Perspective: The Pale Blue Dot

Today is Veteran’s Day in the United States. It used to be called Armistice Day and that name is still used by other countries who were party to World War I. While not your normal Z Geography post, per se, I will offer some geographic perspective for your consideration. While we rightfully honor hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families – who often died for our or others’ ability to choose their government or because of our honored obligations – we should also consider our own actions and those of our leaders that ultimately support bringing death, despair, and destruction to others. For a leader’s policies can result in torture, oppression, lost liberty, and worse – My Lai, Samar. I contend that no single nation, state, or religion is without this stain – so, this is a call to action for everyone and anyone.

Is Z Geography calling for a world without war? Sure, that would be nice but nearly impossible. Populist demagogues probably will continue to find ways to power and they will continue to find a willingly and supportive audience. Even worse, democratic and autocratic regimes probably will continue to alternate between domestic oppression and external conflict to advance their narrow self-interests. War, like it or not, is a part of a politician’s toolbox. It would be nice for everyone to remove that tool simultaneously.

Until that happens, the common citizen can do little more than hold their own elected (and unelected representatives) accountable for their policies. Especially the ones that bring unnecessary death, despair, and destruction. And consider, perhaps, holding these same individuals accountable for lack of policies that stop unnecessary death, despair, and destruction – Rwanda, Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

A final, geopolitical point. Such an activity by the citizen, probably would force leadership from abandoning the politically-expedient fiction that their country does not attempt to influence the internal affairs of some other state. After all, Russia is in Syria, and the Presidents of the two Chinas met (for the first time in over a half-century), barely two months before a presidential election in Taiwan.

After all, we’re all housemates in the only house in the neighborhood.

Inspiration for this post is wholly drawn from the BBC, which released a film and an accompanying article to mark the astronomer Carl Sagan’s birthday on November 9, 1934 (he passed away December 20, 1996). The eponymous pale blue dot can be found in the Voyager 1 satellite image below. Look in the far right, yellow sunbeam just below the midpoint of the image. Carl Sagan’s remarks on the subject are available on the BBC article and at the Library of Congress. A section is reproduced below.

The Pale Blue Dot (Voyager 1, 1990, NASA, via BBC)

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. — Carl Sagan, 1990

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Unintended Consequences: Migration in Sri Lanka

I came across an interest-piquing article on Colombo (the capital of Sri Lanka) based on the preliminary (at the time) results of that country’s 2012 Census.

According to the article, the Sinhala (presumably Buddhist) population of Colombo comprises 24% of the city (a notable decrease from 50% of the population in 1971). The Tamil population (presumably Hindu) makes up around 33% of the population, an increase from 24.5% in 1971. The surprising statistic is the population of Muslims (alternatively Sri Lankan Moors or Indian Muslims, probably both), whose ratio increased from 19% in 1971 to over 40% in 2012. In terms of absolutes, the population numbers are: over 79 thousand Sinhala, over 106 thousand Tamils, and 126 thousand Muslims.

While the numbers themselves are interesting, Colombo now contains more Muslims than Tamil Hindus or Sinhala Buddhists, they should be understood within current and historical contexts. For instance, the Diplomat reported in September 2013 on the growing violence in Sri Lanka of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists targeting Muslims. As that source points out, Buddhists comprise 70% of the island’s 20 million people. The irony shouldn’t be lost on a world which has (abominably) associated sectarian violence with Islam. For their part, “Buddhists” are often assumed to be one of the more “peaceful” religions. In Sri Lanka, the right-leaning authorities (led by a long-serving President) have turned a “blind eye” to violence unleashed by monks, who are serving as agent provocateurs. In addition to attacking places of worship and business, Sinhala-Buddhist “extremists” (if you would) are calling for a boycott of halal-certified meat.

While sectarian on the surface, the Diplomat also notes an economic undercurrent within the violence. Protesters against halal-certification note that the principle body of Islamic scholars charges a fee to certify meat – and that this fee is passed on to the public. The geographic choices of targets reveals much of a movement’s basis. Places of worship are usually thought of first when considering visible evidence of a minority community and a focal point for anger, they are (after all) focal points for the community. Places of business may often be the real focal points and businesses are often just as visible.

Sri Lanka/Ceylon has witnessed this sectarian-economic violence before. Anthropologist Stanley Tambiah, himself a Sri Lankan, in his book Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist conflicts and collective violence in South Asia provides a discussion of Buddhist riots targeting the growing Tamil-Muslim community in Sri Lanka in the early 1900s. As it was then, so it is now. Economics, as well as sectarian differences, provided the impetus for violence against a minority religious community.

Considering the apparent Buddhist-nationalism gripping Sri Lanka and an equally apparent list of economic grievances against Muslims, further violence against this community is (unfortunately) likely. The violence is also a reminder of the problem of politicizing one particular aspect of a person’s identity and highlights the junction between violence, geography, and political identity.

Chaos in Central African Republic

Dedicated followers of the news will have heard of the ongoing violence and atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) a country of some 4 million people. While Z Geography hasn’t stared at nearly enough data to bring you, my trusted reader, an in-depth geographic analysis of the conflict – certain threads in the recent news deserve some commentary.

The violent conflict has been increasingly labelled sectarian by French and British news media (Americans aren’t particularly interested it seems). As France24 notes the violence pits the Muslim minority, concentrated in the north along the country’s borders with Chad and Sudan and the urban areas of the south (principally Bangui, the capital), against the Christian majority. In March 2013 (yes this has been going on for almost a year) the primarily Muslim “Seleka” rebels deposed President Francois Bozize. He had been ruling for a decade or more. The new President was a Muslim, the first in the country. Though the President, Michel Djotodia, disbanded the Seleka group, former members began a campaign of violence. Former Seleka rebels are accused of “looting” and “raping” civilians, primarily Christians. The violence has since led to the creation of “anti-Balaka” (anti-Machete) vigilante groups comprised primarily of Christians.

Last month (January 2014) Djotodia resigned his presidency as part of a regional peace process to limit violence (BBC). Except violence hasn’t abated – even with the introduction of French and other African peacekeepers, notably from Rwanda (France24).

Now somewhere between 20% and 25% of the country’s population (over a million) has been displaced, that is driven from their homes, because of the violence. This includes those families now considered “refugees” (fleeing over an international border) and “internally displaced” (still within CAR). The BBC reports (using Medecins sans Frontieres figures) that 30,000 refugees are in Chad and 10,000 are in Cameroon. One human interest story carried by the BBC relates the desire of one imam (Islamic religious leader) to be the last “Muslim in CAR”. France24 reports that the entire Muslim population of a town south of Bangui had fled toward Chad as part of a convoy of 10,000 refugees.

The imam also points, and the BBC picks up on, another important demographic/cultural geographic point: many of the refugees are Muslims and are important traders supplying food, seeds, and other goods to the local population. He says:

Bangui is losing its business community which is made up largely of Muslims – they’ve been ransacking Muslim shops.

Commodity prices have gone up, a bunch of salad will cost you 200 CFA Francs (40 cents; 25p) – twice as much as a little while ago. A bar of soap is worth 100 CFA Francs (20 cents; 13p), again twice as much as before.

Buying meat? Don’t even think about it, there is none. The Fulani and nomadic Chadians that used to drive their cattle to Bangui have decided to head for Cameroon because there’s too much violence here. (BBC)

The BBC, reporting Oxfam and Action Against Hunger views, notes that the “exodus” of Muslims could lead to “catastrophic market collapse” and that only 10 wholesalers were left in Bangui, many of whom are considering fleeing. The BBC correspondent points out that Muslims were the “backbone of the local economy.” Substantial price increases or the simple disappearance of food would worsen an already serious humanitarian situation. As the BBC notes, the UN estimates 90% of Central Africans eat one meal a day. Compounding this problem is the continuing violence, which is causing cattle herders from neighboring countries to avoid entering CAR.

The persistence of violence is something of a mystery, considering the presence of armed peacekeepers. The former colonial power, France, is accused of standing by while a Christian lynch mob mutilated the body of a murdered Muslim, according to Human Rights Watch (BBC, note the article is graphic):

The French soldiers were there, just sitting metres away, and didn’t stop this horrific mutilation from taking place.

The soldiers were heavily armed, they could have easily parked one of their armoured cars next to these two bodies, which were about 50m [164 ft] apart, and stood by them until the Red Cross came to collect them.

But instead they checked out the scene and then they got back in their cars and drove away.

Tellingly “the French defence ministry has not commented.”

Further, French peacekeepers have also been accused of standing by as looting continues in Bangui. According to France24 looters “know” that the French cannot fire on them: “The peacekeepers went from door to door to try to rout the looters, who simply moved on to other targets, pushing their carts and wheelbarrows between French armoured cars. ‘The French won’t fire at us,’ one young looter said, laughing.”

On the other hand, African peacekeepers have a mandate to open fire. France24 reports that these peacekeepers fired on civilians in Bangui that were “jeering, threatening, and throwing stones at the [Muslim refugee] convoy”. Rwanda peacekeepers also shot a suspected Christian militiaman who was about to burn the body of a Muslim, whom he had killed (France24). An angry crowd shouted at the Rwandans, evidently believing they were Muslims.

The inability of the peacekeepers to impose peace (since there is no peace to keep) appears to point to the necessity of a new mandate (for at least the French) to actually fire on Christian (and Muslim) militias in order to stop violence. In many ways, CAR’s current situation is similar to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s – there the UN peacekeeping force lacked the mandate to effectively protect Tutsi civilians during a Hutu-led pogrom.

Without a semblance of peace, Muslims will continue to flee the Central African Republic and, as we have seen, their flight could make a serious humanitarian situation into a disaster as food prices spike and supplies vanish. Further, the Muslim community’s flight is sowing the seeds of a future conflict when legitimate citizens of the Central African Republic, who are Muslim, come home from Chad, Cameroon, or wherever to reclaim their properties. As Liberia found following their decades of instability, insurgency, and civil war – the lack of documentation of who owns what will only spark renewed violence.

A quick note on the Muslim community often coinciding with the business community – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Islam spread south of the Sahara (centuries ago), Muslims often moved into and settled in predominantly Christian areas. Since land, and agriculture, has traditionally been viewed as a “desirable” or “honorable” occupation Muslims were prevented from owning land, attempting to avoid relegation to being landless agricultural laborers, many turned to trade and commerce. Some were successful because of their intrinsic cultural links with Muslim caravans from the north bringing in other goods from abroad. There’s obvious parallels of this story with the Jewish experience in Europe and the Chinese experience in southeast Asia.