Obama defends Burma trip – and ‘messy’ democracy

US President Barack Obama pledged continued support for Burma’s nascent reform process, but called for greater efforts toward national reconciliation after decades of civil war and military dictatorship.

After meeting with President Thein Sein and joining Aung San Suu Kyi at the opposition leader’s lakeside villa, the president lauded the ongoing reforms in a speech at Rangoon University (above). But he added a note of caution regarding recent unrest in Arakan state and ceasefires with ethnic minority groups.

“No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation,” he said, which, DVB reports, received a roaring applause from the packed auditorium.

Washington had an “important” role to play on ethnic and minority issues, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But the US is not the major or critical player in Myanmar. Other countries like China, India, Singapore, and Thailand are far more important.”

Daw Suu Kyi expressed her appreciation of US support for Burma’s pro-democracy movement during the dark years of military rule.

“We are confident that this support will continue through the difficult years that lie ahead,” she said. “The most difficult time in any transition is when you think that success is in sight. We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by a mirage of success.”

Some rights and democracy advocates have criticized the visit.

“It rewards Burma for things they’ve already been rewarded for, and it wastes enormous political capital which could have been saved up and used to reward future events,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.

But Obama defended the decision to support the tentative reform process.

“This is not an endorsement of the Burmese government,” he said. “This is an acknowledgment that there is a process under way inside that country that even a year and a half, two years ago, nobody foresaw.”

“I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion that Burma’s arrived, that they’re where they need to be,” he said. “On the other hand, if we waited to engage until they achieved a perfect democracy, my suspicion is we’d be waiting an awful long time.”

Obama stressed his belief that active engagement is more likely to yield pro-democratic outcomes than passive marginalization.

“I’m not somebody who thinks the United States should stand on the sidelines and not get its hands dirty when there’s an opportunity for us to encourage the better impulses inside a country,” Obama said.

Obama responded to a question about whether China offered a less complicated path toward prosperity, by saying that “democracy is a little messier than alternative systems of government, but that’s because democracy allows everybody to have a voice.”

“The notion somehow that you can take shortcuts and avoid democracy, and that that somehow is going to be the mechanism whereby you deliver economic growth, I think is absolutely false.”

As The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration is using the Asia trip, which includes a final stop in Cambodia for the East Asia Summit, as another step in its “pivot to Asia” aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing influence in the region.

White House aides said the president would announce Monday that the United States will reestablish in Burma a U.S. Agency for International Development mission and offer the country up to $170 million in new foreign aid over the next two years that would be conditional on the government continuing toward democratic reforms.

“The president’s trip marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,” Thomas E. Donilon, the president’s national security adviser, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “When the president says the United States will play a larger and long-term role in the region, we intend to execute on that commitment.”

The visit would help “lock in this path forward,” Donilon said, while acknowledging the risks.

“We’re not naïve about this,” he said. “We absolutely are aware of the dangers of backsliding. And if that takes place, we’ll respond accordingly. But this really is a moment that we didn’t want to miss.”

Government officials announced plans to release 66 prisoners on Monday, including 45 political dissidents and ethnic minorities from rebel forces. The move follows last week’s release of over 400 prisoners, none of whom were political dissidents, according to rights groups.

“It is very worrisome that the November 15 prisoner release apparently did not include a single political prisoner – the message the leaders in Naypidaw are sending is they think they can play political games with human rights and Obama and the international community will look the other way,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.

“The success or failure of President Obama’s trip to Burma should be judged by whether he actually gets firm commitments from the Burma President on human rights,” said Robertson.

The civilian-led military-backed government has shown a “serious intention” to reform the political system and get the military “out of the government,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

But he cautioned that the movement is in a “very precarious state,” noting that the country’s generals are guaranteed 25 percent of the parliamentary seats and maintain control of the chairmanship.

“But everyone who’s in the cabinet, in the president’s office, and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi, are working together and are determined to do this,” said Green, former senior director for Asian affairs at the NSC in the George W. Bush administration. “So there is enough of a kernel .?.?. of seriousness to make the president’s trip worthwhile.”

Human rights activists, however, said that whatever progress Burma has made has suffered significant setbacks in the past several months, as the ethnic violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims has accelerated. Burma released 452 prisoners this week in a good faith move ahead of Obama’s visit, but none were political detainees.

“There has to be a sustainable security solution so that people aren’t living in the kind of fear and, really, terror that they’re living with today,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.

For Obama, Burma “represents one of the few relatively unvarnished success stories in the democratic movement that he can point to during his time in office,” The New York Times reports:

By contrast, the Arab Spring revolutions in the Middle East have now become bogged down in more ambiguous outcomes, as in Libya, where Islamic extremists attacked a United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi in September, killing the ambassador and three other Americans. None of that anti-American sentiment was on display here Monday. By the time he left six hours later, the crowds had begun to thin and the country began to look ahead to a future that has yet to be written.

Obama’s visit is the latest manifestation of the administration’s pivot to Asia, a move largely driven by concern to counter authoritarian China’s growing influence in the region. But there is a risk of the policy backfiring if Beijing perceives the embrace of Burma as an aggressive effort to dilute or marginalize its influence, some commentators suggest.

In order to assuage Chinese anxiety, President Obama, should, first, “make clear that China-US-Myanmar relations are not a zero-sum game in which any gain for the US is a loss for China.,” writes Yale University researcher Josh Gordon:

Myanmar needs support from the US, China, ASEAN and its other neighbors to successfully implement sustainable and equitable reforms.

Second, President Obama should frame US support for reform in terms that the Chinese use: stability and “win-win” outcomes. Reform in Myanmar will make the country more stable and a more stable Myanmar will better protect China’s long-term interests by pushing Chinese investors to reach out to stakeholders. Chinese support for reform in Myanmar will result in a “win-win-win” situation which benefits Myanmar, the US and China.

“Many people inside Burma remain unaffected by the changes so far or wary about them being rolled back,” notes FPI’s Bork, who also cites the cautionary message of Min Zin and Brian Joseph  in the current issue of the Journal of Democracy, that “Burma remains a military dictatorship.”

There is also concern that the rush to democracy is leaving the country’s poor behind, The New York Times reports:

Stephen Groff, vice president of the Asian Development Bank, the Manila-based institution that re-engaged with Myanmar this year after a 25-year absence, compared the economic changes here to the liberalization of Vietnam’s economy, which began allowing free enterprise in the late 1980s. In both countries, changes came from within the leadership and thus were much more gradual than the convulsive uprisings seen, for example, during the Arab Spring….But continuity and stability also mean that the same government workers who served under the highly repressive junta are now responsible for breaking down the system they helped build.

Daw Suu Kyi and government advisers have warned that the government lacks the capacity to push the reform process forward at a faster pace.

“The international community expects too much — they need to lower their expectations,” said U Tin Maung Than, director of the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, a research organization with close ties to the president’s office. “And the people need to lower their expectations, too.”

Democratic Voice of Burma is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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Russia: leading NGO set to close due to funds shortfall

The instigators of Russia’s punitive NGO law argue that civil society groups should seek domestic funds instead of overseas backers.  

But, Interfax reports: One of Russia’s leading human rights organizations, the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, might have to close its Moscow office and stop operation due to the lack of funds.

“We haven’t paid for rent and utilities since 2010. We just have no money,” executive secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers Valentina Melnikova (above) told Interfax today.

“If we do not pay at least part of the debt by 1 December, they will turn off electricity and telephone at our office. It will be impossible to work. This is almost certain. We appealed to various organizations but could not find support. Colleagues cannot help us, they have no money either,” Melnikova said.

The group has not received a Russian grant since 1992 and most of their funds come from the West – from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, and funds in Norway and Germany.

Russia’s Defense Ministry should support the group, says Lev Ponomaryov, the leader of the For Human Rights movement.

“If the state respects the organization – and its representative [Melnikova] is on the Defense Ministry’s Public Council – how could it have gotten to the point that the organization has nothing to pay with?” Ponomaryov told RIA Novosti:

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said financing issues for many human rights came to the fore after a new law on NGOs was adopted in Russia.

“The only thing I can advise is creating an electronic wallet. The Union of Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Committees has done a lot of good and helped a lot of people, so maybe there are a lot of people who will raise funds for them, especially considering they do not need a big sum,” Alexeyeva told RIA Novosti.

For Human Rights and the Moscow Helsinki Group are also grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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The world’s next genocide?

At a recent meeting hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Peter W. Galbraith, a former American ambassador who witnessed ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, made a chilling prediction. “The next genocide in the world,” he said, “will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.”

“A few months ago, talk of possible massacres of Alawites, who dominate Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, seemed like pro-regime propaganda. Now, it is a real possibility,” writes Simon Adams:

The Syrian government’s actions have deepened the sectarian divide. ….As the civil war intensifies, Mr. Assad is increasingly outsourcing the dirty work. In Damascus, militia groups within Druse, Christian and Shiite areas are being armed by the government. While the justifications for these militias are “neighborhood self-defense” and the protection of religious sites, the shabiha emerged in a similar way before becoming killing squads for Mr. Assad. And by drawing Christians, Druse, Shiites and Alawites into the civil war on an explicitly sectarian basis, the Syrian government has all but guaranteed that there will be reprisals against these communities if Mr. Assad falls.

Governments committed to supporting Syria’s newly unified opposition must take immediate action to help prevent violence against Alawites and other minorities, says Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect:

First, they must impress upon the newly united Syrian opposition that support depends on strict adherence to international humanitarian law. Armed groups who advocate fracturing Syria along sectarian or regional lines should be denied funds…

Second, outside governments should intensify their efforts to hold all perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable at the International Criminal Court, regardless of their allegiance.


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Nabeel Rajab

Amnesty International USA holds an event outside Washington, DC’s Newseum to launch more than 200 tethered balloons depicting the face of Bahraini political prisoner Nabeel Rajab (left) in order to highlight the power of free speech, and to launch its annual Write-a-Thon to mobilize activists, and supporters of human rights to write letters, Tweet, and blog on behalf of prisoners of conscience and victims of persecution worldwide.

November 20, 2012. 8 a.m. The Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. Contact: Anya Palkowski, 212-633-4268, apalkowski@aiusa.org

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Jordan’s economic woes spark political unrest

For any astute observer watching Jordan over the past several months, this week’s violent protests against fuel price hikes were certainly no surprise, writes Danya Greenfield. What is remarkable about the latest round of demonstrations is that some voices are calling for an overthrow of the monarchy, an unthinkable and shocking demand even a year ago. The protests may prove that the palace’s strategy to appease popular frustration is coming to a crashing halt.

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