Guatemalan K’iche’ were never just helpless victims. Their struggles constructed the state.

Guatemalan K’iche’ were never just helpless victims. Their struggles constructed the state.

Since Bekah and I moved to Guatemala, I’ve been fascinated by the country’s history. From 1954 to 1996, of course, it was rent by perhaps the bloodiest internal armed conflict in the hemisphere. The conflict climaxed in 1981 in the systematic slaughter of indigenous Mayans, a series of crimes the UN has officially designated as genocide.

But to understand the conflict, you have to dig deeper. I just finished reading Greg Grandin’s The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation, which brilliantly dissects the multiple intersecting dichotomies between Mayan and Ladino, rural and urban, caste and class, and local and national that defined Guatemalan history from the prologue of its independence in 1821 to the forced resignation of its first socialist president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.

The conventional dichotomy between the state and the indigenous dominates interpretation of Guatemala’s history. It’s wrong.

To demonstrate this argument, Grandin considers the historical trajectory of the elite K’iche’ of Quetzaltenango (the de facto capital of Guatemala’s western highlands). K’iche’ patriarchs, as a class, carved a niche for themselves as power brokers both between rural K’iche’ and urban Ladinos and local and national leaders. By focusing on their evolving strategies to preserve their power and legitimacy, Grandin re-situates the K’iche’ as performers of their own complex struggles that helped construct the nation, not just pawns in a struggle between state factions.

Constructing the state

During the colonial era, he finds that they developed several major strategies to balance their access to communal indigenous resources, cultural legitimacy, and official authority.

  1. They formed an uneasy compact with non-Mayan rivals (Guatemalan-born Spanish or “Creoles” and, later, “Ladinos”) to exchange administration of indigenous affairs for political and coercive power.
  2. They paradoxically relied on state sanction to underwrite this compact, first from imperial Spain (leading K’iche’ elites to actually resist the Creole independence movement) and subsequently from the national government.
  3. And they articulated a competing nationalistic vision that contradicted the liberal conflation of class and culture by simultaneously insisting on the hereditary content of race (hence the first meaning of the book’s title) and positioning their race as integral to Guatemalan progress, not opposed to it.

Over the course of 19th century, two major historical processes forced K’iche’ patriarchs to continuously refine these strategies. First, in the aftermath of the cholera epidemic of the 1830s, ethnically mixed or mestizo Guatemalans caught between indigenous and Hispanic identies consolidated around a new “Ladino” nationalism that equated cholera’s horrific consequences with Mayan culture. As cultural categories superseded colonial castas, Ladinos developed a new, more virulent racism that blamed Mayans for their failure to assimilate to Hispanic culture and thus obstructing the “progress” of the nation.

Second, by the 1870s, Guatemala had finally discovered its major export crop: coffee. Unlike in neighboring Mexico, where much earlier industrial development had already sufficiently eroded indigenous identities for social conflicts to take place along class lines, Guatemalan coffee capitalism calcified class along ethnic axes. For the next century, rural Mayans became the seasonal slave class of a propertied Ladino elite.

Deconstructing the nation

To resist both Ladino nationalism and particularly brutal agricultural industrialization, urban K’iche’ elites developed new strategies.

  1. They struggled to preserve political power by building on their tradition of circumventing local authorities in direct appeal to the state, trafficking in the ideology and language of modernity to defend their claims to institutional authority.
  2. They fought for economic autonomy by aggressively privatizing communal land and weaving a dense web of debt and patronage with rural K’iche’ campesinos to protect them from the mandamiento labor conscriptions in exchange for upholding traditional economic obligations to their K’iche’ patrones.
  3. Finally, they defended their cultural legitimacy by unionizing in professional guilds, reinforcing ethnic boundaries, and adapting the rhetoric of paternalistic liberalism to emphasize the “regeneration” of the indigenous rather than their “assimilation.” Educational societies, public artworks, and beauty pageants are among the many tools they deployed to articulate an alternative vision of the K’iche’ race as a rich ingredient of national progress, not an obstacle to it.

The government, for its part, leveraged its alliance with the K’iche’ patrones to acquire cultural legitimacy and arrogate power from recalcitrant municipalities. It is thus their simultaneously destructive role in the formation of a universal nationalist identity and constructive role in the formation of the centralized state that is key to understanding the role of K’iche’ elites in Guatemalan history. Grandin eloquently sums up their paradoxical role:

The ability of Quetzalteco K’iche’ elites to play off national and local elites against one another in pursuit of their political and cultural interests strengthened the state and furthered its formation. … Moreover, at the same time as they were using the rhetoric of nationalism and liberalism to check local Ladinos, K’iche’s were developing an alternative vision of progress and the nation that allowed them to make sense of far-reaching social transformations. In doing so, they helped broker the local creation of the liberal state, limiting regionalist aspirations and translating liberal political economy into ethnic terms.

Understanding this contradictory effect is also crucial to understanding elite K’iche’ resistance to the socialist “revolution” from 1944 to 1954 under Arevalo and Arbenz, which threatened the fiction of ethnic uniformity upon which their authority rested by mobilizing the rural lower classes against them. The end of this 10-year “spring,” of course, ushered in more than 40 years of brutal governmental repression (hence the second meaning of the book’s title). Ethnically charged government repression fully homogenized indigenous identities by targeting them as categorically antithetical to the consolidation of state control.

It’s impossible, however, to understand the underlying causes of this conflict without considering, prior to 1944, how the complex alliance between K’iche and the state and the unresolved competition between two nationalisms, the Ladino and the K’iche, laid the groundwork for Guatemala’s national implosion. A prerequisite for re-engaging the project of building a Guatemalan national identity, according to Grandin, is to abandon the rivalry of empty universalisms of ethnicity and nation that culminated in armed conflict in the first place.

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We need another grand bargain with North Korea

We need another grand bargain with North Korea

This article also appeared in The Diplomat and on the EastWest Institute’s blog

On Monday, the Democratic Republic of North Korea lobbed five short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, continuing its series of provocative missile launches that began with alleged nuclear tests on January 6.

Many commentators have interpreted recent North Korean aggression as part of a pattern of provocation to attract international attention, a trend that has led some experts to call for outright regime change. Others augur that the regime will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions, making the Obama administration’s adoption of “strategic patience” the best alternative.

These knee-jerk reactions reflect the Bush-era pattern of slamming the brakes on the possibility of negotiations rather than incrementally managing misbehavior under existing frameworks, only to ignite wildfires of instability (like in Iraq) and return to future bargaining tables with weaker positions (like with North Korea).

They also smack of wishful thinking: predictions of collapse have attended North Korea through two successions of power, famine, and sanctions, and yet the nearly 70-year-old regime still stands. The belief in “collapsism,” as Jong Kun Choi at Yonsei University in Seoul dubs it, leads to strategic postures that demonstrably aggravate North Korean brinkmanship while producing few constructive results.

An alternative interpretation is that, for Kim Jong-un, national prestige is as much about preserving the affluence of his political cadre as it is about the elite status of possessing nuclear weapons, a view supported by his own rhetoric. On this view, he is not flouting international norms despite mounting pressure from all sides—if historical precedent has any relevance, he is likely doing so precisely because he wishes to exchange nuclear concessions with his neighbors and the US for energy, food, and money. This arrangement is exactly what his two predecessors pursued for more than a decade during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

He doesn’t want nukes to bomb San Francisco. He wants them as bargaining chips.

Critics of engagement point to erratic North Korean behavior and past failed deals as evidence that engaging the regime is inevitably fruitless. Yet Clinton’s 1994 Agreed Framework and Bush’s 2005 Six-Party Talks led to concrete successes, like moratoria on plutonium enrichment and ballistic tests. A top official under Clinton claimed they had been “tantalizingly close” to clinching another deal ending the regime’s missile program.

Arguably, North Korean duplicity is not the only reason those attempts ultimately failed. When the US and its allies drag their feet on upholding their end of deals—like waiting five years to build promised reactors or delaying fuel shipments—it regrettably lends credence to North Korean intransigence. And when the regime exhibits appalling misbehavior, the US has historically succumbed to “shattering” deals instead of building on them.

Now that North Korea has explicitly rescinded its signatures to international nuclear nonproliferation agreements and tested four nuclear weapons to date, the challenge is to determine what constellation of conditions can coax the recalcitrant regime into rejoining the Six-Party Talks. It has vehemently refused to do so until the US drops “preconditions” about the renewal of the regime’s denuclearization commitments of 2005. How do you convince a state to hand over what it perceives to be the basis of its survival?

The latest rounds of sanctions from Congress and the UN Security Council make some ground toward making that precondition a de facto reality. And arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis recently argued in Foreign Policy that minor concessions for North Korea’s space launch program—such as agreements that launched rockets will be non-ballistic, liquid-fueled, and “peaceful”—would provide leverage for a potential nuclear deal and, at the very least, be a better alternative to helplessly watching the regime develop a highly sanctions-resistant missile program.

As Michael O’Hanlon at Brookings suggested recently, maybe it’s time to abandon morally pristine policies that are failing and rethink what is realistic. Today, the climactic international pressure incited by North Korea presents an opportunity for the United States to once again kickstart the “engine of denuclearization” by letting Kim opt for quid pro quo concessions over aggression while saving face both at home and abroad. Let him play his nuclear cards, not by blowing them up, but by surrendering them for gradual economic and political normalization. It is not an ideal approach, but it may be the best.

Justice is about more than privacy

Justice is about more than privacy

This article also appeared in Slant as “Apple May Be Fighting For Freedom, But They’re Still A Corporation” and in the EastWest Institute’s blog

The public battle raging between Apple and US law enforcement over access to an encrypted iPhone reveals fault lines in contemporary society between libertarian fundamentalism and an older, more communitarian vision of the balance between freedom, welfare and virtue.

On one side, the human-rights warriors have lined up in defense of what they see as a sacred right to privacy. Last week, Amnesty International, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union publicly stated their support of Apple’s refusal to help the FBI unlock the iPhone of Mr. Syed Farook, one of the alleged shooters in the San Bernardino case.

On the other side, legal experts have insisted that it would amount to malpractice for the FBI to not fully explore Apple’s obligation to technically assist the investigation of a major terrorist case, including ordering that Apple create malware to disable the iPhone’s data self-destruct feature so law enforcement can safely guess the phone’s passcode.

As much as this debate is about the trade-off between encryption and public security, I think the notion that freedom and safety are alternatives misses the point. As a recent Harvard report noted, creating technical vulnerabilities for security officials to exploit also creates inroads for a host of bad actors to steal from and spy on political dissidents, private companies, and innocent civilians. Cybersecurity keeps people safe. It is an unqualified good.

But while Apple’s encryption does improve its customers’ cybersecurity, its intransigence in this case does not. It just thwarts a lawful search. Building software that disables a phone’s self-destruct feature so the FBI can force it open does not amount to building “a backdoor to the iPhone,” as Apple claims. It is complying with a court order to allow law enforcement to effectively convert a post-2014 iPhone into a pre-2014 iPhone. In a democracy, that is called a front door. Apple or Google cannot change centuries of jurisprudence with a software update. 

The tech giant’s position does, however, advance the individual privacy of its users. If US courts uphold Apple’s non-compliance, it is true that the personal information of iPhone owners would remain more inaccessible to third parties (and totally off-limits to legitimate government searches). We would, in fact, have a type of freedom unprecedented in human history.

The question is, are the costs of that freedom worth it? Would you choose to have an unbreakable phone if the cost imposed is that networks of drug traffickers, child predators, and unstable violent offenders could act with vastly improved security? Or that the families of missing or murdered victims never see justice done because of an unknown passcode? Or, more mundanely, that parents could simply no longer monitor their children’s internet consumption?

Simply put, are human beings a set of individuals with inviolable rights to secrecy, or are we a set of families, mosques, businesses, and political communities with interlacing obligations that sometimes override personal privacy?

The question at stake is over the right balance between freedom, welfare and virtue. Societies other than ours have chosen to reduce their orienting principle to one of these constituent elements. Communities in politically Islamic nations, for instance, tend to rank a Quranic conception of virtue above individual liberty. Communist nations have historically demanded welfare above freedom.

At their worst, these fundamentalisms tragically demonstrate their own ethical and intellectual poverty. At their best, they overcome their own reductionism and balance individual and communal life with beauty and vigor.

If we let multi-national corporations recalibrate our social compass for us by deciding that certain freedoms are simply absolutethe way gun manufacturers or Big Tobacco have tried beforewe reduce ourselves and our principles. The debate Apple has inflamed is important, but its outcome could be toxic.

Iran, future ally of the West

Iran, future ally of the West

This article also appeared in Slant News on January 21, 2016 as “Believe It Or Not, Iran Will Soon Be A Western Ally” and the in EastWest Institute’s blog on January 22, 2016. 

On Saturday, Iran began pouring cement into the heart of its nuclear reactors in exchange for economic sanctions relief from the UN, EU, and US. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who has publicly interpreted the nuclear deal as a major step toward Iranian political reform, declared its implementation a “golden page” in Iran’s history on Sunday.

Yet realizing the nuclear Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, while certainly a historic rapprochement between Iran and the international system, leaves plenty to be desired. Iran’s clerical government still prolongs a brutal civil war in Syria by propping up the Assad regime, digs its heels into jihadist footholds in the Levant by funding Hezbollah, and stokes the Arab-Israeli conflict by supporting extremism in order to bolster its regional position.

For optimists, the deal—as well as the release of American hostages and swift resolution of recent American trespassers—are events that may portend a Thermidorian, Soviet-style implosion of the belligerent regime and the flowering of latent democratic longings in Iran’s relatively young population. For pessimists, however, it is just another bargaining chip in Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini’s grand strategy to undermine the Western order imposed on the Muslim world.

The key question, as Washington Institute scholar Mehdi Khalaji has paraphrased Kissinger, is whether Iran will become country or remain a cause. On one level, Iran takes full advantage of its sovereignty as a nation-state in the international system. On another level, Iran openly denounces the premise of national sovereignty itself, even before the UN, and advocates for a theocratic, Islamist world order premised on divine sanction.

Iran’s own domestic politics reflect this dichotomy, with a democratically elected executive forever pitched into competition with the clerical hegemony under the Supreme Leader. The outcome is a dense hive of factional rivalries shifting around an ideologically totalitarian core that rarely represents the interests of its people.

There is merit, however, to interpreting the nuclear deal as a sign of new democratic trajectories. Economic sanctions, a hostile regional landscape, and growing popular resentment may be finally forcing Iran to rebalance its policy calculus away from Islamist ideology and toward its national interest, a tectonic shift that might reverse its hostility to the Westphalian world order. In an astonishing admission in June, 2013, Khamenei acknowledged the legitimacy of political opposition on the basis of Iranian nationalism, not Islamism.

“Some people, for whatever reason, may have no desire to support the Islamic regime,” he confessed, “but they certainly want to support their country.” Two days later, opposition leader Hassan Rouhani won the presidency.

As Brookings scholar Suzanne Maloney suggests, the “one-two punch” of nuclear concessions and the release of American prisoners—bitter pills for Tehran’s conservative hierarchy—indicates the growing power of Iran’s democracy. Despite Khamenei’s constitutional superiority over Rouhani’s office, the nuclear deal may foreshadow the day when Iranian popular demand for accountable governance finally forces religious imperialism to bow to republican impulses.

For now, Iran is arguably one of the Middle East’s most democratically disposed nations. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before Iran, much like China in the 1970s, begins to shed some of its fundamentalist trappings and open to the West. Whatever else it is, the nuclear deal appears to be a step in that direction.

Thoughts on Kissinger’s “World Order”

Thoughts on Kissinger’s “World Order”

This article also appeared in Slant News on January 14, 2016 as “This is the Book Every Serious Presidential Candidate Must Read” and in the EastWest Institute’s blog on January 20. 

On January 6, the DPRK claimed to have conducted its first thermonuclear weapons test, a military exercise that would be its fourth nuclear test since its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. Perhaps ironically, North Korea justified its actions with references to national sovereignty, the central premise of the very Westphalian world order it defies. “This test is a measure for self-defence the DPRK has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country,” the government announced afterward. Yet the ruling family’s Communist trappings obviously contradict the very notion of statehood.

North Korea is not alone, of course. As Kissinger points out in World Order, major nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China repeatedly invoke Westphalian principles in a subterfuge undermining the international system. Russia and China seek to rebuild their historical empires while rhetorically trafficking in the language of raison d’état. Saudi Arabia and Iran foster jihadist projects with civilizational aspirations while fully leveraging their political status as nation-states to do so, whether covertly or overtly.

And, as Kissinger points out, the United States itself paradoxically joins the ranks of Westphalia’s critics. From a US perspective, the genius and success of the Westphalian system—its procedural, almost amoral pluralism—stands quite at odds with the American liberal philosophical inheritance and unique historical experience. The US has struggled from its conception with an ambivalence about world order: which takes precedence, a pluralism of states with divergent political systems or the seemingly self-evident universalism of democracy and human rights? US foreign policy is a pendulum swinging between answers to the dilemma.

This fundamental ambivalence defines the US position in the contemporary open, rules-based international order, of which the US is both the chief architect and great skeptic. G. John Ikenberry at Princeton argues that the US resembles an Hobbesian sovereign with Lockean characteristics—the arbiter of the post-1945 world order because of its power but the world’s champion of freedom because of its history. For Ikenberry’s “liberal Leviathan,” or what Jefferson called the “empire of liberty,” multilateral institutions are indeed instruments for American hegemonic interest. But unlike other empires, the American interest pulses with respect for human dignity. The result is a world order based on a conception of legitimacy forever teetering between national sovereignty and individual freedom.

As North Korea’s test demonstrates, that order is changing. While the post-Soviet unipolar world evolves into a multipolar one with competing centers of gravity, the Western notion of legitimacy—and Western power—no longer dominates the international system. The so-called emerging BRIC nations, the “Asian Tigers,” the Arab Islamic world, and other global regions with little or no philosophically liberal roots pose, at best, alternatives to the American liberal order. At worst, they seek to directly subvert it.

The great political project of the twenty-first century will be, not conquering those systems, but cooperating with them to avert deadly great-power competition and to pursue common goals of security, peace and prosperity. As Kissinger remarks,

A reconstruction of the international system is the ultimate challenge to statesmanship in our time. … The contemporary quest for world order will require a coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various [global] regions, and to relate those regional orders to one another. … The goal of our era must be to achieve that equilibrium while restraining the dogs of war.

Perhaps President Obama’s defense on Tuesday of liberal internationalist achievements, such as the Iranian nuclear deal and TPP, is exactly what the President of the United States of America should be saying. Whoever takes his place next January, the world will be a better place if the myopic strongmen dominating the public debate today take a backseat to wise statesmen who, in the spirit of Kissinger, try to balance competing visions of world order to make the world a safer place.

Human rights advocates cannot call for military intervention

Human rights advocates cannot call for military intervention

As the threats of civil war deepen in central and eastern Africa, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the question of military intervention to stop or prevent mass atrocities looms as large as ever in the public debate. The US-led coalition against ISIL has already conducted more than 9000 airstrikes against the terrorist statelet, the US military is reversing its military drawback from Afghanistan, and the UN has more than 40,000 uniformed peacekeepers in sub-Saharan Africa.

For human rights advocates, these military engagements—which range from peacekeeping to coercive peace enforcement to outright belligerent intervention—present thorny moral quandaries. Can organizations dedicated to peace take sides in an armed conflict? Can they trust that Western governments and intergovernmental organizations will actually wage war (or enforce rule of law) on the global periphery with sufficiently humanitarian goals? Can they ever set atrocity thresholds to trigger such military interventions? Can they responsibly endorse particular military operations over others? Can they realistically anticipate the potential costs and benefits of such interventions? Can they identify the local voices actually representing victims threatened by mass atrocities? Can they really determine that all plausible non-military alternatives have been exhausted?

Answering these questions may be impossible, yet their urgency is irresistible when countless lives hang in the balance. Military intervention, as blunt and unwieldy a cudgel as it is, may in certain circumstances be the only way to bring war criminals to their knees and mass atrocities to a grinding halt. At the same time, such intervention is also almost certain to set in motion a chain of unintended consequences for which human rights NGOs hardly wish to take responsibility, such as counter-ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and anarchic disintegration in Libya.

These theoretical difficulties are virtually insurmountable. In fact, they suggest that the very formulation of the question is wrong. It is not an agonizing dilemma. It is an absurd one.

Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, drove straight to the heart of the problem in an op-ed following the international controversy surrounding Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng in 2012. Human rights advocates are “heroic,” he lauds—but they are also frustratingly difficult. “They moralize. They don’t compromise. They don’t know when to shut up. They don’t see the Big Picture.” His classically realist critique of the human rights movement is worth quoting at length:

But the most expert of these advocates understand (at least when the microphones are off) that America operates in the real world: that our influence over the internal abuses of other countries is limited; that it’s easier to condemn a relatively inconsequential regime than one that provides us with oil or military bases; that humiliating leaders of countries like China may strengthen the hand of hard-liners; that sometimes quiet diplomacy is more effective than a public rebuke.

Keller’s candid assessment illuminates some of the fundamental limits of the modus operandi popular in the human rights community. Naming, shaming, calls for economic and political sanctions, and threats of international criminal prosecution are its traditional tools. These have one element in common: punishment. From embarrassment to outright judicial conviction, leading human rights NGOs seek to curb violations of international human rights and humanitarian law through exclusively punitive advocacy.

Yet a much wider range of measures exist to prevent deadly conflict, some of which involve elements expressly antithetical to the human-rights ethic, such as amnesty for war criminals or economic and political incentives aimed at oppressive governments. Human rights NGOs nearly universally reject any non-punitive measures as forms of acquiescence to oppression.

And military intervention is, by definition, the epitome of punishment. Inherent in their very methodology is a dark logic that compels human rights organizations dedicated to peace to travel down the spectrum of punitive advocacy until they arrive at full-blown war.

The Libya campaign in 2011 demonstrated this paradox with tragic clarity. As many commentators have noted, the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya rapidly morphed from a minimal civilian-protection mission into an outright seven-month campaign for regime change.  Writing in July of that year, journalist David Rieff characterized the Obama administration’s justification for intervention as moralistic posturing that belied its true goals. It was not simply a “humanitarian intervention,” Rieff argued. It was war. And war “is not police work, not armed humanitarianism, not human rights activism with an air force.” NATO’s elected means (ousting Gaddafi) and its purported ends (protecting civilians) were simply incompatible.

Rieff indicates the obvious contradiction at the heart of so-called humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian ends are, in a basic sense, fundamentally at odds with war. War by its nature has certain goals incongruent with the humanitarian goals of saving lives, providing relief, rehabilitating the displaced, and rebuilding institutions. War aims to subdue the enemy by destroying lives and property. Inevitably, pairing such ill-suited means and ends generates absurdities such as killing innocent people, allying with dubious armed rebel groups, destroying infrastructure, violently polarizing political communities, and toppling governments wholesale in the name of “human rights.”

Regardless, it is possible that such measures are sometimes warranted. But if the propensity to support violent intervention is built to such an alarming extent into the DNA of human rights organizations, there is a strong case that they lack the moral credentials to advocate for such interventions at all. For human rights professionals primarily committed to shaming, sanctioning, and prosecuting, using the protection of human life to justify military intervention is inherently disingenuous. Abandoning the bulk of the peacebuilding toolkit a priori on the basis of a punitive methodology ironically forces the sword into the hand of the human rights activist while robbing her of the credibility to wield it.

Genocide in Burundi?

Genocide in Burundi?

This article also appeared in Slant News on December 30, 2015 as “Genocide was just the Beginning of Burundi’s Problems.” 

On Monday this week, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda began hosting peace talks between the Burundian government and opposition forces. The talks follow massive upheavals in Burundi since its Hutu president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would be running for a third term in April on the grounds that his first term was an appointment, not an election. The announcement sparked years of resentment since Nkurunziza’s consolidation of power in 2010, prompting mass protests in April, an attempted coup in May, and an outright rejection of the political system by armed opposition groups.

The peace talks in Entebbe, Uganda are ominous echoes of the negotiations that ended Burundi’s decade-long civil war between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, a deadly conflict that claimed more than 300,000 lives and drove nearly 700,000 refugees into neighboring countries.

But the conflagration in Burundi today is not a renewal of ethnic conflict, and it will not escalate into genocide like it did in 1993. Tragically, it has much deeper roots in the land itself.

The agreements reached by Burundi’s warring parties in Arusha, Tanzania in 2000 led to a new constitution in 2005 that formalized interethnic power-sharing through ethnic quotas. It requires that Hutus and Tutsis split military power evenly, maintain 40% Tutsi presence in the cabinet and legislature, ensure Tutsis one-third of mayoral posts, and uphold an 80% threshold for constitutional amendments to grant Tutsis a de facto veto. In practice, this structure means that Nkurunziza’s party—however authoritarian it is becoming—is, in fact, comprised of both Hutus and Tutsis. The coalition of opposition parties has the same composition. As Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch notes, “it is essentially a political conflict,” not an ethnic one.

The violence thus far reflects this underlying configuration. Since April, an estimated 400 people have died in clashes between armed rebels and security forces. This record contrasts dramatically with the opening months of violence in 1993, when tens of thousands died in neighbor-on-neighbor slaughter. The success of the 2000 Arusha accords is that what would have been an existential, all-or-nothing war between ethnic groups is an essentially political albeit violent competition between polarized political parties. The key is to avoid full-blown civil war between those parties, an outcome that, as US history amply demonstrates, can be just as devastating as genocide.

Unfortunately, in Burundi, the fault lines of civil war have been visible for years. And they are not ethnic—they are demographic and geographical. At 10 million people, Burundi, a country smaller than the state of Maryland, contains more than twice the state’s population. According to the UN, nearly 400 people crowd each square kilometer, one of the highest population densities on the planet. And the nation’s overwhelming density is only growing: the CIA ranks Burundi’s population growth the third fastest in the world, both from high birthrates and floods of returning refugees.

For an essentially agricultural society in which nearly 90 percent of the people depend on property ownership, the growing demand for real estate makes the problem of land distribution, not political competition, the source of Burundi’s deadliest violence. And, as noted by the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, the conflicts are interfamilial as often as they are intercommunal. Nkuruniziza’s government has only exacerbated tensions by failing to compensate refugees for property loss or empower local councils, Bashingantahe, to settle land disputes.

While the government’s approaches to land-claim arbitration remain unjust and scattered, the roots of violence in Burundi divide brothers and spouses as much as they do politicians. Until the nation adopts a comprehensive strategy for reconciling conflicting property claims, the problem of land distribution will remain Burundi’s powderkeg that threatens to mutate political competition into full-blown civil war.