The ‘pivot’ and Southeast Asia’s democratic regression

asiaCFRdemocraticregression_lrgThis past week’s serious challenges to democracy in Indonesia, on the heels of what had been a successful presidential election in July, should serve as a reminder that, while the region has made strides since the 1980s and early 1990s, democracy is far from entrenched in Southeast Asia, notes Council on Foreign Relations Asia analyst  Joshua Kurlantzick.

Retrograde forces, like the coalition of politicians allied with Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, continue to stand in the way of democratic reforms. In some Southeast Asian nations, such as Thailand and Malaysia, anti-democratic forces have been highly successful in reversing progress toward democratization. Malaysia has regressed from the cusp of democratization to a more repressive state, and one in which unelected sultans, many of them totally unfit for leadership, are again wielding major political power.

Thailand, which in the 1990s was considered one of the success stories of democratization throughout the developing world, now is run by a coup government building a cult of personality around coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha and implementing as draconian laws as the brutal Thai regimes of the 1950s and early 1960s. (Tyrell Haberkorn of Australian National University has written incisively about how the current Thai junta has copied many of the methods and laws of the 1950s- and 1960s-era juntas.) Myanmar has regressed from the reforms of 2012 and 2013, while Vietnam has continued to crack down harshly on dissent, following four years of intense crackdowns. This week in Hong Kong, where nearly all public demonstrations have for decades gone on peacefully, security forces unleashed a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

What role does the U.S. pivot to Asia, which has been more effectively implemented in Southeast Asia than in the rest of the region, play in this democratic regression in Southeast Asia? Has it played any role at all? I am currently in the midst of research on the pivot and I have some conclusions—I do think the Obama administration’s engagement with Southeast Asia, though in some ways positive, has facilitated democratic regression. It is of course not the sole factor responsible for democratic regression in the region, but it has played a role.

How so? ……….


Continuing abuses threaten Burma’s transition, says ICTJ report


burmaMyanmar-Report-2014-En-CoverContinuing political repression, cronyism, and ongoing conflicts are disrupting attempts to put Myanmar on a linear path to democracy, peace, and development, says a new report from the International Center for Transitional Justice.

The spread of anti-Muslim violence to Mandalay and the recent harsh sentencing of some journalists show that Myanmar’s transformation into a prosperous, functioning democracy is still far from guaranteed. According to the 28-page report, “Navigating Paths to Justice in Myanmar’s Transition,” dealing with current and historical abuses is essential to achieving genuine progress on peacebuilding and economic development in the country.

“Myanmar’s transition has not yet taken root,” says Patrick Pierce, co-author of the report. “The military still wields significant political power and influence. The continuing dominant role of former generals and business cronies comes with a reluctance to address both ongoing and past violations.”

Conflict and high levels of political repression have racked Myanmar for more than 60 years, during which time state-sponsored human rights violations were routine. Attempting to defeat ethnic armed groups and any form of political opposition, Burmese security forces killed, tortured, imprisoned, and displaced thousands in the country.

Both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have repeatedly highlighted rule of law and good governance as priorities for Myanmar alongside the development of a modern market economy and democracy.

After three years of reforms, initial steps are being taken to hold government and elites more accountable. Parliamentary investigations are being held into land confiscations, the government created a national human rights commission, and the president’s office has started efforts to investigate allegations of government corruption.

Yet high levels of mistrust and skepticism regarding the genuineness of reforms persist in some areas, particularly Kachin State, where renewed conflict has displaced over 100,000 people.

The ICTJ report provides concrete recommendations to development and reform actors on how to incorporate transitional justice into their programmatic tools. For example, it calls for reparations programs that would reduce the vulnerability and social stigmatization of certain groups, including former child soldiers and victims of gender-based violence.

“Donors and policy makers have made important commitments to support development and democratic reforms in Myanmar,” says Anna Myriam Roccatello, Deputy Program Director for ICTJ. “It’s time to link these more firmly with commitments from the government to uphold the rights of victims.


‘Liberalization is over’? Efforts to promote democracy in Burma hit hurdles

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President Obama recently singled out Burma as a U.S. foreign policy victory — a country that had emerged from decades of military rule and turned toward the West, thanks in part to American diplomacy, Annie Gowen and David Nakamuira report for the Washington Post:

But two years after Obama made a historic visit to the Southeast Asian nation, the achievement is in jeopardy. Burma’s government has cracked down on the media. The parliament is considering laws that could restrict religious freedom. And revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Obama to her home in 2012, remains constitutionally barred from running for president as the country heads into a pivotal election next year.

“As far as Burma’s come in the last three years, they’re getting to the really hard stuff now,” said Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. “That’s why there are some acute problems and legitimate fears about prospects for full success.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party (NLD), today condemned the recent circulation of a fake NLD statement about last week’s riots in Mandalay as a political attack on her party, Democratic Voice of Burma reports:

Suu Kyi reiterated the importance of containing the violence to prevent it from spreading further. However, she hypothesised that the unrest could have been staged to cause problems for her party. “The NLD usually does not comment on such incidents but we tried to be impartial on both sides to prevent further problems,” Suu Kyi said. “We released a statement this time with concern for all parties, and immediately after, someone released the fake version.”

“We don’t know who did this but we assume it is a political attack,” she said. “Using religious issues for political gain is against the Constitution and also unethical.”

“Liberalization is over,” said Daw Zin Mar Aung, a woman’s rights activist who has received death threats for her opposition to the bills. “Why would the president submit such radical laws?” she told the New York Times:

Ms. Zin Mar Aung, who like many civic leaders in the country is a former political prisoner, accuses the government of building a new national identity on the basis of nationalism and Buddhist chauvinism rather than a multicultural democracy.

Romain Caillaud, the managing director in Myanmar of Vriens & Partners, a consultancy, said he sensed more caution from the military establishment and a belief that “it’s too early to let go of the reins.”

“We were all a bit naïve about how far things could go,” Mr. Caillaud said. “They have done a lot, and they are not that comfortable going much further right now.”

Long-time observers of Burmese politics say the sudden appearance of nationalistic thugs on the streets of Burma comes as no surprise, writes Aung Zaw, founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy

Whenever Burma’s military rulers felt threatened in the past, they unleashed murder and mayhem on some segment of the population to justify the need to “restore order.”

Recently, before this latest outbreak of violence, some ethnic leaders told me that the government “lacks the courage” to hold free and fair elections next year. “As in the past, they’ll steal the election again, or if they can’t do that, they’ll find some excuse to postpone it,” they said.

Already, it seems, elements within the ruling military elite are laying the groundwork for such a scenario. When push comes to shove, they will want to be ready to put the country on lockdown to save it from the evils of democracy.

“It really seems like a military government in civilian clothing,” said Sean Turnell, one of the leading experts on the Burmese economy:

Yet at a time of failed and blood- stained democratic revolutions in the Middle East, some say the military’s continued engagement in politics in Myanmar ensures a measure of stability.

“This is a top-down, managed transition,” said Richard Horsey, a former United Nations official and one of the country’s leading political analysts. “It’s part of the reason why it may be more sustainable and successful than, say, the Arab Spring.”

One democracy campaigner, Zin Mar Aung, said she and other activists were harassed with anonymous text messages and death threats after they criticized a proposed interfaith-marriage law. She worries that the petition drive won’t work because the military does not want to fully give up power.

“We think their reforms have stagnated,” she said. “We think liberalization is over and the regime doesn’t want to give power through democratic elections.”

Burma’s Buddhist monks wield Kalashnikovs against Rohingya

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Pic credit: David Brenner/Foreign Policy

Anyone familiar with the recent sectarian conflict in Burma will shiver at the militiaman’s words, London School of Economics researcher David Brenner writes for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab:

Since the country embarked on its rapid liberal reform process in 2011, communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims has swept the country…..While the underlying drivers of sectarian violence in Rakhine are complex, one thing is very clear: An alliance between ultranationalist politicians and a well-armed militia is certain to end in catastrophe. One KIO officer puts it this way: “We cannot let them return with weapons in their hands and massacre innocent civilians.” That, of course, is far easier said than done, considering that the KIO is currently preoccupied with fighting the Burmese army.

Yet the responsibility for solving this problem cannot be attributed to the KIO alone. So far, the Burmese government has focused on brokering cease-fires in its wars with restive ethnic groups. A more permanent solution will have to involve demobilization, reintegration, and a plan to address the socioeconomic causes of sectarian violence.


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.