Ethnic conflicts one of three threats to the ‘Burmese Spring’

Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean a ‘true revolutionary,’ says Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma’s government today held talks with senior commanders of the rebel Kachin Independence Army in an effort to end a violent ethnic conflict that threatens to undermine the country’s reform process.

“The KIA is fighting for autonomy for Kachin state within a federal Myanmar, which successive governments of the ethnically diverse country have long rejected,” Reuters reports:

The two sides met for seven hours in Ruili, just inside Chinese territory and afterwards issued a vaguely worded joint statement that said further talks would be held in the next few weeks, aimed at setting up a communications channel and monitoring system, to enforce a ceasefire “as soon as possible”.

“China arranged to hold this meeting. China doesn’t want very serious fighting along its border,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, an analyst with close ties to the KIA.

“More than 30,000 Myanmar troops are here in Kachin State. The KIA is resisting them with about 8,000 troops,” he said. “Kachin State is ruined because of the long fighting.”

The Burmese military has tried to “isolate and weaken” the Kachin rebels, said Aung Din, a former student activist with close contacts to armed rebel groups.

Zhu Zhenming, Professor at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, described the gains by the Burmese army as a “turning point in the conflict.” Both the United States and China want to see the conflict resolved, he said, creating “a good external environment” for the peace process.

Kachin activists have called for international pressure, including sanctions, to be maintained on the government until the conflict is resolved.

“If you look at it right now, even in the different ethnic areas all the companies are run by the government,” Kachin activist Bauk Gyar, told a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy. “Therefore if you open the road to people coming and doing business, the ethnic people will have to suffer more than before,” she said.

Eschewing violence and pursuing a political solution to “a deeply wounded, fractured, multi-ethnic society” is critical to the country’s democratic transition, said Timothy Garton Ash, a close friend of Michael Aris, the late husband of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, in an address to Burma’s first literary festival.

The Irrawaddy Literary Festival is “a small but potent sign of change in a country edging towards democracy,” observers suggest.

The three-day event was a “sign of transition to democracy and to freedom of expression,” said author and journalist Pe Myint.

“Now we are trying to be a more open society. Censorship has been theoretically removed and more and more people are writing,” said Daw Suu Kyi:

Literature, she said, had been hugely important to her during house arrest. Some of the people she most admired were fictional characters, such as those in George Elliot’s novels who stuck to their principles even though their ideas might be out of keeping with the times. She called Jean Valjean, the ex-convict and hero of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, a “true revolutionary”.

Many observers fear that the ongoing ethnic conflicts will give the military a pretext for retaining vital prerogatives that are likely to undermine genuine democratization.

“Military intervention in the reform process presents the most dangerous” of the three challenges to Burma’s reform process” writes Christian Lewis, a  Southeast Asia researcher at Eurasia Group.

“There are some good indications that President Thein Sein is consolidating the civilian government’s control [bit] it is far less clear that Thein Sein can or will be able to assert control in areas where the military, or Tatmadaw, has vested security and economic interests,” he writes for National Review:

The surge in the bloody campaign being waged against ethnic rebels in Kachin State has continued in spite of two orders from Thein Sein and a legislative motion to suspend offensive maneuvers. The Tatmadaw appears unwilling to suspend operations until it has crushed the Kachin Independence Army and terrorized its civilian sympathizers — and regained control of the region’s large mining sites.

In addition to pursuing military campaigns to gain access to mineral wealth, the Tatmadaw’s pension funds are tied up in large military holding corporations, with investments across the national economy. These inefficient military corporations won’t be eager to compete with outsiders.

The National Defense and Security Council remains “a secretive council of senior cabinet ministers, the president, and military leaders that offers the military policy influence over civilian leaders behind closed doors, as an alternative and complement to the 25 percent of seats apportioned to the military in the parliament,” he cautions.

Ethnic conflict is the second significant risk to progress, Lewis asserts:

The central government’s various battles with the ethnic non-state armed groups (NSAGs) — there have been wars with groups of Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Chin, Karenni, Kokang, Pa-O, Palaung, Naga, and Lahu origin, to name a few — involve different motives and distinct cultural histories, but all the groups share an interest in some measure of political autonomy and control over their economic resources, especially when it comes to profit-sharing agreements for natural resources.

Potential US-Chinese tensions over respective spheres of influence present the third main risk:

In order to take advantage of Burma’s promising moment, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi must balance the inclusion of democracy proponents in a national dialogue, the resolution of longstanding ethnic conflicts, the emerging Chinese and U.S. regional competition for influence, and the Tatmadaw’s commercial and security priorities. The management of these risks will determine whether Burma proves to be the Golden Land, as it was once known, or slips back into its darker recent history.


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China’s dissident writers – ‘plucking feathers from a frog’?

“I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this,” said Liu Xia (right), the wife of the jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo….

….when she described [to NPR’s Louisa Lim], in tears, her past two years under house arrest.

She has never been accused of any crime, yet she is guarded at all times except for — in a farcical touch — one recent day, when her guards bunked off for a lunch break and journalists seized the chance to sneak into her apartment.

Mo Yan has been widely criticized for his political deference to China’s ruling Communist party.

Salman Rushdie dismissed him “a patsy of the regime,” while fellow laureate and former dissident Herta Müller described his Nobel prize as “a catastrophe.”

“Mo Yan is certainly no dissident. He might even be accused of cowardice,” writes Ian Buruma, a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College:

He could have used his prestige to speak up more forcefully for Liu Xiaobo….. Defending censorship, as Mo Yan did in Stockholm, was also an odd, not to say craven, act for a writer who sets such store on the freedom to tell stories.

Indeed, he refuses to speak out almost as a matter of principle. He has said that his pen name, Mo Yan, meaning “Don’t Speak,” was chosen because his parents warned him not to say things that might cause trouble. “I’ve always taken pride in my lack of ideology,” he writes in the afterword to “Pow!,” “especially when I’m writing.”

But “this narrow perspective has its advantages,” Buruma argues in the Times Book Review:

By concentrating on human appetites, including the darkest ones, Mo Yan can dig deeper than political commentary. And like the strolling players of old, the jesters and the public-square storytellers he so admires, Mo Yan is able to give a surprisingly accurate impression of his country. Distorted, to be sure, but sharply truthful, too. In this sense, his work fits into a distinguished tradition of fantasists in authoritarian societies: alongside Mikhail Bulgakov or the Czech master, Bohumil Hrabal.

“To demand that Mo Yan also be a political dissident is not only what the Dutch describe as ‘trying to pluck feathers from a frog.’ It’s also unfair,” writes Buruma, author of Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents:

A novelist should be judged on literary merit, not on his or her politics, a principle the Nobel committee hasn’t always lived up to. This time, I think it has. It would be nice if Mo Yan were more courageous, but he has given us some great stories. And that should be enough.

China’s anti-corruption efforts are “the equivalent of thieves catching thieves,” author Wang Xiaofang, told NPR’s Lim:

He learned to write corruption exposés the hard way. His decade as a pen-pushing civil servant culminated in a three-year investigation for corruption while his boss, the deputy mayor of the rust-belt city of Shenyang, was executed for gambling away $3.6 million of public money in Macau’s casinos.

“My boss was given a lethal injection,” he told me in November. “And the person who investigated the case, a senior official in the provincial anticorruption bureau, was given a first-class merit citation. But later he too was caught, and was found to be even more corrupt than my boss.”

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As conflict reaches inflection point, is US ‘empowering Syria’s Ahmad Chalabis’?

Democratic dissidents like Riad Seif are ‘being marginalized’

Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib today urged President Bashar al-Assad to enter a dialogue to end the violent conflict and help “the regime leave peacefully,” Reuters reports:

The moderate Islamist preacher announced last week he was prepared to talk to Assad’s representatives. Although he set several conditions, the move broke a taboo on contacts with authorities and dismayed many in opposition ranks who insist on Assad’s departure as a precondition for negotiation.

After meeting senior Russian, U.S. and Iranian officials at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Alkahtib said none had a plan to end the civil war.

“The big powers have no vision … Only the Syrian people can decide on the solution,” the Syrian National Coalition leader told Al Jazeera Television.

Alkhatib said it was not “treachery” to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.

“The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” he told the Qatar-based channel. “It is now in the hands of the regime.”

“We will find a solution, there are many keys,” he said. “If the regime wants to solve (the crisis), it can take part in it. If it wants to get out and get the people out of this crisis, we will all work together for the interest of the people and the departure of the regime.”

The formation of a transitional authority is under consideration, Alkhatib said, but opposition factions and international powers disagree over whether Assad could remain a player.

Walid al-Bunni, a member of the Coalition’s 12-member politburo, dismissed Alkhatib’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

“It was unsuccessful. The Iranians are unprepared to do anything that could help the causes of the Syrian Revolution,” Bunni, a former political prisoner, told Reuters.

The establishment of a transitional government or government in exile should be priority for the opposition, says Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies, and a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

A transitional authority should be formed via a national conference held in Syria, comprising local revolutionary councils and coordinating committees, the organized opposition, and independent brigades, he recently argued on Foreign Policy:

These opposition forces should make up the majority of the newly-formed government and their role should be to determine the structure of the government during the transitional period. This would address many of the ongoing problems that the international community has perceived with the Syrian opposition, and accelerate the desperately needed process toward the end of the Assad regime and the creation of a new, free Syria.

But the new Syrian opposition coalition is neither willing to negotiate with the regime, “nor is it remotely prepared to assume power,” according to former State Department official Ramzy Mardini.

“It is facing the prospect of defections and, worse, disintegration,” he argues. “Narrow interests are taking precedence; Islamists are overpowering secularists; exiles are eclipsing insiders; and very few members seem to have credibility on the ground back home.”

“The U.S. is empowering the Ahmad Chalabis of Syria,” argued one prominent dissident.

The opposition coalition’s president al-Khatib is only “a symbolic figurehead” who “lacks the experience to play the jarring game of opposition politics,” says Mardini, is a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation:

Riad Seif [above], a key American ally and longstanding dissident in Syria, is being marginalized. Both leaders have been sidelined by the expatriate businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, whose moneyed Syrian Business Forum is suspected of being a Qatari front group. Mr. Sabbagh is virtually unknown to most Syrians because he has long been based outside Syria and lacks the respect of veteran dissidents.

“Early mistakes in transitions tend to have enduring effects. But the solution is not to form more umbrella groups, adding layers of vested interests that favor competition over cooperation,” Mardini writes in The New York Times:

The United States must make recognition of the opposition strictly conditional on the coalition being genuinely representative of the Syrian people, with clear punishment for noncompliance. And contact between the American government and opposition leaders must not be limited to the ambassador and his staffers; Americans often seem oblivious to the power that personal relationships can have across the Arab world. Finally, America must empower secular, moderate and independent political forces that promote compromise and moderation.

Two ideas emerged at the Munich Security Conference that could entice Moscow to play a more constructive role in solving “the world’s most intractable and dangerous problem,” writes The Washington Post’s David Ignatius:

• Vice President Joe Biden proposed that Russia and the US collaborate to secure control of Syria’s chemical weapons, in the event that Assad’s government falls:

This idea of Russian-American cooperation to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction echoes one of the most positive joint efforts after the end of the Cold War….In the case of Syria, a joint effort to secure chemical weapons would reassure Russia that it will have a role in future security and stability in Syria and the region. It would also reduce the danger that these weapons might fall into the hands of the jihadist groups, such as al-Nusra Front that’s linked to al-Qaeda.

• Sheik Mouaz al-Khatib’s expressed willingness to meet with the Assad regime, despite being “blasted for it by other, more hawkish members of the opposition” was another positive sign, Ignatius adds, and welcomed by Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative for Syria.

Brahimi is eager to see “a transitional government formed with ‘full executive powers’ (this, he explained, is diplomatic speak for Assad having ‘no role in the transition),” notes Roger Cohen in The New York Times:

The government would be the fruit of negotiations outside Syria between opposition representatives and a “strong civilian-military” government delegation. It would then oversee a democratic transition including elections and constitutional reform.

“This sounds good but will not fly. …. Syria, with its mosaic of faiths and ethnicities, requires political compromise to survive. That is the endgame,” says Cohen:

“The Obama administration has refrained from directly intervening or supporting Syria’s increasingly armed opposition, based on an argument that neither would make the situation better,” writes Andrew J. Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

But allowing the conflict to continue and simply offering humanitarian and project assistance treats merely the symptoms while failing to shape a political settlement that would help cure the disease: a brutal Assad regime that was unable to reform trying to shoot one of the youngest populations in the Middle East into submission.

The White House reportedly vetoed a joint initiative by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last summer to train and supply lethal assistance to moderate Syrian rebel groups, in large part because the administration does not want to find itself “in the business of helping Islamist extremists inherit a Syrian vacuum,” while the “opposition coalition is divided and lacks credibility,” notes Cohen.

Nevertheless, “an inflection point has been reached,” he contends:

Inaction spurs the progressive radicalization of Syria, the further disintegration of the state, the intensification of Assad’s mass killings, and the chances of the conflict spilling out of Syria in sectarian mayhem. It squanders an opportunity to weaken Iran. This is not in the West’s interest…

It is time to alter the Syrian balance of power enough to give political compromise a chance and Assad no option but departure. That means an aggressive program to train and arm the Free Syrian Army. 

A plausible scenario facing Syria is one of “incremental, phased collapse,” says Steven Heydemann, the USIP Special Adviser for Middle East Initiatives:

Fearing retribution, many of Syria’s Alawites are backing the regime with the zeal of people who believe that their backs are against the wall. Such a phased collapse could prolong the country’s vicious civil war for a significant, if unknown, period of time; Heydemann calls it “the $64,000 question.” How long it lasts would in part depend on the truncated regime’s military resources and on the support it receives from allies in Iran and Lebanon, as well as from Russia.

“Fundamental questions could be opened up,” said Heydemann. “Such a collapse could reopen the issue of the post-Ottoman state system in the Levant.”

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War II, the victorious powers led by Great Britain and France won mandates to govern—and draw the borders of—what would later become Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The post-Ottoman lines politically separated traditional ethnic and religious groups, particularly the Kurds, into different entities.

“Despite frequent claims about the fragility and artificiality of the state system in the Middle East,” Heydemann noted, “modern Syria is the result of a political settlement that has held for nearly 100 years.  Reopening this post-Ottoman settlement now would have huge spillover effects, potentially threatening the integrity of Iraq and sparking conflicts between Kurds and Turkey.”

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Free union elections for Foxconn workers – precedent or PR?

China Labour Bulletin

China’s largest private sector employer is planning to hold “genuinely representative” trade union elections in an attempt to address growing worker discontent and prevent further outbreaks of unofficial labor militancy.

If the polls go ahead as planned at Foxconn, the electronics contractor to Apple, they would present an unprecedented challenge to the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which generally functions as an appendage of management, government and the ruling Communist party.

“The position of chairman and 20 committee members of the Foxconn Federation of Labor Unions Committee will be determined through elections once every five years through an anonymous ballot voting process,” Foxconn told the Financial Times:

After the Lunar New Year holiday this month, Foxconn, with the help of the FLA [Fair Labor Association], will begin training its Chinese workers in how to vote for their representatives. They will be choosing up to 18,000 union committees whose terms expire this year and in 2014, according to three people familiar with the situation. Since the unions have so far had no real role in addressing worker grievances and have been dominated by management, most young workers know nothing about what a real labor union is supposed to do.

The elections will be supervised by the FLA, a US-based workplace monitoring group, which highlighted the ACFTU’s failure to represent workers’ interests in a report commissioned by Apple following a series of employee suicides at Foxconn plants in 2009 and 2010, apparently prompted by endemic malpractices, including compulsory overtime, low wages and the use of underage labor.

“The process through which Foxconn’s current labor union representatives were chosen was not democratic because there was no open and transparent nomination of candidates, and it is not representative because more than half of the committee members are from management,” said one person working on the election plans.

While some labor analysts view the elections as a welcome initiative to engage Foxconn’s i.2 million workers, others questioned the integrity of the exercise.

“Only by letting the workers choose their candidates by themselves and then vote for them can they fully express the hopes of workers,” said Wang Jing, dean of the department of labor relations at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing.

“But anyway, it’s a good to see this. It shows that the company wants to improve its relations with the workers,” she added, noting that Apple was likely to be pushing Foxconn to implement change to protect its own brand image.

Foxconn’s labor troubles are not unique in China, where many workers face much worse conditions, but because of the company’s high-profile customers, which also include Dell Inc, Hewlett-Packard Co, Sony Corp and Nintendo Co Ltd, it has attracted the most attention.

Others were skeptical that Foxconn’s plans could lead to real change, given that independent labor unions are technically forbidden in China, and noted that previous experiments in worker representation in foreign companies have not resulted in much change.

“Foxconn is not the first company in China that has tried ‘democratic’ elections,” said Anita Chan, professor at the China Research Centre, the University of Technology in Sydney, citing previous such moves by Reebok, Walmart Stores Inc and Honda Motor Co Ltd.

“They all caught a lot of international attention at the time of the union elections but all came to nought. It is all PR.”

China’s ruling Communist party appears willing to countenance a degree of independent unionism and collective bargaining in order to contain growing labor unrest.

“[The government is] likely worried about industrial unrest. It’s clear they want to get workers [away from protesting in] the courtyard and to the negotiating table,” says Auret van Heerden, the FLA’s chief executive. “It appears the Chinese government is more and more concerned that [official] unions have been asleep at the switch.”

In the most recent outbreak of labor militancy, “the annual meeting of the Guangdong People’s Congress this year was marked by garbage piled up in the streets of the provincial capital Guangzhou as hundreds of sanitation workers in more than five districts around city went on strike for higher pay and social insurance payments,” writes the China Labor Bulletin’s Jennifer Cheung.

The ACFTU is not a genuine trade union, most analysts agree, functioning largely as a transmission belt for the ruling Communist party.

“Currently the unions mostly offer workers training to raise their technical skills,” He Yuancheng, who runs an online forum on collective bargaining for Laowei, tells the FT:

Foxconn management has often viewed the union as its extended arm. But the dynamics are changing.

The trigger was a strike at Honda’s plants in southern China in the summer of 2010 that highlighted the problem of having a union allied with management. During the strike, young workers jeered at and scuffled with ACFTU leaders, saying they had never seen them before.

Since then, local governments in southern China have been pushing companies to hold genuine union elections. The Shenzhen municipal government was first in early 2012, followed last month [January] by Guangzhou.

Progress has been slow. At Ohms Electronics (Shenzhen), a small affiliate

of Panasonic, workers directly elected their union leadership for the first time last May.

“Their vote deserved being called democratic, but that’s really the only example we know of,” says Cheng Yiyi from Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour, a Hong Kong-based labor rights group.

Chinese labor relations have seen significant progress since the Solidarity Center issued Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in China in 2004, says the Washington-based labor group:

It has passed a series of laws that cover most industrial workers and create some basic standards. These laws do not protect freedom of association for workers in choosing a union or create the set of institutions necessary to adequately define and enforce collective bargaining. Yet, within a limited scope, the 2008 legal reforms provide a start on addressing some of the imbalances that burden China’s workers. Important voices in China are urging collective bargaining as a means to overcome workers’ lack of purchasing power, cut down on the large number of strikes and industrial disputes, and begin to empower workers as proponents of healthier and safer workplaces. ….

But as progressive as the authorities appear to be in their efforts to promote collective bargaining, labor specialists warn the concept is not fully understood in China.

“Collective bargaining and negotiation on wages is not collective bargaining in the western sense,” observes Pun Ngai, a professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who specialises in labor relations. “In the west, collective bargaining can lead to collective action” – or strikes.

The Solidarity Center is an institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. China Labor Bulletin is a NED grantee.

The Center works with Chinese counterparts on models and advice for strengthening labor laws and their enforcement, on labor law legal aid for workers, and on improving occupational health and safety. In addition, the Solidarity Center aims to assist trade unionists and worker rights advocates in realizing the policy of collective bargaining in the private sector. U.S. trade unions have long history of collective bargaining with multi-national employers, and this experience can be useful to Chinese workers’ organizations.

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Enemies of the State: Pussy Riot and the New Russian Protest Rock

After a decade of President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule in which civil society seemed to be comatose, a new protest movement is growing in Russia. Infuriated by electoral fraud and galloping corruption, the so-called “creative class” is fighting back by means of music, poetry, multi-media, and daring art performances. In this presentation, Artem Troitsky (right) will give a firsthand account of the situation. 

Enemies of the State: Pussy Riot and the New Russian Protest Rock

Part of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies Behind the Headlines Series, co-sponsored with the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies

with Artem Troitsky, Moscow State University, the first, and best known, Russian rock journalist, author of Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia and Tusovka: Whatever Happened to the Soviet Underground Culture. He currently teaches in the Journalism Department of Moscow State University, hosts TV and radio shows (including on Ekho Moskvy), writes for Novaya gazeta, is a member of the board of Greenpeace Russia, and is a well-known blogger and opposition activist.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

4:00 – 5:30 pm

Voesar Conference Room, Suite 412

The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

1957 E Street, NW • Washington, DC 20052

RSVP here



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