Burmese support democracy, country’s trajectory but US optimism ebbs over reforms

burmabuddhistterrorTwo years after the United States announced the normalization of diplomatic relations with Myanmar [aka Burma], optimism in Washington over the nation’s embrace of democracy is waning and concern over the plight of minority Muslims is growing, Associated Press reports:

What has been viewed as a foreign policy success story for the Obama administration, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, faces a rocky road ahead as the pace of political reform slows and U.S. congressional criticism intensifies.

While the United States says it remains hopeful the constitution can be amended so Suu Kyi can run, congressional aides say the administration is pessimistic about that happening before the national elections at the end of 2015, a key staging post in Myanmar’s transition from five decades of repressive army rule. Constitutional reforms would also be required to dilute the political power of the military and meet ethnic minority demands for autonomy. The aides weren’t authorized to discuss that matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

burma IRIWhether Burma will become a democracy after parliamentary elections late next year rests not only on the integrity of that vote, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond writes for The Atlantic. “It also depends on what parliament does—or fails to do—to amend blatantly undemocratic provisions in the country’s current constitution,’ he adds.

”But the most pressing concern for the U.S., and the one on which the Obama administration and lawmakers have been most outspoken, is communal violence between majority Buddhists and Muslims, and the rising tide of Buddhist nationalism that many expect to intensify in the run-up to the election,” AP’s Matthew Pennington reports:

The House Foreign Affairs Committee called last week for an end to persecution of stateless Rohingya Muslims in one of the strongest congressional criticisms yet of Myanmar’s reformist government. The committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Ed Royce of California, questioned whether the U.S. should embrace diplomatic reconciliation with Myanmar while human rights deteriorate.

A U.S.-funded poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute [one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy] found that 88 percent of respondents sampled across Myanmar thought things in the country were heading in the right direction, and 57 percent thought their economic situation was going to improve in the coming year. The margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Burma’s troubled transition – democratization or liberalization?

Transitions blogger Min Zin addresses an analysis of one of his recent articles on Burma’s troubled transition by political scientist Jay Ulfelder in Foreign Policy.

Ulfelder argues that it’s premature to say that the current political transition in Burma is “on the wrong track” unless we’ve figured out precisely what the nature of that transition is. He cites O’Donnell and Schmitter’s classic distinction between “liberalization” and “democratization.” Ulfelder believes that what’s happening in Burma more readily fits the liberalization template, and he correspondingly cautions against imposing a wishful democratization narrative on a reality that doesn’t bear the weight of such an assumption.

While Ulfelder insists on the importance of drawing a conceptual and analytical distinction between liberalization, which “involves the expansion of freedoms from arbitrary acts of the state and others,” and democratization, which “entails the expansion of popular consultation and accountability,” I’ve found myself scrutinizing a possible relationship between liberalization and democratization, noting that democracy is one of many possible destinations as a society sets off on the journey away from an authoritarian regime.

I do not at all dispute the important contribution that O’Donnell and Schmitter have made to the transition literature. It’s worth noting that I’ve sometimes characterized Burma’s transition as a liberalization process in some of my previous posts for FP. ….. Although doing my best to avoid political science jargon, what I’ve tried to argue consistently in my articles is that we really do need to take a closer look at the relationship between liberalization and democratization. The empirical evidence that I’ve observed in Burma’s recent political and economic development strongly supports the conclusion that there is no linear or teleological process from liberalization to democratization.


Burma’s transition ‘unraveling at the seams’?

Does a series of recent setbacks mean that Burma’s transition from authoritarian military rule is ‘unraveling at the seams’?

“These setbacks peaked in 2014, beginning with reports in January that a mob of police and Rakhine villagers had massacred up to 49 Rohingyas, including children, Catherine A. Traywick  and John Hudson write for Foreign Policy:

The U.N. called on the government to immediately investigate. But Thein Sein’s office, to the dismay of both human rights groups and U.S. officials, continues to deny that any such event occurred. The following month, the State Department highlighted the plight of the Rohingya in its 2013 human rights report, saying there were “credible reports of extrajudicial killings, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detentions and torture” against the group. The report also noted continued abuses by government soldiers, “including killings, beatings, torture, forced labor, forced relocations, and rapes of members of ethnic groups in Shan, Kachin, Mon, and Karen states.”

Making matters worse, the government in March ousted Doctors Without Borders from Rakhine state, claiming that the humanitarian organization was “biased” toward the Rohingya, a group that Myanmar authorities do not officially recognize. Sentiment against aid workers sympathetic toward Rohingya reached a head on Thursday, when a mob of over 1,000 Buddhists attacked the homes and offices of international aid workers in Rakhine state.

To be sure, the overall changes in Myanmar in the last three years have been impressive, even if grave challenges remain. “Things have improved phenomenally,” said Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing the country’s more vibrant political system, freer press, and gradually thinning ties to China. “But it’s going to take a while,” he added. “We can’t expect [Myanmar] to reach Jeffersonian levels of democracy overnight after 50 years of authoritarian rule.”


Burma: Protecting Human Rights, Increasing Community Engagement

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) announces a Request for Proposals from organizations interested in submitting proposals for projects that promote democracy, human rights and citizen engagement in Burma.

Burma (approximately $890,000 available)

To promote increased democratic and human rights in Burma’s fluid political environment, DRL seeks proposals that improve human rights protections and increase community engagement in democratic and economic decision-making. ….DRL seeks to fund two distinct programs: 1) Empowered and increased citizen engagement in Burma’s economic development, and 2) Building constituencies for religious diversity and tolerance.

1. Empowered and increased citizen engagement in Burma’s economic development (approximately $395,000 available). In the context of increased investment by international financial institutions (IFIs), governments, and the domestic and international private sector corporations, informed and strategic advocacy by Burmese peoples is needed. DRL seeks proposals with activities that will:

a. Assist communities understand and participate in human rights, social, and environmental impact and risk assessment consultation processes, and assist communities track and analyze information so they can hold government and businesses accountable to international standards of responsible business and investment practices.

b. Help economic activists and local communities leverage upcoming political events, such as Burma’s Chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the 2015 Parliamentary elections, to promote inclusive economic development.

c. Assist communities and community advocates to understand the economic forces that influence their communities, for example: international and national trade and investment laws, economic and development and economic transition practices, potential return of refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, land laws, and solutions to the problem of confiscated land.

d. Increase skills needed for informed advocacy on economic issues. Programs should include: skill-building to help communities and activists effectively advocate their positions on economic issues to governments, international media, and private corporations, and how to avail themselves of international mechanisms for redress, remediation, and monitoring. Proposals should discuss the methods of imparting skills to activists and community leaders including a variety of advocacy strategies, tactics, and techniques of strategic non-violent action, meant to increase community involvement on economic development and investment projects in Burma.

2. Building constituencies for religious diversity and tolerance (approximately $495,000 available). DRL seeks proposals that support government officials and local communities with conflict adjudication and resolution tools, and skills to build constituencies in support of a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. DRL seeks proposals with activities that:

a. Support grassroots conflict resolution activities involving civil society, government officials, religious and community leaders, women, and youth in ways that bridge ethnic and religious divides and increase tolerance and acceptance. This could include developing networks of trained conflict resolution specialists to conduct activities in their communities.

b. Work with government officials and local communities to design ways to recognize and alleviate community tension before it escalates into violence, including, but not limited to, communication strategies and skills. Activities could also address the after-effects of communal violence and the rebuilding of social fabric and community institutions.

c. Promote mutual respect through awareness activities meant to increase understanding and acceptance about the diversity of peoples in Burma; this could be at local levels and/or larger national campaign efforts to promote tolerance and respect for all individuals.

d. Develop the capacity of local civil society organizations to document abuses and violence through sound methodology and to subsequently liaise with government authorities to end them. Program activities could include capacity building with organizations on representation and negotiation, skills for local and international media outreach, as well as the use of strategic non-violent action.

For both program areas, competitive proposals will: 1) Foster linkages between civil society organizations and relevant government officials; 2) Foster linkages between activists and communities in the core and peripheral areas of the country, and activists representing a variety of issues; 3) Include a variety of ethnic, national, religious groups, and Burman populations in program activities and leadership opportunities; 4) Incorporate women in training and leadership development; 5) Demonstrate flexibility by discussing how proposed activities can expand or contract under changing political conditions; 6) Prioritize working with a variety of local actors, while identifying how the program will not overwhelm existing absorptive capacity of organizations; 7) Include an output- and outcome-driven program with a strong monitoring and evaluation plan; 8) Outline how your organization will select and vet government officials participating in program activities; and 9) If working in Burma, organizations should discuss how this proposal complements or expands upon existing projects.

Full details.

Peril of bigotry threatens Burma’s transition

With all the dispiriting news about democracy these days, it is easy to lose sight of the promising transitions underway in Tunisia and Myanmar (Burma), says a leading analyst.

Whether Burma will become a democracy after parliamentary elections late next year rests not only on the integrity of that vote, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond writes for The Atlantic:

It also depends on what parliament does—or fails to do—to amend blatantly undemocratic provisions in the country’s current constitution. These give the military a quarter of the seats in parliament (and thus a veto over constitutional reform), control of the powerful National Defense and Security Council, and complete immunity from civilian oversight. They also continue to deny Burma’s minorities (about a third of the population) meaningful devolution of power and resources, and they effectively ban opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from contesting the presidency.

The problem is evident in the case of the besieged Muslim Rohingya minority, which mainly lives in Arakan (Rakhine) state in the west, bordering Bangladesh., who have borne the brunt of violence that has killed an estimated 300 Muslims and displaced a quarter of a million during this transitional period, he writes.

A broader campaign of Buddhist religious bigotry has gained momentum, inflamed by the “969 campaign” of extremist monks and lay followers. The most visible leader of the movement is the Mandalay-based monk Ashin Wirathu (above), who a decade ago was convicted and jailed (and later released) for inciting religious violence.

As a dozen former Nobel Peace laureates urged in an open letter last June, there needs to be “an international, independent investigation of the anti-Muslim violence in Burma,” says Diamond, founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and senior consultant at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy:

It is especially crucial that moral and legal authorities be mobilized within Burma. So far, Catholic Archbishop Charles Bo has been one of the few prominent non-Muslim voices to explicitly defend the dignity and citizenship rights of the Rohingya. …..

Aung San Suu Kyi is a member of parliament whose eloquent commitment to nonviolence has been influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. But Gandhi unequivocally denounced all forms of intolerance. So did Nelson Mandela. If she wants to help deliver her country to the promised land of freedom, Suu Kyi must do the same.


“I learned the same painful lesson in my own Bosnia in the early 90s,” wrote Igor Blazevic, the director of Educational Initiatives, a training program for Burmese activists based in Thailand.

“Ethnic cleansing is never done by the spontaneous violence of a “mob” or by grassroots communities that allegedly hate each other. It is usually the work of well-trained paramilitary groups organized by elements of the security apparatus,” he wrote for Irrawaddy:

With democratization, tense ethnic relations are usually the first skeleton out of the closet. With political opening, the grievances and demands of the suppressed and discriminated groups surface in an open space characterized by a multi-party system, free media and freedom of association. Many of these demands and grievances fuel passionate nationalism which can create a lot of pressure on emerging democratic institutions.

“But there is another type of nationalism that is much more dangerous for emerging democracies,” says Blazevic, a leading member of the World Movement for Democracy.

“In many places, nationalism, sometimes in its extreme form, became the last defense of the previous authoritarian structures.”