Romney's self-esteem issues

Every time there's a big win, the Republican frontrunner counterbalances it with self-inflicted woun

One step forward, two steps back -- that's the Mitt Romney way. The runner-up to the 2008 nomination looks like he's going to be the belle of the ball this year with the endorsements (or just kind words) from a passel of heavies in the Republican Party, including former President George H.W. Bush and Mark Rubio, the Senator from Florida and darling of the Tea Party who is rumored to be gunning for a tap as VP.

Romney's opponents are falling by the wayside, too. Newt Gingrich's staff has quit. He's in hock for a cool million. His billionaire backer says he can't win. Rick Santorum, not long after suggesting -- by accident, but still -- that voting for President Obama would be better than voting for Romney, is finally watering down his bile. He's campaigning on the cheap, he's polling behind Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania, and besides, he needs to avoid looking like a spoiler. And Ron Paul ... well, most of us forgot he was running.

Even as he lost to Santorum in the last primary in Louisiana, Romney was winning, and will win ultimately. The rest of the primary season -- in big states like New York, Wisconsin and California -- look more like gravy. And that was to be expected. Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland and other books on conservative political history, has said for all the drama of the nomination, its ending has been predictable. Democrats fall in love with candidates, Perlstein said, while Republicans fall in line. Forget about insurrections -- much less the laughable notion of class warfare! -- within the GOP. Romney was the second in line in 2008. To the Republican Party bosses, that makes him the Anointed One.

But remember those two steps back? Even as Romney was finally getting made, he was getting played -- by Mitt Romney. During a conference call with Wisconsin supporters, Romney recalled a funny story about his dad, George Romney, the head of American Motors, closing a plant in Michigan:

"Now later he decided to run for governor of Michigan, and so you can imagine that having closed the factory and moved all the production to Wisconsin was a very sensitive issue to him, for his campaign," explained Romney, who described a subsequent campaign parade in which the school band marching with his father knew how to play Wisconsin's fight song, but not Michigan's.

"Every time they would start playing 'On Wisconsin, On Wisconsin,' my dad's political people would jump up and down and try to get them to stop, because they didn't want people in Michigan to be reminded that my dad had moved production to Wisconsin," said Romney, laughing.

You'll notice a pattern. Romney seems to have a self-esteem issue; every time there's a big win -- in delegates or endorsements -- Romney and his people have to counterbalance that with self-inflicted wounds. Recall the poor people statement after Florida and the Etch-a-Sketch statement after Illinois. Now, Romney chuckles reminiscing about Dad the Job-Killer.

Perhaps this was also to be expected. George Romney wanted to be president and he, too, had a way of making an art out of self-sabotage. Romney was a popular and highly respected politician and businessman (his face was on the cover of Time; he championed automotive fuel-efficiency in the 1950s). But the principal issue of the 1968 election was Vietnam. In The Boys on the Bus, his classic study of electoral politics and the press, Timothy Crouse wrote that Romney was the kind of candidate ideal for arousing the pack mentality of campaign reporters.

The more they hounded him with questions about Vietnam, the more flustered Romney became, and the more flustered he became, the more savagely the press treated him. Their animosity reached its zenith when Romney returned from a trip to Indo-China and said that he experienced "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam."

What he meant was that the American military tried to snow him with propaganda, but his eyes were telling a different story, and our misadventure there was doomed. Even so, the press stopped listening after "brainwashing." One is tempted to blame the media for blowing up a small thing, but one is also tempted to blame the candidate for disrespecting the myopia and narcissism endemic to American political journalism.

"The 'brainwashing' remark encapsulated all of Romney's ineptness in one easily remembered word," Crouse wrote, "and it finished off his chances."

As November draws near, you can imagine what's going to happen. We live in a post-Citizens United world. The airwaves will be filled with Romney gaffes, innocently intended, brutally exploited. History indeed repeats itself, but for Romney, that might go double.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Photo: Poppy McPherson
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“We have lost our birth place”: the long, slow persecution of the Rohingya Muslims

Mohammed Ilias was a school teacher. Then the government dismissed Muslims from their posts. 

The first time the Myanmar army came to his door to ask about the militants, in early August, Mohammed Ilias, a softly-spoken Rohingya teacher in his mid-forties, invited them in. “My little child welcomed them into the house,” he said. “They said: ‘The teacher’s child is very good. Very nice. He’s welcoming us! How well-behaved he is!’”

Maybe it was the kindness of his son. Maybe it was luck. But that day, Ilias wasn’t among the hundreds he said were rounded up in the village of Doe Tan in Maungdaw township, for interrogation about the new Rohingya insurgency. “At least 400 of them they took to the schools and tortured very badly,” he said.

The next time the soldiers came to Doe Tan, they were on a rampage. Insurgents calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had attacked dozens of police posts two days earlier, on 25 August. In response, homes were set alight and shots fired indiscriminately, Ilias said.

His eyes welled up with tears. “In that gunfire, one of my elder sisters – 75 years old – died in her home,” he said. “I decided: ‘They killed my sister. They may kill us.’” That day, he left the village with his wife and six children, carrying only a piece of plastic to use as shelter on the road.

The chaos that has engulfed Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state over the past three weeks, pushing an estimated 400,000 people into neighbouring Bangladesh, has awoken the world to the plight of Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority estimated to number around one million.

Soldiers and Rakhine Buddhists are accused of slaughtering civilians and razing villages in a campaign of indiscriminate violence, terrifying in its intensity. But to Rohingya like Ilias, this is the culmination of a lifetime of persecution. It is only the latest brutal chapter in a story of oppression that has deprived an entire people of freedom, education and opportunities over the course of generations.

“They have been torturing us for years,” say many of the Rohingya now living in makeshift camps in Bangladesh. The events of August were the final straw.

In the muddy, cramped camp outside the port town of Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi fishing port close to Myanmar, where many of the Rohingya have sought refuge, Ilias sat with his hands folded on his lap. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a brown checked longyi, the sarong worn by Burmese men. “My name is Mohammed Ilias. I am 46,” he said quietly, beginning his story.

He was born in 1972 to a well-known and respected family, he said. His grandfather, Abdul Aziz, was an influential local leader who had been decorated by the British for fighting alongside them in World War II. During the colonial era, the British had encouraged migration into Rakhine from neighbouring Bengal, supplementing the existing Muslim population.

At the time of Myanmar’s independence, in 1948, the first Prime Minister, U Nu, recognized the Rohingya as an ethnic group. Families who had lived in the country for at least two generations could apply for a green card granting them full citizenship. Abdul Aziz was among them. “My grandfather had a card which was green,” said Ilias. “Green like the colour of leaves.”

But in 1962, Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup and introduced sweeping new rules governing national identity. The 1982 Citizenship Act, which excludes Rohingya from a set of accepted races, effectively rendered them stateless.

The junta began issuing Rohingya with temporary registration certificates, or “white cards” that made them “residents” rather than citizens. “My family had so much status, so much honour,” said Ilias. “My grandfather was like a king. He helped the British. He got a green card from the Myanmar government, so why would we take the white card?”

Before Ilias’s father died, when his son was still small, he expressed a wish that at least one of his children follow in his footsteps. But it was becoming more difficult for Rohingya to access decent jobs. They were barred from higher education. “He told my sister: ‘Somehow, please make a teacher from my family,’” Ilias recalled.

Ilias couldn’t go to university, but he managed to get a job at a state-run school, teaching maths and science. It didn’t last long. “After that Myanmar decided not to take Muslim teachers,” he said. “They forced us to resign and took lots of Rakhine people into the schools for teaching.”

He continued teaching informally, he said, sometimes taking payment from parents but more often working for free. But few Rohingya in the village could see the benefits of sending their children for an education rather than to work as farmers or labourers, he said. “Our children were getting an education but they can’t do anything,” said Ilias. “They can’t get a government job. If you are an educated man, but you can’t do anything to earn money, how can you cover the expenses for your family?”

To make ends meet, Ilias ran a small shop in the village. But getting supplies required hiring Rakhines to bring them. Even farmers relied on Rakhines to bring fertiliser for their fields. Relations between the two communities had been tense for years but worsened dramatically after outbreaks of communal violence in 2012.

And then, in 2015, voting rights for Rohingya were withdrawn ahead of the anticipated election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won a landslide victory. But it was quickly apparent that advocating for Rohingya was not on her agenda. In late 2016, ARSA militants launched their first attack on police posts.

The ensuing months in northern Rakhine, the center of the new insurgency, were fraught. Imams – accused of lending religious legitimacy to the violence – and community leaders like Ilias were suspect.

In early August, the military called a meeting with educated Rohingya in Doe Tan, Ilias said. They were told to sign a paper promising the tackle the insurgency. “It was a paper given by the military, like a peace contract,” he said.

But the militants attacked again on 25 August and soldiers were soon back in Ilias’s house. They saw bottles of medicine – used to stock his shop, he said – and accused him of treating ARSA fighters. “You are not a teacher, you are a doctor for ARSA,” they told him.

“There were four or five of them,” recalled Ilias. “They pushed me to the ground, then with the pliers they took away my nails. They beat me with a bamboo stick.” 

He was saved when a commander recognised him and reprimanded the soldiers. “I saw you, you are a teacher in the school, you are not a bad man,” Ilias recalled the commander saying. “He was just trying to convince me to give information about ARSA. But actually I don’t know about ARSA. How can I give him any information without knowing?”

After fleeing the village, leaving behind the body of his sister Basuma, who he described as a pious and well-liked widow, Ilias heard the whole area had been looted and razed. “The wealth was gone, the houses empty, no people... Then they started to burn from the outside part of the village. They were burning our houses for three days at least,” he said.

The United Nations’ top human rights official has called the recent violence a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Myanmar's de facto leader, Aung San Auu Kyi, on the other hand, has attracted international condemnation for failing to speak out. She decided not to attend the UN General Assembly this week, and has limited her comments to saying she felt “deeply” for the suffering of “all people” in the conflict. 

“You start systematically weakening a maligned group in order to make their existence either so fragile that they leave of their own accord, or to ensure they fail to put up much of a struggle when a military operation such as this gets underway,” said Francis Wade, author of Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’.

Like many Rohingya, Ilias spent years finding ways to work within a system that ground him down. Now in Bangladesh, which has reluctantly accepted the new arrivals but has said it plans to keep them in camps, he is staring into an uncertain future (he was photographed for this article, but from behind, as he did not want to show his face for fear of retribution). “We have lost our homeland. Our birth place,” he said. “We are now here in Bangladesh but we don’t want to make any trouble. We don’t want to be destroyed, like waste.”

Poppy McPherson is a freelance journalist reporting on South East Asia, mainly Myanmar