An Incomplete History of Asia (May 2021)

This May, Tirah have been celebrating Asian History Month and so, in my last assembly before June rolls round it seems appropriate for me to try to share some Asian History with you. The first challenge would be choosing appropriate history, the second is telling it, and the third is drawing from it any kind of conclusion that will be of use to you today. That’s a lot of challenges to face on a Friday morning – wish me luck.

Some of you will be aware of my fascination with board games – some of you, in fact, are joining me on Friday evenings to indulge this fascination in our Diplomacy Society (I actually got sucked into playing last week so if anyone wants to join this evening there’s a rather nicely positioned France you could take over). One of my favourites is called History of the World – and since this covers the whole period since the first human civilisations until the end of the first world war and uses as its board a stylised map of the whole world, it’s quite a good resource for historical inspiration. Moreover, it divides the world into regions, continent-sized spaces in which the history of civilisations unfurl. Unfortunately for me this morning, no fewer than six of these regions are in Asia, and so if I was to try to cover the whole of Asian History I would need to talk about Japan, China, Southeast Asia, India, Eurasia, and the Middle East. There are seven epochs or major time periods to discuss in each region and I fear that the good folk of the Abbey would be kicking us out long before I’d really got started. I shall, therefore, be making some fairly arbitrary choices as to pieces of history to cover and will be reducing a huge amount of complexity to bite-sized chunks in the hope of condensing it to fit the time I have left.

Enough excuses, though, let’s dive boldly in – and if we’re diving boldly then Gengis Khan seems like a good place to start. He was born in about 1158 as a member of a nomadic tribe in northeast Asia. He united several such tribes to form a horde of horsemen with which he mounted a series of conquests that eventually became the largest contiguous empire in history – the Mongols are a very good tribe to get if you’re ever playing History of the World. It’s an impressive achievement – militarily he took advantage of the power of horses for skirmishing and hit-and-run activities and then also learned about siegecraft so that he could conquer the cities that faced him. Administratively he identified that his nomadic kinsmen and generals would not have the understanding to run the cities he conquered and so he recruited and promoted expertise from China and elsewhere. He fought two Chinese dynasties, three kingdoms on the edge of Eastern Europe and an empire called Khwarezmia which was based in what is now Iran. He is credited with bringing the Silk Road under a cohesive administration and so facilitating trade, he encouraged religious tolerance and meritocracy, adopted the Uyghur script as the Mongolian writing system and is seen as the founding father of modern Mongolia.

A quick look at the Khwarezmia campaign: Genghis Khan was fighting in China and had made peace with the Shah of Khwarezmia. He sent a trade delegation, but the Shah, seeing an opportunity, I imagine, humiliated or killed the ambassadors and effectively declared war. Genghis left the Chinese front and brought his troops to the cities of Eastern Kwarazmia: Bukhara, Samarkand, and Urgench. Each of these was successfully besieged and plundered – in practical Mongolian style: what this means is that they enslaved all the skilled artisans – because nomads are short of that kind of thing – and then killed everyone else. It’s difficult to identify exactly how many people were involved but it seems that about 100,000 Mongol soldiers were responsible for the massacre of about 10 million Khwarezmian civilians.

The Mongols were just the most successful, and most murderous, of a series of waves of nomadic people who left central Asia looking for somewhere nicer to settle. The Huns sacked Rome, the Magyars founded Hungary, the Seljuk Turks took over much of the middle east.

Leaving the Mongols behind and moving to one of the few parts of Asia they didn’t reach, I want to have a look at Myanmar, or Burma. We had a lab talk this month on this subject but I think most people there were in Year 13 and I hope that those of you who did attend will not mind me recapping some of the situation. Myanmar has, since 2015, had a fragile democratic government and in November last year there was an election. The government, the national league for democracy (NLD), Aun San Suu Kyi’s party, won a landslide victory, but the opposition, backed by the military, claimed irregularities. Election observers said there were no major irregularities in the voting, but on 1st February this year the military arrested the leaders of the NLD, declared a state of emergency and Min Aung Hlaing was put in charge of a military government. You may not have heard of Min Aung Hlaing, but you probably have heard of the Rohingya Genocide, which is a series of persecutions he has led against the minorities of northwest Myanmar in which 25,000 people have been killed and 700,000 displaced as refugees. Since the beginning of February there have been protests across Myanmar that have been put down by the military and police. About eight-hundred protesters, including 50 children, have been killed. At the moment it seems that the power belongs to the people with guns, and those who can afford to pay them.

Fortunately for us, living so close to Parliament Square, our police are better and more peaceful when it comes to dealing with protests – but don’t let us get too smug because I want to tell you about the Patient Assassin. This is a book by Anita Anand – a true story, brilliantly told – and the eponymous assassin is a man called Udham Singh. In 1919 there were protests in India against the British Empire – which is also very playable in History of the World but is a reminder not to get war games and reality mixed up. The Punjab was a particular focus for protest, and our story takes place in this province, under the governor Michael O’Dwyer, and particularly in the city of Amritsar. Many of the protests were about the limitations of civil liberties – the British military and police responded by arresting, beating, and humiliating both those who were responsible and those who, to their mind, looked like those responsible. This did nothing to calm things down so they passed a law preventing all public gatherings of more than four people on the day of a big festival. As was traditional on this day, people took picnics in family groups to the Jallianwala Bagh – a large public garden or park in Amritsar. The governor pointed out to the army colonel, Reginald Dyer, that the six thousand people there was more than the limit of four and so he took a group of soldiers, blocked the main entrance of the park and started firing rifles – aiming particularly at anyone who was trying to leave through any of the other exits. After about ten minutes they ran out of bullets and left, leaving hundreds of peaceful picnickers dead or dying. It was a shameful event that led to an enquiry in London, to Rabindranath Tagore (the great Bengali poet) returning his knighthood in protest, and to Udham Singh vowing to take revenge on Colonel Dyer and Governor O’Dwyer. For twenty years he plotted and planned – during which Dyer died of a stroke, still not sure whether or not he’d done the right thing. As is observed in The Princess Bride, there’s not a lot of money in the revenge business and Udham Singh had difficulty finding O’Dwyer in order to kill him. Eventually, however, he got his chance. On 1st April 1940, O’Dwyer was speaking at Caxton Hall – about two minutes walk from the school just off Broadway. Udham Singh was there with a pistol, shot and killed him. For this he was arrested for murder, convicted and sentenced to death. He gave a speech of protest against the British Empire in India, which the judge tried to stop and ordered not to be published – Udham Singh responded: "You ask me what I have to say. I am saying it. Because you people are dirty. You do not want to hear from us what you are doing in India.” 

And so to the final piece of Asian History for today – the patch of land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – and I’ve left myself very little time to speak about it, but even if I had a full assembly I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Listen carefully to what I’m saying – this is the biggest challenge of the lot. This is part of the fertile crescent and has had many empires sweep across it – it marks the centre of the History of the World board and is the focus of more dice rolls than anywhere else. In the real world it is the location of the Israel/Palestine conflict and it seems to me that all the problems that have come up anywhere else also come up here – the power of the military, police reacting to protests with violence, fights between different nations over land, the consequences of colonial empire builders, long memories of those who have been wronged. It’s almost impossible to say anything about it without offending somebody and yet we can’t draw breath at Genghis Khan in Bokhara or Min Aung Hlaing in Myanmar or Colonel Dyer in Amritsar and turn our back on civilian deaths in Gaza or Israel. So what can I say? What can I advise you to say? How can we take sides when there isn’t a side we’d want to be on? I’m against an Israeli government that occupies land without giving its people the vote, that drives minorities from their homes, that sends airstrikes against areas packed with civilians; I’m against Palestinian leadership that fire rockets into Jerusalem; I’m against protesters that become rioters and looters; I’m against police that fire their guns to kill and injure when they get scared; I’m against anyone who excuses terrible behaviour because they agree with someone’s principles; I’m against anyone who takes advantage of conflict in the Middle East to bring hate or violence to the UK. I’m in favour of peace, and freedom, and equality, and democracy, but I don’t know how to get there from here – I don’t even know how to disempower the violent and hateful in order to have a meaningful discussion with those that share my principles. And it's worth saying that the consequences of this conflict are not equally shared - it's the people of Gaza that are living without water and electricity and it's them who make up 90% of the casualties. As always in war, it's those who had least to start with that suffer most. I don’t have the answers, but I do want to enable those of you who wish to discuss this intelligently and I do have five points to finish with that I hope you will find useful as you search for the answers yourself.

1. It’s reasonable for people to seek peace and prosperity for themselves and their families – they shouldn’t be blamed for doing that.

2. The current situation does not represent a fair and peaceful and prosperous situation – not even close – it’s not ok.

3. Violence and oppression are the actions of jerks – and there are jerks on both sides.

4. When we blame groups for what individuals have done we make enemies.

5. Learning is Amazing – there is more that we don’t know than we can ever hope to master and to find a win-win outcome for a difficult situation we need to learn and understand the arguments of all the participants – not just those we agree with.