Thu, 18 Sep 2003

Temporary nature: Yesterday's powerful, today's weak

Mushahid Hussain, Inter Press Service, Ulan Bator

History is testimony to the fact that like the mortality of individuals, the power of empires and nations is fleeting.

In the early 20th century, the British Empire was all-powerful while China was a weak, divided and occupied country whose biggest city -- Shanghai -- was under the control of European "sectors", often with the sign "Chinese and dogs not allowed".

China is now the world's fastest developing economy and a country with vast political potential and military prowess.

A recent journey to Mongolia, sandwiched between China and Russia, brought out this reality of the reversal of fortunes.

The country was the venue last week of an International Conference on New and Restored Democracies, which began with 15 members in Manilain 1988. This time, the attendance was at an all-time high, at 119 countries.

Mongolia, which was a pro-Moscow Communist "People's Republic" since 1921, has been a multi-party democracy with a free-market economy since 1990.

An important change in Mongolia since the restoration of democracy has been the restoration of Changez Khan to the status of a national hero, away from the description of him as a "bandit and marauder" under the Marxist historians dictum.

He is now named founder of the "great Mongol Empire", whose warriors wrought havoc across Russia, Central Asia, India and China as well, and whose latter-day ancestors founded the Mughal Empire in India.

Changez Khan, who died in 1227 at 65, founded a unified state in Mongolia in 1206. It was his grandson, Halaku, who is remembered by Muslims for his brutal sacking of Baghdad in 1258.

Amazingly, the half-a-million strong Mongols, at the height of their empire in the 13th and 14th century, managed to conquer over 40 states with a total population of over a 100 million. Many of them of these conquering Mongols converted to Islam.

Today, Mongolia with a still meagre population of 2.5 million, is trying to come to terms with two contradictory elements in its history: Restoring Changez Khan as a national icon and reversing communism, whose legacy is more recent given the seven decades of Soviet-style rule.

Mongolia was one of the last countries to continue to have a statue of Stalin in its capital, Ulan Bator, long after the dictator was denounced in the Soviet Union. That statue was brought down only a decade earlier, after democracy was restored.

Now a state commission is unearthing historical evidence of the crimes committed in Mongolia during the Stalinist purges.

According to an official list published in the Sept. 11 edition of the English-language Ulan Bator Post, over 30,000 people were either persecuted or killed during those purges in Mongolia in the 1930s, similar to those taking place in the Soviet Union at the same time. Victims are now being identified and "exonerated" of the crimes since those were false charges, and their relatives are being financially compensated as well.

A number of Mongolians still cherish fond memories of some of the pluses of communist society. Society was more stable and secure, with jobs, education and health ensured for all, they say. On the occasion of International Literacy Day on Sept. 8, this achievement of Mongolia was recognized because from the remotest villages to the main urban centers, children learned to read and write, and people got opportunities for higher education.

This achievement of a communist state is evident also from the disparity in statistics between communist and non-communist neighbors. While Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had 90 percent literacy rates, Afghanistan's illiteracy rate is estimated at around 60 percent.

At the Conference on New and Restored Democracies, which was organized in cooperation with the United Nations and the Inter Parliamentary Union, the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. was felt during the proceedings.

There was animated debate on three key aspects of the "war on terrorism", especially in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. These are issues that are a cause of concern not just for Muslims but also for the broader international community, particularly members of the European Union.

First, the manner in which the "war on terror" is being conducted is leading to the very consequences that were meant to be curtailed in the first place. The world today is more unstable, insecure and volatile than it was on Sept. 11, 2001.

There was widespread concern that human rights violations were taking place on the pretext of combating terrorism.

Second, the "war on terror" is resulting in ethnic, racial and religious profiling on a large scale and is in danger of taking on a religious coloring.

Third, terrorism is a "threat to democracy", but there is need to examine its underlying causes and roots as well. Participants also accepted occupation as a major cause of terrorism. The final documents of the conference incorporated these perspectives.

The impact of Sept. 11 was also evident in Mongolia as well. During the conference, 50 U.S. marines arrived in Mongolia to train troops that the country is sending to Iraq.

Mongolia, too, is part of the U.S. efforts to garner an "international coalition" in Iraq as it gets increasingly bogged down in violent attacks almost everyday.

But as events in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the Bush Administration needs to review and revise its flawed strategy based almost entirely on military might in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The still-born American Empire could learn a lesson or two from the history of Mongolia -- regarding the temporary nature of military might.