THE RAVAGING OF RAKHINE

Rohingya fire

Another village goes up in smoke. Image source: Getty Images

The Rohingya of west Myanmar eke out a living on the margins of society, making do with subsistence farming and fishing in primitive conditions. They live in a state of smoldering enmity with their neighbors, the Rakhine, who occasionally pillage and murder them. But the real terror strikes when the soldiers arrive. Hardened by decades of indiscriminate violence against Myanmar’s minorities, they torch whole villages, gun down fleeing villagers, ravish the women, shoot the livestock, and force the Rohingya out of the country altogether.

The persecution of the Rohingya has gone on for a long time, although since Myanmar was such an obscure and isolated country, it was out of sight of the outside world until recently. The current crisis, though, is a serious escalation of their oppression, and it could have (other) dire consequences.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Myanmar is an old country; its history stretches back to the 800s. But it is a country dominated by the Bamar ethnic group, who conquered the fertile and hot Ayeyarwady Valley and subjugated the other ethnic groups that ring it. The Bamar are proud of their history and especially of the military prowess of their kings, and usually react to any uppitiness among the minorities with ferocity. This tendency has carried on into Myanmar’s modern history, since the country is dominated by its army, which reacts to any problem or threat or hint of a threat violently and ruthlessly.

But even though the Rohingya share this bitter relationship with the Myanma military with other ethnicities, they are different. They are closely related to the Bengalis, the ethnic group that dominates Myanmar’s western neighbor, Bangladesh. How exactly they came to Myanmar is a matter of heated dispute today; the Rohingya stress their heritage in the independent Kingdom of Arakan, when they were invited to serve in a royal court heavily influenced by Islamic culture. Most probably migrated to Arakan later, when the region was conquered by Britain and annexed to its huge Indian colony; the new colonists needed menial laborers for their tea plantations, and Bengalis had a lot of experience with that, especially in the area around Chittagong in southeast Bengal.

So the Rohingya originate from Bangladesh (which used to be Pakistan, and before that, India — but the point is, a foreign country); they are Muslim, while Myanmar is deeply Buddhist; and they are Aryan, while the rest of Myanmar is Mongoloid (basically, they have darker skin and rounder eyes). Their language is closely related to Bengali. They are seen as foreigners by the rest of Myanmar. Worse, they have links with the hated British overlords: as part of the classic imperial divide-and-rule strategy, the Rohingya were favored as enforcers in the colonial regime, which tended to admire Muslims as fierce warriors and loathe Myanma as duplicitous, scheming weaklings. When British rule was overthrown by Japan in 1942, ethnic riots broke out in Arakan as the local Arakanese got their revenge on the Rohingya, with the tacit approval of the Japanese.

Myanmar* gained its independence in 1948, giving the Bamar a chance to restore the national glory that had been tarnished by their humiliating conquest 60 years earlier. This meant seeking revenge against the many Indian migrants who had flocked to the colony and gotten rich at their ancestors’ expense. The Indians were encouraged to go back to India, especially forcefully after the army seized control in 1962. Their wealth made them a tempting target. The Rohingya, on the other hand, were too poor to bother with. They remained in Myanmar, laboring away in their neglected corner of the country and launching an insurgency to unite their area with Bangladesh. The local Rakhine, descendants of the Arakanese, held them in contempt and avoided having much to do with them. In 1982, the Rohingya were even stripped of their citizenship, and to this day are considered Bengalis by the rest of the country (although Bangladesh does not recognize them as such).

CURRENT SITUATION
The army’s harsh and authoritarian regime, by all accounts, ran Myanmar into the ground. Its socialist, then corrupt capitalist economy impoverished the country. Its xenophobia and paranoia isolated Myanmar from even its neighbors. Its violent impulses dominated its interaction with its subjects. By 2011, the regime could no longer be sustained, and Myanmar has undergone a groundbreaking reform since then that has opened up the country and given its people democratic rights and a better standard of living.

On the other hand, the reform has also exposed how volatile Myanmar’s ethnic relations are. In 2012, a riot broke out in Sittwe, Rakhine’s main city, after a Rohingya was accused of raping and murdering a Rakhine. Dozens of Rohingya were killed, but the main effect of the violence was to drive the 2 communities further apart, with the Rohingya forced into concentration camps (“internally displaced persons camps”). It might be helpful for their own protection, but the camps are poorly guarded, squalid, and by most accounts saturated with an atmosphere of hopelessness and boredom and afflicted by the usual woes of poverty (domestic abuse, substance abuse, petty theft, hooliganism).

Rohingya map

These problems pale in comparison to what happened when the army showed up in October 2016. The Myanma army has a long history of using brute force and terror to subdue rebellious minorities, and it has used the same tactics against the Rohingya. Hundreds of villages are put to the torch; families are terrorized and driven out; torture and rape are frequently used. Children and the elderly are gunned down.

The whole crisis has understandably sparked an outflow of refugees from the conflict zone. In earlier years, Rohingya would brave the Andaman Sea in flimsy boats and set sail for Thailand or more distant but also more Muslim countries (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia). Now most just head out on foot for nearby Bangladesh, accessible by crossing the narrow Naf River. All face the woes of refugees everywhere: locals unable or unwilling to help them; crowded, dangerous and filthy conditions; difficulty in finding jobs or integrating into society; a tendency to fall into the clutches of unsavory and unscrupulous characters who abuse them in exchange for money or food. Bangladesh has done what it can to provide for their needs, but it is overwhelmed by the latest inflow: over 400,000 since August 25. Bengalis are sympathetic to the Rohingya’s plight, but Bangladesh is very poor and crowded already, and most locals hope or assume that the refugees will go back to Myanmar at some point.

Rohingya refugees

Refugee camps are so overcrowded that food (biscuits, in this case) is thrown out of trucks into the crowds. Refugees have died in the stampede. Image source: Reuters

The situation has provoked an international outcry, especially from Muslim countries sensitive to religious persecution. The UN has carried out a fact-finding mission under former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and puts the onus on the Myanma military. Protests have been held in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia against the repression. Myanmar is facing increasing international isolation and condemnation. Some NGOs and media outlets, less cautious and diplomatic than governments, label the conflict ethnic cleansing or even genocide. Ayman az-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, mentioned the Rohingya in a rant against persecution of Muslims in South Asia, and there are fears that the Rohingya will be radicalized and gain support from jihadists eager for a war with infidels.

Why is Myanmar oppressing the Rohingya so much? In part it’s because they have never really been accepted as Myanma. To a large extent it is a religious conflict: militant Buddhism has been on the rise in Myanmar, and like others, they see little distinction between ordinary Muslims and terrorists. Wirathu, an outspoken monk with a huge fan following, likes to remind his audiences that Indonesia used to be a Buddhist country until it was swamped by the forces of Islam, and claims (unrealistically) that Buddhist Myanma are being outbred by hordes of Muslim infiltrators. For the Rakhine, they are seen as illegitimate competitors for their state’s scarce resources. I visited Yangon in March to conduct a research project on the conflict, and the Rakhine I spoke with were mostly unsympathetic to the Rohingya. They were well aware of the international sympathy for them and claimed that they were burning down their own houses in hopes of getting food aid. They claimed that there was a thriving black market within the camps. They had little comment on the military assault that provoked the recent refugee outflow, and focused much more on the Rohingya attacks that had provoked it. Most refused to call them “Rohingya,” preferring “Bengali” in an obvious attempt to deny them a separate identity from Bangladeshis.

Rohingya cartoon

A mainstream Myanma view of the conflict (Aung San Suu Kyi being the figure on the right). See this article if you’re interested in more anti-Rohingya Myanma cartoons. Image source: Okka Kyi Winn Facebook

The Rohingya do have an insurgency fighting on their behalf: the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. It is shadowy and poorly understood. (I have noticed this report is the main source for most articles on the subject.) It is mostly funded by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and carries out attacks on police and army outposts. It might receive support from the villagers that the army targets. It might grow as the conflict heats up, but for now it is outmatched by the army and the Rakhine militias that pillage the Rohingya alongside it, and it is surely reliant on outside assistance.

The case of Myanmar is an excellent example of the complicated results of a long-repressed society suddenly awakening to democracy and the realities of the modern world. A people long oppressed and terrorized by their army can rally to the same army’s side when it turns on those it considers outsiders. Conscious of the dangers posed by radical Islam, it is easy to see local Muslims as sleeper cells ready to carry out terrorist attacks and bring down Myanmar’s old Buddhist civilization. Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader and a world-renowned icon who endured decades of house arrest for winning an election in 1990, now must heed her people’s demands to stand up to meddling foreigners. She has no wish to confront an army that still controls 25% of the national legislature and a big part of the economy and could easily take over again. And hey, the Rohingya can’t vote anyway.

What can the outside world do? It’s hard to say. Western and non-Muslim Asian countries have been reluctant to press Myanmar too hard, out of fear of imperiling its fragile and very young process of democratization. Reviving the national economy (including Rakhine too, maybe) seems to be a higher priority than a million or so Rohingya. China, annoyed at losing influence in Myanmar since its opening, sees an opportunity to regain favor by not criticizing the government for its crackdown and maybe even mediating the conflict with Bangladesh. India, under the Hindu nationalist regime of Narendra Modi, has become unfriendly to Muslims in general and wants to deport the Rohingyas that have ended up there.

Given the widespread popularity for Aung San Suu Kyi, hostility toward Muslims, and resentment of foreign criticism, there might be little that the outside world can realistically do to sway Myanmar. This might be a golden opportunity for Indonesia to exercise its latent political power: an NGO I spoke with claimed it has a reputation as an honest broker with experience in quelling ethnic unrest and a distaste for the sort of grandstanding favored by, say, Malaysia’s Najib Razak and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan (who have both used the issue to whip up their voters). Helping Bangladesh, which shoulders most of the burden for caring for the refugees, would also go a long way. And of course, countries could take in Rohingya refugees themselves — although the international climate does not seem very receptive to accommodating Muslim refugees these days.

*

Myanmar was known as Burma until 1989. I have avoided using “Burma” in this post to avoid needless confusion.

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THE PURPLE SWEET POTATO

Gay Taiwan

Image source: PinkNews

GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) rights are a mixed bag worldwide. Within a few decades, they have become mainstream and widely accepted in the West, where gay marriage is now becoming normal and gay lifestyles are integrated into urban society. In other regions — especially Muslim countries — homosexuality is seen as a horrible perversion and treated as a crime. It has become 1 of the most glaring symbols of “Western decadence” and “immorality” elsewhere and in Russia, and gay activists cocky after their string of victories in the West run into a steep cliff of incomprehension when they try to spread their values to Africa or Asia.

East Asia mostly sits in the middle of this spectrum. It embraces a wide array of cultures, from highly Westernized ones to conservative Islamic ones. Like other regions, it has its own cultural traditions and sense of native pride that makes it instinctively resistant to gay rights, but it’s also in the midst of deep modernization, which brings it closer and closer to Western norms. As such, reactions to GLBTs varies widely from country to country, but the country in the vanguard of gay rights so far is… Taiwan.

Taiwan might seem like an odd place for a gay haven. It is Chinese in culture, and other Chinese places like mainland China and Singapore are generally unfriendly to gays. China’s Confucian culture places a great emphasis on the family, and not only is a homosexual couple a direct challenge to the traditional concept of a family, it’s impossible for them to have kids. China might be uninterested (at least officially) in having more kids, but no such population control exists in Taiwan. And Chinese culture is famous for its resistance to outside influences.

Why Taiwan is so gay-friendly remains something of a mystery, but there are theories. Taiwanese like to point to the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Taiwanese history, from the aboriginal population in the mountains that descends from island Southeast Asia to the Hakka mariners who colonized the island centuries ago to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who colonized a few forts to the Japanese who annexed and colonized it in 1895 to the mainlanders who took over again in 1945. But there are plenty of places with diverse cultural influences, and they’re not necessarily gay-friendly. Besides, it’s not like the Dutch in the 1600s were especially gay-friendly (or the Japanese in the 1890s, or the natives…).

A more likely explanation is the growth of civil society on Taiwan. Although the country was a military dictatorship at first, its societal control was never as harsh as China’s, and its dictators ruled through martial law. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s government, transferred from the mainland in 1949) was founded along liberal republican ideals, and although they weren’t really fulfilled for most of the 1900s, they remained embodied in its constitution for brave protestors to point to. Taiwan has never been as closed as China, and before 1972 it enjoyed a close relationship with America, which meant exchanges of values and students and researchers trained in American universities. Even though political reform was the main goal, other social causes like environmentalism and feminism blossomed on this fertile ground, and each popular success emboldened other groups to change an ancient and seemingly immobile society.

Religion generally plays a big role in opposition to GLBT rights, and Taiwan is a more religious country than China. But the main religion is the unnamed Chinese religion, which is more tolerant of homosexuality and alternative lifestyles in general. There is also a folk tradition in Taiwan (originating from Fujian on the other side of the Strait of Taiwan) of a rabbit god, Tu’er Shen, who was originally a man executed for eyeing a handsome mandarin too much. The god protects gays and is worshiped at temples — a tradition wiped out in mainland China but quietly thriving in Taiwan.

Taiwan has accordingly enacted legal protections for GLBTs steadily since the 1990s. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against them, they are allowed to serve in the military, and they can change their legal gender. Concurrently, there is a widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. Pai Hsien-yung portrayed Taipei’s gay scene in the 1960s with his novel Crystal Boys way back in 1983; since then, world-famous director Ang Lee has made The Wedding Banquet, about a Taiwanese-American who ends up getting married to a woman because he can’t admit to his parents that he’s gay (it’s a hilarious movie, by the way), and lesbian relationships have been portrayed in movies like Blue Gate Crossing and Spider Lilies. Taipei’s gay pride parade has grown from a modest 1,000-person march in 2003 to East Asia’s premier gay event, with 80,000 participants last year. A McDonald’s commercial about a son coming out to his father (in a McDonald’s, naturally) drew nearly universal support. Public opinion polls have mixed results, as usual, but support for gay marriage regularly tops 50% (at least).

Fairly or otherwise, gay marriage has become the ultimate litmus test for how accepting of homosexuality a country is. While it is now widespread in the West and Latin America, it is still too much for East Asia to handle. But Taiwan pushed for gay marriage in the ’00s, when the movement to legalize it built momentum in the West. Despite opposition from Christians (who are a small minority in Taiwan) and older Taiwanese who saw it as an assault on their culture, the movement gathered steam. The Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party in Taiwan and the main embodiment of the reformist movement, embraced the idea. In 2015, its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, took the bold step of endorsing gay marriage in a Facebook post.

This year, Taiwan has come closer than ever before to finally adopting gay marriage. The Constitutional Court ruled on May 24 that the Republic of China’s constitution’s guarantee of equality meant that gay marriage has to be recognized. It’s now up to the Legislative Yuan (parliament) to pass the laws or amend preexisting ones, and this looks likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t, the Court ruled that it would recognize gay marriages within 2 years anyway. The ruling has been preceded (as in other countries, like America and Mexico) by the gradual legal recognition of homosexual partnerships in municipalities across the island, including almost all of Taiwan’s west coast, where most of its people live.

The dawn of gay marriage in Taiwan, when it formally comes, will be a landmark moment in East Asian history, since Taiwan — a small, overlooked island despised by its massive neighbor — would be the first country in the region to do it. The question then is: Will others take notice? Taiwanese culture subtly influences China, and there is a GLBT movement there too… but the Chinese government hates any sort of grassroots organizing, and it’s typically conservative when it comes to “public morality.” Japan and Taiwan have close and warm ties left over from their colonial relationship, and Japan also has a thriving gay scene and widespread social acceptance of homosexuality… yet it also has a much more reserved and private culture and GLBTs are expected to “get over” their flings and move on to more serious relationships and assume their adult responsibilities. Singapore is another advanced, modern Chinese country with a big, visible gay community and a famous “Pink Dot” event… but it continues to ban homosexuality. Thailand is famously accepting of GLBTs and “alternative lifestyles,” but it’s currently ruled by a conservative military junta with a dim attitude towards homosexuality.

It’s hard to say how quickly East Asia will embrace GLBT rights. Taiwan’s example has emboldened GLBT communities elsewhere, and the example of the West suggests that grassroots pressure will only grow. But religious conservatism in India and Muslim countries remains powerful. Given the Western and Latino origin of the gay rights movement, many non-Westerners are suspicious that homosexuality is really a latent human condition and consider it an unwelcome cultural import. And even the more liberal, Westernized East Asian countries prefer to tacitly accept GLBT culture without going so far as to recognize gay marriage. This just makes Taiwan’s achievement — in a Confucian society only a few generations beyond dictatorship — all the more remarkable.

TONGUE-TIED IN CAMEROON

Cameroon lawyers

Striking Anglophone lawyers show off 1 easy way to tell them apart from Francophone lawyers… Image source: Bareta News

Identity politics are pretty much a universal axis of conflict, although the type of identity under dispute can vary. Religion is a very old and very bitter source of animosity. Class is a universal divide and still provokes outrage in places with high inequality. Race is a hot-button issue in multiracial countries. The nebulous concept of “ethnicity” divides and unites societies worldwide. Some commentators even point to the even more nebulous concept of “civilization” as a rallying point for political allegiance.

Language might seem to be less controversial, because it’s something everyone uses all the time everyday without much thought. But its very fundamentality makes it crucial and vital: how can you understand someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying? In multilingual contexts people sort themselves by preferred language all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa this can be a problem, given how many different languages are spoken across the continent, but luckily colonialism has given Africa a small group of languages that are spoken across tribal and national lines. Their importance in giving African countries something to unite around becomes obvious when you consider Cameroon, a central African country with the unusual situation of having 2 colonial languages.

BACKGROUND
Cameroon, like its giant neighbor Nigeria, is a very artificial country. It has over 200 different tribes and encompasses everything from the verdant Cameroon mountains in the west and the desert by Lake Chad in the north to the tropical jungles in the east and the plateau in the center and south. The north is more like the dry, Muslim Sahel region of West Africa and the east is more like the Congo jungle that dominates Central Africa. The more densely populated west has more in common with the tribes of Nigeria. (The upshot to this is that Cameroon is advertised to tourists as “Africa in Miniature”; since it’s located at the “hinge” where West Africa becomes Central Africa, it’s probably the single best introduction to the continent and packs a lot of diversity into a relatively small package.)

Cameroon’s colonial history only adds to this diversity. It was one of the blank spots on the map scooped up by Germany in the 1880s when it got into an imperialist mood. Thus, the colony was organized along German lines and German was the official language. But Germans never got very far into the interior (despite claiming a lot of territory); they stuck to the profitable, accessible coastal regions and relied on missionaries to do a lot of the intermediary stuff with Africans, and they tended to use local languages. When Germany lost control of the colony during World War I, there hadn’t been much cultural influence to clear away (although German remains a favorite language to study there).

Instead, Cameroon became a British AND French colony. It was surrounded by Britain in Nigeria to the west and France in its colonies to the south and east. They invaded together in 1914 and partitioned the colony between them. The trouble is, France got much further than Britain — leaving only a narrow strip along the Nigerian border in British hands. The colonial powers went on to govern their sections differently, too: Britain preferred to use indirect rule, leaving local elites intact and mostly staying out of local affairs, while France liked direct rule, scooping up plantations and mines, creating a rich settler community to manage them and introducing its customs and culture to “civilize” the Cameroonians.

Cameroon

After 1972 Cameroon became the “United Republic of Cameroon,” but the borders have stayed unchanged. Orange = German territory, red = British territory, blue = French territory.

When independence came to Africa in 1960, French Cameroon gained it without much fuss. The question was what to do about the British Cameroons, which were thought too small to be viable independent countries. Should they join neighboring Nigeria, from which they had been basically governed and with which they shared cultural and linguistic ties? Or should they join Cameroon, from which they’d been separated for 44 years and which would probably dominate them? The Brits put it to a vote in 1961, and surprisingly, the result was a split. Northern Cameroons chose to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons went for reunification. (It’s hard to say why this was, but apparently local elites in the north decided that Nigeria would better protect their interests and vice versa in the south, and they managed to convince everyone else to vote accordingly.)

Northern Cameroons was soon absorbed and integrated into Nigeria, although transnational tribal ties linger, as they do across Africa. But Southern Cameroons faced the prospect of joining a much larger country where everyone spoke French and where many were in thrall to French culture. It was nervous, but initially the 2 former colonies formed a federation, where each had its own government and prime minister, with a president presiding over a weak central government in Yaoundé (in the French zone). But Cameroon’s founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, like most other African leaders, eventually came to crave more power and crushed all opposition to his rule. This included pesky West Cameroon, which was fully absorbed into a unitary republic in 1972 (hence the date on the map above).

English-speakers (“Anglophones”) were mollified by constitutional guarantees that their language would be respected; Cameroon is officially bilingual. Anglophones are often appointed as ministers in the national government. The unique administrative structures set up by Britain also remain intact. But Cameroon is a dictatorship; its president, Paul Biya, has clung onto power since 1982, which makes him 1 of what are derisively called Africa’s “dinosaurs” (really long-serving rulers). Threats to his power — or to national unity — are not tolerated.

CURRENT SITUATION
Anglophones complain that they are 2nd-class citizens in their own country. French-speaking (“Francophone”) judges sent to their regions don’t understand British “common” law (France uses a different law code promulgated by Napoleon). Francophone teachers sent to their schools can’t easily communicate with their students. Yaoundé generally ignores the west or takes it for granted, since the region is cloaked by a veil of English.

Some Anglophones go even further and complain that they are actively discriminated against. Government funds are often linked with the tribal ties of the relevant ministers in Africa, and when the national government is dominated by Francophones, that means West Cameroon goes undeveloped. Attending school in the rest of Cameroon or getting a job in the big cities (both of which are Francophone) is hard for Anglophones, since they can’t understand their teachers or coworkers. There is widespread suspicion that, in the name of national unity, the bilingualism drive is really just a way to get all Cameroonians to speak French — something many Anglophones are reluctant to do.

Protests against the government have come and gone in Cameroon; they are usually tied to economic problems (which might say something in itself), and although in 1990 they played a role in getting Biya to liberalize a bit and allow other parties to run in elections, the language situation has not changed much. The latest outbreak of protests began in October with a lawyers’ strike. It then expanded to include teachers and eventually big parts of West Cameroon, to the extent that towns were declared “ghost towns” on Mondays and everyone would go on strike. (Those who dared to go to work faced arson and beatings for breaking the strike.)

The government responded with repression. Police broke up the protests and arrested anyone openly calling for secession (as “Ambazonia”); at least 6 protesters were killed. More deviously, it also pulled the plug on West Cameroon’s Internet. From January until April, the Anglophone areas — already separated from many Cameroonian websites by their language — were cut off from the Internet altogether, partly as punishment, partly to squelch any organized resistance. The west is one of Cameroon’s most economically vibrant regions, dubbed “Silicon Mountain” due to its tech start-ups. The Internet blackout cost it $3 million and forced everyone to keep in touch via texting instead. Anyone needing to use the Internet had to take the day-long journey into the Francophone part of the country on Cameroon’s crummy buses.

So is Cameroon headed for civil war and breakup? Probably not. Secession is very hard to actually achieve in Africa; the last time it happened was in 2011 (South Sudan), and not only was that a rare and remarkable event, but it’s gone REALLY badly since. Even without government repression tying up their organizational efforts, Anglophone groups are very divided. Some want an independent Ambazonia, others want to go back to the “good old days” of federalism, others just want more decentralized government and local autonomy. Within West Cameroon, there are tribal divides and a rivalry between the “Graffi” of the Grasslands in North West Cameroon and the coastal people of the South West. Some are suspicious that talk of secession is just a ploy for Anglophone politicians to grab more power.

Francophones, meanwhile, are not very sympathetic. They make up 80% of the country and think Anglophones are whiny. They point out that other parts of the country are worse off (like the north, which is harried by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram) and comparatively quiescent. Anglophones get plenty of central government positions, including the prime minister’s office, and they tend to be pretty content and pro-Biya once they get them. And as Emmanuel Anyefru points out in “The Refusal to Belong,” Cameroonians have many bonds that cut across linguistic lines. Both Anglophones and Francophones like Cameroon’s catchy makossa music, eat plantains and fufu, drink beer and palm wine, watch Cameroon Radio and Television, and enjoy the formidable national soccer team. A pidgin form of English is also widely understood across the country, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to speak in school or the office.

Cameroon’s experience sheds some light on how important languages are for bringing a country together. A common language — especially a colonial language, since they come from outside and are not ethnically biased within African contexts — can serve to bind wildly different tribes and cultures together. Lacking this, it’s harder to conjure up a sense of national identity. When the linguistic minority is as small as Cameroon’s is, it makes the feeling of victimization and discrimination even more acute. Although it’s by no means a perfect solution (except for the most passionately nationalist, anyway), Canada might be a good model for Cameroon. With a small but fiercely proud Francophone minority overshadowed by an Anglophone majority spanning the continent, Canada is sort of the reverse of Cameroon. But a bilingual national identity is carefully cultivated in Canada, and national politicians are expected to be fluent in both languages.

(Or Cameroon could just try more political liberalization, although dictators usually hate that.)