Contrary to popular opinion, there is no populist upsurge in Britain

by Luke March

This blog originally appeared on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog *

It has become a standard cliché that populism, like communism before it, is the ‘spectre’ haunting Europe. There is allegedly a populist Zeitgeist, and politicians of right and left, of fringe and mainstream, from Le Pen to Macron and Mélenchon, Trump to Sanders, appear to evidence a populist surge. Britain also appears at the forefront of this surge, with the rise of UKIP and its role in Brexit, and new forms of ‘left populism’, from the Greens to Ed Miliband and now Jeremy Corbyn. Apparently, we are all populists.

But is populism really so ubiquitous? Does it really unite politicians across the political spectrum? While analysts have noted that populism is ‘chameleonic’ and adaptable, they have also noted a tendency for the term to be bandied about indiscriminately. If the concept is so promiscuous, is it still in any way useful?

My recent study shows that, providing we use accurate definitions and measurement techniques, populism remains a revealing and useful term. However, at least in the British case, populism is far less omnipresent than often assumed: it exists on the fringes of the party system for sure, but its use by mainstream parties is at best fleeting, and generally seems to exhibit demoticism (closeness to the ordinary people), which is necessary but not sufficient for populism. Many observers who find populism are arguably seeing demoticism instead.

In this study, I analysed the manifestos of key left- and right-wing parties in Westminster and Scottish elections from 1999-2015, comparing the mainstream (Labour and the Conservatives) and the allegedly populist parties (Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party [SSP], UKIP and the British National Party [BNP]). The Scottish focus was chosen to maximise data, because the SSP was (once, before an acrimonious and tawdry split), one of Europe’s better performing populist radical left parties.

A profusion of techniques for measuring populism have emerged in recent years. These can be criticised for replicating the problem they claim to solve, i.e. instead of helping accurately identify populism, they end up arguing that populism is a matter of degree, and because they provide only an aggregate populism score, they don’t sufficiently focus on how populism and mainstream parties differ.

In order to obviate such criticisms, I adapted one of the most robust content analysis schemes originated by Matthijs Rooduijn and Teun Pauwels. I made it more fine-grained and discerning, by focussing on sentences, not paragraphs, and added a category (popular sovereignty), so that three populist sub-components were examined (people-centrism, anti-elitism, and popular sovereignty). This makes my schema match more closely one of the most influential definitions of populism in the literature: ‘a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people’. I also examined the party manifestos in-depth, to avoid relying simply on numerical data for questions requiring nuanced interpretation.

The analysis results (Figure 1) show the utility of breaking populism into components rather than relying on aggregate populism scores, as do many other scales. So doing is not especially revealing, and even misleading – after all, the overall scores of some populist and mainstream parties are little different. The table clearly shows that the populist parties score consistently and (mostly) equally across each of the three core populist components, whereas the mainstream parties scores load very heavily on the people-centrism scale, with low popular sovereignty scores and negligible anti-elitism scores.

The scale proves accurate in showing that only the supposedly populist parties truly fulfil the full ideological definition of populism. Focussing on the results over time further indicates that there is no real upsurge of populism – the only consistent increase is in the people-centrism scores of the mainstream parties. All in all, evidence for a British populist Zeitgeist is meagre, although demotic rhetoric is increasingly evident.

A more detailed focus on the manifestos reinforces this. It indicates that: 1) only the allegedly populist parties have a detailed, coherent populist critique which consistently attacks a range of elites (political, economic, international) and focuses on measures designed to empower a broad homogeneous people; and 2) left and right populisms are not substantially similar, but are clearly distinguishable by the nature of their core ideology. That is, they attack different elites (economic vs. cultural), have different conceptions of the people (more inclusive and pluralist for the left, more exclusive [against immigrants] and monocultural for the right). In other words, their populism has little substantive content separate from the parties’ core ideological positions.

In contrast, the mainstream parties’ focus on popular sovereignty and (in particular) anti-elitism is very fleeting, vague, and tokenistic (e.g. providing more accessible public services, or attacking ‘remote politicians’). But their people-centrism is ubiquitous – they repeatedly speak in the name of the people to emphasise common projects (the 2010 Conservative claim that ‘we are all in this together’ is typical).

This indicates that, in the UK, apart from the obvious electoral rise of UKIP (until its dramatic collapse in the 2017 elections), there is no real populist upsurge. There are populist parties to the left and right of the party system, but their fundamental programmatic differences make them hardly examples of the same phenomenon. The ‘populism’ of the mainstream parties exists only in a handful of vague phrases, but for the most part, such parties are demotic, which is arguably mainly a product of catch-all parties operating in a majoritarian party system than any consistent mainstream populism.

At first glance, such findings seem counterintuitive given the Brexit referendum. Focussing on party manifestos certainly doesn’t exclude that populism is a major feature of some of the British press or that it is used periodically by individual politicians (e.g. Michael Gove’s attack on experts, or Theresa May’s post-Brexit insistence on fulfilling the ‘will of the people’). Yet, it does show how the UK party system acts to confine genuine populism to the fringes. In this respect, the populism associated with Brexit is arguably far more a product of the referendum campaign than anything whose prior rise made the referendum inevitable.

Certainly, the 2017 election campaign shows more continuity than change, not least because of the demise of UKIP and the Conservatives’ un-populist (and unpopular) campaign. Although Jeremy Corbyn is often portrayed as a left-wing populist, the 2017 Labour Manifesto contains only a handful of invocations against the ‘rigged system’, and its central slogan (‘For the Many not the Few’) is authentically Blairite. So seeing Corbyn as a populist is, at best, a half-truth.

As a consequence, we clearly need to be more accurate and judicious in who/what we call populist, especially by noting substantial left/right differences, and distinguishing populism from demoticism. Manifestly, populism works as a general category, but like the similar term ‘Euroscepticism’, it is not always particularly revealing. To define, observe, clarify, and delimit populism further does not necessarily mean that it is an unimportant term; it is merely to note that it is often the most observable, but not necessarily the most significant, of several concurrent phenomena. For instance, the central campaign slogan of the victorious Leave campaign, ‘Take Back Control’ was evidently populist (seizing control from remote EU elites) but equally, and perhaps even more importantly, it was demotic (emphasising individual, community and national empowerment and sovereignty). This explains why it was so effective at the time. Certainly, subsuming all such elements beneath the catch-all label of populism threatens to oversimplify and obscure, rather than illuminate.

Something is Rotten in Western Democracies

‘Many now are furious’ – A protestor holds up a sign during a demonstration in front of the government office in Bucharest, Romania

by Max Kratschke (PhD candidate in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine’s School of Clinical Sciences)


Most of us have probably begun to feel that something isn’t quite right in our western democracies. Voters are increasingly turning away from establishment parties, and towards fringe parties and populists. The clearest example of this was Donald Trump’s victory against Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election of 2016, during which he ran under a promise to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, while depicting his opponent as the face of the establishment. In fact, most western countries have experienced a decrease in the appeal of the large centrist parties that have so long dominated the political landscape. The causes of this trend are multi-facetted and intricately interwoven, including stagnating living standards and the perception of rising immigration. However, one factor is rarely mentioned in this context, yet it frequently influences public opinion of politicians and politics in general, sometimes to the extent that it can lead to the downfall of government. That factor is corruption.

Corruption kills

On 30 October 2015, a fire started in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, leading to the death of 64 people. The causes were illegal indoor use of outdoor pyrotechnics and the lack of emergency exits, among other legal requirements. Within days it became clear that the club’s owners had illegally obtained the licence to run the club from the mayor of Bucharest’s fourth district, while health and safety inspections were essentially being conducted pro forma. Soon, tens of thousands of people were demonstrating in the streets, carrying slogans such as ‘corruption kills’. Before long, Romania’s government was forced to resign.

The reason for this rapid fall of the Romanian government was that the people had had enough of politicians’ brazen nepotism and the fact that they seemed more interested in lining their pockets than ensuring the safety of Romanian citizens. However, in most other Western democracies cases of corruption that become public rarely lead to a government’s downfall, and often are simply swept under the rug. The question that arises nonetheless is whether these instances have any long-lasting effect on the public’s perception of its political class, and its voting behaviour.

Where the Balkans begin

A few countries to the west of Romania lies the republic of Austria, known for its alpine scenery, love of music, and high living standards of its capital, Vienna. Rarely do people associate it with corruption. Nevertheless, an old saying in Austria translates to ‘The Balkans begin in Vienna’, and for good reason. In fact, Austria has experienced a number of large corruption scandals throughout its history, ranging from the Lukona affair in the 1970’s to the more recent BUWOG affair and the ongoing Eurofighter investigation. Together, these and other large-scale political corruption scandals have undermined the Austrian public’s confidence in its political establishment. The extent of this can be seen in successive European commission reports, revealing that in Austria, 60% perceive national politicians and political parties as corrupt, and the most corrupt institution in the country. In 2016, the Austrian Market Research Organisation (OGM), found that 82% of Austrians had little to no trust in politics.

What effect has this had on the voting behaviour of Austrians? For a long time, post-war governance was an exclusive dominion of the two centrist parties, the conservative People’s Party and the Social Democrats. However, as people became increasingly fed up with successive governments that put nepotism before the interest of the state, this provided fertile ground for the right-wing Freedom Party. Thus, since the turn of the millennium the centrist parties have seen their voter share drop dramatically. This culminated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, in which both centrist parties were soundly defeated in the first round, and the former Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen beat the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer by a slim margin. While a far-right head of state has been narrowly averted, a new storm is brewing: it is quite likely that Austria will hold its parliamentary elections (far more important than the presidential ones) earlier than anticipated, perhaps even in the fall of 2017, and since there is only a single round of voting there is a very real possibility that the Freedom Party may clinch the victory this time.

Clean hands and construction bubbles

For other nations, the fear of being governed by populists has long since become a reality, and may even already lie in their past. Italy’s political landscape was dominated by the conservative Christian Democratic party (and to a lesser extent the socialist party) for nearly 50 years. In the 1980’s, corruption among the political elite became more and more widespread, and after the ‘Mani Pulite’ investigations, the Tangentopoli scandal burst the bubble in 1992. With the arrests of many political and industrial leaders in the wake of this vast corruption scandal, establishment politics was reduced to a rubble. After the new elections of 1994, Italy’s political landscape was practically rebuilt from scratch. Gone were the large centrist parties, while the winners were radical populist parties of the Right, such as the Lega Nord, and the election’s victor, Silvio Berlusconi. Ironically, his is a name that would not only be associated with Italy for the next 17 years, but ‘Berlusconi’ became a byword for all that can go wrong in politics.

A vast corruption scandal has more recently erupted in another European nation, though the process here has been more drawn-out. Like Italy, Spain was accustomed to being governed by large centrist parties- the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party (PP). However, in 2009 the Gürtel case became public, with the investigations lasting until 2016 and primarily involving members of the PP. Bribery, money laundering and tax evasion are some of the accusations, but perhaps most significantly these activities appear to have fuelled Spain’s construction bubble that burst during the recent economic and financial crisis and which contributed to the subsequent depression during which Spain’s unemployment levels soared to over 25%. These revelations have contributed to a disillusionment among the population with its political leaders. Indeed, Spaniards’ perception of its political parties (84%) and national politicians (72%) as corrupt is the highest in the EU. While Spain has ultimately ended up with another conservative government, this has led to the dramatic rise of new left-wing parties, such as Podemos. Moreover, the country’s wider political landscape is a shadow of the stability it once was, having recently experienced multiple inconclusive elections, political paralysis, and countless protests. Corruption, too, is high on the agenda.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist right-wing leader, is another controversial leader who initially ran on an anti-corruption platform, although he has now, in turn, entrenched corruption in the country’s political system further. The result: the far-right party Jobbik bases much of its propaganda around anti-corruption and anti-establishment politics, and is seeing its popularity rise. Poland is another country that recent experience of political upheaval, with corruption scandals of the previous government among the causative factors.

One current election campaign in which corruption has arguably taken on a decisive role is in the French presidential election. Francois Fillon, the erstwhile frontrunner, was confronted with multiple claims of nepotism involving his wife and children, and subsequently saw his popularity slide. Another candidate beset by accusations of corruption (albeit to a lesser effect) is Marine Le Pen, who is being investigated over alleged misuse of EU funds. Ultimately in this election, too, corruption is shaping up to be the king(un-)maker.

Politicians for sale – nothing illegal

In all these aforementioned cases there is a common theme: illegal practices by the political establishment have led to the degradation of public trust in Western political institutions, leading voters to turn their backs on this establishment towards, not uncommonly, populist anti-establishment parties. A primary concern of many voters is that businesses and politicians appear too close and cosy, with the revolving door system of particular concern. The worry is that interest groups lobby politicians by bank-rolling their political campaigns, thereby indebting them for future gain. This practice has become globally widespread in recent years, and may be one of the leading causes of popular disgruntlement with established political systems.

One particular nation stands out because of the extent to which it is legally possible to financially support a politician’s campaign, with great political impact on its governance and the public resentment this has generated. That nation, of course, is the United States. After the fateful Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, the floodgates were opened. Since then, it has been possible for non-profit corporations to support a political candidate’s campaign with no limit to the amount of money spent, as long as this support is not coordinated with the candidate. Furthermore, recent examples have made it clear that the definition of ‘coordination’ is very loose, liberating this spending spree even further. The effect of this ruling has been to unleash a vast amount of funding from untold interest groups, each keen to provide their political candidate of choice with financial support, and thereby gain their share of leverage.

Interestingly, this had less of an effect during recent presidential races than, say, gubernatorial elections, since there is so much money going around for everyone now during presidential campaigns. Nevertheless, this system seems to have poisoned the public’s view of politics even further- an effect not unlike that of traditional corruption.

Ultimately, it appears that this system may indeed have had a huge impact on the Western public’s perception of ‘the establishment’. Of course other factors have tarnished its image too, such as the banking scandals after the crash in 2008. But then again, did the bailout not also serve the interests of large corporations (banks), represented by government officials closely linked to said banks, arguably to the detriment of the rest of society? The lack of the voter’s trust in the establishment was never clearer than during the 2016 presidential race. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ran on an anti-establishment ticket, and it is very likely that it was the image of ‘Establishment candidate’ that cost Hillary Clinton the race. Many who sided with Trump argued that a candidate who is so rich will be incorruptible in office- revealing what they thought of all the other politicians taking part in the race.

Thus, ‘corruption’ has shaped American politics in multiple ways. First, by enhancing the power of money, allowing corporations to promote their interests over the welfare of the entire country (one dollar, one vote). Second, it has turned people against the establishment, providing a fertile ground for populists like Trump. Interestingly, people appear to largely tolerate a corrupt ruling elite if they associate it with increased economic prosperity and stability, as in Russia, China, Turkey and elsewhere. Yet they do not if they take these things for granted, or are even experiencing stagnating living standards, as is the case in Europe.

Ultimately, we find serious questions about the state of our Western democracies. The official measure of corruption is often quite deceiving as it tends to focus solely on illegal bribery. Perhaps it is time for us to take a closer look at our political systems and make some long overdue changes, rather than merely shaking our heads at those we routinely disagree with who vote to overturn the ‘Establishment’.


The president as healer and unifier

by Mark Aspinwall

Americans soon go to the polls in one of the most bitter and polarized elections in living memory. They will have a new president. What will the job entail? Both main candidates have promised policy changes. Among other things, Candidate Clinton wants tax reform, action on climate change, immigration reform, while Candidate Trump has promised law and order, improved inner cities, destroying ISIS, and cutting taxes.

Offering policy choices to Congress is an important part of the president’s job. It is divisive, whatever side of the aisle the president is from.

There is an equally important aspect to it, often unappreciated and usually impossible to plan for. But presidents forget it at their peril, for it can mark their legacy. It is to act as the ceremonial leader of the nation, the unifier and healer.

When the country is struck by natural disaster, terrorist attacks, or some other calamity, a good president goes to the scene, roll up his or her sleeves, and stands knee deep in the grief and destruction. She draws together those affected and lets them know that the entire country stands with them.

Note that in these tragedies the president does not represent one political party over others. She does not ignore those who probably did not vote for her and certainly does not favor the places where he has personal investments over other parts of the country. The material and moral support is for everyone, no strings attached.

Take some examples.

As he took office for the first time, President Franklin Roosevelt faced a nation in the throes of the Great Depression. At his inaugural he said:

We now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress can be made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and our property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at the larger good.

Like Roosevelt, President Reagan’s policy choices were divisive, but his speech following the 1986 Challenger disaster helped define him as a leader. He said:

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.

Reagan made the loss of seven astronauts a loss to the entire nation.

A president’s policy choices can frustrate her job as a unifier, because policy choices generate antipathy. Lincoln is celebrated for his 1863 Gettysburg Address and forgiven for the deeply divisive policy decisions he made which led to the Civil War because his was a unifying mission. It takes a skillful politician to be able to push forward policy reform and also unify. As I said in an earlier post, the president plays for the home team, but she also sings the National Anthem.

Unfortunately, tragedies and disasters will occur in the next four years. Now think about the two presidential candidates. Are they equally able to unite and heal? What would they have said to the homeless in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina? To the families of the Challenger astronauts? Those who divide through gratuitous insults and bullying create ‘walls within’ – metaphorical but powerful divisions in society which leave us all weaker, angrier and more selfish.

Rising powers and the collapse of the Doha Round

by Kristen Hopewell

This post originally appeared on the United Nations University’s UNU-Wider blog.

Rising powers have had a profound impact on the WTO. For over half a century the trading system was dominated by the US and other advanced industrialized states, with developing countries and their interests severely marginalized. However, over the course of the Doha Round of trade negotiations, which began in 2001, new powers from the developing world — China, India and Brazil — emerged as major players at the WTO and came to have a significant impact on the negotiations.

Democratization and difficulties

Contemporary power shifts have helped to democratize and bring greater equality to the WTO. Yet the irony is that greater democratization has caused the core negotiating function of the WTO to breakdown.

Acting as leaders of the developing world, Brazil and India emerged as central players early in the Doha Round. They had a significant influence on the negotiating agenda and in shaping the substance and content of the draft Doha agreement. As a result, the prospective deal that emerged was widely considered a relatively good one for developing countries — it contained meaningful reductions in rich country agriculture subsidies and significant gains in market access across the negotiating areas, while its substantial special and differential treatment provisions meant comparatively little liberalization would be required of developing countries.

In 2008, the WTO looked close to concluding the Doha Round, with most states generally satisfied with the deal on the table. At that point, however, it was the US that balked — and it did so specifically because of China.

Changing US-China economic relations

China joined the WTO in 2001, at the start of the Doha Round. The US was an important advocate and driver of China’s accession, based on the expectation that it would make major gains in the Chinese market for its merchandise exports, as well as in areas such as services and intellectual property. The US anticipated that China’s WTO accession would boost US exports and help to ameliorate its trade deficit.

But what in fact happened was that China’s exports exploded following its WTO accession (Figure 1).

Figure 1: China’s merchandise exports

blog1Source: World Bank

Concurrently, the US saw a significant decline in its share of global manufacturing (Figure 2). The US was still the world’s largest manufacturer as late as 2000, but over the course of the Doha Round it came to be eclipsed by China.

Figure 2: Share of global manufacturing value added

blog2Source: OECD.

Contrary to what the US expected at the beginning of the Doha Round, its trade deficit with China has grown dramatically since China’s WTO accession (Figure 3).

Figure 3: US trade balance with China

blog3Source: US Bureau of Census.

In this context, the draft Doha agreement on the table at the WTO in 2008 had by that point become politically untenable in the US. Under the terms of the proposed agreement, China would be entitled to the substantial special and differential treatment that developing countries — under the leadership of Brazil and India — had been able to secure in the round.

A clash between old and new powers

The US began to demand additional liberalization from China in manufacturing and agriculture in order to ‘rebalance’ the deal. But China steadfastly refused. From its perspective, this violated the development mandate of the Doha ‘Development’ Round as well as the implicit bargain struck during its accession, where, in exchange for the deep concessions China was forced to make in opening its market, it was promised that relatively little new liberalization would be required of it during the Doha Round. From China’s point of view, the US was now trying to renege on its promises.

The result has been a clash between the old and new powers — with the US, backed by other advanced industrialized states, demanding additional liberalization from China and other emerging economies. With the two sides relatively evenly matched, neither has been able to overpower the other. This stalemate caused the collapse of the Doha Round in 2008 and has been the basis of the continued impasse since then.

Key challenges for the trading system

Contemporary power shifts present three key challenges for the multilateral trading system.

First, can the trading system adapt to, manage, and accommodate growing economic rivalry between the US and China — the clash of a hegemon and its emerging challenger? This is a key part of the conflict that broke the Doha Round, and persists today as a major impediment to progress in WTO negotiations.

A second major and related question is: how should China and the other emerging economies be classified and treated in global trade governance? These countries face significant poverty and development challenges but are also now economic powerhouses and major competitors. Should they be treated as developing countries and therefore entitled to the same special and differential treatment as other developing countries (i.e., granted the same flexibilities and shielded from liberalization)? Or should there be differentiation among developing countries, with emerging economies subject to stricter commitments, closer to those of developed countries? This is a core issue at the heart of the Doha breakdown —the US and other advanced industrialized states have been willing to extend extensive special and differential treatment to much of the developing world, but far less willing to do so for China and other emerging challengers.

Finally, is there a fundamental conflict between liberal governance institutions and development? For several decades, under the Washington Consensus, the multilateral economic institutions, such as the WTO, IMF and the World Bank, operated under the principle that economic liberalism — open markets and free trade — offers the best path to development. Within a neoliberal development paradigm, the WTO’s objective of liberalizing trade and the goal of fostering development appear highly compatible. But that faith in free market economics is increasingly being destabilized — by the success of China and other interventionist developmental states, along with the rise of new structural economics and renewed emphasis on the importance of an active state and industrial policy. If there is a growing consensus that development requires significant scope for state intervention, can that be accommodated in, or reconciled with, governance institutions predicated on liberal principles that equate government intervention with protectionism?

Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against DAESH


By Andy Hom

This blog originally appeared on Defence-in-Depth, a research blog from the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

In late June 2016 the ESRC-funded Moral Victories project and KCL’s Department of Defence Studies convened a workshop, entitled ‘Degrade and Destroy: Winning the War against Daesh?‘, which brought together leading experts from the academic, military, policy, and NGO communities to consider the problem of confronting DAESH (ISIS) – both in terms of the results and consequences of extant approaches and of possible alternatives. This day-long meeting was designed to foster knowledge exchange and impact by bringing multiple sectors together for a sustained dialogue. It featured spirited discussions about the use of air power in counterterrorism operations, the linkages between DAESH and the greater Syrian conflict, the humanitarian toll of that conflict as well as regional counterterrorism operations, and the intriguing but largely overlooked question of whether Daesh is an enemy or a threat to the UK and its allies. This latter point in particular prompted some interesting discussions amongst the diverse group who attended.

One of these debates focused on whether DAESH should be seen as primarily a political rather than a military or strategic problem. Is DAESH a properly apocalyptic organisation bent on ‘hastening’ a global cataclysm or is it actually pursuing a territorial caliphate as an alternative to the Western states system? Although elements of both intermingle in DAESH propaganda, they are two distinct objectives with very different implications. If thoroughly apocalyptic, DAESH would likely present a genuinely existential problem, although even here a military response plays directly into its apocalyptic vision. Viewed as more traditionally political in the sense of governing territory, DAESH looks like an adaptable, goal-driven organisation availing itself of various means and messages.

After the fall of Mosul and its initial declaration of a caliphate, DAESH first tried to establish administrators in its territories and to project power to the rest of the world. While the specific means of accomplishing these were no doubt repugnant (e.g. brutal Sharia governance at home and hostage executions turned into spectacles), at issue here is their links to DAESH’s ultimate ends. Indeed, DAESH proved inept at public administration and management – it could not distribute public goods effectively and Sharia law did not enable a viable alternative to a social welfare platform. However, it was only after coalition airstrikes began to reduce DAESH’s territorial gains that its rhetoric shifted toward international terrorism as a religious duty. This supports a trend long known to terrorism experts, which is that attacks abroad signal the weakening of an organisation at home and its pending failure as a political programme. Once again this highlights the fundamental importance of a clear vision of what winning a confrontation with DAESH actually means. Air strikes have been successful at checking DAESH’s territorial ambitions, yet they have also driven DAESH toward a strategy of international terror. These paradoxes of military superiority highlight a parallel question: should we respond to violent non-state actors as if they were states themselves, or do asymmetric problems require novel and perhaps asymmetric responses?

Conventional military power has little effect on the ‘caliphate of the mind’, which DAESH spreads with remarkable effectiveness using social and traditional media. Regardless of the material situation on the ground, such propaganda will continue to appeal to young, marginalised, and misogynistic young men who seek a combination of thrill-seeking and meaning-making. One way for the UK and allied governments to resist the organic diffusion of the Jihadi’s claim to fame is to: 1) resist the urge to invoke overblown, national security rhetoric in the wake of localised or small scale attacks, as this valorises the actions of individuals and small groups; and 2) adapt Cold War programmes of ‘civil defence’ or preparedness protocols to train citizenries to employ standard response procedures in active shooter and rudimentary assault situations. The aim here is to reduce rather than magnify the material and political effects of terrorists’ actions and to focus on societal resilience rather than on large-scale transformations of regional and international political, legal, and strategic orders. It is also a shift that would likely deliver significant cost savings.

Going further, Western governments might even consider an ‘asymmetric’ means of engaging the ‘global Muslim subject’ by issuing a blanket apology for the War on Terror – not as an admission of defeat or sole guilt but as an unexpected step that requires dialogue while also recognising the global importance of Islam as a faith and Muslims as a people who have been disproportionately affected by powerful states’ response to the actions of a razor thin minority of their co-religionists. A public apology flies in the face of the accepted logics and conventional wisdom about the war on terror, a fact viewed by many at the meeting as its strongest endorsement.

Thinking about the politics of confronting DAESH returns us to a central question: Does DAESH represent an actual material and existential threat to the UK and its allies? DAESH is clearly an enemy of the systems, values, and politics enshrined in Western, liberal democratic states. Yet this is not the same as a threat. There was a consensus in our meeting that distinguishing more carefully between enemies and threats would help clarify the menu of political and strategic options for dealing with DAESH and similar actors. Terror attacks abroad and territorial gains within the Levant – especially within two struggling states such as Syria and Iraq, whose issues the UK and its allies helped create and have displayed little facility in resolving – do not rise to the level of a national or international security threat, except for when Western governments treat them as such and act accordingly. Threats require urgent security responses, enemies do not – as was ably demonstrated by the UK and its allies throughout much of the Cold War.

In addition to reframing thinking and discourse in a way that provides greater room for manoeuvre, distinguishing DAESH along these lines offers the opportunity to focus on the sorts of long-term conditions that enable terrorist organisations to emerge in the first place, conditions that are often closely linked to state failure, economic inequalities, and large-scale humanitarian disasters. It would also allow states that are party to the UN Refugee Convention, as the UK is, to begin think about how to meet their obligations to the international community’s most vulnerable peoples without framing this issue as a matter solely of terrorism and security. In general, it would allow the UK and its allies much greater freedom to deliberate how to meet emerging adversaries and issues like DAESH with a full set of political tools rather than only the pointy tips.

Although particular groups will rise and fall, regional and international terrorism are likely here to stay. Yet while specific tactics and dispositions will surely evolve, at root terrorism represents a remarkably narrow and indeed brittle approach to territorial control, political power, and international recognition. Facing a problem that is both sticky and limited, and combined with the underwhelming record of the post-9/11 years, it makes sense for leading states like the UK and its allies to explore more supple forms of response. One way to do this is to re-inject politics, understood in the most expansive sense, into counterterrorism.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Peace Process in Myanmar: A Long Process That Should Include Future Generations

This is a translation of an article written by Daehan Wi, a 4th year MA (Hon) IR student, reporting on his research in Myanmar for the Korean-language J Magazine, the monthly journal of the  JoongAng Daily. Mr. Wi’s research was funded by the UoE Principal’s Go Abroad scheme.

by Daehan Wi


“If you want peace, you [do] not talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies” Archbishop Tutu said. Myanmar is riddled with one’s enemies. A sense of hatred prevails throughout the country. However, Myanmar has started to talk about nationwide peace and hold talks with aggressive opponents.

In May 2015, the Union Election Committee (UEC) of Myanmar announced the plan for the upcoming general election. The government run by the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Armed Forces) for more than 50 years promised publicly that the election would be free and fair. It gave genuine hope to the public who has long desired for democratization of the country. There were full of people on the street who wore red shirts showing that they were supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD), the political party that Aung San Suu Kyi led. They yearned for freedom of speech and other democratic values, better welfare and living standard in a free and fair society.

wi-blog-pic1NLD supporters rally in the street wearing red shirts and hoping for regime change.

In November, the NLD achieved the landslide victory in the election against the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) backed by the military. In March 2016, new and first civilian government emerged with Htin Kyaw as the President and Aung San Suu Kyi as the State Counsellor and the Minister of Foreign Affair. For many years, 59F, the constitutional clause barring her from the presidency was the central issue. Not anymore. By creating a new position, the State Counsellor, she is now more powerful than she had simply become the President.

The general atmosphere in the government has become hopeful. “People support Aung San Suu Kyi and she has eventually won the election. It is a political opportunity to remove military intervention in politics and make the country democratic, and a social opportunity to remedy the legacy of previous military regimes” said Tin Oo, the former Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Union of Myanmar, and the current NLD Chairperson. He indicated in the interview with me that the country was having a moment of historical opportunity.


Peace, the first priority

Myanmar has been blighted by armed clashes between the Burmese government and the ethnic minorities, particularly resource-rich groups in the northern areas. Winning in the election does not mean the consolidation of democracy, as many countries have not been the case. For Myanmar, ‘conflict management’ and ‘peace process’ is the first step to its successful democratization. I had an interview with Nyan Win, the spokesperson of the NLD, and he said, “This government has a lot of tasks to do such as economic development and consolidation of civilian government. However, nationwide peace is the first consideration. Without peace, there cannot be national and individual development.” The NLD-led government should re-invigorate stalled peace talks, which have been left behind by the previous government under Thein Sein.

Origin of the armed conflict traces back to British colonial period in the early 1900s. In August 1941, US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill jointly declared the Atlantic Charter. The Charter set the goals of the post-war period by promising self-determination, restoration of self-government, no territorial aggrandizement and no territorial changes made against the desire of the people. British government planned to grant independence in accordance with the development stages. For Burma, the government aimed to liberate the Burmese areas first, and subsequently the other ethnic and mountainous areas. Burmese nationalist leaders including General Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, became opportunistic to establish a country called ‘Burma’ that included the areas of non-Burmese ethnic minorities.

In 1947, General Aung San and representatives of ethnic communities from Kachin, Chin and Shan signed the Panglong Agreement. The ethnic communities agreed to have a united federal state called Burma in exchange for guarantee of equal treatment with Burmese and a high degree of autonomy. In January 1948, the nation finally became independent as the Union of Burma. However, his political rival U Saw, who was later executed, assassinated General Aung San, generating a leadership vacuum after independence. U Nu became the Prime Minister of the Union and the government adopted parliamentary democracy. After Aung San’s assassination, the Panglong Agreement was completely broken. In 1962, General Ne Win seized power in a military coup and the ethnic minorities have been under dreadful pressures and discrimination since then.

Most ethnic minorities emphasize on history of the pre-colonial period. “We, and other ethnic communities, were the people who live in Zomia Land, the land of independent people. However, we have become the people who have to fight to preserve not only our natural resources that the government is eager to exploit, but also our culture, language and religions.”

Before British colonial period, there was no such thing as ‘Burma’ but the territory of Myanmar today was filled by city-states. Ethnic minorities settled down in mountainous areas in northern parts of Myanmar where there were rich natural resources. Rough mountains historically functioned as natural shield for them. From the 11th century to British colonial period, Burmese dynasties repeated fell and were conquered, whereas ethnic minorities were not ruled by any other invaders. In other words, ethnic people never lived with Burmese together. This is why they have been fighting against the Burmese government backed by Burmese Army, and against all discriminations from them. This armed conflict has lasted for around 70 years.

On 31 August this year, the 21st century Panglong Conference kicked off by Aung San Suu Kyi. It drew inspiration from the 1947 Panglong Agreement, and aimed to end the long-lasting armed conflict between the Burmese central government/military and the minorities in a way that General Aung San pursued. It was a huge peace conference that representatives from 17 out of 20 rebel forces, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other 1700 people attended.

However, they failed to draw a practical conclusion and the conference ended a day earlier than initially planned. Three rebel forces did not participate in the conference, and the United Wa State Army (UWSA) stomped out of the room during the meeting because they did not have right to speak. The conference was meaningful in a sense that the government brought rebel forces to the table, but it showed again that there were so many challenges for government to resolve in order to achieve nationwide peace.


Irony: Peace talks in the capital city, firing in ethnic areas at the same time

While the 21st century Panglong Conference was taking place in Naypyidaw, the capital city, there was an armed clash in northern Shan State. It was a military operation of the Myanmar Army to track down rebel forces in the region. In the incident, some civilians were killed and buried in secret. The incident was shocking for the public. Moreover, it was totally not understandable since it was in the middle of the peace conference that drew attention from international community. The public started to doubt whether the government really had sincerity about peace.

When I was in Yangon, soldiers of the Myanmar Army killed a young Kachin man in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, without a good reason. The media was heavily controlled but it was quickly spread on Facebook. For this, there was a mass rally in front of Yangon City Hall. A participant said to me, “Does the government really have sincere mind for peace process? They are the one who shoots us, they are the one who kills us, but at the same time, they are the one who wants peace with us. How strange is this?” Another protester said, “So there is no reason to expect positive outcomes from the 21st Panglong Conference. This is how they prepare for the conference. We know that the 21st Panglong Conference will be designed based entirely and solely on Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal perspective not on ethnic groups!”

An immediate ceasefire has always been the first demand from ethnic communities. However, firing has consistently been reoccurred after several attempts of ceasefire. Since the independence, there have been over 250,000 civilians killed; 1 million people have become internally displaced persons (IDPs). I had a chance to interview a soldier of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). He said, “Presence of the Myanmar Army in Kachin State itself is serious disturbance for trust building between the Burmese government and Kachin people. For us, their presence is not seen as a defense purpose but an offensive operation to attack us. It is the Myanmar Army that has made us to have this stereotype.” It is the passage that tells us how serious the pressures under military have been for them. It is an obvious expression but immediate cessation of physical hostility is the first step for peace process.

Peace situation in Myanmar reminded me of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King in <A Testament of hope: Essential Writing and Speeches> (1991). He said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

What other problems do the first civilian government have in peace process? Do they well understand perspectives and desires of ethnic minorities? I would like to address three issues of peace process: government-military relationship, Burmanization, and IDP alienation and future generation.

Problem 1: government-military relations

For the emergence of the civilian government, there is certainly a hope for better society, but at the same time, a peculiar feeling of betrayal coexists. “Peace is not achieved merely by peace conference. It is a process. In that process, the current government has already betrayed so many people.” A large proportion of population expresses voices of concern about the government-military relation. Aung San Suu Kyi considers the Tatmadaw as an important partner for stable government operation and peace process in the long run. A spokesperson of the NLD said, “Nationwide peace in this country requires the unification of the civilian government and military. It is not an option but a condition. We have been working hard on this.”

However, military has lost trust from the public, especially the ethnic minorities for a long time. Rather, there is active antagonism towards military for torture, rape, murder and oppressive rules. It is certainly difficult for the minorities to welcome the government that has friendly relationship with military. I interviewed four pastors in Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), a highly influential religious organization in the region, and they said, “We can trust Aung San Suu Kyi. But we do not trust Aung San Suu Kyi united with military.” A lawyer, former political prisoner, Thein Than Oo, also criticized the current government, “It is a quasi-civilian government wearing military uniform with the 2008 Constitution, which gives veto power to military in politics. How would you say this government has more trust than the previous government under Thein Sein had?”

The public want military to be removed from politics. It is not only about ethnic minorities but Burmese people also desire for true civilian government that military do not intervene in. The Chief Minister of Agriculture and Dam pointed out, “This country experienced serious corruption under military regimes. Economy collapsed, education system has been destroyed, and infrastructures have been poorly constructed. People’s lives are devastated by military officials’ efforts to keep their power.

Is it really worthy for the government to have restored relationship with military prior to the restoration of government trust from the public? It is too early to judge if it is right, but public grievances are increasingly high. It certainly is an obstacle to peace process. The government should find the balance in this relationship and also consider their relationship with the public.


Problem 2: Burmanization, another way of oppressing the minorities

“In the views of international community, official outlook of peace process might look good due to the emergence of the civilian government and attempts for peace conference. However, ground-level situation tells something different. A very important component for peace process has been missing. That is culture.” Sai Sam Kham, The Executive Director of Metta Foundation, a local NGO helping refuges and conflict-affected communities, claimed that understanding and respecting other cultures, languages, and identity should be taken into account when considering peace process.

He defined the term ‘Burmanization’ as a carefully crafted policies by successive Burmese governments to establish a state in which only Burmese culture, language, and religion (Buddhism) exists while trying to annihilate others. A Burmanizing effort is to assimilate non-Burmese ethnic groups into the majority Burmese in social, political and cultural aspects.

In practice, Burmese governments have long been trying hard to Burmanize the country. The government under the first Burmese Prime Minister U Nu passed the State Religion Promotion Act of 1961, which made Buddhism the official religion of the state. After this, people were heavily discriminated by religions, and non-Buddhist groups such as Kachin (Christian) and Rakhine (Muslim) could not avoid conflict with the government. There are still ongoing-armed clashes in Kachin State, and Rohingya issues in Rakhine State.

During the military regimes, the military sector, the highest authority, and all other primary government agencies were filled by Buddhist Burmese. Promotion was virtually impossible for non-Buddhist. I interviewed a former diplomat, who served the Ministry of Foreign Affair for 40 years. He said he could not be promoted for 15 years due to three reasons. First, he was not a Buddhist. Second, he was not a Burmese. Last, his background was not from military. He further explained, “Most Burmese consider themselves superior to the others. Burmese is the most superior ethnic. Buddhism is the best religion. Military people are better educated than civilians. They think the government should force people to have education in Burmese contexts because it would be the only way to achieve national development. Burmese people consider this sort of education as high-civilization.”

Yangon is the most populated city of Myanmar and there are not only majority Burmese but also many different ethnic people living in different townships. Sanchaung Township is the place where Kachin and Shan people live together. In this township, I met an ethnic activist who was preparing for the Ethnic Youth Conference. The conference was to promote harmonized societies and reconciliation among young generation for long-lasting peace. The activist formally invited Burmese people to participate in the conference. However, their responses were too vain.

“In our country, there are only Burmese states, and only Burmese people are living in this country. The others are barbarians living in mountainous areas.”

Religion has often been a tool for Burmanization. There are institutions called Dhamma School all over the country, and they are established by Buddhist organizations. Young students learn about Buddhism, and they are taught in anti-Christian and anti-Muslim ways in this school. Moreover, there are Buddhist schools run by government teaching about the Buddhist ideology of ‘Maha Burma’, which was brought in by Mon ethnic monks in the name of ‘Shin Arahan’ during Anawrahta’s reign in the 11th century. It is an imaginary belief that Buddha was Burmese, so people believe Buddhism is indigenous, and the others as inferior, foreign religions.

wi-blog-pic2Students in a government-run Buddhists school practice meditation and other Buddhist teachings.

Peace activists worry about young generation being taught in a seriously biased way. “We do not think religion is the cause of conflict, because true Buddhism is not about killing and dividing. It is the biased education system and Burmanizing efforts that have caused conflict in this country.” They indicate that tactfully crafted policies cause serious problems in peace process, which will ruin long lasting peace. Young students should respect each other in terms of culture, religion and identity so they can promote or maintain peace in future. There will be no difference in future if one still wants to destroy others, and the opposition wants to preserve. The activists, therefore, urge cessation of Burmanization towards young generation and the spread of Buddhist fundamentalism.

“If you omit cultural understanding, there cannot be any sort of progress in peace process” the former diplomat said. He added, “Ethnic people are living in Zomia Land. So we are the people who have preserved our culture, language, religion and our identity. Struggle for freedom and preservation has become our lifestyle. We do not know how strong the enemy is because we do not care how strong it is. We only know we have to fight to preserve ours until there is no threat to ours. Therefore, if government approaches ethnic groups with cling to the thought of ‘one ethnic, one religion, one command and one language, peace process is an impossible plan from the first outset.” The new civilian government must consider cultural aspects and they should not omit this component in peace process.


Problem 3: Still-alienated IDPs and an unpromising long-lasting peace

Another obstacle to peace process is the issue of IDPs who have lost their homes and families by conflict between the Myanmar Army and rebel forces. There are more than 600,000 IDPs in the country and most of them are teenagers. Among them, 80,000 IDPs are in Kachin and Shan State where there are frequent clashes.

“Children in IDP camps do not expect positive outcomes from peace process. They see Burmese as enemy and ‘mistrustful people’ and the one from whom they should protect their family.”

An activist in the Kachin Peace Network (KPN) pointed out that the IDPs have still been alienated and trauma healing has not yet been done for them. Many IDP children desire to become a soldier to protect their ethnic community and family. In practice, most of teenagers in the KIA have been conscripted while they were in IDP camps. The children who have suffered a trauma in deeply sad emotions decide to grab guns in their hands after all.

Sai Sam Kham claimed that young IDPs should not be politicized by any actors in peace process and their rights to education should be respected regardless of political situations. They have often been denied access to education. According to an activist in the KPN, many IDP children, who have successfully passed their 9th grade and achieved good marks in the University Entry Exam, have been rejected by the government. They have to retake the exam in Burmese schools and they generally cannot get into the top-level universities even if they obtain good marks.

It will seriously divide the levels of education between Burmese and non-Burmese. A KPN activist indicated, “Capacity building for young IDP students is a big issue. It is certainly a necessary condition for peace process because negotiation could not be fair when one actor is considered only poor and disadvantaged. Peace negotiators should have similar levels of capacity and development in order to have fair negotiation in peace process. The first step to this would be fair education system for young generation.”


Tasks for peace: Forgiving, Understanding and Future Generation

Peace cannot be achieved by one actor. In other words, the new civilian government cannot achieve it alone. The whole population should contribute to peace process. Then what do they have to do together?

Nelson Mandela said, “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace.”

I visited a refugee camp located near Yangon, and met young Kachin IDP students. They are aged from 10 to 14. I heard so many hopeless opinions in many interviews, but from these students, I could feel optimism for the future. They gave me impressive answers to my question: what kind of country they want for Myanmar to be.

“A country where there is no war and no hatred, a free and fair country, a country where powerless people can obtain power, a country where elderly people receive good healthcare, a country where streets are clean, a country that reconstruct broken bridges and houses by wars, a country where there is no division by ethnicity, a country where there is no political deceptions and a country where everyone has right to education.”

I asked them again why Myanmar is not such a country they desire yet and what they should do to make peaceful Myanmar. “Because people do not love each other, do not forgive, hate each other and they are selfish.” They added, “We should keep loving our people in Myanmar even when Burmese threat us or do something bad to us. We should become good people first, and we should treat them equally.”

These are the answers that I could not hear from adults. The students desire to be a pastor to console devastated people, a singer to sing a song of consolation, a teacher who teaches children who lost their families and a doctor who takes care of injured people from wars. I could only hope they become leading people in the country and promote peace in future.

This message is important also for ethnic groups. The former diplomat indicated, “Ethnic people tend to be too nationalistic and protective. They share social responsibilities to protect their people and culture from majority Burmese. They are narrow-minded. Their unconscious hatred towards Burmese people disturbs trust building between the Burmese government and ethnic communities.” It is not wrong that ethnic groups distrust Burmese as they have been suffered for a long period of time. However, the stereotype towards Burmese should be removed for peace process. Peace can be hardly achieved while possessing unconscious hatred.

Lastly, the civilian government should prepare a long-term plan for peace process. A scholar at Myanmar Institute of Peace and Security Studies (MIPSS) pointed out the importance of long-term plan. “In a democratic country that Myanmar is trying to become, new government emerges regularly. However, it is rarely possible to draw the plan of peace process in a 5-year timeline because we do not know how long it will take, and what kind of measures and systems we need at a certain period. If the whole peace process goes into hands of one government, we will have to see different approaches whenever we have new governments. We should have a consistent strategy of peace process until the final result comes out.”

Peace process is a long process that should include future generation. It is also important for the consolidation of democratic civilian government. Consideration for future generation means the preparation for post-Aung San Suu Kyi period. Thein Than Oo said, “Post-Aung San Suu Kyi period means the loss of powerful democratic leadership in this country, which military will welcome. This civilian government must have efforts on education for young students, lawyers, women, and people in ethnic communities.” Sai Sam Kham also added that the new leader who will replace Aung San Suu Kyi should be cultivated within a democratic bloc, and also capable of countering against extreme nationalism. The government and all actors involved in peace process should draw realistic and feasible long-term goals so that the current leadership does not follow populism.

I expect Myanmar would become the country for which the IDP students desire in future. For long-lasting peace, future generation should be taken into account when considering peace process.

Seeing Illegal Immigrants

Politics, Knowledge & Migration

We have now officially launched our new ESRC project on ‘Seeing Illegal Immigrants: State Monitoring and Political Rationality’.

The two-year long ESRC-funded project focuses on the ways states have ‘seen’ unauthorized migrants in France, Germany and the UK from the late 1960s to the present day.

We explore which forms of illegality states monitor, and which are left unscrutinised; and investigate the techniques states use to produce knowledge about illegal populations. In doing so, we aim to shed light on what we call the ‘logics of monitoring’ shaping the monitoring practices of different parts of the state. Do public authorities maximise surveillance and control of illegal residents, or do they prefer to cultivate a form of benign neglect or even ‘strategic ignorance’ of these groups?

Our website is up and running, and we have already posted 3 blogs. You can read about the project and the research team here.

If you would like further details about the project…

View original post 13 more words