8 min read

“What does your sorrow do while you sleep? -It’s awake and waiting. And when it loses patience, it wakes me up.”

The Bridge on the Drina by the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić is a story about many things, conquest by empires and all manner of regime over several centuries, and it begins with connecting across the Drina River two different ethnic/religious groups, and begins to describe the dynamic of who crosses and when, and who enjoys the bridge itself, and who finds the river without it impassable, a regionally-correct Rubicon of sorts in conversion amongst these groups over time as one crosses over or through it.

On a higher conceptual level, this aspect of the plot can be said to be about the multiculturalism of what would become Yugoslavia, and whatever interpretation of events you subscribe to aside, this multiculturalism is at the heart of conflict in this story, and in more modern history. More specifically, like any multicultural society that experiences tampering from an invading/absorbing empire, it will have strain it might not have otherwise had; a faction might be imbued with influence and resources and a will to conflict it wouldn't have had organically, much more violence and splintering and intolerance (to say the least) than is organic, and this is not singular to this instance.

A tactic of the British Empire in colonizing South Asia was very similar: enter an existing political entity as a corporate interest, rather than an overtly political one, identify an ethnic or religious minority group, and take up their cause, but insofar as eroding the majority/influential groups is served by doing so. Consider the example of the Karens in Burma, or at least nominally the Muslims in India that would go on to constitute Pakistan during the subsequent partition and British withdrawal, all outcomes that were precipitated by entering obstructively and exiting punitively by intensifying that obstruction.

I've written about this previously, and I'll cite the relevant portion here using the contemporary example of US intervention in Burma to highlight this pattern:

The primary reason the coup was so effective was two-pronged: first, the military was highly centralized in a way the civilian government was not, and, secondly, in a better position to reconsolidate states attempting to secede (as was their right under the 1947 constitution) into a single national entity. The history of such divisions in what is now Myanmar begins with its colonization, where the British would select historically marginalized political, religious, or ethnic minorities and become their advocates, in manufacturing a controlled opposition inside the government, intervening on issues of social concern along with their own colonial governance justified by such apparent oppression of these groups they’re now “liberating”. In Burma, they “liberated” the Karen ethnic minority, and produced historiography to support this notion. However, modern historians have dissected this writing, and others of its time to come to the conclusion that not only were the Karens becoming much more organically integrated into the prevailing political structure of the pre-Diana Johnstonecolonial state, “there is little doubt that it was the British invasion of the region that defined Karen identity in the modern national sense and gave it coherence.” as historian Clive Christie would put it.

Christie's argument is, essentially, that a fracturing of the races and ethnic groups is fundamentally a western construct that is so impactful because it's an otherwise foreign concept of stratification different from the targeted society's own stratification, or otherwise (consider the example of caste in India) is partly re-asserted as reaction to colonization's influence.

George Orwell writing about his experience as a foot soldier of the colonial government in Burma:

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Ultimately, the colonial rule knows it must end sometime, so the extraction of resources must necessarily accelerate and become overt in its intentions, and in the case of Burma, the preferred response from the public was to ask the self-imposed state to behave like one and manage the masses, the chips fall where they may. After WWII, after dragging out withdrawal from not only Burma, but also India, the British were in no condition to justify ruling anyone– what had once been compelling social pressure from the more moderate faction of the independence movement led by Gandhi, his political opponents like Nehru and Ambedkar earlier felt they were being jerked around, for decades at thispoint, about negotiating an exit. By the mid-40's, Nehru, a democratic socialist by disposition, was inclined to call on the Red Army, having just sacrificed 8 million of its soldiers in the war against fascism in Europe, to liberate them as well. It was at this point that the British, led by Lord Mountbatten, withdrew hastily, more or less arbitrarily drawing lines for partition, and insisting upon its dispersive and isolating effects on the regions it would come to bisect; a condition, least of all Pakistan itself, was desiring over continued protections of Muslims in the Congress that until that point, the British had ensured for their own ends, and absent that interest, so absent was the interest of the British in the Muslims. This is one such example of a natural conflict, with organic dispositions of the parties involved, acceding to a more extreme and bifurcated outcome that to this day remains combative than could have been considered natural before occupation.

Continuing the above analysis of mine re: the Orwell extract, and a question of intervention by the west:

They had set a trap for themselves in expecting to be taken seriously as a political force in the region after the humiliation of losing massive amounts of territory and resources after the Second World War, and the only recourse left to the withdrawing Empire was a vindictive passivity. In India, upon accommodating independence, Muslim leaders, themselves having their political power upheld by British safeguards for their own interests, found their methods of organizing incompatible with that of the Indian nationalist majority in Congress, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s theories on the matter concluded that two states were necessary, but their relations needed to be carefully crafted to avoid…well, basically everything that has happened since, up to and including conflict in Kashmir as recently as 2019. However, with the British disengaged, and uninterested in creating anything other than a partition that would effectively ensure instability in Pakistan, and nothing but shaky relations between Muslim and Indian populations as mass relocation commenced, the Muslim League and, indeed, Nehru’s government in India, both, found themselves in a position all considered not ideal.
The relevance to Myanmar is, likewise, following such a pattern: the protectorate groups of the British in Burma found themselves with their loyalist tendencies failing to give them much of a voice in the forming of the new independent government, and more secessionist groups began to form between various states within Burma. This would only escalate and fragment over the next decade, concluding with the military taking control, rather than acting on behalf of the democratic federal government, and then several decades of conflict between the civilian and military leaders, civil war, and now, ultimately, an open coup on the day the democratically-elected parliament was set to begin session.
With US interest at an all-time high in seemingly doing everything possible to antagonize China and Russia, the latter of which the US has a history of intervention (including intervention on Boris Yeltsin’s behalf in the 1991 coup) in, amidst impeding conflict of some sort (likely economic), there’s been a lot of talk in support of the democratically-elected government, after a history of recognizing the military government; the political expediency of this seemingly speaks to the history of Myanmar’s utility to global imperialist tendencies, not a commitment to safeguarding democracy.

Again, we see this pattern in places like Afghanistan, for example: in arming the mujaheddin, ostensibly a rebel group of nationalists, against the Soviets, it served a superficial notion of self-determination and pro-democracy, but the latter is meaningless, if the commitment to the former is contingent upon serving the goals of the US, which in this case, the immediate impact was the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in part, and much more relevant to the US as a consequence of its actions, giving rise to the Taliban. It goes without saying this is a circumstance that could not be argued to have done any amount of good that justifies the irreparable harm done to the region.

Much less complicated, much more overt, in the present, and the conditions that prompted Andrić to write Drina was his capacity as a cultural attache; what he saw describes this dynamic, and that it could be told in narrative, comparing the western powers to the Ottomans, etc. is a telling one about the nature of those threatened by, and seeking to deepen, divides in multicultural societies that, if not peacefully, had managed to coexist. Michael Parenti writes of the dissolution of Yugoslavia:

That U.S. leaders have consciously sought to dismember Yugoslavia is not a matter of speculation but of public record. In November 1990, the Bush administration pressured Congress into passing the 1991 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which provided that any part of Yugoslavia failing to declare independence within six months would lose U.S. financial support. The law demanded separate elections in each of the six Yugoslav republics, and mandated U.S. State Department approval of both election procedures and results as a condition for any future aid. Aid would go only to the separate republics, not to the Yugoslav government, and only to those forces whom Washington defined as "democratic," meaning right-wing, free-market, separatist parties.
Another goal of U.S. policy has been media monopoly and ideological control. In 1997, in what remained of Serbian Bosnia, the last radio station critical of NATO policy was forcibly shut down by NATO "peacekeepers." The story in the New York Times took elaborate pains to explain why silencing the only existing dissident Serbian station was necessary for advancing democratic pluralism. The Times used the term "hardline" eleven times to describe Bosnian Serb leaders who opposed the shutdown and who failed to see it as "a step toward bringing about responsible news coverage in Bosnia."2
Likewise, a portion of Yugoslav television remained in the hands of people who refused to view the world as do the U.S. State Department, the White House, and the corporate-owned U.S. news media, and this was not to be tolerated. The NATO bombings destroyed the two government TV channels and dozens of local radio and television stations, so that by the summer of 1999 the only TV one could see in Belgrade, when I visited that city, were the private channels along with CNN, German television, and various U.S. programs. Yugoslavia's sin was not that it had a media monopoly but that the publicly owned portion of its media deviated from the western media monopoly that blankets most of the world, including Yugoslavia itself.
In 1992, another blow was delivered against Belgrade: international sanctions. Led by the United States, a freeze was imposed on all trade to and from Yugoslavia, with disastrous results for the economy: hyperinflation, mass unemployment of up to 70 percent, malnourishment, and the collapse of the health care system

The pattern he describes is a divide and conquer strategy, selecting groups responsive to intervention, and intervening disproportionately on their behalf in the name of western liberal democratic order, but leaving the populace in shambles and abject terror once the goal is achieved– this is a scale unique to our times and the nature of our world's hegemonic powers.

And it truly is a question of implementing western liberal democratic order, it's about flattening everything into a binary of good guys and bad guys, and a willing western corporate media participates in that flattening, everything must apply equally and in totality, nuance is uncertainty, and it makes you wonder if the goal is not to avoid a public willing to do the expansion of a class analysis of their conditions while the west is telling them it's substandard, you're left wondering what is meant by this quote by Diana Johnstone that Parenti cites as the media's framing of the situation: "As the choice is unlikely to be unanimous one way or the other, civil war and further destruction of the country are probable"