Health Check: Myanmar on the Mend?

SDC13073Myanmar (Burma) has been hitting the headlines in recent months, sometimes for good reasons (chairing the ASEAN summit for example) and sometimes not so good (break-outs of religious violence). Since 2011 when President Thein Sein announced long-awaited political reforms, onlookers have been hopeful that Myanmar would start to emerge from the dark days of the military junta to a prosperous and democratic future. So three years later, and with less than a year until the next general election, what is the health status of Myanmar?

Open any current article on Myanmar’s political reforms and the first thing you’ll read is about the issue of changes to the constitution that would allow the country’s most beloved politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, to become president. In 2008, realising that no matter how often they shoved her under house arrest Suu Kyi remained a threat to them, the military junta decided to create Clause 59(f) of the constitution, which barred from the presidency anyone whose spouse or children are foreign citizens. Suu Kyi was finally released in 2010, and went on to enter parliament after winning a by-election landslide in 2012, raising hopes that one day she could ascend to the top job. Trouble is, the committee which was charged with canvassing public opinion on the matter has reported that most people apparently don’t want to see the constitution changed. The fact that the committee is dominated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), however, suggests foul play: the USDP is a military party who would probably prefer not to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) take power. While it is almost inevitable the constitution will have to be changed, this could be a more drawn out process than Suu Kyi’s supporters would like. Whether it will be done in time for the 2015 elections remains to be seen.

Slow but steady?

In other areas too, Myanmar’s reforms have often been frustratingly slow – and in some cases appear to be moving backward. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released since 2011, but more remain imprisoned and yet more have been added to the ranks recently. While government censorship has relaxed somewhat, media and press freedom still has a way to go (interestingly enough, blogging is taking off in Myanmar in a big way, as people feel more able to comment on political and social issues). Educational reform has only just begun and changes to the judicial system and rule of law have not even started. Economically there has been excitement amongst international developers about the opening up of the untapped resources of Myanmar, with the country receiving $4.1 billion foreign investment in the fiscal year 2013–2014. But corruption is notoriously high, with Myanmar ranking 157 out of 177 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. This is leading much of the population to worry about whether international investment is going to actually benefit them or not.


Marring any progress in Myanmar’s reforms has been the increase in religious persecution and violence, particularly against the country’s Muslim minority. As recently as July 2014 riots flared in Mandalay for several days, with two people killed and much destruction of property. Often this violence has been fuelled by rumours and bias – unsurprising in a country where an authoritarian regime has engendered ignorance and lack of contact between those of different faiths. Tension between Buddhists and Muslims are further complicated by issues of ethnicity. Myanmar has a long and torturous history of ethnic-based conflict. Fears about issues of national identity and distribution of political power are fuelling inter-group conflict, as some Buddhist groups worry about the erosion of the status of their religion. Meanwhile, the concept that to be a citizen of Myanmar is to be ‘Burmese’ and Buddhist is challenged by minority groupings in the country.

The good news is that Myanmar’s chairmanship of the ASEAN summit appears to have gone well, and marks the country’s growing contribution to regional and international affairs. In fact, the theme of this year’s meeting – ‘Moving Forward in Unity to a Peaceful and Prosperous Community’ – could not have been more apt. Chairing the ASEAN has been a chance for Myanmar to demonstrate its leadership abilities in the region. It’s also a significant step in the country’s transformation from the repressive days of the military junta when the country was closed off to all outside influence, to a more open, inclusive nation. The opening up of Myanmar will be continued with the increase in foreign tourism – 5 million tourists are expected to visit the country in 2015, bringing with them not only increased revenue but different cultures and perspectives. Increased foreign contact and international scrutiny can only be a positive thing for the country’s human rights issues too.

The diagnosis?

It’s probably much as to be expected given Myanmar’s history of repression and authoritarian rule: the appetite of some for reform far exceeds the speed in which progress is being made. There is a long way yet to go, but considering where the country has started from, any sign of reform has to be applauded. Much is now going to depend on the coming months – and in particular the general election. If the reform process continues to advance steadily, then Myanmar should move into a new era of democracy and prosperity. However, if progress stalls there is a real danger of the military re-asserting itself and the country sliding back to the dark old days.


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7 Things Everyone Should Know About the Gun-Powder Plot


1. On 5 November 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament with 2,500kg of gunpowder, about to light the lot and kill King James I.

This was one of the most important terrorist plots against the British monarchy in all its history. Had the plan succeeded the British government would have been destroyed. Four centuries later, we still celebrate the fact our Parliament and monarch were saved from a fiery destruction…by lighting bonfires and watching fireworks displays. Ironic?

2. Guy Fawkes wasn’t the only one involved.

Fawkes may have gained notoriety by getting caught with the barrels of gunpowder, but there were 12 other main plotters, including: Robert Catesby, John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham. The point is, the plot wasn’t the work of one lone disaffected man but a group of conspirators.

3. The plotters intended to replace James I with his nine-year old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and force her to convert to Catholicism

The men were organised and had a plan. The explosion was to occur during the State Opening of Parliament when not only the King but all members of the House of Lords and House of Commons would have been present. Senior judges, bishops, members of the Privy Council and many of the royal family were also present and would have been killed, making way for the plotters to erect their new government.

4. All the plotters were Catholic and wanted to kill James I because he was Protestant (and a Scot).

Despite the fact that James I was relatively tolerant when it came to his Catholic subjects, there were still deep divisions within England when it came to the issue of religion. Also, James was originally James VI of Scotland and inherited the English throne when his predecessor, Elizabeth I, died without producing an heir. He united the two kingdoms under his rule, much to the annoyance of some Englishmen (and Scots).

Fawkes_arrest25. The men rented a cellar which happened to go right under the House of Lords, in which they were able to put the gunpowder.

This sounds like a crucial oversight by the government of the day, but in the early 17th century the Palace of Westminster (where the Houses of Parliament sit) was a warren of buildings that was easily accessible to merchants, lawyers and others who lived and worked in the lodgings, shops and taverns. Security wasn’t considered in the same way as it is today.

6. This lead to the ceremonial searching of the cellars by the Yeomen of the Guard (Beefeaters) before the State Opening of Parliament which still happens today.

A small reminder that history is deeply ingrained in so much of British life, from our politics to our legal system to our national celebrations. The symbolism should not be forgotten.

7. Today, the mask of Guy Fawkes is worn by political protestors across the world, in countries where the Gun-Powder plot is almost unknown.

Although many would say that Fawkes was a terrorist, others now see him as a hero and freedom fighter, largely as a consequence of the film V for Vendetta. In the film, a vigilante wears a Guy Fawkes mask as he fights a fascist government. Activists (particularly the group Anonymous) have since adopted the mask as a symbol of their anti-establishment movements.

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Why I will be wearing a poppy…but defend your right not to.


It’s that time of year again – the big poppy debate. Should you or shouldn’t you? Is it a show of remembrance or a glorification of war? A charitable initiative or an abdication of government responsibility for veterans? Ensue mass twitter abuse at TV presenters who don’t wear a poppy.

This year, like all years, I will be wearing a poppy. In fact, I’m looking forward to receiving my ceramic one from the Tower of London installation. But if you are one of those who have chosen not to wear a poppy, I support you 100% in your decision.

I wear a poppy because I have a personal interest in the military, because I support the work the Royal British Legion does and, for me, it reminds me of the sacrifice others have made on my behalf. But these are my personal reasons and if you don’t share them I respect that.

What I do not respect is pressuring others into thinking as I do; in making people feel ostracised or guilty because they do not feel as I do. In applying mass peer pressure to make people conform to an idea of patriotism that somebody somewhere has apparently defined. I do not like a symbol of hope being used as an excuse to spread vitriol and division. I do not like any attempt to curtail the freedom of choice; the freedom of expression of those who choose to not to wear a poppy – everything which, to me, the poppy stands against. To paraphrase Voltaire, I may not agree with your decision not to wear a poppy, but I defend with a vehemence your right not to.

Forcing TV presenters and others to wear a poppy is also, to me, rather insulting. Someone who does not actually care about the cause but has to wear a poppy out of fear of abuse if they don’t, devalues the symbolism. It’s disingenuous. It’s tokenism. It doesn’t further the cause of remembrance if people don’t understand what they are supposed to be remembering. This shouldn’t have to be an opt-out situation; people shouldn’t have to justify why they are not wearing one. The poppy appeal shouldn’t be tainted with such negativity.

Men and women have died so that we could have the freedom to choose how we live our lives. Lets not sully their memory by refusing to respect the choices people make when it comes to remembering those who have fallen.


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So What Next for Afghanistan?

On Monday, in the first ever democratic transfer of power in the country’s history, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as Afghanistan’s new president. The inauguration comes after six months of bitter dispute over the election results and as a result of a power-sharing deal brokered by the US. Ghani’s political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, will become chief executive officer. So, having passed this momentous mile-stone, what is next on the agenda for Afghanistan? In essence, Ghani and Abdullah face the same type of pressures that all leaders do – how to keep people safe, how to create jobs, how to ensure equal rights for all – they just face much more difficult and entrenched problems than most.

Job Sharing

Issue one for both men will be how is this partnership to work? The position of CEO is a new one for Afghanistan and outwith the bounds of the country’s current constitution. Because of this, the Loya Jirga (the tribal leaders’ assembly) will need to meet at some point within the next two years to decide whether the constitution should be amended to create a prime ministerial position of the CEO. In the meantime, Abdullah will head a weekly conference of the Ministers’ Council, and make recommendations to the president, but will not have the power to decide upon policy – this responsibility will remain with the president’s cabinet. How exactly this set-up will work out in practical terms remains to be seen. One thing that is certain, however, is that given Afghanistan’s shaky start to democracy (including accusations of election fraud thrown at Ghani), both the new president and the CEO need to work together to ensure the smooth running of the government from here on out.


Ashraf Ghani shakes hands with rival Abdullah Abdullah

The Economy

As a former World Bank economist, Ghani is perhaps more qualified than most to try to tackle the task of rejuvenating Afghanistan’s economy – which is just as well given its current state. For, despite years of western-led projects designed to make the country economically self-sustaining, the Afghan government still faces a budget short-fall of roughly 20%. The rough election process has also taken its toll on the economy. And while substantial international aid has helped make improvements in areas such as health and education, there is still much left for Ghani to do.


With the withdrawal of international troops from the country to be completed by 2015, Ghani needs to ensure that Afghanistan does not consequently slide backwards when it comes the matter of security. Which is exactly why he signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US on Tuesday, just a day after taking office. The agreement allows for 9,800 US soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after 2014 to help train, equip and advise the native military and police forces. Both India and China also appear to be taking more of an interest in supporting Afghanistan in its security issues. And although Ghani used his inaugural speech to call for peace talks with the Taliban, previous attempts at coming to an understanding with the group have failed. In fact, with the Taliban taking advantage of the recent political uncertainty to launch concerted offensives in some areas of the country, the president and his CEO will be looking for all the help they can get.

Women’s_Day_in_Afghanistan (1)

Afghan women need to be included in the rebuilding process

International Relations

Unfortunately for Ghani, this reliance on external help comes at a price. In needing to accept foreign aid, the new president will be forced to also accept foreign influence (and, potentially, interference) over Afghanistan’s domestic affairs. The Taliban, for example, have accused Ghani of being a US puppet. Throughout its history, Afghanistan has arguably had to walk a line between the competing interests of foreign powers looking to gain influence over Kabul for their own ends. While the days of Great Game rivalry may be at an end, undoubtedly tensions still remain between the likes of India, Pakistan and China when it comes to their Afghan policies. Having said this, there currently appears to be more of a move towards regional cooperation among these Asian nations, as it becomes increasingly obvious that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan would be of benefit to all concerned parties.

Women’s Rights

Despite some progess in this area, Afghanistan is still one of the worst countries in the world in which to be a woman. In 2013 violence against women reached record levels, despite the Elimination of Violence against Women Act (EVAW) having been passed in 2009. Female adult literacy rates are around the measly 12% range and women still face discrimination in all walks of life, from politics to marriage to access to health care and education. Crucially, progress cannot be made in Afghanistan in any other arena until these issues are addressed. Amnesty International’s campaign, ‘Talk to me, not about me’, highlights the importance of including Afghan women in the national and international political process. Security cannot be attained until women are included in the peace talks; the economy cannot be revived until women are afforded proper education and access to jobs; and Afghanistan cannot address internal issues of violence and extremism until acts such as the EVAW are taken more seriously.

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How the First World War broke our faith in authority

(or why Jeremy Paxman has got it wrong).

In yet another attempt to flog himself as a self-proclaimed expert on the First World War, Jeremy Paxman has been lamenting the apparent way in which the history of this conflict has entered public consciousness. Speaking at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature in Dubai last week Paxman argued that war poetry, such as that by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, serves to confirm peoples’ ‘prejudices…to see the whole thing as a terrible pointless sacrifice’. Paxman believes that:

the events [of the First World War] now are so built upon by writers and attitudinisers and propaganda that the actual events seem submerged. So what I wanted to do was re-engage with the events themselves. How did they seem to people at the time?Forget the poems

Unfortunately it seems that Paxman has become confused with how history is studied (not surprising given that, despite his wish to be an authority on the First World War, he does not hold even an undergraduate degree in history). You can study events in history, and you can study the perceptions, thoughts, feelings and opinions of those who took part in these events. Sometimes you can study both together. But the two do not necessarily equate. In fact, rarely are they the same thing. No two people ever view the same series of events in the same way – which is what makes history so damn interesting in the first place. So if Paxman wants to study events that’s one thing. If he wants to understand how such events seemed ‘to people at the time’ he has to realise that Sassoon and Owen were people of the time. They were not propagandists – they wrote about what they felt and heard and saw, and the fact that they put these thoughts into the form of poetry does not make them any less valid as primary sources. To ‘forget them’ is to refuse to engage with an important historical source simply because you don’t like what they say.

Come_and_Join_this_Happy_Throng_Art.IWMPST13604What Paxman also fails to acknowledge is that Sassoon and Owen were not alone. Although Paxman and Michael Gove might not like it, there was a real sense of horror in Britain at the time of the First World War over the sheer scale and brutality of the conflict. The war touched the lives of ordinary people in a way that no previous conflict ever had. It’s easy to forget in today’s day and age where we are constantly exposed to images of soldiers in Afghanistan and bombs exploding in Gaza that for the average person in 1914 – 1918 the death and destruction of the war was a shock. People who had no previous experience of the military were pulled in to fight and nurse and grieve in a way that had profound consequences for the future of British society.

Mutiny and Revolution

One such consequence was the severance of traditional feelings regarding authority. The hurt and anger which the public felt at the destruction they saw came to focus on those who they believed were to blame for taking Britain to war in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, many British people did blame the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence for the First World War. It was believed that the secret machinations of elitist Foreign Office officials had led Britain into an unnecessary conflict that had caused the death of thousands of working class men. After 1918 there were veracious calls for reform of the Foreign Office recruitment process, for example, to counter the dominance of the aristocracy in the making of future foreign policy. It was also argued that all future foreign agreements and treaties should receive parliamentary approval – a suggestion made as a result of the belief that Britain had been pulled into the war in the first place because the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, had taken it upon himself to make various promises to the French and Russians. The economic crisis that followed the war only exacerbated these bitter feelings as unemployment spread and labour unrest rocketed. In January 1919 police and workers clashed violently in Glasgow to the point where tanks and machine guns were called in to occupy the city. Initial plans to release men from the military in phases so as to allow better re-integration into civilian work had to be cancelled when troops stationed in Folkestone and Dover mutinied. In 1918 and 1919 the police themselves went on strike. By 1920 there was a likelihood that should a general strike occur (as was being threatened for that Autumnthe authorities might find the police and ex-soldiers joining the workers. As a report of the Home Office put it, ‘in the event of rioting, for the first time in history the rioters will be better trained than the troops’. So serious was the situation that in January 1920 the Chief of the Imperial General Staff set his men to prepare plans for ‘mutiny and revolution’ in Britain.

This unrest was not confined to Britain either. Throughout the world people were starting to question the status quo. The First World War had seen the destruction of many of the great empires of the day and brought forth Communist revolution in at least one country. Everywhere the old ruling elite appeared to be collapsing and boundaries and borders shifting. America, with its proclamations of self-determination for all nations, was now front and centre of the international stage. The concept of ‘authority’ was evolving. When Gandhi, a small Indian man in a loin cloth, appeared able to challenge the might of the British Empire, then all ideas of authority, tradition and status quo were up for questioning. The First World War broke common faith in authority. People felt betrayed by the very people who professed to be their betters. While it would still take decades for British society to make real headway in eradicating notions of privilege, class and elitism, it was arguably in 1918 that such profound change began.

Soldier with Prosthetic Limb at the Personnel Recovery Centre in Edinburgh

The consequences of armed service are all too familiar to modern society. Photo: Sergeant Ian Forsyth RLC

Call of Duty

Paxman’s other argument centres on the idea that should such a conflict break out today Britain’s youth would not be rushing to sign up to fight as they did in 1914.

‘We live in such a relativistic society now, and materialistic, self-obsessed and hedonistic; it’s hard to imagine circumstances under which people would say that ‘it is worth it, I’m willing to risk my life and well-being for this’…What would [the younger] generation fight for? The right to use your iPhone? What are the great noble causes?’

In his typical fashion of trying to argue a point that is based merely on opinion and conjecture, Paxman resorts to the cliché of ‘young people today’. Expanding further, Paxman argues that one of the reasons the younger generation would not sign up to fight ‘is probably that ideas of duty, clearly strongly felt by many people, have diminished as the international significance of the country has diminished’. The problem here is that Paxman equates a lack of sense of duty with a lack of social conscience; that because young people today may not feel a sense of responsibility to Queen and country that they are therefore inherently selfish and superficial. This is a very poor argument indeed. I believe that young people today are still capable of incredible acts of generosity, bravery and self-sacrifice, if they believe in the cause. Perhaps they will not blithely sign-up to kill others simply because their elders say so; perhaps they would not believe it would be over by Christmas; perhaps they have seen too many photos and videos to be ignorant of the grim reality of warfare. That does not mean they do not believe or care about important issues. Thousands of men and women still enlist in the British armed services every year even though they face the real possibility of actually being shot at (unlike Paxman’s generation). And in 1939 when world war broke out once again, thousands of men and women still rushed to pledge their help. The reason? Part of it may have been about duty – but a large part would also have been because they believed that Nazi Germany needed to be stopped and that they needed to defend their homeland from foreign aggression. Their trust in authority may have been broken, but their understanding of right and wrong was not.

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In Defence of Historians

Hello, my name is Heather and I’m a historian…

I have studied history for over ten years. I’ve written about history, researched history, taught history, attended many history conferences, had my work scrutinised and criticised by other historians. I am, by all definitions, a historian. But the reason this comes across as something of a confession is that lately I’ve felt that being a historian is decidedly uncool. As a PhD graduate looking for employment outside of academia, I admit I’ve tended to downplay my background in history and instead emphasised my interest in foreign policy and my ‘transferable skills’. I doubt there are many employers who are looking specifically for someone with an in-depth understanding of the Cabinet debates of 1919 on the recall of British troops from Persia. But somebody might be interested in the fact that I can write quite well and know a bit about project management…I’m hoping.

Don’t get me wrong – there is huge public interest in history, as the various events, literature and TV programmes surrounding the First World War centenary have shown. Social media has also made history more accessible to the public than it has ever been and has created a community feeling among #twitterstorians. However, while there is an apparently insatiable appetite for history, I don’t see a corresponding respect accorded trained historians. Maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m a bitter PhD graduate feeling unappreciated. I’d certainly like to know what other historians think. But there is, I feel, a subtle yet pervading attitude in our society towards the study of history that troubles me.

Importance Accorded Historians

One example is the attack Michael Gove made, not too long ago, on the historiography of the First World War. Gove may have been trying to make a point about the way the subject is taught in schools, but his actual argument, instead, came across as a criticism of the way historians have studied and written about the event – that (some) historians had misrepresented the war because of their own political beliefs. There is no right and wrong in history, the discipline is built on the basis of debate and argument. The BBC programmes on whether Britain should have entered the war was a fine example of eminent historians in debate. Michael Gove is not an historian nor is he an expert on the First World War – he therefore has zero right to criticise how historians do their job.


Children should be taught there is no black and white when it comes to history.

Related to this is the value that is accorded to the teaching of the subject of history generally. Every few months it seems somebody is questioning whether history should be absorbed into ‘citizenship’ classes, or scrapped entirely from the curriculum. How often are we being told that Britain needs more scientists, mathematicians and technologists? I saw a scheme recently that is trying to encourage PhD graduates to go into secondary school teaching – the salary for those who have done a science PhD is double that of the arts. And yes, this may be due to the fact that there is a lack of STEM teachers. But the overall message constantly being projected is one that says those who have training in the sciences are more valuable members of society than those who have trained in the arts. Not that this is an ‘us versus them’ situation. Indeed, I have no time for the arts versus science debate – both are equally valuable pursuits. And I in no way hold any ill will towards my STEM peers – my sister is, in fact, doing a PhD in Biology. But am I allowed to feel a little jealous when her lab had the funds to buy her a MacBook when I don’t know a single history PhD student who’s department could have done that for them?

This in turn is linked to a prevailing attitude that while you need to be trained to be a scientist/mathematician/engineer etc, anyone can be a historian. All you need is a library card. The concept of being trained in analysis of primary sources, construction of argument, critiquing of historiography, use of methodology, even citation systems, are all lost on most people. For instance, I always find it interesting that for some types of book (usually to do with psychology, healthcare, even economics), the author’s academic credentials are often very prominent. But you won’t find a history book on the shelves with ‘Dr’ or ‘Professor’ on its cover. I can only conclude that while the fact that the author holds a PhD or MD is important to readers who want advice on their diet, it’s not so important if they want to learn about the Suez Crisis. Yet, how does the average reader know that the author of a history book is properly trained, that they have looked at all of the sources and facts, that their argument and opinion is well informed and based on years of research and study? It’s notoriously hard for an early-career historian to get published, despite the fact that have gone through a gruelling process of writing a 100,000 word thesis (often together with articles, conference papers and book reviews) and had their work constantly scrutinised and criticised by their peers. Yet a certain well-known journalist who has no training whatsoever in history can easily publish history books and speak at high profile events on history matters.

The Value of History

One of the sad results of this lack of respect for historians is it has forced us to start having to justify what we do, using a framework that often is less about the value of historical knowledge and more about telling people what they want to hear. The Gove argument is again a good example of this – the reason we should be talking about the First World War is because it boosts national morale, or so the education secretary believes. Aside from the great danger that comes from having politicians involved in how history should and should not be studied, this sets a bad precedent for judging the inherent value of historical knowledge. No longer does the act of studying history have meaning in and of itself. Instead, something needs to be done with the product of our endeavours – we need to enhance our country’s reputation, we need to hold bad people and regimes to account, we need to learn the lessons so as not to repeat mistakes. History which aims to do any of these things is at best, bad history, at worst, dangerous propaganda.

books 2

‘Those who do not understand their past are doomed to repeat it’ – too often this phrase is taken to mean that by looking at history we can somehow stop future mistakes. I think most historians would agree that the ability to predict the future based on past events is limited. Instead, what I take to be the real meaning behind this saying is that understanding history gives you skills and abilities to hopefully reduce the chance of making the same mistakes in the future; that in training people to be analytical, critically thinking, engaged members of society, always looking to understand the other point of view and ready to question the status quo, certain aspects of our past would not be able to replicate themselves in the future.

Unfortunately, the ever increasing need to justify what we do causes some historians to try to shoe-horn this ‘lesson learnt’ aspect into their work. I’ve read work and listened to talks where very tenuous links have been made between the historical subject at hand and some current affair. Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine have brought forth a plethora of Cold War analogies; every conflict involving territorial competition between foreign powers is a ‘new Great Game’. I don’t really blames these people – when it’s hard to have your voice heard you have to give the people what they want. You also have to try to connect with what people already know. And I know some people will call me a hypocrite, being that I am a historian who writes about current foreign policy. However, I’m not saying you can’t talk about history and current affairs together, just that if this is a forced element of an article/book/lecture then it doesn’t work. Again this goes back to the issue of why we should study history. I believe that knowing the history between two countries (for example Britain and Russia) can help policy makers to have more sympathy for the other’s point of view. People are shaped by their past, and for me, good history can help inform the way we look at the world as it is today. To illustrate: understanding the previous wars which have occurred between Britain and Afghanistan in the 19th and 20th centuries can perhaps help western decision makers to better understand the attitudes that the Afghan people may have towards Britain today; it does not provide a template of what one should or shouldn’t do when going to war with Afghanistan today.

I know there are many people who will see what I’ve written as simply another ‘so-called expert’ whining about not being given the deference they feel they deserve. But I think it’s quite a natural human reaction that, when you have a passion for a subject and have dedicated significant time and effort to being trained as an expert in it, you then seek recognition of your abilities from others. So how can we change things? Well, for one thing, when you look to buy a history book, check to see if the author is a trained historian, rather than a journalist, politician or TV personality. If the public starts to demand their history writers are actually historians, we have a better chance of becoming published. That has a knock-on effect for the standing of historians. One small step but a big boost to us closet historians!



Keeping Talking: Lessons to be Learnt from the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

From 10 to 13 June, government representatives from more than 123 countries and over 1,000 experts, faith leaders, lawyers, Nobel laureates, activists, survivors and youth groups gathered together in London for a Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Chaired by the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, the summit considered key areas for change including accountability, support for survivors and reform of security and justice. But, perhaps more important than all the talk of political leaders, was the encouragement of public engagement with the summit. The Global Summit Fringe included public seminars, theatre, film showings, a market-place, photography exhibitions and representation from many charities and NGOs. Topped off with a vocal social media campaign, the summit and its fringe were designed to once and for all break the silence that has, for too long, surrounded the issue of sexual violence in conflict.


Foreign Secretary William Hague and UN Special Envoy Angelina Jolie address the media at ExCel London ahead of the opening of the Summit Fringe on Tuesday 10 June. Photo courtesy of FCO.


Unfortunately, rarely do perpetrators of sexual violence during war-time face consequences to their actions. Knowing it is unlikely that anything will be done to bring their abuser to justice is one reason why too few victims report what has happened to them. This in turn leads to a lack of proper data on sexual crime, which further hampers resolution of the problem. Thus, one immediate and effective way to end such violence is to strengthen the investigation and prosecution of these acts. To this end, the summit saw the launch of the International Protocol on the Documentation and Investigation of Sexual Violence in Conflict, which ‘sets out international standards on how to collect the strongest possible information and evidence, whilst protecting witnesses, in order to increase convictions and deter future perpetrators’. In future, countries will be held to account for their prosecution of those who believe that war is an excuse for committing appalling acts of sexual violence against women, children and men.

Support of Survivors

During the summit it was agreed that further funding was needed to support UN and NGO efforts to provide assistance to those who have survived sexual violence during conflict. Importantly, it was also recognised that ‘preventing and responding to sexual violence must be prioritized from the start of any humanitarian response and most importantly, recognised as life-saving activity, not an afterthought’. Such help needs to be delivered swiftly and include holistic and integrated services, from full sexual reproductive health rights to psycho-social support, livelihoods support and shelter. Key to such work in helping survivors is also the provision of access to justice, including reparations. Indeed, reparation is often cited by victims of sexual violence as key to their recovery, and not just in financial terms. Often, reparation is about ‘the restoration of dignity, status and health’, but at the moment it is an underused means of justice.

It's time to break the silence.

It’s time to break the silence. Photo author’s own.

Security and Justice Reform

Security and peacekeeping forces are often the first responders to sexual violence. They have access to information about events that is otherwise unavailable to civilians and they may be the only protection that vulnerable sections of society have against sexual violence. They may also be perpetrators. Yet security forces are often not properly equipped to deal with this sensitive and difficult problem. To this end, the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict has made ‘the commitment to ensure national military and police doctrine and training [is] aligned with international law’. Efforts are also to be made for the promotion of gender equality within the justice and security sector as a means of helping to tackle sexual violence. The participation of women (who often have more access and legitimacy than official negotiators) in peace processes also needs to become the norm.

Not Just Politicians

Resolutions, laws, pledges and international agreements are all well and good but unless attitudes change this will not be enough to end sexual violence in conflict. It was, therefore, recognised by the summit that faith groups have a key role to play. They often have access and influence with local communities and thus are ‘uniquely placed to change hearts and minds, and challenge cultural and social norms, including notions of masculine identity as it affects sexual violence’. Faith-based organisations also play a part in providing care, treatment and support for survivors, and so should be engaged as active partners in the fight against sexual violence. Likewise, local community activists are often best placed to make a difference on the ground, including in changing attitudes and behaviours that underpin inequality and the spread of violence.

The Sound of Silence

For too long sexual violence in conflict has been a taboo subject, or seen as an inevitable part of war. And it is this silence over the issue which has been one of the greatest barriers to ending it. Silence from the victims who are often afraid to speak out about what has happened to them for fear of further persecution or blame; silence from the survivors and their families because of the shame that it is felt when female ‘purity’ has been compromised; silence because what is the point, when so often the perpetrators face no consequence for their actions; silence from forces of security and justice who are ill-equipped to deal with the problem; and silence from governments who prefer to ignore the horrific nature of a problem than admit its existence. The greatest triumph of the Global Summit is, therefore, quite simply the breaking of the silence. Politicians, military leaders, faith leaders, NGOs, charities, survivors, activists and ordinary people from all backgrounds came together for a few days to talk. To talk and to share and to listen. But the summit is just the beginning – we must keep the conversation going.


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The Past, Present and Future of Intelligence Work

A few weeks ago I attended an event organised by the brilliant Mile End Group to mark the 50th anniversary of the Defence Intelligence Staff. With many long-serving members of the intelligence community in the audience, discussion inevitably turned to the changing nature of intelligence work – from the post-Second World War focus on Communism to the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the future challenges of cyber-terrorism. Below I take a look at some of the different aspects of working in intelligence in the past, the present and the future.

GCHQ at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

A satellite communications dish outside the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Photo: GCHQ/Crown Copyright/MOD


Intelligence work by its nature is constantly evolving and so, therefore, is the remit of the various organisations involved in monitoring, analysing and combating threats to the UK’s security. Some services have changed more than others – GCHQ started life deciphering the telegrams of persons on interest and although the technology has changed SIGNIT is still very much its territory. On the other hand, Defence Intelligence, founded to provide data collection and analysis at the highest, strategic, level has found itself increasingly involved in operational work; the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts saw Defence Intelligence staff deployed more frequently than ever before (other times included to the former Yugoslavia and during the Sierra Leone civil war). More recently, there has been a proposal to move UK counter-terrorism responsibility from the Met police to the National Crime Agency (NCA) – an organisation whose focus has thus far largely been on drugs, people trafficking and child exploitation. The UK’s intelligence organisations therefore need to be flexible and adaptable to change with modern times, while also capitalising on their decades’ worth of institutional experience.


It used to be Communism and the Soviet Union, now it’s Islamic extremism and the Middle East/Asia: as threats to the UK shift from one ideology/country/region to another, so too does the focus of intelligence work and so too does the need for specialised knowledge. Russia is a perfect example of the difficulties facing the intelligence services when it comes to the issue of knowledge: during the Cold War there were Russian experts aplenty but with the fall of the Soviet Union attention turned elsewhere, and the agencies were hunting out those who spoke Arabic/Farsi/Pushtu. Now, with Putin’s actions towards Ukraine, it appears that some intelligence experts are worried about the lack of current information on Russia.

The problem of course is how to predict where the next flash points are going to be. Which leads to a catch 22 – you don’t necessarily know that Russia is still a potential threat to the UK if you are not putting the resources into monitoring that country; but you won’t put your resources there if you don’t think there is a reason to. One way to address this is to go for a strategy of broad thinking, trying to make sure you have a little knowledge on a lot rather than vice versa – jack of all trades and master of none. At the moment this appears to be the general trend, certainly in Defence Intelligence anyway. The problem is there will always be a need for more in-depth, specialised knowledge of a particular ideology/country/region. This perennial balancing act between broad versus deep knowledge will not doubt always be an issue for intelligence work. However, future technological advances that enhance our ability to amass and analyse vast amounts of data will no doubt help.


Indeed, the undisputed greatest change that has overcome intelligence work since the latter half of the twentieth century is the massive advances in technology and the sheer magnitude of the data that we are now able to collect on people. The modern intelligence worker is therefore going to have to be au fait with technology in way that goes beyond having good IT skills. These changes pose their own challenges, however. The ability to collect huge reams of information is all well and good, but data is only as useful as how you interpret and use it – and the more data you have, potentially the more man-power it takes to analyse this, the more chance you have of missing something vital. There is also the danger of worshipping too much at the altar of technology and losing focus on what some might call the fundamentals of intelligence work – HUMINT. One argument for the Met retaining jurisdiction over counter-terrorism, for example, is that the police are imbedded in the local communities, allowing them to gather information, track suspects and uncover plots in a way the NCA could not. The Afghan conflict provides a clear demonstration of the need for both the machine and the man: drones may have come into their own when used for reconnaissance of the difficult Afghan terrain, but counterinsurgency relies on HUMINT – men and women on the ground making human contact with those they are trying to influence or gather information from.


Everybody knows the old ‘tap-on-the-shoulder’ routine of intelligence recruitment: young men of a certain class and educational background, usually with the right family connections, would be individually recruited to work in the intelligence services. How much of the intelligence workforce was recruited this way is arguable, but the general point rings true: given that before 1994 nobody could officially acknowledge the existence of the UK intelligence agencies, recruitment was done more surreptitiously (perhaps adding to the allure of intelligence work for some).

Today it is not uncommon to see one or more of the intelligence services with a stand at a careers fair. MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all now advertise their vacancies on their own websites while the NCA and MoD feature on the Civil Service Job Site. In the age of the ‘competency question’ and psychometric tests, recruitment into intelligence work has also become much more standardised, and arguably more democratic: any British national with the right aptitude should (in theory) be able to work as an analyst for MI5.

However, there has been some push-back against current recruitment trends by those who argue that the application process is killing off individuality among applicants. It has been said that many of the UK’s greatest intelligence workers would not be able to pass today’s rigid application questions, difficult psychometric tests and assessment centres. In future then, we might see more of the personal touch brought into recruitment practices, and perhaps an evolution in psychometric tests to make them more nuanced in their assessment of personality. Just as recruitment practices have changed, so too has the training of intelligence workers undergone rapid development since the second half of the twentieth century. The professionalisation of staff, is in fact one of the key changes noted by many at the Defence Intelligence event.

Paul Dukes

Would men such as the infamous Paul Dukes have been able to pass modern day intelligence recruitment processes?

For me it is always this great juxtaposition between the continuity and the change in intelligence work which makes it so fascinating a topic. On the one hand, Britain has a fantastically rich heritage of intelligence work: it was one of the first countries in the world to set up specific schemes to keep informed on the doings of foreign powers, with Walsingham’s network of spies, cryptographers and forgers in the sixteenth century. On the other hand, technology and globalisation are advancing so rapidly that the practice of monitoring and analysing threats to the UK’s security is in many ways unrecognisable from just a couple of decades ago. It is how organisations handle these changes while not losing connection to their institutional pasts that ensures the effectiveness of modern-day intelligence work.

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Violence against women and girls since the Arab Spring

The Global Summit took place at ExCel London.

The Global Summit took place at ExCel London.

Last Tuesday evening I attended a public talk hosted by Chatham House at the Global Summit on Sexual Violence which has been taking place this week in London. This particular talk was focused on the increase in violence against women in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Syria since the Arab Spring. With a panel of four inspiring women and their chair the event was one of the highlights of the summit. The speakers included:

Ghaidaa al Absi, a Yemen activist and anti-harassment campaigner

Dr Fida Shafi, a senior fellow at Chatham House who has recently conducted research among female Syrian refugees.

Dr Nervana Mahmoud, Egyptian journalist and commentator

Dr Nicola Pratt, Reader of International Politics of the Middle East at the University of Warwick

An emotive and compelling discussion, some of the key points made during the event included:

  • Violence against women and children has increased significantly with the events of the Arab Spring for a variety of reasons.
  • The problem is chronic and endemic. It takes many forms, from harassment to sexual assault and rape. Pratt emphasised the need to differentiate between the various forms that such violence is taking in order to better understand the problem, but broadly the issue affects women from all backgrounds and is perpetrated by men of all backgrounds too. Thus, the solution to the problem needs to be multi-faceted.
  • Egypt is currently the worst country in the Arab region for violence against women, with 8 out of every 10 women being harassed every day in the country. Mahmoud pointed out there is a real risk of Egypt thus developing the terrible reputation as ‘a country of rapists’.
  • Women tend to be blamed for the acts of violence that are perpetrated against them, with accusations about dress and condemnation of their participation in political protest, while men are often excused for their actions.
  • Violence against women thrives on silence. There is a huge issue of stigma and shame which is preventing the reporting of and, therefore, in turn the resolution of the problem. It is difficult to have accurate figures on violence against women since so many are too ashamed to talk about what has happened to them.
  • Such shame is intrinsically linked to the pervading culture regarding the purity of women, and the sacredness of virginity.
Speakers at the Chatham House discussion

Speakers at the Chatham House discussion

  • Violence against women can be used as a way to emasculate male opponents in times of war or political conflict. Because in such cultures men are supposed to be protectors of their women folk, violence against a man’s wife, sister, daughter etc is often used to inflict harm against the man. In this way, women are deemed, effectively, as little more than tools of war.
  • The shame of men in regards to violence that has been inflicted on their women helps perpetuate the silence on the issue, since neither men nor women want to speak out about what has happened to them or their family.
  • This state of denial and a tendency to blame the victim are the greatest barriers to tackling violence against women.
  • As Shafi explained, fear of rape is so great that it can cause women to flee their home countries rather than run the risk of being subjected to such violence.
  • In Egypt feminism has traditionally been centred on the First Lady and the cities, and is often seen as a Western idea. Therefore women in rural areas eschew feminist ideas.
  • The new anti-harassment law in Egypt is a good law, but it will not address the problem if the perpetrators are not properly found and tried. There is also the issue of the police harassing women. Until women in Egypt feel protected by police and confident in the legal system, the law will be ineffective.

Such are the snippets of information from the talk which demonstrate just how complex the issue of violence against women is. Change is happening, as younger men and women start to struggle against regressive thinking. However, cultural norms, views on female rights, and the stigma attached to matters of a sexual nature are deeply rooted in the Arab region. It will take a lot to tackle such entrenched problems, but events such as the Global Summit are a great step in the right direction.


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Sexual Violence in Conflict

Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

Get involved in free public events this week at the global summit

This week sees the largest gathering ever to end sexual violence in conflict take place in London. From 10th to 13th June the UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Angelina Jolie, will be co-chairing a global summit at the ExCel Centre.

The summit will include 3 days of free public events, from cinema screenings to theatre productions, seminars, debates and a market place. Highlights include talks from Chatham House, Oxfam and Unicef, a silent cinema show-casing award winner films on sexual violence and the play Liberian Girl presented by the Royal Court Theatre.

The aim of the summit is to create ‘irreversible momentum against sexual violence in conflict and practical action that impacts those on the ground’. As William Hague has said, this is a summit like no other in the world, largely because public involvement is one of its key aims.

So if you’re in London this week, get down to ExCel, show your support via social media (#timetoact) and lets make sure real progress is made to end sexual violence in conflict.

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