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.”


Why has Assad been able to retain power in Syria?

syria-protestWhy has Bashar al-Assad been able to hang onto power in western Syria? asks Frederic C. Hof, a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

According to Ambassador Robert Ford, the top reason for the regime’s persistence has been the failure of the opposition to reassure Alawites that they would not be threatened in the wake of Assad’s departure, notes Hof, formerly the Obama administration’s special advisor for transition in Syria:

Second—and only second—has been the enormity of Iranian and Russian political and military support to the regime. Third is the evident unity and coherence of the regime, “which is lacking on the opposition side.” This is a remarkable thesis: massive military support from Tehran and Moscow is a secondary factor in the regime’s survival, and the performance of the West figures not at all; the victim is primarily responsible for his own victimization……

Leave aside the fact that opposition leaders have spoken publicly and eloquently about their vision of a Syria where citizenship will trump all other forms of political identification, and where Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity will be protected and celebrated. These themes were articulated eloquently by Burhan Ghalioun in the very first Friends of the Syrian People conference in Tunis and fully reflected in key opposition policy documents produced in Cairo in the summer of 2012. Surely it was the adherence of the mainstream, nationalist opposition to the principles of civil society and rule of law that enabled the United States and others in December 2012 to recognize the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

“The excellent performance of the opposition delegation at the recent Geneva II exercise did nothing to detract from a vision of Syria that is decent, liberal, and civilized,” Hof contends. RTWT

But it’s foreign Shia fighters who have tipped the balance in Assad’s favor, The Financial Times reports:

The mobilization of Shia fighters appears to be more successful than that of their Sunni counterparts, some argue, because it is organized and encouraged by Iran, from where recruits are trained and sent to Syria in groups, say Syrians who have joined Pro-Assad militias.

“The main big difference is the state backing. It is a far more organized process,” says Phillip Smyth, an analyst at the University of Maryland who follows Shia militias. Tehran’s systematic support makes Shia fighters a more unified force than that of the Sunni foreign fighters who tend to travel alone to Syria and join disparate groups.

The Shia fighters are associated with a shift in the balance of Syria’s three-year conflict in Mr Assad’s favor. In late 2013 his forces secured a belt of territory around Damascus and central Syria, up to the coastal stronghold of his own minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

“Assad was losing big swaths of territory then...When they came in, there was a clear shift in the balance of power on the ground,” said Janaina Herrera, analyst at the New Generation Consulting group in Beirut.

The State Department is about to begin delivering tens of millions of dollars’ worth of new assistance into Syria, including ambulances, communications gear and Toyota pickup trucks for the country’s beleaguered rebels, Gordon Lubold writes for Foreign Policy’s The Complex (HT: FPI). But the relatively small size of the new aid package is a vivid reminder that the Obama administration is continuing to take a largely hands-off approach to a country in the fourth year of a civil war in which nearly 150,000 people have died.

Assessing Libya’s transition

LibyaMEIThree years after the start of the uprisings that led to the ousting of leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libyan efforts to build a stable, cohesive, democratic state have faced repeated setbacks.

At this challenging moment in the country’s transition, The Middle East Institute is pleased to host experts David Mack (The Middle East Institute), Karim Mezran (Atlantic Council) and Fred Wehrey (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) for a discussion about Libya. They’ll be addressing the political and security conditions, steps needed to address the political chaos and divisions afflicting the country, and what more the international community can do to support Libya’s troubled reform process.


Amb. David Mack, Adjunct Scholar, The Middle East Institute

Karim Mezran, Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East 

Frederic Wehrey, Senior Associate, Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Charles Dunne (Moderator) Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs, Freedom House, Adjunct Scholar, The Middle East Institute 

When: Wednesday, March 26, 12pm-1:30pm 

Where: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 1779 Massachusetts Ave NW,  Washington, DC 20036  


External actors in democratic transitions: avoiding funding frenzies

barbarahaigExternal actors, including democratic states, non-governmental organizations and private groups can make a significant contribution by assisting transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But they should not be allowed to eclipse local actors, says Barbara Haig, Deputy to the President for Policy & Strategy at the National Endowment for Democracy.

External actors play an important role in assisting transitions to democracy by lending political and material support and know-how. They can help constrain the impact of spoilers (both internal and external), and cushion the blow of painful reforms with incentives and rewards. They can also serve as neutral conveners by providing a space for competitors and adversaries to resolve conflicts or disputes and reach consensus on policy or strategy.

Since the transitions of the early 1990s, donor countries and non-governmental groups grew confident about their ability to fund and in other ways support democratic transitions. While complicated and tumultuous, these transitions offered a relatively hospitable environment for external actors who wanted to help. But it is important to remember that prior to the breakthroughs in Central Europe, only modest material and technical support was provided to democracy activists, who shaped the course of their own actions and strategies. Donors, such as the NED, served as a support mechanism for their work, but they conducted their own negotiations – with outgoing authoritarian powers in the form of ‘pacted transitions’ and with democratic partners or rivals to resolve tensions over strategy and tactics. It was not until the transitions were underway that government donors entered in a big way, along with the contractors they employed. While much U.S. government funding was driven by political processes and short-term objectives, private foundations lent longer term support to build institutions and capacity within civil society, including political parties.

Sensitivity to sovereignty

Fast forward to more recent and current transitions—where the environment for support is not always hospitable and can turn very nasty. Donors and foreign implementers must be attuned to the possibility that, as we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere, national pride and sensitivity to issues of sovereignty can rapidly consume a society and distract local actors from the tasks at hand. Social media can quickly spoil reputations and distort the picture. It may not always be wise to quickly ramp up democracy and civil society funding in a manner which could appear to be driven more by showing how involved we are in the transition rather than how to nimbly respond to what is practical and can be effective. Awarding substantial sums to new or weak organizations can pull them away from their potential constituencies with ruinous effect.

Over time, entrenched powers—even Western allies—realize that they can gain prestige in their region by pushing back against a “Western agenda.” And in many cases citizens can be stirred up by appealing to feelings of cultural or religious nationalism under the guise of preventing violations of national “sovereignty”. . Such trends can actually derail transitions, particularly if they turn violent.

For those of us who have engaged with many transitions over the years, there is a disturbingly familiar pattern. Donor resources are ramped up and hordes of consultants and contractors descend on the capital city of the country undergoing transition. Endless strategy and proposal writing meetings take place and eat up the time of people who need to be preparing and organizing their efforts. Rents go up and talented locals are lured away from their poor NGOs with high salaries offered by foreign contractors. The air is sucked out of local organizations and coalitions as outside groups with resources strive to pull locals into new coalitions for voter education and monitoring that is in their work plan. The critical role of political parties can be undermined if all key functions and resources are directed toward civil society.

Donor countries and foreign organizations should not make the mistake of taking too direct a role in building governance. Rather, indigenous civil society and political parties, as well as professional information outlets, however incipient, must be vested with these responsibilities since it is these actors that will ultimately be responsible for ensuring democratic governance. As these organizations will be the ones to hold institutional bodies accountable and generate new ideas and proposals, they should not be supplanted, but strengthened with the help of foreign actors. A transition is a long-term process, and needs local capacity to generate strategies for capable action over the long-term. Endless series of trainings and short-term project activities do not produce lasting results.

There is no question that those countries which are able should help transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But transitions should not be allowed to become opportunities for frenzies of funding in which proposal writing professionals take control.

As Qaddafi’s son extradited, diplomats try to stabilize Libya’s transition

libyagncWorld diplomats are working to help Libya create a stable government amid violence and growing political tensions that have festered since former President Moammar Qaddafi’s regime crumbled in 2011, AP reports:

Today’s meeting of foreign ministers, mostly from the West and Gulf states, focused largely on easing disagreements among Libya’s diverse tribal, religious and ethnic populations, looking toward writing a new constitution.

Niger today extradited Saadi el-Qaddafi, the third son of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, back to Libya, where he is accused of participating in the corruption and abuses of his father’s 40-year rule, the New York Times reports:

The transitional government in Libya has sought Mr. Qaddafi and other fugitive members of his family since rebels toppled his father three years ago. The transitional government has shown little progress in building a credible or independent judiciary that might handle such high-profile cases, to say nothing of the problems it has found in creating a professional army, police force or prison system.

A blockade of Libya’s eastern Hariga oil port…one of many involving oil facilities of the OPEC country that have contributed to a cut in petroleum output to 230,000 bpd from 1.4 million bpd in July…. highlights the chaos in the North African oil producer since the fall of Gaddafi, and the complications for its fragile government in overcoming protests holding its vital oil industry hostage, Reuters reports.

LIBYAFLAGLibyans have expressed mixed views on proposals on transitional arrangements over the next 18 months, which among other things calls for direct election of the president and parliament, reports suggest.

The February Committee, a 15-member body created by Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) to propose amendments to the country’s 2011 Constitutional Declaration and pave the way for parliamentary and legislative elections, presented a report with at least 57 recommendations to the GNC on March 4, according to a Libya-based democracy assistance group:  

Given a mandate to flesh out the GNC’s controversial roadmap for the continued transitional period, the February Committee is comprised of six elected GNC members and nine non-elected members, predominantly jurists. The committee’s creation was largely in response to mounting public dissatisfaction with GNC performance and demands that its members step down rather than extend their ill-defined mandate.  

The report — presented as draft legislation — recommends that a future elected House of Representatives be based in Benghazi. Libya’s next president would be directly elected and would appoint the prime minister. The president would have limited executive authority as head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, and in most decision-making instances would be required to consult with the prime minister or obtain consent from the House of Representatives. In reality, executive powers could be fairly significant if the choice of prime minister is solely at the president’s discretion.

Some members of the GNC say that the report only contains recommendations that require congressional debate and the opportunity to amend before passage into law. However, there is growing urgency for the GNC to elaborate a clearer path forward. Even as pressure on the body to step down intensified over the past several weeks, many Libyans also realize that the country needs a legislative body to oversee the constitution-drafting process, as well as the holding of a constitutional referendum and subsequent elections.

But public patience is wearing thin and further delays in moving toward elections will be viewed unfavorably as attempts by the GNC to extend its tenuous term in office. The GNC plans to debate the February Committee’s proposals during its next plenary session on March 9. However, other pressing agenda items scheduled for the same session, including debate over a no confidence measure on Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and a proposed amendment to the interim constitution to ensure the rights of ethnic minority communities may prevent the GNC from reaching a decision on the committee’s proposals.

libya-free_1835951cThe February Committee worked in near isolation, declining calls for meetings and repeatedly promising to publish updates online. The group appeared to take its assignment seriously, especially regarding clarity over the extent of presidential authority.  The GNC may further refine presidential prerogatives as it clarifies processes, including those for: selecting the prime minister; signing laws into force, declaring states of emergency and war; and conducting cabinet meetings.

The 13 “authorities” of the president, listed on the GNC public information page, are as follows:

1) Represents the country in international relations.

2) Power to select a prime minister.

3) Acts as the Supreme Commander in Chief of the Libyan Army.

4) Power to appoint or dismiss the Chief of Intelligence Services with consent of the House of Representatives.

5) Appoints ambassadors and representatives to international organizations, based on proposals from (on the recommendation of) the Foreign Minister.

6) The authority to appoint or dismiss senior civil servants or state employees in consultation with the Prime Minister.

7) Receives credentials of foreign ambassadors and representatives to Libya.

8) Issues laws which are passed by the House of Representatives.

9) Signs international conventions and treaties, which then must be approved by the House of Representatives.

10)  Declares state of emergency and war, and takes exceptional measures after approval from the council of defense and national security. An approval from the House of Representatives must also be taken in 10 days’ time.

11)  Heads meetings of the government when he attends them.

12)  Dismisses the Prime Minister in consultations with the House of Representatives, and also dismisses government ministers in consultations with the Prime Minister.

13)  Any other powers stipulated by the constitutional declaration and law.