‘Burmese bin Laden’? Buddhist monks’ violence threatens transition

The ethnic violence jeopardizing Burma’s reform process is laying bare “an often hidden truth,” according to a must-read special report from Reuters:

Monks have played a central role in anti-Muslim unrest over the past decade. Although 42 people have been arrested in connection to the violence, monks continue to preach a fast-growing Buddhist nationalist movement known as “969″ that is fuelling much of the trouble.

And one of the most movement’s leaders is the nationalistic monk Wirathu, who, “relishing his extremist reputation,  ….. describes himself as the ‘Burmese bin Laden.’

“Wirathu [left] was freed last year from nine years in jail during an amnesty for hundreds of political prisoners, among the most celebrated reforms of Myanmar’s post-military rule. He had been locked up for helping to incite deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2003,” Reuters reports:

Today, the charismatic 45-year-old with a boyish smile is an abbot in Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, a sprawling complex where he leads about 60 monks and has influence over more than 2,500 residing there. From that power base, he is leading a fast-growing movement known as “969,” which encourages Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses and communities.

The three numbers refer to various attributes of the Buddha, his teachings and the monkhood. In practice, the numbers have become the brand of a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism that seeks to transform Myanmar into an apartheid-like state.

“We have a slogan: When you eat, eat 969; when you go, go 969; when you buy, buy 969,” Wirathu said in an interview at his monastery in Mandalay. Translation: If you’re eating, travelling or buying anything, do it with a Buddhist.

But many Burmese democracy and civil society activists suspect that elements of the state security services may also have a hand in the violence.

Min Ko Naing, a former leader of the 88 Generation Student Movement, said it was “very clear” that the riots were instigated by “well-trained terrorists,” notes a leading activist.

“I learned the same painful lesson in my own Bosnia in the early 90s,” writes 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 writes 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.”

Aside from Buddhist-Muslim violence, ethnic tensions on the country’s periphery also threaten to undermine the transition.

“When residents of this northernmost region of Myanmar talk about the tremendous changes of the past two years, they are not referring to the media freedoms or the economic liberalization transforming other parts of the country,” New York Times journalist Thomas Fuller reports from Myitkyina:

They mean the radicalization of the Kachin ethnic group, whose members inhabit the foothills of the Himalayas near the borders with China and India and have become more militant than at any time in living memory, Kachin leaders say.

Analysts are divided on what the deteriorating relations between the Kachin and central government mean for the country’s overall moves toward democracy and economic liberalization… A number of countries in Southeast Asia, including the neighboring Thailand, have become prosperous despite ethnic or religious conflicts.

“There are always going to be tensions, rival nationalisms, debates about discrimination and at least the possibility of communal violence,” said U Thant Myint-U, a scholar of Burmese history and an adviser to President Thein Sein. “But that’s very different than having a significant part of the country being fought over by tens of thousands of armed men, belonging to dozens of different militia.”

Min Ko Naing [right], the former political prisoner “revered by Burmese nearly as much as Suu Kyi, was in Meikhtila as the violence began,” Reuters reports:

After the massacre, he said, the mob looked well organized. Cell phones in hand, monks inspected cars leaving town, he said. A bulldozer was used to destroy some buildings. “The ordinary public doesn’t know how to use a bulldozer,” he said.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar said he had received reports of “state involvement” in the violence. Soldiers and police sometimes stood by “while atrocities have been committed before their very eyes, including by well-organized ultra-nationalist Buddhist mobs,” said the rapporteur, Tomas Ojea Quintana. “This may indicate direct involvement by some sections of the state or implicit collusion and support for such actions.”

Ethnic cleansing—and what is happening in Burma with its Muslim population has all the parameters of ethnic cleansing—is usually prepared in advance through ‘psychological warfare’ and cannot happen without the involvement of at least some elements of the state apparatus,” writes Blazevic, a Czech-based human rights campaigner of Bosnian origin:

To break the vicious circle of extreme nationalism before it is too late, courageous and responsible initiatives by civil society leaders such as Min Ko Naing and his 88 Generation colleagues are not enough. Civil society, respected personalities, moderate religious leaders, responsible media and the opposition can and should help to reject violence and call for calm. But ultimately, it is the responsibility of the government and state not to let ethnic cleansing happen on its territory and to stop with quick and decisive action all state and non-state forces which are instigating it.

Irrawaddy is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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The Kremlin’s World and Putin’s Doctrine

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s updated Foreign Policy Concept document reveals much about the Vladimir Putin’s emerging foreign policy doctrine and confirms that the Obama’s administration’s “reset” policy is effectively defunct, says a leading analyst.

“Russia’s new foreign-policy doctrine is rooted in the Soviet and czarist past [and] .. ..  reveals the choices made by Putin’s Russia: an expanded sphere of influence; rapprochement with Beijing; and alienation from the West,” The Heritage Foundation’s Ariel Cohen writes in The New York Times:

The Putin Doctrine calls soft power “an integral component of modern international politics.” Astonishingly, it casts soft power as a tool of the Russian government’s commitment to “universal democratic values” and “human rights” — Moscow style….However, the Magnitsky affair, the anti-opposition crackdown, the incarceration of protesters and of the Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky……fly in the face of such “soft power” exercises, especially when the Kremlin insists on labeling challenges from domestic opponents as “foreign agent activities.”

The Foreign Policy Concept reflects Russia’s deep resentment of any criticism of what it considers its “internal affairs.” The document warns of the “destructive and unlawful use of ‘soft power’ and human rights concepts” by other countries to put “political pressure on sovereign regimes” and interfere “in internal affairs.” These are clear references to the alleged U.S. support of the Arab upheavals, U.S. democracy promotion and the Magnitsky Act.

“The public version of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept reveals much. Doubtless, the classified version would be even more fascinating,” writes Cohen.

Washington should huddle with European nations to formulate a realistic cooperation agenda with Russia. The agenda should include promotion of economic freedom, business ties, transparency, good governance and the rule of law, as well as cooperation in medicine, science and space.


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Russia’s NGOs in dire straits: Knopfler cancels tour over crackdown

Rock star Mark Knopfler [right] has cancelled two shows in Russia to protest the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society groups.

“When Russian tax and law enforcement authorities recently raided the Moscow offices of Human Rights Watch, they invited a television crew from one of the country’s key state-controlled broadcast networks, NTV, to film the proceedings,” note two leading analysts.

“State news television cameras similarly tagged along when government inspectors staged raids of other NGOs, including Amnesty International and the human rights group Memorial,” the National Endowment for Democracy‘s Christopher Walker and George Washington University’s Robert Orttung write for The New York Times:

Why the need to film and then feature in prime time news broadcasts if these measures are simply “routine”? The answer lies in state media’s crucial role in shaping its audiences’ perception of the world. The selective use of tax audits and safety inspections, as well as arbitrarily applied laws and regulations, are burdensome and deeply disruptive to NGO activities. State media’s place in the authoritarian arsenal is of a different order because its attacks are designed to discredit — and delegitimize — civil society.

Unlike independent publicly owned media in democratic states, authoritarian state media’s chief functions are to block and attack. Blocking ensures that consistent criticism of the leadership does not affect the public that consumes its news primarily over the airwaves. Attacking, by use of smears and mass media disinformation, is designed to tarnish anyone who is perceived to pose a threat to the authorities’ power. For civil society, it is this attack function that is most destructive.

The US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul [left] today met with members of Russia’s Public Chamber to express concern over the unprecedented crackdown on civil society groups. Russian officials responded with claims that US funders of Russian NGOs were headed by spies and former military officials.

Russian prosecutors claim that some NGOs violate the Foreign Agents law, while the Foreign defended the NGO probes as lawful and criticized a US commitment to continue NGO funding as “direct instigating of certain non-governmental and public structures to violate legislation related to the work of non-governmental organizations in the Russian Federation.”

Up to 2,000 organizations were targeted with inspections and searches last month, said Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora NGO and a member of the presidential Human Rights Council.

“It goes full circle across the whole spectrum – they’re trying to find as many violations as possible,” he added.

The attacks on civil society will undermine Russia’s social and political development, say analysts.

“Community-based organizations, advocacy groups and other associations that form civil society are critical for bringing innovative practices to the public space,” Walker and Orttung note:

Such NGOs work to improve public policy and to encourage social and economic development, among other benefits. The attacks on civil society are therefore undercutting these countries’ development prospects in a fundamental way. In this sense, state media are undermining the very state that they supposedly serve.


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‘Ayatollah in his labyrinth’? Time to engage Iran’s people, says task force

“A report by a panel of U.S. experts calls on the Obama administration to engage more directly with the Iranian people, in part to counter increasingly negative attitudes toward Americans following nearly two years of harsh economic sanctions,” The Washington Post reports:

The report warns that the popular resentment toward the United States is helping Iran’s clerical rulers deflect some of the blame for the country’s economic crisis. Because of this, Iranian officials have managed to limit the public outcry over nuclear policies that placed Iran on a collision course with the West.

“It is time to play chess, not checkers,” said the report by the Iran Task Force of the Atlantic Council, a group that includes prominent former diplomats and national security officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The forthcoming election is unlikely to generate the level of unrest that followed the contentious 2009 elections that gave birth to the Green movement protests, the report suggests:

Khamenei has marginalized reformists, and even pragmatists such as former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, without eliminating dissidence. Ideology is less a factor than a naked struggle for power and access to diminishing resources among rival conservatives. Khamenei risks making himself the sole focus of opposition within the country by reducing the presidency to a complete figurehead. It may also be difficult to achieve a large turnout in presidential elections – important for the regime’s self-image and public diplomacy—if the range of candidates is extremely narrow.

“Iranians seem wary of sacrificing themselves for a new political order, having been disappointed by their efforts so many times in the past,” says the Task Force.

“The heightened role of Iranian security forces since 2009 has made it difficult for Iranian civil society to organize openly, although there have been stirrings of private initiatives as shown by the volunteers who sought to assist victims of August 2012 earthquakes in northwestern Iran,” but, it notes, “it is unclear if such activities translate directly into civic political action.”

The contradictions at the heart of Iran’s political system are “poised to collide” in June’s presidential election, says a leading analyst.

“At the heart of Iranian politics there is an irreconcilable tension, rooted in the democratic nature of the 1979 revolution and the undemocratic power structure that emerged afterwards,” Stanford University’s Abbas Milani writes for Foreign Policy.

“On the one hand, there is the country’s quasi-republican institutions and regular, albeit controlled elections; on the other is the state’s guiding concept of god as the sole sovereign, and the Supreme Leader as the unimpeachable manifestation of this divine authority.”

“Three different sources of tension threaten to make this election problematic for the Islamic Republic,” Milani notes:

First, the widening rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei — supported by his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the conservative clergy — is increasingly hard to hide, even manage……

The second source of tension revolves around whether reformists will be allowed to participate in the election — and even if they will want to. If they do participate, the question will be who they are allowed to field as a candidate. ……Khamenei and the IRGC have to make a cost-benefit analysis: Does the domestic discontent, the increasingly dire economic situation, and their international isolation pose enough of a threat to justify bringing Khatami or Rafsanjani — two men they have vilified in the past four years — back into the fold? Or would such a tactical retreat only bring them embarrassment and signal their weakness? …..Some of the more radical elements of the IRGC continue to insist that reformists of all hue are “tools” of American, British and Israeli designs to defeat the Islamic regime.

The third source of tension in this unfolding saga is the behavior of the candidates clearly favored by Khamenei and his allies. This troika calls itself the 2+1 Coalition….

“What seems to be happening in the run-up to the elections is the shifting of alliances and enmities on an immense scale between a wide range of the political elite — far wider than was predicted by Western analysts even three months ago,” Princeton University’s Kevan Harris tells The Washington Post:

Whoever wins will inherit a series of challenges and opportunities that no previous Iranian president has faced.

On Monday, the Iranian government released monthly economic statistics that showed the official rate of inflation rising for the sixth consecutive month, to 31.5 percent. Some analysts believe the rate to be even higher.

Leading up to the New Year’s holiday, Iran’s central bank made one-time deposits of about $20 each into the accounts of more than 70 million Iranian citizens to help cover holiday expenses. The amount was nearly double the normal monthly cash handout that the state has been paying to citizens to offset a reduction in long-standing utility subsidies.

Iran has stronger prospects to transition to a liberal democracy than most Arab states and even some Asian and European countries, according to recent research (right).

But the regime has managed to insulate itself from the contagion of the Arab Awakening, but Iranian politics “rarely follow an assigned script,” says the Atlantic Council report:

Any opening for political rallies during the presidential election campaign carries the risk that Iranians will turn the rallies into anti-government demonstrations…..Increased economic hardship could also lead to new mass demonstrations beyond the limited chicken protests and brief bazaar shutdown of 2012. The death of Khamenei, seventy-three, would likely trigger a succession crisis. The fall of the Assad regime in Syria could also have political repercussions in Iran, emboldening Iranians to question the wisdom of their government’s large financial, political, and security investment in the failed Assad government.

“No matter the outcome of the coming election, Khamenei and the IRGC will still hold the key levers of power in Tehran,” writes Milani, who heads Stanford’s Iran Democracy Project.

“But who will be allowed to participate — and who will be allowed to win — will be a crucial sign in understanding the labyrinth of power in Iran, as the regime prepares to tackle its mounting domestic and international problems,” he concludes.

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Fresh calls for inquiry into death of Cuban dissidents

“The daughter of a well-known Cuban dissident who died in a car wreck last year stepped up calls on Thursday for an independent, international investigation of the case after hearing from the man who was driving the vehicle that another car had struck it from behind just before the accident,” The New York Times reports:

The dissident, Oswaldo Payá [above], who relentlessly challenged the Castro government’s human rights record, and another dissident, Harold Cepero, died on July 22, when the car in which they were traveling with two European politicians, from Spain and Sweden, hit a tree in eastern Cuba, according to the Cuban authorities. The Spaniard who was driving, Ángel Carromero Barrios, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and was transferred to Spain in December. He is on conditional release. ….

Now, Mr. Payá’s daughter, Rosa María Payá [left], is touring the United States and Europe to press her case for an independent investigation, after Mr. Carromero told her recently and said in an interview with the opinion section of The Washington Post in March, that a second vehicle had hit the car he was driving from behind.

“There are now certain facts that indicate it was not an accident,” Ms. Payá said. “So we are asking the international community for an independent commission to investigate.”

She recently presented a petition signed by 46 activists and political leaders from around the world to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, calling for an inquiry.

“Mounting and credible allegations that the Cuban government may have been complicit in the murder of its most prominent critic, a leading figure in the human rights world, cannot go ignored by the international community,” said the appeal, organized by the UN Watch human rights NGO.

The celebrated dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez this week repeated her call for an independent inquiry into the incident.

The United States recently voiced support for an inquiry “with independent international observers” into the deaths, said US Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“The people of Cuba and the families of these two activists deserve a clear, credible accounting of the events that resulted in their tragic deaths,” she added during a news briefing.

Cuba’s Communist authorities claimed that Spanish youth activist Angel Carromero caused the deaths when he accidentally drove the car into a tree. Carromero was imprisoned on charges of vehicular homicide, but released to Spain in December. He has since told The Washington Post that the car was rammed off the road.

“The last time I looked in the mirror, I realized that the car had gotten too close — and suddenly I felt a thunderous impact from behind,” he told the Post.

The regime most likely targeted Payá because he “crossed a red line in challenging the government’s relations with the church, which had become a pillar of the government’s strategy of survival…. at a time when the regime, emboldened by the cardinal’s silence at the mass arrests during the pope’s visit to Cuba in March, was not about to tolerate criticism,” said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman.

“I just want what happened clarified,” said Ms. Payá. “I want the truth to be known and recognized.”

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