For four days straight in mid-June, Kyrgyz mobs attacked the Uzbek community in the city of Osh, looting and burning entire Uzbek neighborhoods. Hundreds of people were murdered…. As borne out in hundreds of similar stories over the past six weeks, the tragedy suffered by the Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan is far from over. It has simply shifted from the open slaughter seen last month to a quiet, systematic campaign of torture and incrimination, with the Uzbeks being blamed for the violence that was inflicted upon them. In a July 20 statement, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that large numbers of men in southern Kyrgyzstan, virtually all of them Uzbek, were being arbitrarily arrested, beaten and tortured for false confessions related to the June riots. Their fingernails were being pulled out and cigarettes extinguished on their skin, and they were being forced to pay large sums of money to secure their release, the U.N. said. The detentions, Pillay added, “not only demonstrate flagrant ethnic bias, but also break many of the fundamental tenets of both Kyrgyz and international law.”
This is one of the most recent examples of ethnic conflict in the world. Ethnic conflict is a conflict or strife between different ethnic communities because of their belief that due to their distinct ethnicities, their interests and goals are different and that their community is being discriminated against in some manner due to which they are unable to realise their interests. There are various schools of thought that try to discern the reason behind ethnic conflict. But what is bare and visible to those of us who are not students of philosophy is the destruction of lives and property and the ruthless violation of basic human rights that is caused due to ethnic conflict.
Ethnic strife can be of the type that we hear of in the news, the one which is constituted by bloodshed and violence like the violence in Northern Ireland which took around 3500 lives; or the kind seen in Darfur (Sudan) between Arab militia and non-Arabs which has displaced 2.7 million people and there is no estimate of how many have died, though the Sudanese government claims the number to be 10,000; and similar situations in Kosovo, Kashmir, the Rwandan Genocide, Isreal-Palestine conflict etc.
Then there is the strife between ethnicities which is probably not so apparent, but which exists as boiling tension under the calm facade between communities, and sometimes nations. But mostly the ethnic hatred always finds an escape route through violence. The modes of occurrence ethnic conflict, inter alia are genocide, terrorism, riots, forced mass population transfers, etc. These words which symbolise devastation and death seem to be in contradiction with the pragmatism and rationality which we humans claim to possess. It is shocking how we can create divides between ourselves based on ethnicity, colour, religion, etc; become fanatics for the beliefs we hold, plainly refuse to be tolerant and ultimately kill each other. Ethnic strife is no new concept. Throughout history we have seen tribal wars like those of the Anglo-Saxons or the tribal wars in Afghanistan and religious wars like the Crusades. One might argue that these wars were more of invasions than ethnic struggle, and one would not be wrong. But then again, no ethnic conflict is purely based on ethnopolitics. Other factors play a major role in determining conflicts. The economic resources and natural endowments of the area occupied by a community may be one of them, like the civil war in Congo, which is aggravated by lack of basic resources like water, and access and control over mineral-rich areas. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Congo in 1998, an estimated 5.4 million people have died. Apart from this there are political considerations of other communities and political leaders in sustaining the conflict between communities, like the policy of divide and rule followed by the British in India which made it easier for the Britons to control the growth of Indian nationalism.
All this simply leads to the question of whether ethnic conflict is inevitable. Going by evidence, it is unavoidable, where interests and beliefs of communities and the politics of individuals come into play. But speaking as an idealist, it is essential to believe that ethnic strife is very much avoidable. Humans have always had a very bad habit of thinking in the short term, especially when mob mentality is reigning our minds. We think of the clash of interest, but never do we think of the consequences it will have on our lives and the lives of the children who live in such areas. If the paucity of economic resources is the reason for conflict, then we must appeal to responsible governments to establish a system in which people are given their basic human rights. It is of no consequence that the USA should condemn the violence in Sudan when Omar Al-Bashir remains immune to it. It is no use for Russia, and the USA to remain quiet bystanders as ethnic violence rips apart Kyrgyzstan and threatens to spread to neighbouring volatile regions. What we need is a world society which believes in tolerance and peaceful settlement of disputes.
I recently read of a body politic in Palestine which is supporting non violent protest against the Isrealies – the movement is called the White Intifada. It may not be very potent just yet, but one must appreciate the effort, which will ultimately succeed because everyone wants to lead a peaceful life. Perhaps we could learn a little something from these non violent protesters.