By Mohamed Harees –
On 27th April 2018 , a world fatigued by leaders who promote phobias of all forms to divide humanity along racial and religious lines, was treated to some refreshing news for a change from a totally unexpected corner. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un crossed the demilitarized line and stepped into South Korean soil to meet the South Korean President Moon Jae-in. To a gaping millions who watched the ‘surprise’ visit on TV, it was unbelievable. Both leaders, setting aside their historic rivalries resolved to end the Korean war, 65 years after the armistice and also signed an agreement pledging to work towards the “common goal” of denuclearization of the peninsula, They also resolved to help unite families divided between North and South. Some analysts say Kim Jong-un’s visit to South Korea could have been driven by a plan to trade military assets for economic growth. Trump attempted to take all credit although other players/ geopolitical realities were responsible for this to happen. Perhaps, Trump forgot that it was the US which initially divided Korea along arbitrary lines.
For hundreds of years, Korea has been a battleground for competing nations and ideas, but the last century – possibly the darkest in the peninsula’s history – has seen it divided as never before. The legacy of that dark century has left South Korea’s security guaranteed by an American defence treaty, and North Korea tied to a military pact with China in the event of it being attacked. The Korean War (1950-53), which killed at least 2.5 million people, did little to resolve the question of which regime represented the “true” Korea. It did, however, firmly establish the USs as the permanent bête noire of North Korea, as the U.S. military bombed villages, towns and cities across the northern half of the peninsula. Just five days before Japan surrendered, U.S, without consulting any Koreans, arbitrarily decided to cut Korea roughly in half along the 38th parallel of latitude, ensuring that the capital city of Seoul would be in the American section. And so, a rushed decision made by junior US government officials in the heat and confusion of World War II’s final days has resulted in the seemingly permanent creation of two warring neighbours. More than sixty years and millions of lives later, the accidental division of North and South Korea continues to haunt the world, and the 38th parallel remains arguably the tensest border on Earth. The history of thousands of years of Korea as a unified nation will always be a reminder of its’ arbitrary division.
Thus, as optimistic signs emerge of a possible rapport being built between , let alone unification of North and South Korea, this ‘38th Parallel arbitrary line’ should serve as reminder of many such arbitrary lines of division drawn by the Colonial West in the countries colonized by them. Few examples will suffice. It’s another indication of the many ways that colonialism’s complicated legacy is still with us, and still shaping today’s world. Take Middle East as an example. A map marked with a crude chinagraph-pencil in the second decade of the 20th Century shows the ambition – and folly – of the 100-year old British-French plan that helped create the modern-day Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement marked the moment when Europeans drew artificial states and borders on a blank map of the Middle East, with little consideration given to local groups or facts on the ground;
In 1916,Sykes, a British diplomat and Picot, a French lawyer and diplomat were assigned to draft a secret agreement during the First World War, to divide the Ottoman Empire’s vast land mass into British and French spheres of influence. The Sykes-Picot Agreement created the modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman carcass. The new borders ultimately bore little resemblance to the original Sykes-Picot map, but their map is still viewed as the root cause of much that has happened ever since. Sykes-Picot was a mistake, for sure. It was like a forced marriage. It was doomed from the start. It was immoral, because it decided people’s future without asking them. Even the ISIS sought to undo the old borders. After sweeping across Syria and Iraq in 2014, ISIS ‘Caliph’Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced, “This blessed advance will not stop until we hit the last nail in the coffin of the Sykes-Picot conspiracy”. A century after Sykes-Picot, the dual crises have stripped away the veneer of statehood imposed by the Europeans and have exposed the emptiness underneath.
According to Tarek Osman, Presenter: The Making of the Modern Arab World, ‘There were three problems with the geo-political order that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement. First, it was secret without any Arabic knowledge, and it negated the main promise that Britain had made to the Arabs in the 1910s – that if they rebelled against the Ottomans, the fall of that empire would bring them independence. The second problem lay in the tendency to draw straight lines. Sykes-Picot intended to divide the Levant on a sectarian basis. But the thinking behind Sykes-Picot did not translate into practice. That meant the newly created borders did not correspond to the actual sectarian, tribal, or ethnic distinctions on the ground. The third problem was that the state system that was created after the World War One has exacerbated the Arabs’ failure to address the crucial dilemma they have faced over the past century and half – the identity struggle between, on one hand nationalism and secularism, and on the other, Islamism…The wave of Arab uprisings that commenced in 2011 is this generation’s attempt at changing the consequences of the state order that began in the aftermath of World War One.’. However, it will not be fair to lay the full blame on this arbitrary division according to the 1916 Agreement for all ME ills; there is also the militarization of ethnic and religious identities too which explains violence in the Middle East as per analysts.
Another example was how the British drew arbitrary borders in India . Adil Najam, Dean, Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University in an article in ‘The Conversation’ Online Journal describes this quite forcefully. ‘By 1947, the political, social, societal and religious complexities of the Indian subcontinent may have made partition inevitable, but the murderous mayhem that ensued was not. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India could have prevented the mayhem; instead ended up inflaming the conditions that made partition the horror it became. To decide the fate of millions of Indians and draw lines of division on poorly made maps, Mountbatten brought in Cyril Radcliffe, a barrister who had never set foot in India before then, and would never return afterwards. Despite his protestations, Mountbatten gave him just five weeks to complete the job. Working feverishly, Radcliffe completed the partition maps days before the actual partition. Mountbatten, however, decided to keep them secret. On Mountbatten’s orders, the partition maps were kept under lock and key in the vice regal palace in Delhi. They were not to be shared with Indian leaders and administrators until two days after partition. Jaswant Singh, who later served as India’s minister of foreign affairs, defence and finance, writes that at their moment of birth, neither India nor Pakistan “knew where their borders ran, where was that dividing line across which Hindus and Muslims must now separate?” He adds that as feared and predicted, this had “disastrous consequences.” The uncertainty of exactly who would end up where fuelled confusion, wild rumours, and terror as corpses kept piling up’.
Then again ,nowhere does the unfinished business of partition bleed more profusely than in the continuing conflict between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir. Caught between two regional superpowers who are even prepared to kill and die over a lifeless glacier, the original vision of Kashmir’s last maharajah’s seems ever more distant: an independent, neutral, prosperous and stable Kashmir. According to historians , the root of this Kashmir conflict may also be found in the 1947 process by which the British divided its’ subcontinental empire into the independent nations of India and Pakistan. It was Lord Mountbatten who manipulated the process that created the boundary line which separated the two nations and for effectively compelling the princely ruler of Kashmir Maharajah Hari Singh to chose accession to rather than Pakistan, presumably due to Lord Mountbatten’s close connections with Jawaharlal Nehru. On January 1, 1949, the ceasefire negotiated by the UN created the line of division in Kashmir based on factual positions of the security forces of both India and Pakistan and redrawn on few subsequent occasions as well. This border dispute has led both countries to go to war on 3 occasions.
Moving on to another continent, Europe’s arbitrary post-colonial borders too left Africans bunched into countries that don’t represent their heritage, a contradiction that still troubles them today. Africa’s arbitrary borders have done much to foment strife and instability on the continent. Partitioning communities, the argument goes, has led to artificial borders, ethnic struggles, and spurred civil conflict and underdevelopment. Lord Salisbury, the British Prime Minister in 1906, demonstrated this arbitrary and under-informed approach at the signing of the Anglo-French convention on the Nigeria-Niger boundary in 1906, when he said: “We [the British and the French] have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod: we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediments that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” This statement helps us to understand how colonial powers designed artificial African boundaries without knowledge of the land and local communities.
The former Prime Minister Cameron during a visit to Pakistan in 2011 expressed the view ‘Britain is responsible for many of the world’s historic problems, including the conflict in Kashmir between India and Pakistan. However, Daisy Cooper, the director of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, said: “This is typical of the UK’s schizophrenic relationship with former colonies where it is both proud and embarrassed about its past’. In Sri Lanka too, drawing of arbitrary boundaries in designating provinces has created many problems. Sri Lanka is an example of how the unequal distribution of wealth during colonial times, continues to affect ethnic relations even today.
As many historians say, over a hundred new nations were born during the process of de-colonization. Most of these new nations, however, … had not existed at all as nations before colonization, or they had not existed within the post-colonial borders. The practice of drawing arbitrary lines to create nations, favouring one ethnic, religious, racial, or other cultural group over others in colonial society, or of giving them a higher status, helped to promote inter-group rivalries, and often contributed to the unequal distribution of resources. Favoured or privileged groups had access to, or control of, important resources that allowed them to enrich their members, at the expense of others.
Thus ,as we witness the historic moment of the two Koreas resolving to come together, decades after US drew arbitrary lines of divisions between them, it is vital that those wishing to transform or resolve protracted conflict in their societies resulting from such arbitrary colonial action , acknowledge the past, and take into account the effects such past imperialist policies continue to have on today’s post-colonial societies. The colonial powers should not only get involved in global efforts in resolving these contentious issues, but also paying compensation for all the ills these countries have gone through because of their ill-designed strategies. Besides, if arch rivals Koreas can unite , why cannot many other countries particularly in the ME, Africa and South Asia which the colonial powers like British and the French divided along arbitrary lines also resolve amicably their differences?