Tuesday 29 May 2018
Introduction: The Return of the Red-headed Step-child
Selby Semela was an 18-year-old school pupil and treasurer of the Soweto Students
Representative Council (SSRC) on June 16, 1976. Forced into exile after being shot
and wounded by a black policeman, he co-wrote this analysis aged about 21, and
the strength of thought that shines through it shows him to have been an exceptional
young man. He is believed to currently reside in New York City, but we have not
been able to interview him, or to discover anything about his co-authors.
Nevertheless, what you hold in you hands is a unique slice of South African history:
an analysis of the watershed ‘76 Revolt by a leading black participant in that insurrection
- from a rare libertarian socialist perspective. The shotgun wedding in which
South Africa was forcibly welded together out of two British colonies and two Boer
republics in 1910 produced grimly racialised authoritarian political offspring: White
Labourism and African Nationalism.
The real multiracial working class alternative of libertarian socialism (in its mass-based
form, revolutionary unionism and parallel revolutionary neighbourhood organisations)
was treated by both the Rand Lord oligarchy that grew rich off and the black
chieftain / merchant class that founded the South African Native National Congress
(SANNC, ancestor of the African National Congress, ANC) in 1912 as a red-headed
step-child. From the founding of a local section of the revolutionary unionist
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1910, to the establishment of the Industrial
Workers of Africa (IWA) along similar lines in 1917, the step-child flexed its muscles
and served notice on the old order.
But libertarian socialism was crushed in the 1920s in a vice between the devil of
para-fascist Afrikaner nationalism, and the sea of “native republic” Stalinism. It fell
into a coma from which it only surfaced briefly in the late 1950s / early 1960s with
the establishment of a tiny libertarian Marxist current, the Movement for a
Democracy of Content (MDC), which played a key role in the successful Alexandra
Then the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre and the subsequent banning of the nationalist
“liberation” movements provided the pretext for the authoritarians of both camps to
embark on a war with racist overtones that peaked in 1976/1977 and again in 1985-
1987 (remember: the ANC only fully deracialised in 1985). While libertarian socialist tendencies were present in civic, street and trade union organising in the heat of
the conflict, it was only in the dying days of racial-capitalist apartheid and its pseudo-
opposition that a specific anarchist movement emerged from underground, culminating
in the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF) of today, a working
class organisation that agitates among the poor for a rupture, a severence of ties
between the exploited and the parasitic classes that rule us. The red-headed stepchild
had awoken once more!
One of the pseudo-opposition’s main aims in the war was to cynically use rank-andfile
worker and poor community militancy to build the profile of what Semela and
company call “the old spinster/huckster organisations: the African National Congress
(ANC), the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and the Pan Africanist
Today, these hoary old pseudo-liberators have gone further than the old Afrikaner
elite ever could to help the capitalist state overhaul its image, while maintaining iron
discipline over the blood and bread of the working class. The “democratic” emperor
and his phalanx of “corporate guerrillas” now wear Armani suits over their T-shirts of
that dead Stalinist, Ché Guevara. Capitalist class rule, aided by reworked race classification,
This is the process of deception, disintegration and decay the authors describe here
with regard to Semela’s own organisation back in the ‘70s, the SSRC - and the Black
Consciousness Movement (BCM). Both were, briefly, legitimately used by the
oppressed to throw off their chains. Both are here castigated for their later pretensions
to “leadership” of the struggle, for their “symbiotic” relationship with capitalist
power, and for their substitution of the vanguard party-form for the masses themselves.
That is the primary strength of this pamphlet.
Its main weakness is that while Semela & Co. make a distinctly libertarian socialist
(albeit not anarchist communist) critique, they fail to suggest clear socio-organisational
solutions to the problems they highlight. Hailing working class spontaneity,
they are so shy of “bureaucracy”, having had their fingers burnt by the BCM and
SSRC, that they do not dare spell out what plural and organic forms working class
organisation should take to ensure the continued political autonomy, self-sustainability
and anti-capitalist content of that militancy.
The working class, peasantry and poor need to create their own organisations in
their own image, completely divorced from the compromising models of both the ruling
class and its pseudo-opposition.
These must be organs of decentralised power (not the refusal of power - or the concentration of power), run along direct-democratic lines in which every participant is a
decision-maker, all empowered individuals strengthened by community.
These organs, as much as the “revolution” itself, are the “school of the oppressed”
which train them to create egalitarian grassroots communism in the shell of capital,
even as it is being gutted. These ideas, and not self-appointed leadership cadres,
are what shall lead a future South(ern) African Revolution, the final overthrow of parasitic
class rule and profiteering that our ANC/SACP/PAC/BCM “liberators” have forced to retreat far over our horizon.
True communism is only possible from below, when the vast majority of the underclasses
resolve en masse to end our slavery in our own right, in our own name and
by our own organs of communal power. The social revolution will only be carried out
by the “wretched of the earth”. The time has come for the return of the red-headed
step-child. With the hammer of revolutionary working class unity in her fist, she will
smash capital and the state.
- Michael Schmidt, Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation (ZACF), Southern Africa, 2005
Michael Schmidt på Sergels torg i Stockholm. Schmidt var i Sverige för att delta i en konferens arrangerad av det globala nätverket Icorn.
Foto: Olle Eriksson
Sydafrika har en lång historia av anarkism och syndikalism, men denna har haft liten eller ingen plats i den västliga anarkistiska historieskrivningen. Michael Schmidt, anarkist, journalist och författare från Sydafrika, vill ändra på det. För Arbetaren berättar han om kommande bokprojekt, rörelser i södra Afrika och sitt arbete med nätverket Icorn (Arbetaren, Sverige, 23 Maj 2012)
Rent allmänt tycker Michael att anarkister har misslyckats med att definiera vad anarkism är för något vilket bidrar till en bild av den som kaotisk, den reduceras till att vara enbart anti-stat och någonting som allt möjligt kan samlas in under.
– Det har alltid funnits en frihetlig sida i mänsklighetens historia men det betyder inte att det alltid funnits en anarkistisk rörelse, säger Michael Schmidt som daterar anarkismens födelse till 1860-talet då Michael Bakunin och hans kamrater levde och verkade.
Förutom teori tar Black Flame även upp en mängd personer, grupper och organisationer som man anser har arbetat anarkistiskt genom historien. Kritiken mot boken har handlat om att dess definitioner varit alldeles för snäva och att författarna å ena sidan inkluderar personer och grupper som inte så självklart uppfattas av andra – eller ens definierat sig själva – som anarkistiska och å andra sidan exkluderar de många aktivister och grupper som själva kallar sig anarkistiska.
I kommande Global Fire är ambitionen att teckna en sammanhängande historia av anarkistisk organisering över hela världen från 1860-talet fram till i dag.
– Vi måste korrigera bilden av att anarkismens historia uteslutande handlar om Europa och USA. Mycket har faktiskt hänt i Latinamerika och andra delar av världen. De första fackföreningarna som bildades i Kina och Egypten var anarkistiska och den första fackföreningen för färgade i Sydafrika var anarkistisk. I arbetet med boken har vi bland annat studerat rörelser i Vietnam, Filipinerna, Uruguay, Algeriet, Kenya och Afghanistan. Många länder där man kanske inte tror att det funnits anarkistisk organisering, säger Michael Schmidt som med sitt författarskap fått ledarna för Cosatu, ett sydafrikanskt fackförbund med nästan två miljoner medlemmar, att börja läsa Bakunin.
– På en kongress för något år sedan citerade Cosatus ordförande ur Black Flame och menade att man måste börja ta intryck från anarkismens och syndikalismens idéer, säger Michael Schmidt.
Anledningen till denna nydaning tror han beror på att de mest öppensinnade inom förbundet förstått att det gamla Sovjetparadigmet är dött. De alternativ som tidigare presenterats har kommit från landets kommunistiska parti som följer en kinesisk modell av nyliberalism och fascistisk korporativism.
– Sedan måste man komma ihåg Sydafrikas speciella historia med apartheidsystemets fall på 1990-talet. Dagens politiska elit har en ganska färsk illegal och revolutionär bakgrund, vilket antagligen gör dem något öppnare för sådana här idéer, säger Michael Schmidt.
Under 1900-talet har det funnits ett flertal anarkistiska och syndikalistiska organisationer i Sydafrika. I dag finns det organiserade syndikalister i Cape Town som arbetar med vinplantagearbetare, där man bland annat samarbetat med svenska SAC Syndikalisterna när det gäller Systembolagets affärer med sydafrikanska vinproducenter.
Michael Schmidt, som varit med att bilda den anarkistiska kamporganisationen Zabalaza, berättar att man har bra samarbeten med anarkister i bland annat Zwaziland och Zimbabwe. Genom informationsspridning försöker man stödja respektive länders kamp för demokrati.
De senaste årens händelser i Nordafrika ger skäl att vara optimistisk och kanske hoppas på en anarkistisk massrörelse där, tror Michael Schmidt.
– Den dagen då vi kommit dithän att anarkister dödas och fängslas och vi upptäcker att vissa av våra kamrater är polisspioner, då vet vi att vi är på rätt väg för då utmanar vi verkligen makten.
A quick update on the closing phases of writing my major work, In the Shadow of a Hurricane - on which I am now in my 18th year, having worked in 14 languages:
COMPLETED OVER THE PAST YEAR:
* USA: an intensive rewrite, especially focusing on the interwar and post-war period,based on a great new book by Chris Cornell on the topic, which uniquely helps articulate the lineages of a movement that is usually disarticulated by poor historiography (look up my book review Linking the Unchained);
* Imperial and Soviet Russia and its colonies: a total overhaul and rewrite from the Imperial to Soviet eras, with an in-depth and uniquely holistic analysis of the Ukrainian Revolution (including Odessa and western Ukraine), and the Russian Revolution in Siberia (Pereira, Heath and others), especially - based on my own translation of a ground-breaking new work by Chop & Liman on the city of Berdyansk under Makhnovist control - on a holistic study of the RPAU based largely on Makhno, Arshinov, Voline, Avrich, Darch, Savchenko, Azarov, Archibald, and Dubrovik into its exile formations in Poland, Latvia, Siberia and Romania, plus Anne Applebaum's great analysis of the Gulag Archipelago from its Okrana/Chekist roots to its dissolution;
* Georgia: a brand new section on the Georgian Revolution of 1905-1907 based largely on the study by Polonsky, fleshed out by Heath;
* Finland and the Baltics: integrating minority materials into the Imperial and Soviet eras;
* Poland: balancing the studies of Chwedoruk, Nagorsky, and Marek, with a focus especially on interwar anarcho-syndicalism - defeating the convention that Polish syndicalism was tainted by nationalism - and the anti-Nazi resistance and the Warsaw Ghetto and Uprising;
* Armenia and Azerbaijan: integrating new material on the 1890s-1900s Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaksutiun) and its attempt on the life of the sultan in Alloul et al, plus new material on the anarchist insurrectionists in the area;
* Croatia: a rewrite based on my own translation of a new Croatian book by Pejic on the movement up until WWII;
* Yugoslavia: interrogating Leeman's study of post-war Yugoslav "syndicalism";
* Bohemia / Czechoslovakia: a significant rewrite based on my own translation of a new Czech book by Tomak et al on the subject until 1923 with a focus on how the anarchists self-liquidated with the formation of the state of Czechoslovakia;
* Italy: integrating Pernicone's great study of the early movement from its origins in the 1860s to the early 1900s, focusing on how it evolved from insurrectionism to anarcho-syndicalism, and linking it to Sacchetti's sketch of the anti-Fascist resistance from the 1920s into the immediate post-WWII era;
* Greece etc: new material on the new insurrectonist movement in all its international aspects (links to Italy, Chile, Mexico, Rojava, etc), based on movement statement and news reports;
* Scandinavia: updating the material on Denmark based on Daniell Marcussen's new book until the early 1920s with a stress on the anarchist's relations with the Bolsheviks;
* Post-Revolutionary Spain and the exile movement: based on Peirats, and Ealham in particular, this traces the denouement of the revolutionary, reformist and counter-revolutionary factions in the MLE and CNT-Interior until the movement's post-Franco reconstruction - and schisms;
* Indonesia: integrating a brand-new Russian study by Damier et al plus other works by Stromquist, and Brown, on the East Indies anarchist movement in the colonial era with a focus on the national liberation struggle into the post-WWII period;
* South Asia: updating the story of the Ghadar Party in particular, reliant primarily on Ramnath's brilliant studies, stretching from 1913 into the post-independence era - with new materials on today's Indian Anarchist Federation and Bangladesh Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation;
* Korea and Manchuria: a very extensive overhaul and total rewrite based on my own translation of Emilio Crisi's excellent new Spanish-language study (the very first academic study!) of the almost unknown anarchist Manchurian Revolution of 1929-1932 plus Dongyoun Hwang's great work on the interplay between anarchism and national liberation in Korea, with an analysis reaching through the post-WWII period up to the present day;
* Japan: integrating analyses by Tzusuki, Crump, Reichschauer and others on the post-WWII movement in particular;
* Costa Rica: integrating Thomas' new work on the pre-WWII movement;
* Jamaica and the Caribbean: integrating Montgomery Stone's 1975 analysis of state-driven "self-management";
* Mexico: balancing the works of Hart and Caulfield to better understand the Mexican Revolution, plus Alberola etc on the post-WWII movement (still looking out for a new Spanish-language book by Aguilar on the topic however);
* Peru: completing Hirsch's study of how the movement grappled directly with the race question, integrating Aymara and Quechua militants into its organisations (and their own);
* Uruguay: a very extensive and detailed rewrite, especially on the 1958-1976 period of the FAU - one of the most significant anarchist mass organisations of the post-WWII era - based on my own translation of Ricardo Ramos Rugai's brilliant book-length study plus work by Colombo, Mechoso, and others;
* Algeria, Morocco & Tunisia: a rewrite of the post-WWII era and the MLNA especially in the national liberation struggle in Algeria until its destruction in 1957, based on Porter, Mohamed, and others;
* The 2016 implosion of the IWA: based on factional movement reports and analyses; and
* Conclusion: a very brief summing up of my major "discoveries" over 18 years of researching anarchist movement history.
UNDER WAY NOW:
* Bolivia: polishing up, especially on the FOL and its feminine vanguard, the FOF of Petronilla Infantes, from 1927-1964, based on Dibbets et al (have to translate this from hard-copy Spanish);
* Argentina: polishing up, with a focus on how the resistance societies like SROPC initiated anarcho-syndicalist unions on the docks and at sea, based on de Laforcard;
* Spanish Revolution: total overhaul and rewrite of this, the 20th Century's most complex and historically contested Revolution, based on the most penetrating and critical organisational studies of Chris Ealham, Augustin Guillamon, Abel Paz, Jose Peirats, and Stuart Christie, taking a hard line against the de facto counter-revolutionaries of the higher committees of the CNT-FAI; and
* Rojava Revolution: integrating the best new book-length study of the subject by Knapp et a with the positions of today's anarchist insurrectionists fighting ISIS in Rojava.
Sunday 27 May 2018
Delegates to the 1946 Korean Anarchist Congress
As the leaders of North and South Korea meet this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on how Korea came to be divided - and how the anarchists responded to the twin challenges of national liberation and repression, in this extract from my forthcoming book In the Shadow of a Hurricane. The Korean anarchist movement is a fascinating case study as it emerged as a resistance movement to Japanese imperialism, consolidating in 1910 after the Japanese invasion of Korea, achieved a full-blown revolution in Manchuria over 1929-1932 (wonderfully told by Emilio Crisi's new book on the topic), was *unbroken* by World War II - unlike the movements in Europe under Nazi-Fascism - and yet developed in a distinctly libertarian reformist direction in grappling with how to establish an independent Korean nation against the meddling of other imperialist powers, the USA, Russia and China.
In Korea, the anarchists remained a powerful force at the end of the Second World War. In 1940, the anarchists Yu Rim of the Korean Anarcho-Communist Federation (HMGY) and Yu Ja-Myeong of the Korean Revolutionist Federation (HHY) and Korean Anarchist Federation in China (HMY-J) were elected to the exile Korean Provisional Government in Chungching, China. The following year, other HMGY anarchists like Jeong Hwa-Ahm and Park Kee-Seong became members of its shadow parliament. In 1945, Yu Rim was elected to the cabinet. The Provisional Government declared itself in 1941 to be "a Government established by the national united front of revolutionary parties and socialistic parties,” and included the HMGY, the Korean People's United Revolutionist Federation, the Korean People's Revolutionary Party, the Liberation Federation, and the Korean Independence Party of Kim Gu, who became premier of the exile government. In the meantime, anarchist guerrillas were incorporated into the armed forces of the Provisional Government. The anarchist Korean Youth Wartime Operations Unit, for example, which had been fighting the Japanese since 1938, was incorporated into the newly founded Korean Liberation Army as its 5th Detachment (later, its 2nd Detachment). The defeat of imperial Japan saw Korea and Taiwan made independent, and the Korean Liberation Army ceased its activities. However, matters were not so simple. The Soviet Union was interested in regaining territories lost in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, and in expanding its sphere of influence in the east. Soviet relations with the Allies in East Asia were increasingly fraught – particularly given American support for the Guomindang in China – and were shaped by growing Western alarm at Communist expansion. While the American occupation forces allowed the Korean Provisional Government under Premier Kim Gu to return to Korea, it had no official standing. Conflicts between the Americans, based in the south of Korea, and the Soviet Union, which had entered the north, were resolved by a plan for joint American-Soviet Union "trust regime" to last five years.
When the trusteeship plans were announced in December 1945, riots broke out across the Korean peninsula. Korean Communists initially opposed the deal but switched their stance in early 1946 to one of support, following a Soviet directive that the local Party must support Communist territorial gains in the north. Nonetheless, the deal was widely opposed – hardly suprising given the long history of struggle against Japanese colonialism, the anti-imperialist sentiments of the left, the strength of Korean nationalism, and ongoing Allied talk of the right to self-determination. The dispute appears to have shattered the Provisional Government: Kim Gu apparently plotted a coup shortly after the trusteeship announcement, but was arrested, and warned, on pain of death, to desist. The riots were suppressed by occupation troops, a number of anti-trusteeship activists were assassinated, and publications opposed to trusteeship were suppressed. The country was divided into two zones of influence, the north ruled by the Russian military through proxy "people's committees" and the south ruled by the US military through the remnants of the old Japanese colonial administration. In the north, the Soviet Union formed a Communist government on the lines of those established in East Europe, and headed by Communist leader Kim Il Sung, who had been a Communist guerrilla implicated in attacks on the anarchists in the 1930s. Under his rule, opponents - ranging from anarchists, to the Korean Workers' Party and the moderate Korean Democratic Party – were suppressed, and Korean Workers' Party leader Pak Hun Yong was executed in 1955. Even independent-minded communist groups were caught up in the repression. Even by this time, however, Korean anarchism had been decimated in the North by ongoing Communist incursions that dated back until the late 1920s.
In the south, the anarchists remained a powerful force, but were deeply divided. Post-war meetings demonstrated that a sector of the movement had moved from an anarchist approach to national liberation to an openly nationalist one. In 1945, most of the anarchist groups were united as the Federation of Free Society Builders (JSBY), also known as the League of Free Social Constructors. This was founded in Seoul at an All-Korean Anarchist Congress by about almost 100 delegates who had emerged from underground in Korea, China and Japan. Among the founding organisations of the JSBY were the Korean Anarchist Federation in China, the East Asian Anarchist Federation, the Korean Youth Federation in South China (HNCY), the League of Truth and Fraternity (JHY), the syndicalist Dong Heong Labour Union (DHNJ) of Japan, the syndicalist Wonsan General Trade Union that had emerged in Korea itself, and more than 12 "black societies" from Japan – such as the Black Friends' League – and across Korea. Overall, the founding JSBY congress supported the unification of Korea, and independence, but treated this as a prelude to social revoluton. It also formed two organisatons: the Autonomous Workers' League (JNJ) and the Autonomous Village Movement (JMU). On the other hand, however, a clearly nationalist tendency had also emerged. Yu Rim of the HMGY and Yu Ja-Myeong of the HHY established the General League of Korean Anarchists (HML), representing the “anarchist” bloc in the provisional government. Now, while it might be argued that the libertarian participation in the Provisional Government did not involve participation in a state – that the Provisional Government was itself simply a broad anti-imperialist front – it is clear that this was not the case. The Provisional Government had aimed to take power after the defeat of the Japanese, and the anarchists who participated in it clearly recognised it as a statist formation.
Dongyoun Hwang writes in Anarchism in Korea: Independence, Transnationalism and the Question of National Development, 1919-1984 (SUNY Press, State University of New York, New York, USA, 2016) that at a preparatory conference in February 1946, the “crucial issue for [the anarchists was] to lay out an autarkic economic system in Korean, which could make the country truly independent. In short, what was discussed and decided at this meeting was to place the accomplishment of ‘national democratic revolution’ as their new task. A follow-up, much larger conference was soon held two months later from April 20 to 23, 1946 at Hongchu Buddhist Temple in a small town called Ahui in Southern Gyeongsang Province. Titled the National Convention of Korean Anarchists… or the National Convention of Anarchist Representatives… it was the first national convention and initiated by Yu Rim. At it, ninety-seven anarchists were registered and present, and it marked a turning point in the history of Korean anarchism in terms of its direction after 1945. Attendees included almost all of those who were affiliated with two major Korean anarchist organizations at the time, the Free Society Builders Federation… organised in Seoul by Yi Jeonggyu and Yi Eulgyu after Japan’s surrender, and the General Federation of Korean Anarchists... Many Korean anarchsits who attended the convention were affiliated with both organizations simultaneously, mostly maintaining dual memberships. The convention was chaired by Yu Rim, Yi Jeonggyu, and Sin Jaemo, and lasted for three days. It was of cardinal significance in that Korean anarchists now formally began to identify themselves not just as anarchist but, just like Yu Rim called himself, as ‘one who favors an autonomous government’ (jayul jeongbu juuija), distinguishing themselves from conventional anarchists who were usually believed to negate the state. This.... identification constituted a major breakthrough to post-1945 activities.”
The outcome of the conference was the formation of an Independent Workers' and Peasants' Party (DNN) to participate in future elections. Its mouthpiece was The Workers' and Peasants' Newspaper. The Party’s aims were quite clear: John Crump in Anarchism and Nationalism in East Asia (University of York, York, UK , 1995) quotes the argument used in support of forming the DNN at Anui: "We, the Korean people, have today neither a free country or nor a free government. If we do not demonstrate our ability to govern ourselves we are about to fall under the rule of a foreign trusteeship. Under these conditions, even anarchists are bound to respond to the urgent desire of the people to build our own country and our own government. Therefore the anarchists must form our own political party and play a positive role in building a new Korea … a positive role in politics."
In the meantime, the growing north/south divide in Korea, deepened by the intervention of the great powers, would escalate into a bloody war. The United Independentist Conference collapsed. In 1948, Kim Gu met with Kim Il-Sung, with a view to uniting north and south Korea, but failed and ended up signing a document in favour of the trusteeship. He was later assassinated. Following a separate election in the American-linked south – boycotted by the DNN – the divide was formalised with the proclamation of the “Republic of Korea”. Kim’s predecessor in the Provisional Government, Syngman Rhee (Lee Seung-Man), was elected president. The north responded by proclaiming the “People's Republic of Korea” and the divisive die was cast. In 1950, the Korean War broke out between the north and the south, with the Soviet Union and Mao’s China supporting the north, and the United States the south. In a replay of Stalin’s policies from 1939, the Chinese Communist Party combined support for Kim with the conquest of Tibet.
This was one of the many “hot” wars of the Cold War, and lasted until a stalemate was reached in 1953, with the country still divided roughly along the 38th Parallel. Half a million Westerners died, along with 2-million Koreans, in a war driven by the great powers, and which made no real difference to the geographical division of Korea – it simply hardened the division into two camps, and the alliance of each camp with its foreign backers. By that time, the first of the post-war South Korean dictatorships was formed, when Syngman Rhee closed the National Assembly and began to rule as an autocrat. Subsequently, the events of the Korean War would be echoed in Vietnam, where the country was roughly divided along the 17th Parallel. In 1960, the Northern Vietnam government advocated a war to liberate the South, where a Vietcong, or National Liberation Front, was formed. By 1965, the Vietnam War broke out, with the United States occupying the territory in the South. Heavily based among the peasantry, the armed forces of the National Liberation Front were – just like the CCP army in China before 1949 – quite outside of popular control. They were subject, instead, to a party hierarchy. While Birchall is correct to point to the National Liberation Front’s politics of a cross-class alliance throughout the 1960s – and its weak roots amongst the urban working class – it must be stressed that the eventual withdrawal of the United States in 1975 was followed by the formation of a “People’s Republic” of Vietnam under Ho Chi-minh.
The Korean “anarchists” of the DNN and South and North Kyeungsang Province Anarchist Conference lines had little opportunity to carry out their programmes. South Korea would fall under a series of repressive governments from the 1950s. The stridently anti-Communist Syngman Rhee forced the anarchist movement, as well as other left-wing groups, underground, and the DNN collapsed in all but the cities of Taegu and Pusan, only recovering by 1956 when the country briefly liberalised again. But the DNN was finally repressed following the military coup of General Park Jung-Hi in 1961. An aggressively enforced Anti-Communist Law passed in the wake of the coup in 1961 (and only repealed in 1991) drew a broad definition of those whom Park’s junta saw as the enemies of the state: anyone sharing “a world-view or ideology with radical, socialist, anarchist or communist inclinations.”
Saturday 26 May 2018
Rohingya children in a "child-friendly space" in the Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh © Michael Schmidt 2018
While the international community’s diplomatic fencing over whether to name the “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingyas in Myanmar what it is – a genocide – the killing reportedly continues, and 700,000 refugees in Bangladesh batten down to face what could prove to be an equally deadly monsoon season.
The massacres, mass rapes, village-razing, forced famine and expulsions were recognised as bearing “the hallmarks of genocide” on March 12 by Yanghee Lee, the UN’s human rights rapporteur on Myanmar. Coming on the heels of a report by the Myanmar military that exonerated all but ten security force members of any crimes against the Rohingya, blaming a tiny Rohingya guerrilla group instead for the mass influx into Bangladesh, her statement was the strongest reaffirmation by the UN of the gravity of the crisis since its human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein warned days earlier that what he suspected were “acts of genocide” were ongoing in Rakhine state, albeit with lower intensity.
Most diplomats, such as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have preferred to describe the crisis as “ethnic cleansing.” But the term has no grounding in international law – unlike genocide and crimes against humanity. An official UN Security Council designation as genocide is critical as it would activate the 1948 Genocide Convention to which Myanmar is signatory, but the UN has only very rarely done so – as in Bosnia and Darfur – and with China a significant supplier of arms to Myanmar, would be very hard to secure.
The desire of most Rohingya to return to their ancestral lands is thwarted by the influence within the military of Myanmar’s ultra-right Buddhist monks, rendering Myanmar’s Mandela figure, State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, powerless – though some Myanmar experts, like Politico Magazine’s Nahal Toosi have powerfully argued that her inaction on the genocide, and flat refusal to even use the word “Rohingya” and so bedevil her ethnic support base, reveals her to be a Burman nationalist.
Near the Myanmar border and close to the epicentre of the genocide, Kutupalong is a vast ersatz settlement sprawled across bare-earth hillsides of 150,000 Rohingya refugees, distinguishable from local Bangladeshi Muslims by their dress, language and customs dating back to the mediaeval kingdom of Arakan which straddled contemporary Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Perched on a hillside overlooking a Red Crescent compound from which streams of refugees flow, Abdul Rahim is barely 18, but he carries a laminated card around his neck indicating he is a majhi, a Rohingya community leader, recognised by the camp authorities. How he and others like him came to leadership so young is painfully clear: most elders, too weak to escape, were slaughtered by Buddhist and Myanmar Army death-squads.
Rahim’s own 60-year-old father, Mohamed Ali, was among them: having returned from the local mosque one evening in late August, the man was “locked in his house by the army and a mob [acting] together, and the house was burned”; Rahim’s 23-year-old brother Osil Haman was shot; his mother, six other brothers and two sisters managed to escape.
“At the time of the attack, I was visiting Kulsumar Akter, a beautiful girl of 16 who I was friends with in a neighbouring village. The army raped her and killed her in front of me. Ten or twelve very beautiful girls were gathered in a house, raped and killed by the army.”
Another young majhi is Mohamed Islam, 22, from Maungdaw in Rakhine State, Myanmar, a town that was 80% Rohingya before some 120,000 Rohingyas were relocated between 2012 and 2016, supposedly for their protection from hostile neighbours, to de facto concentration camps. He tells of the assault on his community by a force of the Myanmar Army acting alongside a local vigilante group, describing the attack as coming without warning or mercy.
“It was four o’ clock in the afternoon on 25 August. Suddenly they attacked. The [vigilante militia] was wearing army uniforms. They were shooting everyone and burning the houses; these were the targets of the Myanmar government. I was running in the yard of my house from the army, but an army sniper shot me in the foot and I fell down; the army thought that I had died so they left me. When I opened my eyes, I saw lots of dead bodies; my friend Shokil who was 27 years old was killed.”
Moved by night by two fellow survivors who carried the wounded Islam on a wooden pole between them, he said they encountered village after village with corpses strewn about. A Bangladeshi journalist earlier showed me footage of burning villages, fleeing survivors, and what appeared to be collective graves. It took the escaping trio two terrifying days to cover the 70km to the Naf River which marks the border with Bangladesh and cross to safety.
On arrival in the forest reserve on the outskirts of the southern Bangladeshi town of Ukhia, the tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees initially had to live under the stars, taking their chances with snakes and elephants who killed several. Of the 700,000 survivors who settled in three big refugee camps like Kutupalong and ten smaller ones, UNICEF estimates 60% are children – an indicator of the terrible toll that the genocide has taken on the adult Rohingya population.
As a result, the camp is dotted with “child-friendly spaces”; I visit one, where perhaps 50 little children squat on the floor in clusters; among the scattered smiles, there are hard eyes and faraway stares; everyone in Kutupalong seems to have scarred hearts or bodies.
One of the few elders in the camp, Noor Bashir, 56, had a narrow escape: he lifts his bazu shirt and longyi to show me the machete-wounds on his legs and right hip. An August 2017 documentary by Al Jazeera correspondent Salam Hindawi, who managed to get inside one of the concentration camps in Rakhine state, shows a series of Rohingya women gang-rape survivors in tears as they recount witnessing their husbands taken away by the military to an uncertain fate.
Days earlier and 330km north-northwest, I had been sitting in the modest office of Bangladesh’s deputy director-general of Immigration. She was unhurried and gracious, eating her lunch out of a pink child’s lunchbox while plying me with tea and mishti sweetmeat as her minions took my visa extension application over its bureaucratic hurdles. Stacked high on the desks of offices below were applications from hundreds of Chinese and Indians as well as Belarussians and many other nationalities – but no Rohingyas, as though her department has biometrically registered the survivors, the better to host them, Bangladesh has not granted them refugee status. Even the pre-genocide community of 400,000 who fled repression two decades ago is unassimilated, disallowed from travelling far, schooling, or marrying Bengalis.
Now the monsoon storm season threatens the very lives of an estimated 100,000 survivors: though the aid organisations have built concrete stairs, water-tanks and woven-bamboo, plastic and zinc shelters for the Rohingya, the settlements are unlikely to withstand cyclone-force winds and mudslides.
That my interviews take place on the 70th anniversary of the still-unresolved dispossession of some 700,000 other Muslims, those of Palestine in 1948, make the appeals of majhis like Mohamed Islam for the full reinstatement of their people’s citizenship and homes that much more poignant – and desperate.
Noor Bashir, back, and Abdul Rahim, middle, listen as Mohamed Islam tells how a Myanmar Army sniper shot him, leaving him for dead amid burning villages and fields of corpses © Michael Schmidt 2018
Thursday 24 May 2018
The Sulphurs of Santiaguito: Reflections on the Guatemalan Civil War
Michael Schmidt, 2013
Smoky cloud rolled down from shrouded crown of the volcano Santiaguito, chilling my skin, as yellow-rimmed fissures hissed stinking sulphur across the rutted track. Far below, on the slopes, Mayan peasants in fuchsia blouses, looking for all the world like giant frangipanis, hacked at the mud with hoes. A dented pick-up truck had just dropped myself and my companion high up in the mountains of Guatemala.
An ethereal peace seeped through the scene - Santiaguito was dormant after all, its last bout of bad behaviour having been the 1902 leveling of the nearby mountain city of Quezaltenango - but as so much with this troubled land, all was not as it seemed.
It was early 1996, at the bitter end of a drawn-out 36-year civil war, the longest in Latin America's gore-spattered history, and somewhere someone was always dying. The newspapers were full of luridly illustrated ways to die - none of them related to the war. Some guy had been decapitated and there sat his head, life-size and on the front page, with bits of grass stuck in his hair and his eyelids glued shut by a sash of dried blood. Or two lovers who had committed suicide by means of a shotgun. A full-colour photograph showed the ruins of their skulls collapsed together, their brains spattering the wall behind. A passenger jet had just gone down off Cuba and the TV footage showed sailors wielding boat-hooks, gaffing the bloated corpses like tuna and dumping them on the deck of a trawler. The fact that two of them were Polish MPs be damned.
It was easy to die in Guatemala in those days - but just as easy to live as if you weren't in the right place at the wrong time. And so I floated like Neptune in a huge square stone-lined pool, topped up by a piping hot spring gushing from the black breast of the volcano, fringed with ferns, at Fuentes Georginas, a rare gem set in the rainforest.
Stone lips drooled cooling jets of water down into lower pools where flagged pathways wound around tree-ferns into the forest. Whenever I tired of the heat in my bones, I could slither up a rock like a iguana and steam into the cool air while sipping a Cuba Libre: rum & coke.
I could have overnighted in one of the whitewashed, tile-roofed cabins clinging to the volcano-side. But instead we returned that evening to the hospedaje where we stayed, down a side street in Quezaltenango, built inward-facing around those cool courtyards that Central Americans favour - perhaps in reflection of their own aversion to the grim reality outside.
When we arrived, my companion's German boyfriend told us that his hike into the same mountains that day to visit another, more indigenous and promisingly colourful Mayan settlement had met with disaster.
"We got there and the whole village was just smoking ruins." he said, aghast. "There were all these soldiers walking around and we kinda nervously asked them what happened. They told us 'There was a sickness here - so we burnt it out'."
The notoriously vicious Guatemalan army - nicknamed the "spotted ones" because of their camouflage - had in the 1980s adopted the practice of targeting Mayan communities suspected of supporting the guerrilla insurgency. On occasion, they had been known to round everyone up, women and children included, corral them in the church, throw in a few grenades and burn the entire town to the ground. In this twisted scorched earth policy, every goat, dog and chicken was slaughtered. In that decade alone, some 200,000 people were killed and 400 Mayan villages obliterated. In February 1996, this war-by-proxy, fought against innocents, was still on.
I'd recently discovered that my paternal great-great-grandmother was Mayan and had been married to the Belgian consul to Guatemala. Which was why I had decided to venture into the war-zone - and partly why this tale of butchery hit a raw nerve. I'd naively expected my trip to be an emotional journey of reconnection. But the bonds I found that still bind me to Guatemala were not the kind familial ones I had expected. Rather they were like the vicious twist of barbed wire that binds the wrists of the condemned.
In one of those rooms with five rows of plastic seats and a video machine that passed as movie theatres throughout much of Guatemala, I saw a movie called La Hija del Puma (The Sister of the Puma). It dramatised just such a massacre and was being clandestinely circulated by architecture students from the university in Guatemala City.
Barely a month previously, under a weeping sky, I had picked my way through a thorn thicket on a muddy hillside in Shobashobane, KwaZulu-Natal to find the maggoty body of a man hacked to death on Christmas Day for the crime of living in an ANC village surrounded by IFP villages. There was another woman, face-down, the back of her scalp already chewed off by mangy dogs. And Kipha Nyawose, the ANC leader, had had the dubious honour of being disembowelled (to release the spirit) while at the same time having his penis cut off in insult. The stench of their corpses still permeated my sinuses and I left the movie theatre in tears, choking out to the fifty-something American hippie: "I've just come from there! I know what they mean." Her glazed incomprehension infuriated me and I stormed out.
But back in Quezaltenango, I walked the other side of the invisible line that tourists cross in war-zones, purchasing Mayan carpets woven in lustrous burgundy and oxblood, eating American-style pizzas and watching a Spanish-dubbed Sigorney Weaver go shit-kicking in Aliens: el Regresso at the local bug-house.
Known by the Mayans as Xela, the city is a big centre for Spanish-language studies and the bars, cafes and restaurants were crowded with students, mostly Americans, apparently oblivious to the fact that their government had largely funded the genocide.
The conflict had also drawn certain species of war whores: scruffy journalists trying to look like James Woods in Salvador; funereal strong-men of indeterminate criminal affiliation in black chinos and shiny waistcoasts, probably concealing switchblades; weary aid workers trying to work in besieged Mayan towns; lazy UN observers of a ceasefire which had not yet happened; chatty Catholic priests on sabbatical; edgy CIA agents who never spoke at all; and fat pederasts with a nose for the cocaine trail.
War tourism leaves a taste in my mouth as metallic as old blood. None but the most mercenary can seriously indulge in such tastes. But having myself travelled to Guatemala from a tour of Zapatista-held Chiapas (on a spine-hammering 300km bus trip that cost only six quetzales), perhaps I wasn't so innocent either.
Wierd conversations were not in short supply. Like trying to explain to an earnest young girl from a progressive Dutch Reformed university in the American Midwest that in South Africa, her "Dutch Deformed" faith lay at the root of the calvary of apartheid. So, how does one live as a foreigner in the midst of such unrelenting, yet undeclared pain?
I distracted myself by paying a visit to one of the marimba schools for which the city was famous. And I went to the creepy and dusty "natural" history museum which seemed to boast more than its fair share of freaks: six-legged goats and such.
In the earthquake-wrecked old capital of Antigua Guatemala, another bus journey eastwards down the spine of the mountains, I watched a Japanese tourist and a Mayan flute-seller perform an impromptu flautist's duel in the main square. There was a chill in the air and the shadows were lengthening from the ruined cornices of Conquistador-era churchs, but the square was full of off-duty civil servants, Mayans - like a mother and her tiny girl-child dressed in matching cobalt traditional wraps - who sold crafts to coach-loads of day-trippers up from Guatemala City. The lanky Japanese youth selected a pan pipe from those on offer and began to play. The Mayan joined in with gusto, the two sounding for all the world like a Panic version of that song about the contest between the devil and the fiddler. The jaunty notes drifted over the gloomy square, providing an otherworldly sound-track to the shadowed landscape.
While I ate a hearty breakfast of chili con carne in a cozy family-run restaurant, looking out through the wrought-iron railings and bougainvillea at the cobbled streets, a milkman allegedly tried to assassinate new President Alvaro Arzu by ramming him with a truck while he was out horse-riding. The milkman may have only been drunk, but was shot dead anyway.
Just before I arrived, two British girls had been executed at a roadside. Neither robbed nor raped. Just shot in the head and left for the political vultures to swap blame for the atrocity.
This was after all the country where their version of Archbishop Tutu was later bludgeoned to death with concrete blocks in his own driveway. But as this maelstrom happened around me, I was sitting at the Sunset Bar on the beach at Panajachel, a tiny town, several hours by bus to the south-south-east of Xela, a Guatemalan version of Goa that was nick-named Gringotenango because of its population of faded gringo drop-outs.
Built on a spit of alluvial land stretching into Lake Atitlan, a cold and very deep volcanic caldera which sported millionaires' mansions on one shore and the palm-frond huts of dugout-paddling fishermen on the other.
The blonde barmaid turned out to be a cousin of Icelandic elven siren Björk and played me some of the latter's rare and unreleased blues cuts, then, knowing I was African treated me to Juluka's Scatterlings of Africa. As I nursed my cold Gallo beer alone with her at the bar, I reflected that I was in some ways also a scatterling of Central America, even though trawling through phone-books had failed to turn up any trace of my diluted bloodline. But I had found another blood-tie: that which unites nations which have suffered under the shadow of death-squads; that which unites those who have walked through the slaughterhouses of their handiwork. Now, in 2003, I've just read that General Rios Montt, the CIA-backed "Pinochet of Guatemala", whose regime spearheaded the genocide in the 1980s, has just had his legal restriction on making a play for the Guatemalan presidency revoked.
An earthquake takes place in my heart and the stench of death is in my nostrils once again. Suddenly I'm back on the sulphurous slopes of Santiaguito, knowing this time that unheard and unseen, beyond the mists, people are dying.