Monday :: Jan 5, 2009

Developing A Framework to Understand and Develop Working Solutions to Major Conflicts: The Case of Mizoram (India) - Introduction


by eriposte

With the impending Obama Presidency, my primary goal in the near-term is going to be to return to my main interest - public policy. There are three broad areas of public policy that interest me the most - foreign policy, energy/environment and economics. Given the recent terrorist attacks in India and the ensuing tensions between India and Pakistan, and the Israel/Hamas conflict in and around the Gaza strip, my blogging focus over the next few months is largely going to be foreign policy. I can't claim to be an expert in any of these areas, but I would like to see more Americans take a deeper interest in understanding conflicts (beyond the predictable sound-bites on radio, TV and even on the web sometimes) - so, I am going to utilize this opportunity to use an example from the past to try and develop a simplified, generic framework for us to think about and discuss conflicts - their root causes, the conditions under which conflicts continue and the conditions under which they might be resolved successfully in the long term.

In my view, doing this is important for a couple of reasons. First, we have a natural tendency as humans to respond to ongoing conflicts largely through the lenses of firmly-held past perspectives, to focus more on the (in)appropriateness of the current actions in the conflicts and, in some ways, feel helpless that we are unable to solve the problem in a manner that seems just and fair to us. This could result in more entrenched views and distance us even more from what it might take to seek truly transformative solutions. Second, a focus on the present could lead to significant tensions and misunderstandings, even between friends who might have strong disagreements over the conflict, and could result in a lost opportunity to continuously and unstintingly engage everyone at the level of workable ideas and long-term solutions to the conflict. History suggests that major conflicts are rarely resolved through piecemeal approaches and restricted avenues of thought. To think "big" requires that we consider the multi-dimensional nature of each problem that needs to be solved and about related and unrelated historical precedents, and then develop a simplified, generic framework to look at each conflict with a lens that is wide enough to ensure that we have a reasonable shot at developing a lasting solution.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com has been writing some thought-provoking posts on the topic of Israel/Palestine. In one of the posts he said (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

...The fact that the people of Location X are suffering doesn't mean that anything and everything their government directs to the general vicinity of those inflicting the suffering is justified.  Haven't we learned that lesson over the last eight years?  Conversely, to object to the actions taken by a government (e.g.: torture, warrantless eavesdropping, attack on Iraq) is not to deny the legitimacy of the original grievance in response to which those measures are ostensibly undertaken (e.g.:  the 9/11 attacks).  Isn't that basic by now?  Those who haven't learned that lesson have no basis ever for objecting to war criminality, or excessive or reckless military actions, or any other means employed by those with legitimate grievances.

I agree with these sentiments completely. In another post, Glenn said:

If someone asked me to recommend just one must-read article on the Israeli-Gaza conflict, I would select this column from yesterday in The Guardian by Israeli-American journalist Nir Rosen.  I disagree with several of his points, particularly some of the specific ones about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but his generalized explanation about how the concept of "terrorism" is distorted and exploited by stronger countries can't be emphasized enough.  

In a follow-up post Glenn also writes about those who blithely label Palestinians "barbarians". I am going to table comments on Rosen's column since I have some strong disagreements. However, Glenn's point that the label "terrorism" is easily misused (or overused) by Governments is an important one because in many cases such misuse (or overuse) could prolong serious strife for long periods and prevent viable and lasting solutions from being explored (more on this from the Army War College, via Tom Ricks). We have already seen some of this play out during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, where certain "terrorists" became "insurgents" and in some cases are (or will inevitably be) part of groups or political parties represented in the Iraqi government.

Glenn's posts are an example of the excellent debate required at all times during such conflicts. However, given the emotions surrounding this particular issue, I'm going to step back from it and pick an unrelated issue to develop a simplified framework that would allow me to more dispassionately discuss the Israel/Palestine issue and others (like Kashmir), in order to chart out lasting working solutions to them. There are any number of examples I could have picked, but in the end I decided to pick a success story from India's post-independence history. A principal reason is that India is an extraordinarily complex and mostly successful democracy that has faced many kinds of internal conflicts or secessionary movements since its independence in 1947 - conflicts whose origins can be traced to religious, sectarian, nationalistic, linguistic, cultural, and/or socio-economic roots. The example I picked is that of Mizoram.

The small Indian state of Mizoram was locked in an internal, secessionary conflict with the Indian Government and military forces for roughly two decades before it became the 23rd state of India in 1986. Mizoram had the unfortunate distinction of suffering the first ever air attack by India's air force on some of its own towns in 1966. It is a beautiful, lightly populated, hilly state in eastern India whose economy is largely agrarian and whose climate is temperate. It is one of India's three states (all in the eastern part) where Christians form the majority of the population (~87%  in Mizoram) - the other two being Meghalaya and Nagaland. The main language of the region is Mizo (Tibeto-Burman, with many dialects) although English is used commonly. Most Mizos (translation "highlanders") are believed to be descendants of tribes of immigrants originally from China, and possibly Mongolia, but are reasonably integrated into India today. Interestingly, a large number of Jewish Mizos also claim to be descendants of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. The story of Mizoram is illustrative of the incredible progress that is possible when enlightened vision and leadership replaces obstinate, one-dimensional thinking, and when a war-torn and repressed populace opens their minds to some compromises and new possibilities. It is also a reasonably good test case (admittedly not the only one) for us to create a framework to think about conflicts across the world because the economic roots of the violent Mizo conflict were amplified by religious and cultural/linguistic challenges as well, adding to the difficulty of developing a longer-term solution to the conflict.

In the next few parts of this series I will briefly discuss the source of the Mizoram conflict, the factors that prolonged the failures and prevented a final solution for two decades and how those factors were gradually (or fortuitously) addressed over many years, in part due to visionary and transformative leadership, leadership of the kind that the U.S. badly needs after the wreckage left behind by the Bush administration. Based on that discussion I will outline a simple framework which I plan to use to discuss proposed solutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict (and others). That said, let me be clear that this is not an attempt to draw superficial equivalence between Mizoram and Palestine on the one hand and between Israel with India on the other. In fact, India as a country is in many ways as diverse and complex, if not more so, than even Europe as a continent - and picking an example like this could be misunderstood as an attempt to directly compare cultures and conflicts. That is not the intent here. As I've explained, the purpose of the Mizoram discussion is to build a framework to discuss conflicts and apply that framework to better understand and address today's conflicts.

eriposte :: 6:28 AM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!