Why Do Former Victims Become New Oppressors?



On 12 November 2018, the Amnesty International withdrew its most prestigious human rights prize from Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s chief of government, accusing her of perpetuating human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim minority. In the past, Suu Kyi was put on house arrest for several years by the military regime in Myanmar. She received numerous awards including 1991 Nobel peace prize for her fight for freedom and democracy. However, after coming to power, she did nothing to stop the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims; in contrast, she legitimized the oppression with her silence. More than seven hundred thousand Muslims had to leave the country since the refugee crisis started in 2015.

In Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was stripped of his mayoral position in Istanbul and put in prison for reciting a poem in 1998. Today, he and his government became one of the most authoritarian governments in Turkish history. After the failed military coup against the government in July 2016, Erdoğan’s government dismissed more than one hundred and fifty thousand people from public jobs including about five thousand academics. He arrested more than fifty thousand people including a leader of a rival political party and hundreds of journalists, seized the assets of thousands of opponents, and forced people to leave the country in miserable conditions.

One would expect that personal experience of being oppressed by a military regime would have made Suu Kyi more compassionate toward other people. However, Suu Kyi repeated a pattern that we see in many other cases in which a former oppressed becomes just another oppressor.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe led a liberation struggle against British colonialism but ended his four-decade tenure with a record of numerous human rights abuses and crimes against humanity.

What makes a former oppressed a new oppressor? Why do personal experiences of being oppressed not translate into a politics of liberation and reconciliation?

Some psychologists such as Paulo Freire say that the oppressed are usually dehumanized by their oppressors, and they consider their own oppression as a process of becoming human. Being an oppressor then is being a “fully human” in the eye of the oppressed.

This explanation says something on the psychological side of the transformation from being oppressed to be an oppressor, but there is also a political dimension of this change.

In societies with large-scale systematic oppression, the actors socialize in politics with a logic of struggle. The new political leaders form an understanding of politics based on the conflict in which they see their role as fighters in getting and keeping privileges. Once they gain power, the new leaders consider themselves as winners and their rivals as losers. They do not see their political opponents as their companions in providing public goods for the country. In contrast, they conceptualize their rivals as enemies trying to take away their “hard-won” privileges. In the logic of this political understanding, the powerful actors seek ways to eliminate their opponents. Political socialization of the actors into a conflict-ridden culture makes the new leaders reinforce the existing system with new actors in power.

Democracy is, of course, about managing political differences. It, of course, creates winners and losers. It, of course, leads to competition. But, at the root, democracy is about reconciliation and compromise. It requires the humanization of the opponent. It should lead one conceptualize the political opponent as a rival, not an enemy. The participants in a democracy are political companions in the pursuit of public good for the society, not the fighters to the death for the interests of their own group.

Very few leaders in transitioning societies saw democracy from this angle. What differentiated these leaders from their counterparts was their ability to empathize with their rivals and their capacity to engage with diverse groups in society. Nelson Mandela was one of those leaders. After several years of struggle to end the white supremacy in South Africa, Mandela did not initiate policies based on revenge although he created mechanisms to heal the pains of the excluded. Mandela created reconciliation forums through which the people of South Africa could heal the wounds of the past without forming new horror stories. Even Mandela was unable to stop the repetition of history after he left power, though. The politics of reconciliation ended in South Africa soon after his departure from political life.

Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia is another leader who chose reconciliation over revenge. His willingness to compromise with the secularists after his Islamist party won the country’s first democratic elections in 2011 saved Tunisia from spiraling into an unstable political environment and put the country into the path of democracy in the wake of the Arab uprisings. What differentiated Ghannouchi from other leaders in the Middle East was his past engagements with people of different ideological backgrounds. He lived abroad for several years and was aware of the philosophy behind the political ideas of his rivals.

A long-lasting solution to prevent former victims to become new oppressors is to increase the forums that bring different groups of people together. The societies that increase the opportunities of knowing one another prepare for a more stable and peaceful future. Those who sow the seeds of division among various groups through either national educational curriculum or their political discourses contribute to a political culture based on division and hatred.

Ramazan Kılınç is an associate professor of political science and director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. @KilincRamazan

Photo Credit: Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

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