Schism / by Alice Su

I wrote this explainer for IRIN on how Kiir's splitting South Sudan into 28 new states, largely along tribal lines, is politicizing ethnic identity and exacerbating civil conflict.

This week I'm in Beijing, finishing up finals while thinking about Orlando, Jo Cox and too many instances of death on top of death. Tribal conflict in South Sudan seems distant and obscure, but then again it's not: so much violence and vitriol is coming from our inability to coexist with those we see as "not us." We want our tribe first. We don't want our values challenged. We dehumanize refugees or Muslims or LGBTQ people or we dehumanize those that we label bigots at the opposite end of the political spectrum. All this friction is setting us on fire. The answer can only be a) learn to live together, or b) split into groups, separated by tribe, color, religion, country, etc - I have my space, you have yours, and we don't cross each other's borders.

It's increasingly clear to me, especially after reporting this piece, that the second option isn't going to work. South Sudan's president is drawing circles and borders around tribal majorities. Some think this is good because now their tribe will have representation and power. But the borders are unclear, many tribes are mixed, and dividing land has created sides, disputes and mutual killing among people who once shared.

I can't stop thinking about two things: first, that forming exclusivist states along ethnic/tribal/racial/religious lines only worsens conflict; and second, political powers are often manipulating these identities for their own interests. As one South Sudanese activist told me, "[Politicians] used tribal identity in the same way they used sexual violence, as a weapon of war." Identity is not the problem. The problem is exploitation of identity so that you cannot see or hear the Other, so that you hate him, so that self-righteousness morphs into tribal supremacy and you forget that the Other is human as well. This is a political maneuver that is as hateful and wrong as sexual violence, and perhaps even more sinister because it's couched in self-victimization and pride. I am so sad that we're letting this happen, not only in South Sudan but across the world, East and West, Muslim and Christian, right and left wing, establishment and "not." I wish we could listen, and insist on crossing borders and sharing land, and guard each other against manipulation instead.