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CLEANSINGS, ETHNIC AND OTHERS

While Western leaders like Clinton and Blair have been demonstrably eloquent about their revulsion about ethnic cleansing (most notably in Kosovo), they have been strangely silent about the cleansing that has been taking place on an epic scale as a result of the Western-initiated and -directed process of globalisation.

By Jeremy Seabrook


September 1999

Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, is a city surrounded by slums made of woven bamboo on bamboo frames, with sheets of polythene tied to the roof against the heavy pre-monsoon showers. The slums sit crookedly on the banks of polluted lakes, low-lying marshland, where only water-hyacinths grow, expanses of tough green leaves and spiky lilac-coloured flowers.

There is scarcely space to walk between the huts. Flimsy latrines, also of bamboo, on stilts, so that the filth washes down into the ponds; vegetable waste, indestructible polythene, coconut shells, rot in the humid air. Dust storms from construction and brick-breaking mix with the blue metallic fog emitted by the impatient city traffic.

These are refugee camps. The people have been driven here by forces no less compelling than attacks by soldiers moved by the murderous rage of ethnic hatreds. But they are victims of economic, not military, forces. Their fate is not news. There is no sympathy for them from an international community.

As I write this, BBC World is showing scenes of Western celebrities visiting camps in Albania and Macedonia - Javier Solana, Mary Robinson, Hilary Clinton, Roger Moore all have walk-on parts in the unfolding drama.

We can scarcely expect Clinton or Blair, or any other high-minded celebrants of democracy, freedom and human rights to express their righteous abhorrence of conditions in which millions of evictees from subsistence live, even though they, too, are victims of cleansing - economic cleansing. A Western-initiated, -owned and -directed Globalisation tears them up by the roots by settled ways of life and compels them into these morose and inhospitable places. This is cleansing on an epic scale and of breathtaking efficiency. But here, there are no cameras to record their tears, no indignant reporters to urge them to tell their stories to the world.

Yet those stories deserve attention, for they tell of forced migrations, of flight from the familiar home-place, of terror, torture and premature death, no less than the epic of dispossession painstakingly chronicled in Kosovo.

Shaiful came to Dhaka when his father died of TB. He lives on the River Launch terminal at Shodraghat, where passengers and goods arrive each day from all over Bangladesh. He owns nothing but a pair of ragged trousers, and he eats by begging or stealing from the stalls that feed the workers of the port.

He sometimes earns a few taka as a coolie. Small, with belly distended by malnourishment, he sleeps on the bare concrete of the terminal with 200 or so other children. He is nine.

In Mirpur Two (the slums are denoted by numerals in acknowledgement of the anonymity of these austere living places, and of the people of so little account who live in them), the houses are single rooms of chetai (woven bamboo) with, for those who can afford it, a square of blue polythene to keep out the rain. Today, 6 inches of rain fell on Dhaka in less than 12 hours; the little huts are surrounded by liquid the colour of a spillage of milky tea.

Zubaida has four daughters. She brought them to Dhaka when her oldest daughter, who is 13, was raped by the son of a landowner in Mymensingh. Landless, deserted by her husband, she and her children are regarded by the local elite as flesh to be used as they think fit. Here, her daughter can work in a garments factory, while her two younger girls collect waste for about 30 taka (US$0.60) a day.

Faisal is from Khulna. His family owned two bighas of land close to the coast, but it was ruined by salinity from a nearby prawnfield, and is now completely unproductive. The owner of the prawn-farm is a bureaucrat in one of the Ministries; prawns, after garments, are the second biggest earner of foreign exchange.

Now Faisal makes a living driving a cycle-rickshaw. For 12 hours a day he hires the fragile vehicle at 24 taka a day from the owner, and drives in heat, dust and rain through the narrow streets of the Old City. He shares with his wife and three children a small windowless room, for which they pay 800 taka a month, which is almost half his earnings. They never eat meat or fruit. It is particularly poignant at this time of the year, because at home, they had mango trees, papaya and green coconut.

Khaled sold his small piece of land and two buffaloes in Sharipur for 60,000 taka (US$1,200), to pay a bribe to an agent who had promised to get a government job for his son - a guarantee of security. The agent disappeared with the money. There was no job.

The family has seven children, the oldest 14. They now live in Mirpur Six, a desolate treeless place half-drowned in the rain, simmering in the summer heat. They have virtually no possession: only a cooking chulha on the threshold of the hut, a change of clothing on a piece of string, bedmats and a vessel for cooking rice.

Khaled and his wife, Meena, have placed two of their daughters as domestic servants in middle-class homes about 2 kilometres away. These girls, 10 and 12, are virtually captives in the houses where they work. They are up by five in the morning, prepare the food, clean the house, wash the dishes, cook and serve at table, clear away and rarely sleep before 11 at night. Neither is paid a wage.

Khaled and Meena say there are two mouths less to feed, they are fed and sheltered by well-to-do families. They are 'secure' in the environment where they live, with no day off, no freedom, no respite from their labour.

Rumi used to work in a garments factory. She began work when she was eight. Her mother is a maidservant and her father too sick to work. Under the threat of the Harkin Bill in the US Congress (which would have banned exports of clothing from Bangladesh made with child labour), she was dismissed in 1996, and now sells flowers at the traffic lights. Now 11, she weaves in and out of the traffic, tapping on car windows, beseeching passengers to buy roses and kathaltapa. She earns about 50 taka a day (about US$1). But the fumes and the dust, the danger of moving vehicles, the risk of being molested, frequent arrest by the police who demand 200 taka a time, place her in far greater danger than she ever knew in the factory where she worked as a helper, cutting threads and stitching buttons.

The risks of living in these camps were described by Beauty, a mother of six children in Islambagh. She said, 'There is sickness here. Children suffer from chest infections, coughs, asthma. There is danger in the water we drink, diarrhoea, dysentery, even cholera. The motorbikes and baby-taxis cause many accidents. The children in small workshops, operating lathes, dangerous machinery, welding - everything makes our life insecure.

'We are at the mercy of strong-men and mastaans who extort money. The schools do not function, there are no doctors, the hospitals are filthy. In the rain we live knee-deep in water. I would never have left my home in Barisal, but they were building a bridge and our land just disappeared under the dust and cement.'

Individual stories of hardship, want, worsening poverty; so overwhelming it is difficult to discern the patterns they form. Yet there are patterns.

These are people who have survived the declining proportion of government spending devoted to health, education, welfare and nutrition, as part of 'structural adjustment'. They are victims of money diverted from the welfare of the people through debt-servicing to the IMF and World Bank; of the transformation of subsistence farming into export-led forex-earning shrimp cultivation, the integration of Bangladesh into the global garments trade; the long march of people from damaged, mortgaged or ruined lands into the cities.

No wonder the West is so exercised by 'ethnic cleansing' in Kosovo; not only does it stir dark memories of their own past, but also because of the parallels between the behaviour of Serbia and the conduct of the Western powers in the enforcement of a brutal development model to which no alternative is now admissible.

Under the fateful sign of the single 'integrated' global market, it is known that thousands of people die daily for economic reasons. Yet the leaders, beneficiaries and manipulators of the global market take no responsibility for those whose lives are abridged by their administration of it.

Although the international institutions controlled by the West superintend the flow of wealth from poor to rich, the directors of these institutions are swift to exculpate themselves from any such intention; indeed they are loud in their expressions of solidarity with the poor, to whose destruction they contribute so spectacularly. How shall we otherwise account for the contradictory pieties of the instruments of dominance - whoever heard of a Bank dedicated to poverty abatement or a moneylender concerned with good governance and human rights, any more than of a military alliance which swings into action to achieve humanitarian reasons?

The expendables of Globalisation - these are the victims of Western economic cleansing; a process that has remained unnamed, though scarcely unnoticed by the poor; a daily triage, a seasonal cull, an annual weeding out of humanity - this is what it all amounts to, the death of people from avoidable disease in a world which ceaselessly advertises its miracle medical technology, from hunger in a system which can modify the genetic structure of the world's crops yet cannot bring food to the starving through the magic of its markets.

No wonder the West must distance itself from forms of ethnic cleansing, of which its countries have been for half a millennium such adept and relentless practitioners.

Economic forces, built into the structure of a wholly human-made universe, perform their cleansing operations without smart bombs or precision-guided missiles, without any of the expensive paraphernalia of destruction. No one's finger is on the button of an intangible killing machine, the workings of which are autonomous - indeed, it is the message of the Western financial institutions that to interfere with so fine and intricate a construct is as mischievous as it would be futile. That this strews the world with the corpses of the excluded is itself a silent and unrecognised genocide.

This abused word is appropriate in the context. For the vast majority of its victims are black. If 30,000 non-white children die each day from easily curable sickness in a world which can bring Coca-Cola but not safe drinking water to the remotest settlements on earth, how should this be regarded, if not as genocide? To claim that no one wills it is disingenuous, since genocide by default, through inadvertence, is scarcely less repelling than that carried out by the murderous rage of Serbs or Hutus against the objects of their hatred.

Is this why the West becomes so incensed when it recognises 'cleansing' that is explicitly ethnic? After all, it was the overt embodiment of this ideology in the heart of Europe earlier this century that made it a matter of such urgency that racism should be 'cleansed' from Western politics, and also sent to find refuge in a new home, namely in the 'neutral' disciplines of economics.

This is why no effort has been spared in blaming the poor for their plight, which will, in some sort, justify their elimination, the removal from the world of their polluting presence. Do the G-7 (Group of Seven leading industrial nations) and the Western financial institutions not blame the poor rather than a resource-gobbling hyperindustrialism for environmental ruin; do they not blame the poor for their 'population', rather than the 'people' of the West for their excessive consumption?

Just as the Serbs have a self-justifying ideology for the persecution of the ethnic Albanians, so all tyrannies based upon ethnicity, race, religion, or even economic exclusion, elaborate their own ghoulish theories of inferiorisation, and find reasons why those they intend to destroy deserve no better.

The poor, in the ideology of global wealth creation, are no exception. Their backwardness, their superstitions, their archaic customs and practices, above all their tendency to 'breed', despite our best efforts on their behalf, their persistence in error merits the fate which we all know.

It is only natural that we should deny involvement with these horrors. Indeed, we express our impotent sympathy with the victims of economic cleansing, sheltering behind national sovereignties we have systematically crushed in the higher interests of Globalisation.

More than this, we even project ourselves as having done our utmost to remedy these evils, for have we not deployed every weapon in our resourceful ideological armoury to set them right - aid, charity, the promotion of human rights, good governance, empowerment, participation, the rights of women, the protection of children, an end to corruption, transparency, structural adjustment, income generation, micro-credit, poverty alleviation?

If poverty persists despite so comprehensive a programme, it can be the fault only of the poor themselves. If they perish, this is due to a combination of natural laws and their own unfitness for the globally competitive enterprise that is Planet plc.

No one has yet identified economic cleansing as a crime against humanity. When Madeleine Albright appears on TV, the avenging angel of Kosovo, she rests in the certainty that no one is going to call her to account for the dead children and women of Bangladesh or Somalia or Brazil, who are no less dead from the effects of hunger and disease than those murdered by Serbs or any other group bent on the destruction of another.

This gives Western rhetoric of high moralism a bitter edge in the refugee camps of Bangladesh and other low places of the world. The time will surely come when economic crimes will also be named and recognised for what they are, and be thought as intolerable as any other violent assault by the strong upon the weak, although whether they will ever be punished accordingly remains unlikely. - Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.

 1945/99

 


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