Burma needs ‘bottom-up action to match top-down reform’


President Thein Sein’s government top-down reform process has pushed through important initiatives at a rapid pace to open unprecedented political space in Burma, says a leading rights advocate.

“But open political space will not bring meaningful change unless more people throughout the country and in all segments of the society move into this space and start to use it,” said Michael H. Posner (right), Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. The veteran rights advocate will shortly leave the administration to join a new center for business and human rights at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“Making Burma a home for all of its people will require broad, grassroots engagement by the widest possible range of its citizens, from ethnic leaders and bloggers, to lawyers and lawmakers, to factory workers and human rights advocates,” he told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission today:

I’ve just returned from my fourth and final trip there, where I followed up on the President’s visit and on the first-ever bilateral human rights dialogue, held in October in Naypyitaw. That discussion, which covered everything from legal reform to responsible investment to the protection of civilian populations in war zones, featured a Burmese interagency delegation including three ministers, members of the military, opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (left), as well as our own delegation including representatives from the White House, the Pentagon, and several other agencies.

I. Political Prisoners

The official “Political Prisoner Review Committee has the potential to achieve three objectives critical to the country’s democratic transition. First, it can accurately determine the number of remaining political prisoners in detention and prompt their unconditional release. ….Second, the Committee’s consideration of specific cases should give it an opportunity to identify laws that need to be reformed going forward and to make recommendations to that end…..Finally, the Committee has the potential to help advance efforts to provide care and facilitate the reintegration of released prisoners.….

II. Legal Reform

Revision and repeal of flawed laws and regulations is another key area to which the government – both executive and legislative branches – should pay attention in the coming years. In the last two years the parliament has drafted, and the executive has signed, a series of new laws that constitute the first important phase of legal reform. During this period the government has passed laws criminalizing forced labor, legalizing labor unions, and allowing the opposition to run in the April by-elections.

However, a number of other laws remain in place, many are hold-overs from the colonial administration that are inconsistent with international human rights standards. The government has begun to review and revise these laws, for example by repealing two problematic laws last month, one banning public gatherings of more than five people and another banning daily newspapers.

Broadly speaking, these remaining laws fall into three categories: 1) media and “electronics” laws that restrict freedom of expression and the press; 2) laws that are inconsistent with the freedom of association by restricting membership in associations of which the government does not approve; and 3) vaguely defined national security laws that give the government overly broad authority to arbitrarily arrest citizens. While the government has mostly ceased enforcing these laws, reforming outdated legal statutes should be a high priority for the parliament and the executive.

III. Kachin State and Rakhine State Updates

The government has signed ten ceasefire agreements with armed ethnic groups in the past year, including with the Karen National Union with which it had previously been at war for over 60 years. Still, the government’s previously longest running and most stable ceasefire with the Kachin broke down 18 months ago and fighting has intensified in recent months. ……………

We remain concerned about the situation in Rakhine State, which has resulted in more than 100,000 IDPs since violence erupted in June and October. This violence broke out quickly and included attacks on non-Rohingya Muslim communities such as the Kaman, one of the country’s 135 officially- recognized national races. …..

On the religious freedom front we are deeply concerned about reports of continuing human rights and religious freedom violations in the ethnic nationality regions, including reports of sexual violence, the use of churches as military bases by the Burmese army in Kachin State, and coerced religious conversions in Chin state. ……

IV. The Political Economy of a Rights-Respecting Democracy and U.S. Sanctions Policy

….. The military-business nexus is still strong despite recent political reforms. There is still insufficient transparency relating to revenues from natural resource or into where these revenues end up. Some critics allege that the country’s natural wealth, auctioned off to highest bidder, continues to be siphoned to offshore accounts rather than flowing into the national budget. Investment in many natural resources are still controlled and financed by military controlled enterprises, such as the Myanmar Economic Corporation and the Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited or their sub-entities.

Our sanctions remain in place on these entities for this reason. If Burma is to develop the political economy of a modern, rights-respecting democratic state, the government will have to tackle this nexus with the tools of transparency—auditing, public disclosure, and full accountability for corruption. The Government of Burma has committed to join both the Open Government Partnership and the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative, both of which will provide opportunities to enhance transparency and ensure broad based development……….

We also instituted the Reporting Requirements for Responsible Investment, which require U.S. persons making investments over $500,000 to report on their human rights, environmental, labor, and anti-corruption due diligence procedures. Companies without such due diligence procedures in place may nevertheless invest in Burma, provided they report that they do not have these policies in place. Our expectation is that companies that report a lack of adequate human rights policies will face pressure from civil society actors here and in Burma to develop them, and our hope is that companies will develop policies in collaboration with these groups.

Some have argued that these reporting requirements are too onerous and discourage investment, while others argue that they are too permissive and do not providing adequate human rights safeguards. But we’ve also heard from large American companies and members of Burmese and U.S. civil society who strongly support them. Our intention is to strike a balance, guarding against an economic free-for-all that would funnel investment to the military and its companies while still incentivizing responsible investment that contributes to Burma’s economic modernization, job creation, and widely-shared prosperity.

This is an edited extract from today’s testimony.


Beyond Assad: Building a New Syria from the Grassroots

Under exceptionally harsh conditions, various civilian actors are striving to create the foundations of a post-Assad Syria.  Their work encompasses civil society, local governance and service provision, and humanitarian relief efforts.

As the second anniversary of Syria’s uprising approaches, its deepening turmoil and expanding humanitarian crisis underscore the tragic dimensions of the Arab world’s bloodiest uprising. The Assad regime maintains its hold on power, but has retreated from vast swathes of territory, particularly in northern and eastern areas of the country.  In the northern city of Aleppo-mired in a months-long stalemate, it is estimated that 70% of the city is under rebel control.

A diverse panel of activists and experts involved in different realms of Syrian society will discuss their efforts and insights into the challenges and needs on the ground.

The Stimson Center and the Middle East Institute are pleased to co-host a panel discussion on grassroots efforts to begin laying the groundwork for a new Syria.

Syria Beyond Assad: Building a New Syria from the Grassroots

Thursday, March 7, 2013

10:00 a.m.-11:30 a.m.

The Stimson Center

1111 19th Street, 12th Floor
Washington, DC

Please join a timely discussion featuring:

Leila Hilal

Director, Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation

Rafif Jouejati

Director, FREE-Syria, non-profit humanitarian organization devoted to women’s empowerment and English-language spokesperson for the Syrian Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists throughout Syria

Elizabeth O’Bagy

Senior Research Analyst, Institute for the Study of War

Honey al-Sayed

Co-Founder and Board member-ROYA Association For a Better Syria & Radio SouriaLi and Host & Producer-Radio SouriaLi

Mona Yacoubian

Senior Advisor on the Middle East, Stimson Center (Moderator)

To register for this event, click HERE.

Dennis Rodman’s ‘friend for life’ expands North Korea’s gulag

Dennis Rodman, the basketball Hall of Famer, told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, “You have a friend for life,” after an exhibition game in the Hermit State, according to organizers.

Rodman’s trip coincides with the release of a new report, based on satellite-imagery, from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, exposing the regime’s expansion of its notorious gulag network.

Human rights NGO Freedom House sharply criticized Rodman for his expedition.

“History is cluttered with the examples of academics, philosophers, renowned writers, and eminent advocates of humane ideals who have aligned themselves with or apologized for the world’s most despicable tyrants,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research. “Given this context, Dennis Rodman’s choice to pal around with a leader who oversees one massive, countrywide concentration camp is very much in the minor leagues of dictator worship.”

“At minimum, however, Rodman should ponder the fact that he is the product of a free society which allowed him to develop his athletic skills, earn millions of dollars, travel the world, and articulate his often very quirky opinions,” said Puddington. “Those freedoms, and especially the last one, are totally absent under the regime of the man he calls his ‘friend for life.’”



Sudan’s civil society crackdown ‘emboldens hardliners and detractors,’ says US envoy

“In my many travels to Sudan over the years, I have been inspired by the resilience, courage and vision of civil society leaders and activists,” writes Ambassador Princeton N Lyman (left), the US Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan.

“I am impressed by the commitment of these non-partisan Sudanese citizens to advancing the interests of their country through open public consultations on creative proposals to resolve long-standing national problems,” which is why he is especially “concerned that the government has recently been increasingly engaged in a ‘crackdown’ on civil society organizations and leaders,” he writes for Al-Jazeera:

In addition to the recent arrests and closures of NGOs, the government of Sudan has launched a campaign of censorship and reprisal against newspapers critical of the government. This crackdown on civil society, the media and opposition parties worsened last month after the signing of the so-called “New Dawn Charter” between the movements making up the Sudan Revolutionary Front and the non-violent opposition political parties gathered in the National Consensus Forces. The government of Sudan has further arrested six opposition politicians for signing the Charter; five of them remain in arbitrary detention without charge. 

“The UN’s Independent Expert recently expressed his regret over the government of Sudan’s failure to respect the fundamental freedoms of its people,” notes Lyman, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“As my tenure as Special Envoy to Sudan and South Sudan draws to a close, I regret deeply  that peace has not yet been the reward for the people of Sudan who have searched for it so long. It is achievable, however, not by suppression of dissent, but by embracing an open and fruitful dialogue that leads to democracy and inclusiveness for all Sudanese,” he concludes.


Yemen’s Political Transition and Public Attitudes toward the National Dialogue

Photo: Human Rights Watch

The agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for political transition in Yemen calls for a National Dialogue Conference to help the country’s leaders develop consensus for draft constitutional reforms and prepare for elections in 2014.

During the past year, the transition has faced considerable challenges from wrangling among competing political factions to violent activity by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, tribal disputes, and a southern secessionist movement. Later this month, the country’s leaders will finally join together for the start of the National Dialogue Conference in an effort to end gridlock on the country’s stalled political reform process and address worsening economic conditions.

As the country heads into this important dialogue, how does the Yemeni public view the future of the nation and the priorities they want their leaders to address? What are the key points of consensus and disagreement we can expect during the dialogue? How can the United States government support Yemen’s political transition as it seeks to advance other national security interests?

Please join the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Center for American Progress for a joint panel discussion featuring Barbara Bodine, Lecturer and Director of Scholars in the Nation’s Service at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs and former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen; Les Campbell, NDI Senior Associate and Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa who has recently returned from pre-Dialogue discussions in Yemen; and John Moreira, lead consultant for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research who oversaw recent polling in Yemen.

Barbara Bodine, Lecturer and Director of Scholars in the Nation’s Service, Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs at Princeton University; former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen
Les Campbell, Senior Associate and Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, National Democratic Institute
John Moreira, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research

Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

In conjunction with this event, the National Democratic Institute will release a report on public perceptions in Yemen based on new survey results.

March 7, 2013, 12:00pm ET – 1:30pm ET

Space is extremely limited. RSVP required. Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis and not guaranteed.A light lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m.

National Democratic Institute
455 Massachusetts Ave, NW
8th Floor
Washington, DC 20001

RSVP to attend this event

For more information, call 202-682-1611.