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Rwanda and Iraq: The erasing of memory

IT IS IN THE tradition of Western colonial experience that genocide is important in the armoury of conquest. It is couched in the highest of motives and ideals - to civilise the natives, the remove a dictator the natives would not - in which only one view matters: that of the invader. As the United States sank into the Islamic quagmire of Iraq this month, a few thousand miles to the south, in Kigale, in Rwanda, Western statesman gathered to show how sorry they were for the Tutsi-Hutu tribal massacres in which their countries played a less than honorable role to pit one against the other. When I discussed this with a European ambassador recently, he was quick to assert that it was the French and Belgian problem in Rwanda, and a US and British problem in Iraq. He hotly contested my view that it did not matter which individual nation was responsible, it follows a shared genocidal practices of Western colonialism. What the US and its allies want in Iraq is no less than what Belgium wanted in the former Belgian Congo and its offshoots: the riches for its grandees, with a quisling regime in charge. Western political correctness cannot erase the horrors of its past

What we see unfolding in the Middle East and in much of Africa now is a revised version of the genocidal havoc the Western colonial powers inflicted before the First World War. Rwanda and Burundi, with the Belgium Congo, were the private property of King Leopold II, in fact the largest private estate in history. Rubber was the golden crop then. He is reputed to killed, by murder or starvation, at least a fifth of the 100 million dead in similar actions in the 20th century, or Malaysia's population. Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and "An Outpost of Progress" are based on this genocide. He is not alone. The Dutch, in what is now Indonesia, perfected this method in what it called, the culture system of agriculture, whence local communities often had to spend more of their time to work for a pittance to produce goods the colonial invader wanted. The result was the same: murder or starvation. The colonial powers are back in the saddle, after the confusion of ill-prepared independence, this time for the baubles of modernity: diamonds, oil, and rare earths to fuel the atomic age. But they do not like to be reminded of it: hence the French shock at being told a few home truths by the Rwandan president in Kigale of its complicity in the 1994 massacres. There is in this celebration no mention of a similar tragedy in Burundi. Why?

The American sabre-rattling in the Middle East has the hallmark of British sabre-rattling in the early years of the 20th century. The Ottoman Empire held sway on the borders of Europe, but after 600 years and on its last legs, could not adjust to the rise of Bismark's Germany in central Europe. Britain and France joined hands, in the First World War, to establish their own spheres of influence on the entrails of the Ottoman Empire in a secret pact that horrified the leaders they imposed on their spheres of influence. The British had Mesopotamia and Transjordan, the French the Levant and Syria, kept in control with rulers who held office at their pleasure. But it took the British 12 years, and the French longer, to bring order to their conquests. The aim was to rout the Turks out of any hold or control. It did not work. For what fuelled Middle Eastern anger was the supercilious re-ordering of lives and territory in which they were but mere pawns. The British lost 10,000 men in the 12 years to 1932 when Iraq as a monarchy was established. We see a replay of that now.

The lessons of the past are not learnt. But was it meant to be learnt? Or did the aim of the genocide and the continuing wars and disruption hide a more sinister purpose: the erasing of memory. The Khmer Rouge went into a genocidal rage for it wanted to create a new society in which there is no recollection of the past before it. So, it went about it systematically and culled the Cambodians of any memory of the past. The past is always a threat in a newly created post-genocidal world. Only then can the people be broken down to be moulded in whatever form the invader decides. This was at the heart of Mao Zedong's cultural revolution, Stalin's destruction of its educated and land-owning artistocray, and, lest we forget, Hitler's genocide of the Jews. Hitler is condemned not for what he did but for bringing into civilised Europe the methods its civilisation wrought in pacificying the natives in its colonial domains. It is for this he is reviled in Europe, not for what he did. For what he did to the Jews is what the Jews now do to the Arabs, but in the modern idiom is acceptable. Genocide is a dirty word only when it is perpetrated by natives against natives or by western colonial powers against its peoples.

Underlying it is this brutal decision to erase memory from those it enslaves. Memory brings relevance to what happens. The powers that be has decided that is bad. It is not a crime yet in the western world, but the extraordinary lengths to which the US goes to hide the truth of its excesses, even refusing to allow their dead the decent burial in the glare of publicity. For that evokes a memory of past mistakes. In the war with Iraq, the haunting disaster that was Vietnam comes to mind. If only because those who now brought the war were refugees from that. Lebanon is not much talked of as a comparison to the war in Iraq, but what happened there in the 1980s is what could well happen to Iraq. It is important for the United States to erase the historical memory of those it wants to rule, and fashion in their own image. The extraodinary resistance to the US adventure in Iraq is no different than when the British tried it 70 years ago. People rise up to defend their turf. The 500 years of colonial success, backed by maritime superiority, could not erase this collective historical and cultural memory. The Spanish and Portuguese could in Central and Latin America but with a savagery no different than what we see in Iraq today. So did the United States when it all but decimated its Indian population with the same savagery. The savagery of the destruction in Iraq in the first flush of battle was not so much on the people but of its institutions and historical artificats.

All it did was to united the targets of its attack into a shared cauldron of collective memory. The United States came into the Middle East with a deliberate plan to enslave it, in one form or another. It believed might alone was enough. But the Arabs, not just in Iraq, have a long memory which would inhibit any power with similar ambition. Israel understands this only too well. Which is why it must humiliate the Arabs into submission. Not that it would work. For like the Jews the memory of past historical and cultural wrongs is what unites the Arabs. Washington thought it could split the Arabs by dealing with them through their Orientalist eyes. But the Arabs refuse to be so characterised. It is this which puts the United States in a pickle in the Middle East, as it did so many powers in the past from the dawn of history. Memory is what keeps a people's hopes alive. The Palestinian in a refugee camp in the Gaza or in the Levant adds this to the weight of his isolation in his own country, and links it to his past. He shares that with Arabs from all over the Middle East. The United States' professed values are in shambles, its justification for war in Iraq is in shambles, and all it stood for is in shambles. It has to resort to untruths and lies to convince itself, not those they target, that it here for the larger good. As Julius Caesar would have justified why he crossed the Rubicon stream in 49 BC, and set ancient Italy aflame.

[This is my Chiaroscuro column in (, today, 14 April 2004]

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 16 April 2004

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