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Burundi: Yet Another Ethnic Tragedy?

Rwanda and Burundi (Click on map for larger image)

The military coup that took place in Burundi on Thursday, July 25 is a reminder of the terrible power of ethnic hatred, not only in Africa but around the globe. Scarcely two years after the bloody civil war in neighboring Rwanda and less than two weeks after the most recent bombing in Northern Ireland, the conflict in Burundi between Hutus and Tutsis threatens to become the world's worst current war.

The coup, driven by the Tutsi-controlled army, overturned a delicately balanced government that had been built around the presidency of Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a Hutu, and the prime ministership of Antoine Nduwayo, a Tutsi. The new Tutsi president, Pierre Buyoya, has suspended parliament; the former president, Mr. Ntibantunganya, has taken refuge in the U.S. Embassy.

Although Hutus outnumber Tutsis in Burundi by approximately six to one, the Tutsis have dominated the 20,000-strong army, which in recent weeks has operated beyond the government's control. More than 150,000 people have already died in the growing conflict since 1993, and the face-off between the heavily armed Tutsis and the far more numerous Hutus could spell disaster on a massive scale, rivaling or surpassing that which has already taken place -- again between Hutus and Tutsis -- in neighboring Rwanda.

So Much Ethnic Strife

One generation ago, leading American political scientists believed that the dominant global trend was toward greater amalgamation of political cultures. As the world grew smaller because of mass communications technology, it was hypothesized that local and regional particularities would diminish and the advantages of political consolidation would eventually overwhelm parochial loyalties.

It hasn't happened that way. The European Union (EU) has made some strides forward in uniting the once-hostile cultures of Western Europe, but even the EU model has run into snags en route to its dream of a continent without borders. Right on the edges of the EU -- and even within its own territories -- the pull of local, ethnic, and religious identities has proved to be a persistently mighty force. Think of Northern Ireland. Think of Bosnia. Think, even, of the "velvet divorce" between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, only three years following the triumph of the "velvet revolution" in what we used to call Czechoslovakia.

And think of the lingering racial and ethnic conflicts in North America: the burnings of African-American churches; the squabbling between francophones and anglophones in Quebec; the struggle of Native Americans for their dignity and the preservation of lands sacred to them.

It is more than obvious that the political-development paradigm of the previous generation, which contained within itself an implicit optimism about the common interest of mankind, missed the mark by several continents. Our task, as we head into the twenty-first century, is to rethink the human paradigm. How can we take our apparent, persisting need to identify with cultural symbols close to home, and turn that need into a positive global perspective which recognizes the stake we all have in living together on the same, fragile planet?


Try these top-ranking Magellan sites for keeping up with news events around the world:

For background information on the growing crisis in Burundi, put together by a group of students at Earlham College last spring, take a look at the Burundi Home Page.

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Posted July, 1996.
© Copyright 1996 OBS