward. The liberated general sprang into action that very evening, as looters rampaged through the capital, ransacking stores. The police had retreated into their precincts after the storming of the palace and were in no mood to venture out again. Bloodstains were still drying on the spots where the cops had come under a shower of rocks from the protesters. “They were so demoralized,” Kulov recalled. “I could do little more than appeal to the conscience of every officer.”

One evening after the uprising, Kulov addressed the crowds massing in front of the city’s landmark Central Department Store, begging them not to loot. Several other popular shops, like Beta Stores, were overrun, vandalized, and emptied of merchandise.

The hordes of looters and thugs roaming the streets the first two postrevolutionary nights scared most peaceful residents into their homes, where some dusted off old shotguns and vowed to shoot if the marauding crowds approached. But the main department store survived with just a couple of cracked windows, an important moral victory of law and order in the capital.

The police, having absorbed the emotional shocks of being attacked by the protesters, came back to the streets, at one point shooting rounds into the air to keep looters at bay. Thousands of Bishkek residents responded to televised calls by Kulov and others to form militias and patrol their neighborhoods and the city’s landmarks.

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Filed under Central Asia, democracy

Presidential Transitions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2635-44:

The reign of President Bakiyev ended the same way it began, with a revolution and an exile. He fled, first to a large ceremonial tent in his home village in southern Kyrgyzstan, and then out of the country. Facing an irate populace, his brothers, sons, and cronies ran for the exits too, not all of them successfully. Bakiyev eventually settled in Belarus, at the personal invitation of the local dictator. The only two presidents Kyrgyzstan had known in its twenty years of independence ended up as outcasts and fugitives: one in Moscow teaching physics, the other in Minsk living in a forced retirement. Bakiyev, the hopeful product of the optimistically named Tulip Revolution, mutated into a villain so quickly that his allies didn’t know what hit them. “We got tricked like little kids,” Roza Otunbayeva, the perennial opposition leader who helped bring Bakiyev to power, told me shortly after she helped overthrow him. “He made all the right speeches back then.” During his five-year reign, nepotism and graft surpassed the excesses of the previous regime, while government opponents began to suffer suspicious deaths. In the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the master of the one-liner, Bakiyev “stepped on the same rake” that had whacked his predecessor on the head.

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Filed under Central Asia, democracy, migration, nationalism, USSR

Burma’s Own Trouser People

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 78-79:

At the far end of the carriage sat the soldiers: armed, sleek, hostile. I guessed that some were recent graduates of Maymyo’s military academy. Earlier I had watched them on the platform. Some had stood alone, while others had grouped into silent conspiracies of khaki; none of them had mixed with the civilians. I wondered what the academy had taught them. ‘They spend four years getting brainwashed, and when they come out they expect all civilians to behave like soldiers,’ a Burmese dissident told me later. ‘But of course we don’t want to behave like soldiers. That’s why we chose to remain civilians. But they think they are the greatest people in Burma. They think they know what’s best for the rest of us. They don’t.’ Casual visitors to Burma are unaware of the visceral hatred most people have for the military, particularly among ethnic minorities. The same dissident told me how a group of Kachin farmers stood by and watched as six young Burmese soldiers writhed in agony in the wreckage of a crashed army truck. When the dissident’s sister, who had witnessed the crash, pleaded with the farmers to do something, one of them chillingly replied, ‘Why should we? They will only live to make our lives worse. It is better to let them die.’

As far as I could work out, the military seemed utterly unaware of its unpopularity, although its guardians were alert to any potential blots on its escutcheon. I had heard, for example, that Burmese cartoonists working for newspapers or magazines were forbidden to draw men in trousers. This was because the only Burmese men who worse trousers were soldiers, and soldiers could not possibly be allowed to appear in such an undignified and dangerously satirical art form.

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Filed under Burma, democracy, military, nationalism

Comanche Attacks and the Texas Revolution, 1830s

From The Comanche Empire, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 198-199:

By the mid-1830s, it was clear that the Indian policy of Texas was a complete failure. The decision to open the province to American immigrants had backfired. Rather than moving to the interior to shield the province’s core areas around San Antonio from Comanche attacks, most Americans stayed east of the Colorado River, beyond the Comanche range and within an easy reach of Louisiana, their main commercial outlet. The result was a splintering of Texas into two distinct and increasingly detached halves. The Anglo-dominated eastern half experienced steady growth, developing a flourishing export-oriented cotton industry and spawning nearly twenty new urban centers by 1835. This half was part of Mexico only in name. It main economic and political ties extended eastward to the powerful mercantile houses of New Orleans, and its settlers often spoke no Spanish, held slaves in spite of a widespread aversion toward the institution in Mexico, and harbored separatist sentiments.

The Tejano-dominated western half, meanwhile, descended into underdevelopment. As raids and violence engulfed vast portions of western and southern Texas during the early 1830s, basic economic functions began to shut down. Villages and farms were stripped of livestock and the reviving ranching industry faltered once again. Agriculture deteriorated as farmers refused to work on fields where they were exposed to attacks. Laredo on the lower Rio Grande lost one-sixth of its population between 1828 and 1831 to Comanche raids, nearly expiring during a cholera outbreak in 1834. Settlers lived in perpetual fear and near-starvation even in San Antonio, where, in the words of one observer, “nothing can be planted on account of the Comanches and Tahuacanos [Tawakonis] who frequently harass the city even in time of peace.” Villages curled inward and grew isolated, for settlers “seldom venture more than a mile from town on account of the Indians.” Major roads leading to San Antonio were frequently cut off, and Berlandier traveled on deserted roads lined with crosses marking places “where the Comanches had massacred travellers or herdsmen.” The road from Coahuila to Texas crossed “an uninhabited country” where Indian raiders ruled, and commercial and political links between New Mexico and Texas existed only on paper. When assessing the long-term impact of Comanche raids on western and southern Texas, Berlandier depicted a decaying, psychologically disfigured captive territory. …

It was this divided Texas that in 1835 rebelled against the central government and in 1836 became an independent republic with close ties to the United States. The Texas Revolution was the product of several long-simmering problems, which came to a head in 1834 and 1835 when the military strongman Antonio López de Santa Anna assumed dictatorial powers in Mexico City and imposed a conservative national charter known as Las Siete Leyes. Las Siete Leyes ended the federalist era in Mexico and ushered in a centralist regime bent on curtailing states’ rights and sovereignty. The momentous shift galvanized Texas, turning the smoldering tensions over slavery, tariff exemptions, and immigration (further immigration from the United States had been banned in 1830) acute and then violent. When centralist forces marched into Texas in fall 1835 to rein in the renegade province, they faced unified resistance that included the vast majority of Anglo colonists and many prominent members of the Tejano elite. In November, delegations from twelve Texas communities met in San Felipe de Austin, declared allegiance to the federalist constitution of 1814, and cut off ties to the centralist regime.

Texas independence may have been predetermined by geography—Texas was simply too far from Mexico City and too close to the United States—but the event can be fully understood only in the larger context that takes into account the overwhelming power and presence of the Comanches in the province in the years leading to the revolt.

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Filed under democracy, Mexico, migration, nationalism, North America, U.S., war

Albright Deaf to Cambodia, 1997

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1906-1950:

Phnom Penh was growing increasingly tense. By the spring of 1997 gun battles on the streets were becoming commonplace. Senior government officials from both the CPP and Funcinpec built sandbag bunkers around their houses; guards stood behind them, their automatic-rifle muzzles pointed toward the street.

Both Hun Sen [head of CPP] and Ranariddh [head of Funcinpec] had personal bodyguard forces that now numbered in the thousands. Not infrequently the two sides exchanged fire. Some soldiers and bodyguards were routinely killed. Just outside Phnom Penh both sides reinforced encampments for large numbers of their personal militia members. “The place was stirred up,” Quinn said, and he made a practice of driving around the city in the evening to “look at the guards outside the houses. Were they slumped down, smoking a cigarette, or maybe asleep?” If so, Quinn knew he could relax for the night. “Or did they have their helmets on, standing behind the sandbag with weapons out?”

It was obvious: A war was about to begin. Diplomats from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere began arriving to talk to Hun Sen and Ranariddh. Don’t do it, they would say. Call it off. But no one was listening.

The embassy looked at all the intelligence and made an estimate of when the fighting would start. They placed the date on or about July 1. But then, out of the blue, Washington told [Ambassador Kenneth M.] Quinn that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wanted to stop by for a visit at the end of June, as part of a larger visit to the region. The country was tumbling toward violence, but “she wanted to talk about a success story, and see Angkor Wat,” Quinn said.

Albright was an inveterate tourist. Whenever she could she would visit countries that also gave her an opportunity to see major attractions. Of course, she did plan to meet with Hun Sen and Ranariddh, as other visiting diplomats had, and warn them not to squander the advances Cambodia had made, thanks to the UN occupation and the $3 billion the world had invested in the state. So she was planning a two-day visit, one day in Phnom Penh for business and the second day at Angkor Wat.

Quinn had been sending regular cables telling the department about the deteriorating situation. But he had no way to know who actually read them. A few days earlier three influential senators—John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts; William Roth, Republican of Vermont; and Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee—had written Albright a letter, saying that despite receiving almost $3.5 billion in international aid in recent years, Cambodia “has become the single fastest-growing narcotics transshipment point in the world; scores of journalists, human-rights workers and political activists have been killed in political violence; the government has failed to establish critical constitutional bodies or pass some of the country’s most basic laws; and corruption has infested and overrun almost every government institution.” Was this really the nation that everyone had spent $3 billion to create?

But these concerns fell on deaf ears. Albright was coming to celebrate a new democracy—though, in Washington, she also said, “I will make very clear that it is important for them to proceed down the democratic path.” But Quinn could see that major violence was now inevitable. He told the State Department she shouldn’t come. “People will set out to embarrass her,” he wrote. “There will be violence. That will make her look weak.” He feared that a bombing, grenade attack, or some other violent act by someone trying to embarrass the government would force her to flee. He was looking out for his secretary, but the department “reacted badly,” Quinn said. The tenor was, “What’s wrong with the ambassador? He isn’t on the team. She’s already announced she is coming.”

In mid-June 1997 real fighting broke out between the two bodyguard units in Phnom Penh. Both sides fired assault rifles at each other and tossed grenades. Explosions rattled the city. Thousands of residents locked their doors, closed their shutters, and huddled together, trembling. One rocket landed in the yard just beside Quinn’s house. It happened to be Quinn’s birthday. “My family had arrived” for the celebration, he said. “They stayed in the States while I was there because there was no high school for my kids in Phnom Penh. We were watching a video, The Thin Man, when we heard a click. I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’ Then a big boom. We threw the kids on the floor. My wife and I lay on top of them.” No one was hurt, and damage was minimal. But he called the State Department Operations Center to advise them of what had just happened.

Quinn was vindicated. The next day the department announced a change in plans. Yes, Phnom Penh was a dangerous place. Perhaps Ranariddh and Hun Sen could come out to meet Secretary Albright at the airport and have their talk. Then she could fly on to Angkor.

Needless to say, Ranariddh and Hun Sen were not talking to each other. They spoke with their guns. But they did manage to agree on one thing: There was no way two heads of state were going to drive out to the airport to meet with a foreign minister—even the American secretary of state. What were they, her supplicants? Ranariddh was a prince, heir to the throne, and the head of state. Hun Sen had been the nation’s undisputed ruler for a decade—and obviously planned to assume that status again, very soon. If she wanted to see them, she would have to drive into town, come to their offices. No, they told her. We won’t do it. Ranariddh showed considerable tact when he explained the decision. “She wanted us to come to the airport,” he told reporters, “but Hun Sen and I agreed that if we just met her at the airport, we would be breaking the principles of protocol.” But then he couldn’t seem to help himself and added, “It’s insulting.”

Using the missile assault on Quinn’s house as the pretext, the department canceled Albright’s stop in Cambodia. She’d have to visit Angkor some other time. Nevertheless, the debate over her visit threw off the American Embassy’s carefully calculated time line. Rather than starting on July 1, as expected, the violence would begin five days late.

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Filed under Cambodia, democracy, military, NGOs, U.N., U.S., Vietnam, war