The ongoing tribal warfare between rebel Hutu fighters and their Tutsi rivals in Burundi exploded last week, leading to the collapse of the democratically-elected coalition government. On Thursday, Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated army staged a violent and successful coup, shattering the uneasy balance between the two ethnic groups in place since the nation’s first democratic elections in 1993. Tutsis and former Burundian leader Pierre Buyoya replaced deposed Hutu President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, dissolved Parliament, banned political parties and ordered the military to punish citizens who oppose the revolt. With the genocide in Rwanda — where more than 1 million people were murdered two years ago in brutish conflicts between the same ethnic groups — a not-so-distant memory, world leaders must support United Nations efforts to save Burundians from savagery.
The U.N., as well as Burundi’s neighbors in Africa, condemned the coup, but the international community’s response to the Tutsi power siege has been mixed. U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali denounced the revolt and called on world leaders to do the same by refusing to recognize Buyoya’s Tutsi-led government. Officials in Washington, meanwhile, tempered the reproach with praise for Buyoya, who some believe may command the authority and respect to bring an end to Burundi’s fierce civil war. Buyoya, in fact, was responsible for arranging the initial elections, quietly relinquishing his position at the top of the Burundi government to a popularly elected Hutu president. Still, a Tutsi-dominated dictatorship can’t possibly resolve the long history of hatred between the factions.
Even the creation of a coalition-run Parliament did little to stifle the battles between Burundi’s Tutsi elite and the Hutus, who comprise almost 85 percent of the nation’s citizens. Burundi’s first president was slain in an attempted coup and the second died in a suspicious plane crash. All the while, ethnic genocide in the beleaguered country has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people during the last three years.
The U.S. State Department’s initial willingness to provide the U.N. with logistical and communications support for an African invasion force must be maintained. Complimenting Buyoya’s complacency in the past grants credibility to his illegitimate claim to power and undermines U.N. efforts to develop a multinational peace intervention plan.
Stability in the region is not possible without intervention. Dictatorial rulers cannot be permitted to conceal themselves behind a cloak of national sovereignty while permitting the systematic annihilation of their own citizens. The U.S. cannot compromise the safety of its own citizens by sending troops to every one of the world’s trouble zones, but our plentiful resources can help foster peace in calamitous regions; passively condemning another Rwandan-like nightmare is not a responsible option. Support for U.N. peace initiatives in Burundi will demonstrate our nation’s commitment to the spread of democracy and underscore our demands for human decency throughout the world.