Posts by: Alex DeWaal

Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar, is built on a monumental scale. Nowhere is this truer than in the buildings of the legislature.

The hall of the House of Nationalities—one of the two chambers of the parliament—is grandiose. It is entirely public space: halls, corridors, meeting rooms, banqueting rooms, staircases. There are few […]

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The annihilation of the Japanese city of Hiroshima seventy years ago, followed by the destruction of Nagasaki three days later, still represent the most terrifying event of modern times. Nuclear weapons are the only armaments with the capacity to destroy life on earth.

There is no single cogent argument, ethical or political-practical, for any nation […]

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Economic and financial sanctions rarely work: their best record is when they are short-term, have specific asks, and are targeted at friendly countries. Long-term, broad sanctions punishing hostile countries tend to compound the harm. Depriving a government of any legal way of getting the finance it needs to function, means it works criminal networks instead. Sudan is a case in point: a raft of U.S. financial and economic sanctions has contributed to the dominance of an entrenched security-commercial cartel at the top of government, whose members are personally enriched by this system. When a state is captured by such a network, regime change becomes extraordinarily difficult. There’s no way out of this trap without normalizing state finance—and that means transforming the sanctions regime.

The final and most fundamental point is that we cannot escape this problem with the same tools and the same frameworks that got us collectively into it in the first place.

This agenda for change is neither charity nor coercive intervention, because the problem is ours as well. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan, international interventions have made a bad situation worse. We share the same international financial and security systems: we all suffer the consequences, and all need to fix them. In western, developed countries, we experience the concentration of wealth into a tiny fraction of extremely rich people, alongside policies that have cut into the middle class, and limited the future of the next generation. We have a closed security establishment that considers itself above the rules that govern society as a whole, and permitted to crooks in the name of protecting the public. Their worldview subordinates public interest to greed and fear, and their prescriptions for global problems don’t challenge this formula.

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But it’s no surprise that the massive spending on infrastructure began after 1999, simply because for the first time the government had the financial means. It should also come as no surprise that Bashir and others have continued to trumpet the same Islamist slogans, proudly showing off the dams as evidence for the regime’s triumphs. There is still an Islamist constituency to keep onside. But to conclude that ‘Mashru Al-Hadhari [the civilization project] is very much alive’ (p. 149) is to mistake rhetoric and manoevre for a genuine state project.

The view on the street, endorsed by the members of the political elite whom Verhoeven cites, is that the central purpose of the DIU was larceny and political finance, and that building an Islamic state was just hot air. Indeed, Verhoeven’s own verdict is that the hydro-transformational project has ended in a ‘mixture of incompetence, myopia and extraversion’ (p. 248).

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Four hilltops overlooking the village of Than Daun Gyi in the ethnic Karen areas of eastern Myanmar, provide an insight into the contested politics of the country in the midst of its transition. The rocky promontories are crowned by different symbols of religious, ethnic and political claims. The struggle for the country’s identity can be […]

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There is a longstanding joke about Sudanese statistics: 87.7% of official figures are made up on the spot. Morten Jerven’s fabulous short book is a vindication of such skepticism, continent-wide and covering the last 25 years of economic analysis and policymaking. His aim is ambitious: nothing less than claiming that economists—specifically econometricians, who apply statistics […]

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