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May 28, 2013

Obama’s Myopic Myanmar Policy

May 25, 2013 by

President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein of Myanmar in the Oval Office, May 20, 2013. Lawrence Jackson/White House

In a recent meeting with Burma’s premier, Thein Sein, at the White House, President Barack Obama recognized his counterpart’s “genuine efforts” to assuage inter-communal tensions. Undoubtedly, Thein Sein was overjoyed to hear Obama refer to Myanmar instead of Burma. This symbolical approval of the former military state’s reforms underpins further nods for reforms that the country has undertaken.

Political and economic reforms in Burma, spearheaded by the ruling government, are aspiring vis-à-vis the country’s previous status of a pariah state. Democracy has taken root and the government has abandoned its long-standing policy of opposition suppression, in particular, silencing Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi along with 42 of her supporters from the National League for Democracy (NLD) won seats in the 2012 parliamentary elections.

Political and economic reforms have already started to pay off. One of the most significant moves by the Bank of Myanmar (the defunct Union Bank of Burma) is to float their already inflated currency, the Kyat. Under the previous exchange system where foreign currencies were devalued against the Kyat, the regime could cloak and appropriate the national revenues earned by exporting national resources like gas and wood. The government also enacted a Foreign Investment Law, which is considered investment friendly. Burma’s government is also allowing foreign institutions to lend money more freely.

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North Korea: Enter Realpolitik

April 20, 2013 by

Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on April 13, 2013

Will President Obama become a late and unlikely convert to realpolitik and allow John Kerry to sacrifice America’s nuclear non-proliferation principles on the battered altar of North Korean diplomacy?  And will the fearsome pivot to Asia turn into a dainty pirouette, an American pas de deux with China as the two great powers search for a way to dance around the North Korean nuclear problem?

Potentially, the North Korean nuclear crisis is a good thing for the US and South Korea-and perhaps even for China!—if President Obama is ready to bend on some cherished non-proliferation beliefs.  That’s what the North Korean leadership is begging him to do, amid the nuclear uproar.

Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, seems to be interested in getting, if not on the same page, in the same chapter with North Korea, and maybe pick up a geopolitical win (with Chinese acquiescence) similar to the successful effort to push Myanmar (Burma) out of its exclusive near-China orbit.

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Understanding the Plight of the Rohingya Muslims

March 6, 2013 by

Rohingya Muslims in the Nayapara refugee camp. Photo by Ruben Flamarique/Austcare

One fails to understand the unperturbed attitude with which regional and international leaders and organizations are treating the unrelenting onslaught against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, formally known as Burma. Numbers speak of atrocities where every violent act is prelude to greater violence and ethnic cleansing. Yet, western governments’ normalization with the Myanmar regime continues unabated, regional leaders are as gutless as ever and even human rights organizations seem compelled by habitual urges to issue statements lacking meaningful, decisive and coordinated calls for action.

Meanwhile the ‘boat people’ remain on their own. On February 26, fishermen discovered a rickety wooden boat floating randomly at sea, nearly 25 kilometers (16 miles) off the coast of Indonesia’s northern province of Aceh. The Associated Press and other media reported there were 121 people on board including children who were extremely weak, dehydrated and nearly starved. They were Rohingya refugees who preferred to take their chances at sea rather than stay in Myanmar. To understand the decision of a parent to risk his child’s life in a tumultuous sea would require understanding the greater risks awaiting them at home.

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Burma Washes Its Hands of the Rohingyas

November 19, 2012 by

A Rohingya Muslim who fled Myanmar pleads with Bangladesh border authorities after his boat was intercepted. Image via MILLA Project

To outside observers, the carnage inflicted on the Rohingya minority - a five-month spasm of violence and de fact ethnic cleansing ostensibly stemming from the rape of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya men - in Rakhine Province is indefensible and inexplicable.

What is even less understandable to Westerners is the virtually universal closing of ranks among local and national governments, pro and anti-government Buddhist monks, junta apologists and pro-democracy activists, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, all uniting to deny the apparently undeniable fact that an old fashioned pogrom is taking place against Rohingya minority and other Muslims.

Friends of Myanmar are puzzled and dismayed that the progressives they have championed have joined forces with the country’s most reactionary forces to deny the overwhelming evidence that Rohingya - a dark-skinned Muslim ethnic minority with cultural and linguistic ties to neighboring Bangladesh - are being driven out of their homes by a campaign of intimidation, arson, and violence in 2012 that builds upon years of marginalization and demonization.

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Raising the Stakes in Asia

October 26, 2012 by

Depending on one’s ideological bent, America’s so-called “pivot to Asia” could be interpreted in varying ways. However, one thing that is increasingly clear is that the Obama administration is intent on re-asserting America’s strategic centrality in the Asia-Pacific. This was very explicit in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2011 piece for Foreign Policy, entitled “America’s Pacific Century.”

The U.S. pivot to Asia is motivated and shaped by both economic and military-strategic factors. Essentially, it is still an ongoing process that will depend on the cooperation of regional allies as well as the evolving patterns of Sino-American relations.

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Patience and Doubt amidst Gradual Reforms in Myanmar

September 10, 2012 by

Aung San Suu Kyi with Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo by Roger Harris

Myanmar has been called a country frozen in time, usually in reference to Bagan’s historic temples or Yangon’s state-run taxi fleet of 1980s automobiles. Five months after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won forty-three of forty-five seats in a parliamentary bi-election, the phrase fits the country’s politics as well.

Long-time military ruler Than Shwe has given way to reformist Prime Minister U Thein Sein. Suu Kyi has made formerly unimaginable appearances in European capitals. The United States and the European Union have suspended economic sanctions effective since the military regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. Yet with the next concrete step toward democratization promising parliamentary elections in 2015, Myanmar finds itself on the frustrating precipice of a still unrealized democracy.

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Burma: Legacies of Political Activism and Authoritarian Rule

August 28, 2012 by

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, Burma, in 2011

In the past 18 months, Burma, also known as Myanmar, unexpectedly released more 600 political prisoners including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate and de facto leader of the opposition movement. Internet websites such as the BBC and Gmail have ceased to be blocked. Parliament passed legislation that included a labor law that allows unions, illegal since 1974, and laws outlawing forced labor. The Press Censorship Board no longer requires publications to have all articles approved in advance. The National Human Rights Commission was established by President Thein Sein to investigate current incidences of rights violations by the government.

And while the security apparatus that can incarcerate anyone who speaks out against the government – rules, regulations and the authorities that enforce them—remains intact, such laws are currently not being enforced in Rangoon and Mandalay. These are important signals, not yet institutionalized, that demonstrate that political space is broadening in Burma’s core areas. Less change is seen in the ethnic periphery areas of the country. Recent anti-Rohingya rioting, continued active military conflict in Kachin state, and lack of political freedoms outside of large cities, continues and is at odds with this new Burma.

Read the rest of Linnea M. Beatty’s insightful dissertation by clicking here.

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Review: Iara Lee’s Cultures of Resistance

July 25, 2012 by

When we think of “resistance,” what mostly comes to mind is guerrilla warfare: Vietnamese closing in on the besieged French at Dien Bien Phu; Angolans ambushing Portuguese troops outside of Luanda; Salvadorans waging a war of attrition against their military oligarchy. But resistance doesn’t always involve roadside bombs or military operations.  Sometimes it is sprayed on a Teheran wall, or rapped in a hip-hop song in Gaza. It can be a poem in Medellin, Colombia—arguably one of the most dangerous cities in the world—or come from a guitar shaped like an AK-47. In short, there are few boundaries or strictures when it comes to the imagination and creativity that people bring to the act of defiance.

That art can be powerful stuff is the central message that Brazilian filmmaker Iara Lee brings to her award-winning documentary “Cultures of Resistance.” Her previous films include  “Synthetic Pleasures,” about the impact of technology on mass culture, and “Modulations,” on the evolution of electronic music. Her most recent film is “The Suffering Grasses,” about the civil war in Syria.

Lee began “Cultures” in 2003, just before the Bush administration invaded Iraq, and her six-year odyssey takes her through five continents and 35 cities: Burma, Brazil, Rwanda, Iran, Burundi, Israel, Nigeria, the Congo, and Liberia, to name a few. In each case she profiles a grassroots movement that embodies the philosophy of non-violent resistance to everything from political oppression to occupation.

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Ethnic Strife in Burma: A History of Violence

July 25, 2012 by

Rohingya refugees in the Nayapara refugee camp. Ruben Flamarique/Austcare

For Muslims around the world, Ramadan is a month of peace and calmness. That is hardly the case for the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The ethnic rift between them and the ethnic Buddhists since June has spiraled out of control, leaving scores of Rohingya Muslims dead and homeless. Many have crossed the border into Bangladesh. Amnesty International’s Benjamin Zawacki said the latest violence has been “primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingya specifically the targets and victims.”

Branded by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities of the world, Rohingya’s live in the Rakhine State, located in west of Myanmar. With a population of 3 million, the Rakhine state borders Bay of Bengal to the west and the majority of its residents are Theravada Buddhists and Hindus.

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‘Democracy’ and Slaughter in Burma: Gold Rush Overrides Human Rights

July 17, 2012 by

The widespread killings of Rohingya Muslims in Burma – or Myanmar - have received only passing and dispassionate coverage in most media. What they actually warrant is widespread outrage and decisive efforts to bring further human rights abuses to an immediate halt.  “Burmese helicopter set fire to three boats carrying nearly 50 Muslim Rohingyas fleeing sectarian violence in western Burma in an attack that is believed to have killed everyone on board,” reported Radio Free Europe on July 12.

Why would anyone take such fatal risks? Refugees are attempting to escape imminent death, torture or arrest at the hands of the Ethnic Buddhist Rakhine majority, which has the full support of the Burmese government.

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To the Pacific We Go: The US ‘Rebalancing’ Act

June 4, 2012 by

“The Joint Force will be prepared to confront and defeat aggression anywhere in the world.”

– Leon Panetta, ‘Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership’, Jan 5, 2012

Empires huff and puff, and sometimes stutter. Bloodied heels are not taken as a warning that their time has come – rather they are simply seen as part of the job prescription. Despite a slow economy and stagnation in such theatres as Afghanistan, the United States is moving inexorably into the Pacific, and the military wise men are intent that they do so with speed. The 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance called “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” is the guiding document in that mission.  It is little secret that a primary focus of the report is China and its busy profile.

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Ethiopia: World Bank to Fund Destructive Dam through the Backdoor?

May 22, 2012 by

Gilgel Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia. image via Grand Millennium Dam

Some projects are so destructive that no reputable actors want to get involved with them. Think of the oil wells in Sudan’s conflict zones, China’s Three Gorges Dam, and the gas pipelines in Burma. If the price is right, however, some will still be tempted to do business on such projects through the back door. The World Bank is currently taking such an approach with a big credit for Ethiopia’s power sector.

The Gibe III Dam, now under construction in Southwest Ethiopia, will devastate ecosystems that support 500,000 indigenous people in the Lower Omo Valley and around Kenya’s Lake Turkana. The UN’s World Heritage Committee called on the Ethiopian government to “immediately halt all construction” on the project, which will impact several sites of universal cultural and ecological value. In August 2011, the Kenyan parliament passed a resolution asking for the suspension of dam construction pending further studies.

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Disaster Management in Southeast Asia: Issues and Challenges

May 15, 2012 by

2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Photo by Samuel Lippke

When several countries in Southeast Asia announced their intention to develop nuclear power recently, many inhabitants of that region were spooked. Even as developed countries are shutting down their nuclear power plants, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam have indicated that they will be building their first nuclear power plants.  The biggest concern is that Southeast Asia is prone to frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.

If a major earthquake or tsunami set off a nuclear disaster equal to that which struck Japan in March 2011 were to hit any one of those countries mentioned above, the devastation for the region as a whole will almost certainly be much greater since countries in Southeast Asia are located in close proximity to one another.

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Burma’s Reform: An Opportunity or a Threat?

April 27, 2012 by

Aung San Suu Kyi in Oslo. Photo by Sjur Stølen via Aktiv I Oslo.no

Luminaries smelled blood. Hillary Clinton, Kevin Rudd, and David Cameron came and went, openly advocating for continued democratic reform. All met with Ms. Aung Sun Suu Kyi.  In the aftermath of grandiose state visits from such luminaries to Burma (officially known as Myanmar), Aung Sun Suu Kyi and military leaders face a long and difficult task to bring about political, social, and economic reforms in a country that has remained under a brutal military junta and isolated from most of the world since 1960.

In politics, relationships matter less. Interest matters most. U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, a high-ranking Republican, recently expressed his glowing enthusiasm and hopes for the reform in Burma. He thought Burma is on the path to achieve something that once seemed impossible. Ironically, Sen. McConnell is also the “architect” of the economic sanctions against Burma.

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Goldman Prize for Kenyan River Activist Ikal Angelei

April 16, 2012 by

Kenyan River activist Ikal Angelei. Photo by Ian Elwood

Ikal Angelei, the founder of Friends of Lake Turkana in Kenya, receives the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco today. The award will honor an activist who is defending the interests of 500,000 poor indigenous people against a destructive hydropower dam, and has successfully taken on many of the world’s biggest dam builders and financiers.  Ikal Angelei grew up on the shores of Lake Turkana, the world’s biggest desert lake.

This lifeline of Northwestern Kenya is under threat from the giant Gibe III Dam, currently under construction on the lake’s main water source, the Omo River in Ethiopia. When she learned about this threat, Ikal founded Friends of Lake Turkana with a few friends in 2007. Working together with partners around the world, she started an international campaign to stop the mega-dam which threatens her people’s livelihoods.

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