Much like Sarah Palin, I can see Burma (officially known as Myanmar) from my house! Though my excellent mountain view doesn't give me any particular insight into the political situation across the border, the internet does, and the story of incipient reform in Burma is one of the more interesting narratives in international politics right now, despite a relative paucity of mainstream media coverage.
This is one of the world's most closed states, with decades of military rule, thousands of political prisoners, and a history of brutal repression. Over the past year, however, and particularly over the past couple months, rumblings of change have rattled the flatware in my cupboard, and while it's still too soon to tell just how real these reforms are, there is an awful lot happening quite quickly.
Last November, in undeniably flawed and rigged elections, the junta that has ruled the country since the 1960s seemed to consolidate its power under a false banner of democracy, with the military-backed party winning an ostensible landslide. About a week later, Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from her house arrest, and over the past year has been exercising increasing freedom to travel around the country and speak publicly.
Outgoing President Than Shwe stepped aside in March after two-decades of one-man rule, and he was replaced by Thein Sein, a General in the Burmese military. Nobody is really sure whether or not Than Shwe is still pulling the strings from behind the curtain, but Thein Sein has been making real policy moves that lead even some of the regime's harshest critics to permit themselves a little optimism about the potential for real reform.
Late last month, President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the construction of a dam being built by a Chinese company. The dam had been the subject of protests within Burma, due to the environmental destruction it would cause. In cancelling the project, Thein Sein's message was loud and clear: he was ready to buck the wishes of China's government and cancel a pet project of his predecessor and fellow elites in response to the wishes of the Burmese people. Typically, China has been Burma's closest (only) ally, so as Murray Hiebert and Gregory Poling argue on the CSIS blog CogitAsia, the move against the dam deserves to be taken more seriously than any previous gestures at reform: the longer-term political and economic costs of angering China are very real.
What's more, Burma's head of censorship, Tint Swe, recently called for greater media freedom, and the government quickly made good on the promise, unblocking a number of websites, including YouTube, Voice of America, and the sites of several outlets run by exiles that specialize in criticizing the government. Very few people in the country have web access, and Tint Swe has made other, less encouraging remarks warning media outlets that they must accept the "responsibilities of freedom," but the move is a positive one, nonetheless.
Somewhat less encouraging news came earlier this month. After great anticipation following the government's announcement that they would be releasing over 6,000 prisoners in a general amnesty, including many political prisoners, most Burma-watchers were disappointed that only 220 political prisoners (out of a total of about 2,000, according to Amnesty International) were among the released. And as reported on Southeast Asia blog New Mandala, general amnesties have a long history in Burma, and shouldn't be taken as a very real sign of reform. Granted, 220 is better than nothing, but keeping 1,700 dissidents locked up isn't the mark of a democracy.
The U.S. State Department has, thus far, responded to the incipient reforms with cautious optimism, inviting Burma's Foreign Minister to the State Department-- a first since the junta took over in 1962-- and openly considering the relaxation of some sanctions and restrictions on economic assistance. This is presumably what Thein Sein is aming for-- it's hard to understand his moves toward reform without believing that he does have a real interest in ending Burma's isolation and in building an economy that isn't wholly dependent on China.
For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has been supportive of the reforms in Burma, and has said she believes Thein Sein is "sincere" in his desire to change Burma. Still, she won't advocate for the U.S.'s cessation of sanctions because of, first, the continued incarceration of 1,700 political prisoners and, second, the government's continued refusal to recognize the rights of minority groups, some of which remain locked in military struggle against the government. The United States is unlikely to make real moves toward rapprochement without her nod, and so the Thein Sein government continues to court her support. (An excellent article in the Wall Street Journal this week, linked above and here, explains Ms. Suu Kyi's role in this international political drama.)
Some argue the U.S. sanctions against Burma are moot-- as ineffectual as the sanctions against Cuba, with the additional factor of China: With trade across the northern border, Burma can (in theory, anyway) circumvent most suffering the sanctions aim to impose. But with Thein Sein and the Burmese government expressing interest in ending the sanctions and a willingness to undertake political reforms to make it happen, this is a carrot the U.S. should use. The State Department should continue walking slowly, encouraging further reform by the Burmese government, but waiting to cease sanctions until more real, permanent change can be demonstrated.
The reforms have been halting, and it's hard to know how real they are. And a dramatic reversal could come to pass: a counter-revolution by unhappy hardliners in the Burmese political elite is eminently possible. But the motions over the mountains in Burma seem to have real potential, and for the sake of the Burmese people, we must hope that true change is in the cards.
The Economist has a thought-provoking article in this week's edition which discusses the findings of a new Freedom House report, "Freedom in the World 2010: A Global Erosion of Freedom."
The article has this compelling passage:
For freedom-watchers in the West, the worrying thing is that the cause of liberal democracy is not merely suffering political reverses, it is also in intellectual retreat. Semi-free countries, uncertain which direction to take, seem less convinced that the liberal path is the way of the future. And in the West, opinion-makers are quicker to acknowledge democracy’s drawbacks—and the apparent fact that contested elections do more harm than good when other preconditions for a well-functioning system are absent. It is a sign of the times that a British reporter, Humphrey Hawksley, has written a book with the title: “Democracy Kills: What’s So Good About the Vote?”.
A more nuanced argument, against the promotion of electoral democracy at the expense of other goals, has been made by other observers. Paul Collier, an Oxford professor, has asserted that democracy in the absence of other desirables, like the rule of law, can hobble a country’s progress. Mark Malloch-Brown, a former head of the UN Development Programme, is still a believer in democracy as a driver of economic advancement, but he thinks that in countries like Afghanistan, the West has focused too much on procedures—like multi-party elections—and is not open enough to the idea that other kinds of consensus might exist. At the University of California, Randall Peerenboom defends the “East Asian model”, according to which economic development naturally precedes democracy.
Whatever the eggheads may be saying, there are some obvious reasons why Western governments’ zeal to promote democracy, and the willingness of other countries to listen, have ebbed. In many quarters (including Western ones), the assault on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and its bloody aftermath, seemed to confirm people’s suspicion that promoting democracy as an American foreign-policy aim was ill-conceived or plain cynical.
In Afghanistan, the other country where an American-led coalition has been waging war in democracy’s name, the corruption and deviousness of the local political elite, and the flaws of last year’s election, have been an embarrassment. In the Middle East, America’s enthusiasm for promoting democracy took a dip after the Palestinian elections of 2006, which brought Hamas to office. The European Union’s “soft power” on its eastern rim has waned as enlargement fatigue has grown.
But perhaps the biggest reason why democracy’s magnetic power has waned is the rise of China—and the belief of its would-be imitators that they too can create a dynamic economy without easing their grip on political power. In the political rhetoric of many authoritarian governments, fascination with copying China’s trick can clearly be discerned.
I have believed for some time now that the way the world was developing would inevitably force President Obama and his Administration to become much more spirited global advocates of political freedom and liberty than was their initial instinct. Why?
For the great political dynamic of the early 21st century is what Fareed Zakaria has called "the rise of the rest" - or the increasingly rapid rise in power and socio-economic status twenty years of globalization has brought to many developing nations. In these nations there are billions of similarly "rising" people, individuals and families who though this process of modernization have seen a dramatic rise in their affluence, education levels and access to information. It seems inexorable that these rising citizens, tied to the world through the rapid beat of global technology, media and commerce, will increasingly demand greater openness, transparency, accountability and democratic institutions from their leaders. They will want more than affluence and stability - they will want the political self-determinination and freedom they see in other nations.
As I have written before, I think the emerging ideological struggle in the world today is more open society versus closed, than it is a replay of the 20th century construct of left and right. As this Freedom House report reminds us, it is at this moment in history, when so many nations and peoples are rising and reinventing old and less modern societies, when America and its ideological allies must make their case for their vision of how humanity will best prosper together in a very different century ahead. We really don't know how the 21st century will turn out. But with the world being so young now, and with so many nations going through profound transformation, we have to see this struggle to ensure successful transitions of these rising nations to modern, democratic, and free countries as the next stage of the great battle we waged to defeat totalitarianism, communism and fascism in the 20th century. Our work, my friends, is not yet done.
In that regard I think it is critical, essential, required that this President and this Administration make it crystal clear to the people in these rising nations that America stands with them and their aspirations; that we want to work side by side with them in forging better nations with greater opportunities and freedom; that we will be patient but resolute in our commitment; for at no moment can an authoritarian government which denies basic freedoms to their people ever be considered better or even an acceptable alternative to well constructed democratic societies which offer liberty, democracy itself, free markets and the rule of law.
Of course we cannot be foolish in how we advocate for this traditional American creed in the new world of the 21st century, but nor can we ignore it. Too many people across the world are waiting to hear from us. And I dismiss the idea that this discussion is about "human rights," or "universal rights," as if these things are somehow secondary to the important things great powers discuss when they meet. The firm and resolute advocacy of open and free societies has to be the very cornerstone of America's foreign policy at this critical - and exciting - juncture in human history. It is not something left to the coffee after the diplomatic main course. There has been no moment in our history in fact when so many people and so many nations have had the chance to rise to the level of freedom and self-determination the 21st century offers; which is why the effort to help them achieve it should be seen as the great geopolitical opportunity for America of this new era, one which must be enthusiastically seized.
We will get a sense of the state of the Administration's thinking on all this Thursday, when the very able Secretary of State will deliver an important speech on internet freedom. My hope is that she goes big, is bold, and makes clear what is at stake, and helps us all understand the historic opportunity in front of us today.
As I wrote the other day one of the most consequential stories of the early 21st century will be the struggle of the rising nations of the world with modernity and all that it entails - free markets, the global information revolution and of course the other part of what of what the West has been exporting - political freedom, rule of law and democracy.
As the "world watches" what is happening in Iran, I've been wondering how these extraordinary images are going over in Caracas, Riyadh, Beijing, Moscow and the corridors of power of other less than democratic governments. The events of the past week have raised the issues of political freedom and liberty in ways that are not always easy for the West to do. My sense is that whatever the outcome in Iran - and we have to hope for the best each day - these events, coupled with the rise of Barack Obama in the US, are putting some issues on the global table that may be uncomfortable indeed for many important nations in the world today.
Much has been written about the how events unfolding in Iran are crossing some kind of internal Iranian Rubicon. Fareed Zakaria has a new essay to this effect. But there is a strong argument to be made that the world is crossing that Rubicon right along with the Iranians, and that we wiill all be in a new place together after these extraordinary set of events. I won't argue that we will begin to see street demonstrations in other parts of the world now, but there can be no doubt that the inconvenient and of course critically important issue of political freedom has been introduced into the great global conversation in a way it has not been for a long, long time. And where that takes us is still to early to tell, but we do know that this new place almost has to be better than where we've been.
As we watch the situation in Iran unfold here in the United States, many of us feel a desire to do something to help - the human struggle for freedom is one of the most powerful things we can witness. In the past few days, much has been made of the Iranian opposition's use of Twitter to organize internally and communicate with the outside world. But what is equally remarkable is the response internationally, and particularly in the United States. Many users have made their icons green in a show of solidarity. And as Iranian authorities attempt to block Twitter as well, a cyber-battle has broken out, with activists inside Iran asking people to use simple hacks to overload Iranian government websites. Many Americans are trying to get involved this way, and are also setting up mirror proxies that allow people inside Iran to tweet without being blocked by the government's firewall.
As I said, the desire to help the people of Iran is a natural reaction for anyone observing the situation there. But I'm not really sure that this is the best way to go about it. Today, President Ahmadinejad
... sat side-by-side with world leaders at a summit in Russia, defiantly proclaiming the age of empires had ended and attacking the United States.
In a show of confidence after the worst riots in his country in a decade, Ahmadinejad made no mention of the violence or his hotly disputed reelection victory in his address to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
State-controlled Iranian newspapers are running headlines like "The vote of the Iranian people made U.S. and Israel's work much harder." It's great that Iranians have found a way to help ordinary people fight back online in a distributed fashion, both inside Iran and without, but I also worry that the more we get involved in this, the more Ahmadinejad and his ilk will capitalize on our "interference."
Citizens here who want to help face the same difficult question that President Obama does - how can we support democracy and justice in Iran without fanning the flames of anti-Americanism? I think he played it just right in his comments today:
"When I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it is of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people."
Mr. Obama also said that "something has happened in Iran," leading to "a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past. That there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy. How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something for the Iranian people to decide."
By all means, the rest of the world can and should show solidarity with the people of Iran. But if we are serious about the ideals of democracy and self-determination, we must also remember that in the end, this is Iran's fight, and we cannot fight it for them.
Note: Today, I am going to take a break from my usual topic of clean technology and the environment to comment on the anniversary of two significant events in the history of freedom and democracy.
New York City -- Twenty years ago today, Poland held the first free elections in Eastern Europe since before World War II. Solidarity, led by former electrician Lech Walesa, crushed its main opposition, the Communist Party to win close to 100% of the vote. Walesa went on to become Poland's president, and Poland has since joined the European Union and NATO and emerged as a significant player in Europe with an economy larger than that of Sweden or Belgium. Led today by Donald Tusk, it is emblematic of the democracies that emerged in Europe in 1989 and 1990 following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the great leap forward for Democracy that has occurred more broady since then in much of the world.
Twenty years ago today, however, something quite different happened across the globe in China. The same day that Poles were voting for freedom, on the other side of the globe at Tiannamen Square, the Chinese government decided to quash a several-weeks rebellion that had brought China to a standstill. The bloody action that followed involved troops firing successive volleys into the crowd in a manner reminiscent of the famous Indian massacre at Jallianwala Bagh that some say marked the end of British moral authority in India. China has since gone on to stage an economic miracle so that by some economic and social indicators it rivals the United States. While per capital GDP is still a fraction of ours, China today churns out more PhDs, olympic gold medalists and pollution than the United States. The Chinese miracle is indeed more dramatic than that of Japan or any other country in modern history, but it has not led -- contrary to great Western hopes and wishes -- to democracy. Just this week, for example, China censored Twitter, Flickr and Hotmail.
The Polish example -- like that of the Czech Republic and similar states -- is reassuring to those of us in the West. It suggests that without coercion, left to their own devices, people choose democracy and democracy leads to prosperity. You can't have one without the other. Indeed one of the reasons that Gorbachev, Russia and its satellites turned away from Communism in the 1980s toward the American way was that our way seemed not only more enjoyable but so much better at delivering material well-being.
The Chinese example is not so reassuring. While we don't know what would happen without the continuing power of the Communist authorities, the Chinese example suggests that wealth can multiply in the absence of freedom and democracy. Indeed, it suggests that material wealth may act as a substitute instead of a complement to democracy and freedom of expression.
This is troubling because in the United States we have gotten used to the idea that economic leadership and freedom go hand and hand. Certainly, we have used our economic and military strength to promote -- if imperfectly -- the cause of freedom. Our standard of living, moreover, has been not only an advertisement for our way of life but the draw for many who have chosen democracy.
There is much to validate our point of view in history. With some notable exceptions, free places have been economically and culturally dynamic ones. Ancient writers marveled at Athens' emergence from obscurity in only a matter of years after it embraced democracy and attributed the marvel, including the ferocity with which its people fought -- to their love of freedom. Rome and Carthage, the two most free republics of their day dominated, trade and commerce in the Mediterannean. Venice, a republic dominated trade in the high middle ages, prompting imitation. The Dutch Republic during the 17th century led the world in trade And England during its long sojourn as the world's leading economy was far more democratic than most. All this paved the way for America's experiment with freedom -- the world's greatest -- that has led to unprecdented wealth and prosperity for an unprecedented number as well as unprecedented freedom.
However, there are plenty of civilizations and empires in the world that were simultaneously rich and unfree, from the ancient Assyrian empire to the Incan and Aztec empires in the Americas to the Ottoman empire to the Chinese dynasties. These empires created less excitement and left less of a written record, generally, because they suppressed expression. However, they often generated substantial wealth in gold, decorative art and architecture.
It would be nice if wealth in China leads inexorably to Democracy. However, we cannot take this for granted. If China does not embrace the same ideals as the United States, our case will rest on our ability to continue to innovate -- so as to continue to lead economically--and also on our ability to convince the world that freedom has benefits beyond those that are purely economic.
In March, NDN proudly hosted the first "Preview to the Summit of the Americas," in Washington, D.C. At the event, moderated by Mr. Nelson Cunningham, we gained valuable insight from our distinguished panelists.
Our keynote speaker, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, has been a long-time friend of NDN's and inspired what has developed into the Latin America Policy Initiative at NDN, founded on a core principle: as stated by Sen. Menendez, "In the age of globalization, we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world – and to no people are we more closely connected than to our neighbors in Latin America." Below, an excerpt of Sen. Menendez's remarks at the "Preview to the Summit of the Americas":
[The Summit of the Americas] meeting isn’t just an opportunity to tackle our common challenges — it’s another chance to be reminded how connected we all are. Those of us who advocate strong cooperation across borders always have the challenge of explaining to a taxpayer in New Jersey why they might be asked to support a program in Nuevo Leon. The Summit is going to help the entire region remember why...Giving greater mutual focus to institution-building, cross-border development and democracy is a strategy meant to improve the quality of life of our citizens. But maybe above all, finding that focus represents an opportunity to build a new trust between us, to substitute unnecessary tension for a new bond of hope.