‘It’s not OK’ – Asian women demanding basic rights


Radio Free Asia today unveiled an e-book profiling Asian women under authoritarian rule taking up the fight for human rights.

‘It’s not OK’ collects and presents portraits of these remarkable women, whose often untold stories demonstrate courage under fire, in China, Southeast Asia, and North Korea. The book is available in English for a free download for iPads and tablets. Along with the e-book, RFA is launching a companion website with additional related content.

“Whether fighting for their homes at Boeung Kok Lake, demanding answers in the disappearance of her husband, or making sure her traditions and culture are passed on to younger Tibetans, these women all share one essential quality – an unyielding strength of spirit,” said Libby Liu, President of RFA. “They never sought the fight, but took it up without hesitation the moment they refused to accept injustice and inhumanity.

The e-book also includes multimedia content, including video, graphics, and illustrations, the latter of which were created by the Broadcasting Board of Governor’s Office of Digital & Design Innovation

The women featured in this edition are: from China, Ding Zilin, a Tiananmen mother, and Jiao Xia, the wife of  jailed investigative journalist Qi Chonghuai; from Vietnam, Đ Th Minh Hnh, a young labor activist recently released from jail; from Myanmar, Zin Mar Aung (above), a former political prisoner who helps other recently released prisoners [currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy]; from Cambodia, Yorm Bopha and Tep Vanny, land rights activists; from North Korea, Lee Ae Ran, the first North Korean defector to obtain a doctoral degree who helps other defectors in South Korea; from Laos, Ng Shui Meng, wife of missing Lao activist Sombath Somphone; from China’s Tibetan regions, Rinchen Khandro Choegyal, who supports overseas Tibetans and nuns in India; and from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Patigul Ghulam, who has been jailed several times for demanding information about her son’s whereabouts since he disappeared in July 2009. RFA plans to release a second edition in March 2015 with more profiles and content.

On Wednesday, Dec. 10 from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. ET, the project’s executive producer, Catherine Antoine (@antoinec) and RFA staff, will answer questions about the e-book and the women’s profiles via Twitter (questions should use the hashtag #HerStoryTold).

Ominous return of Myanmar’s military

burma military

During his visit to Myanmar last week, President Obama sounded a word of caution, saying the process of reform was “by no means complete or irreversible,” says a leading analyst.

But now progress has stalled on almost all major issues: power sharing with the opposition, peace talks with armed ethnic groups, Buddhist-Muslim relations, minority rights, media freedom. Progress has stalled because the military is tightening its grip once again, Min Zin writes for The New York Times:

The Tatmadaw, as the armed forces are called, has grown increasingly assertive in recent months, even as the country prepares for a historic general election next year, the first since the military junta’s formal dissolution in 2011. Not only is the Tatmadaw increasingly exercising the expansive prerogatives it gave itself in the 2008 Constitution; it is trying to extend its powers further.

After the authorities exhumed the body of freelance journalist Par Gyi, a former bodyguard of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, allegedly shot while in army custody, images of his mutilated body outraged the general public, confirming suspicions that he had been tortured, Zin adds:

But the episode seems only to have revived the military’s siege mentality. The army is unlikely to allow any civilian court to look into the case; it will rather prosecute its own commanders if necessary to protect the institution’s credibility overall. And under the 2008 Constitution, “in the adjudication of military justice,” the decision of the commander in chief is final.

Submitting to civilian oversight would be risky. A recent report by Harvard Law School names three senior generals in connection with crimes against humanity and war crimes suffered by ethnic Karen between 2005 and 2008. Transitional justice is a threat to the army’s unity, and in the past would have been just the kind of threat to justify a coup.

In “The Democrats’ Opportunity,” an article in the Journal of Democracy, Min Zin and the National Endowment for Democracy’s Brian Joseph analyzed political developments during the military dictatorship.

Min Zin is a contributor to Foreign Policy’s blog Democracy Lab, and serves as a Myanmar expert for think tanks and NGOs like Freedom House.


Obama tries to press Myanmar back on path to democracy



With his historic opening to Myanmar threatened by signs of reversal in the country’s moves toward democracy, Mr. Obama plans to prod President Thein Sein to keep the reform process on track. He will warn the leadership that they need to stop systematic persecution of the Muslim minority in the west of Myanmar, a country also known as Burma, Mark Landler and Thomas Fuller report for The Times.

In the four years since she emerged from house arrest as a world-famous champion of democracy, opposition leader  Aung San Suu Kyi (left), has hesitated to take on many of her country’s biggest issues, critics say, and has failed those who expected a staunch human rights advocate, The Times’s Jane Perlez adds:

She has instead emphasized a general call for rule of law, a critical issue for a country emerging from a half-century of dictatorship but one, they say, that falls short of addressing particular grievances.

Since entering Parliament two years ago, she has been reluctant to speak out about abuses by government forces against civilians in the ethnic conflict in Kachin State, saying both sides were responsible for killings. As chairwoman of a panel investigating land disputes between poor farmers and a copper mining company accused of unfairly taking their land, she sided with the company. Perhaps most surprising of all, she has refused to admonish the government for its harsh policies against the Rohingya Muslim minority, policies that Mr. Obama criticized last week.

“It’s not the political authority of her office people are asking her to wield,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “It is her moral authority. It is her authority as an iconic Nobel Peace Prize winner that she has failed to wield.”

At the Parliamentary Resource Center, a hub for aid organizations, Obama told Suu Kyi and her fellow parliamentarians he was heartened by their determination to move ahead with the transition, AP adds:

He said in some ways, the questions facing Myanmar echo those that Americans have faced, like how to include minorities or prevent institutional discrimination.

“There are times when we’ll offer constructive criticism about a lack of progress,” Obama said. “But our consistent aim and goal will be to see that this transition is completed so that it delivers concrete benefits for the people”

burma ZinMarAungThe timing of Obama’s visit worries Zin Mar Aung (right), a political activist who is now a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Before President Obama’s 2012 visit, we can see some kinds of political liberalizations in our country, for example, like releasing political prisoners,” she says. “But after 2012 up to now, we don’t see any liberalizations. We are very much concerned about the direction of our country,” she told PRI:

Myanmar has long been known for its shocking record on human rights. From 1962 to 2011, a military junta held a firm grasp on power and squashed all dissent. That’s when Burma’s generals imprisoned Zin Mar Aung for 11 years because of her involvement in the country’s pro-democracy movement.  She spent nine years in solitary confinement before she was released when promises for reform were riding high in 2009. 

“[Myanmar's] infrastructure, courts, and permitting remain so disastrous that most U.S. investors, after making initial fact-finding visits to the country, are giving Myanmar a wide berth. Worst of all, Myanmar was never the strategic gem it appeared to be, and expending considerable U.S. diplomatic resources wooing the country took time and money away from other, more important places—a dangerous mistake at a time when the United States is stretched around the world,” writes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Joshua Kurlantzick.

There are at least five reasons for Washington to reconsider its current approach, Zin Mar Aung writes for Irrawaddy:

First, three years after the signing of a ceasefire agreement in 2011, fighting continues in Kachin and Shan States, and the number of internally displaced people grows as new generations are born into camps. Of course, they need urgent humanitarian support, but in the long term, they need real, actionable peace.  Second, the military’s widespread confiscation of land goes unaddressed, while people are arrested simply for taking part in demonstrations against this practice. …. Third, optimism over the loosening of media restrictions is premature. Journalists are still regularly arrested on false criminal charges, and in October, freelance journalist Ko Par Gyi was tortured and killed by the military while reporting from conflict areas in Mon and Karen States. Fourth, in the midst of growing sectarian violence, in which Muslims serve as scapegoats for national issues, President Thein Sein has submitted a controversial anti-interfaith marriage law to parliament. This law targets Buddhist women’s right to self-determination, while the true instigators of communal violence act with impunity. Finally, human rights activists, especially women, face harassment and death threats from ultra-nationalist groups. Appeals to police for legal protection go unanswered.



Myanmar is in the midst of changes unparalleled in our history and needs the rest of the world to appreciate the complexity of the challenges that the Burmese government faces, says U Soe Thane, a minister in the office of the president of Myanmar. We live in the shadow of our past, he writes for The New York Times….

— a past shaped by colonial occupation and military dictatorships, and by our unique geography between Asia’s giant civilizations of India and China, a geography that must be carefully managed. We suffer from extremely limited institutional capacity and even more from the mind-sets and mentalities that emerged under isolation and authoritarian rule. These are things that cannot change overnight.

Ms. Suu Kyi is waging a battle against a provision in the Constitution that disqualifies her from running for president because her two sons hold British passports, The Times adds:

Her party, the National League for Democracy, is fighting a related campaign to strip the military of its current veto power over constitutional amendments….Administration officials said they view the elections as the key benchmark for judging Myanmar’s reform process.


Myanmar ‘backsliding’ on reforms, says Obama

burma wsjA growing political battle over Myanmar’s transition from military rule threatens to overshadow President Barack Obama’s second visit to a country once cast as a rare administration foreign policy success, the Financial Times reports:

Divisions in Washington over whether the quasi-civilian government is committed to reforms ahead of elections due next year are complicating Mr Obama’s efforts to win influence in a country that has strong historical ties with China. Also at stake is the fate of continuing US sanctions on high-profile Myanmar individuals, companies and commodities, as well as the prospects for US businesses that have so far largely stayed away because of fears about those laws and the country’s uncertain politics.

“The White House is trying to support continued reform in a country that had cloistered itself for nearly four and a half decades,” said Stephen Morrison from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But there’s a real push from Senate and House legislators on human rights and democracy, so the president will have to address this.”

 Human rights advocates, aid workers and some in Congress say they are concerned that the U.S. drive for strategic and economic partnerships has taken priority over demands for governments to respect free speech and safeguard religious and ethnic minorities, The Washington Post reports:

In a written interview with the Burma news outlet Irrawaddy [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy], Obama acknowledged some of the setbacks, including the murder of a journalist and the mistreatment of the Rohingya.

“One of the main messages that I’ll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected,” Obama said.

“I’ve always been clear-eyed about how difficult this transition would be,” Obama said. “But as president, I’m determined that the United States will remain a partner with those who seek greater freedom, prosperity and dignity.”

Matthew Smith, executive director of a watchdog group called Fortify Rights, is one of several in the region who say the administration has oversold Myanmar’s democratic transition.

“The clean narrative of a military dictatorship going through a bloodless transition to a civilian democracy is just not accurate,” Smith said. “That is not what we are seeing on the ground. That is not the reality that Myanmar citizens are experiencing.”

Michael Green, an Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the White House put reforms in Myanmar “on the scoreboard and they dropped it and now they’re scrambling,” he told AP:

For Obama, the pursuit of democracy in Myanmar has become a centerpiece of his efforts to deepen U.S. engagement in Asia. In 2012, he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country, a daylong stop that included an emotional meeting with Suu Kyi at the residence where she spent more than a decade under house arrest. The president’s advisers still recall the thick crowds that lined the streets to watch Obama’s motorcade speed through the streets, defying rules that had limited large public gatherings.

“The United States can best move forward by engagement,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “If we disengage, frankly I think that there’s a vacuum that could potentially be filled by bad actors.”

How do you say ‘gridlock’ in Burmese?

burma Aung-Thaung1.jpg.pagespeed.ce.ZOYTzeVa4uPresident Obama is arriving in Burma amid a crisis in the country’s democratic transition, notes analyst Larry Jagan.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who leads Burma’s opposition, last week said the country’s transition to democracy has “stalled.” She didn’t specify who was responsible for the failure to push through advertised reforms. But many of her compatriots didn’t find it hard to imagine whom she had in mind, he writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

President Thein Sein, the ex-general who launched the country’s liberalization process four years ago, is increasingly under fire for his inability to deliver on promises of change. Just before U.S. President Barack Obama and regional leaders arrive for a major summit, Burma faces a deepening political crisis that raises fundamental questions about its future stability.

Activists say that, despite the outward appearance of liberalization, well-entrenched elements of the old military junta continue to exercise considerable power. Civil society groups complain of rampant illegal land seizures and widespread violation of basic rights. Last month saw the arrest of five journalists, while another recently died in custody.

In the meantime, there is a continuing power struggle within the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) over Thein Sein’s successor, Jagan adds:

Two key candidates have emerged: Shwe Mann, the parliamentary powerbroker, who, as party chairman, also controls the USDP apparatus; and the current army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, who reportedly continues to count on the support of the military (and, behind the scenes, Than Shwe, the former junta leader, who gave way to Thein Sein in 2011).

“My greatest fear is that the 2015 elections will be postponed, perhaps indefinitely,” said a businessman who has close contacts with the current regime as well as with the family of Than Shwe.