Burmese road workers. Photos: Michael Lwin
Michael Lwin, a research fellow at Georgetown University, recently traveled to Myanmar to research Burmese law, culture and religion. In this second post from his trip, he writes about next year’s elections.
I was sitting in a taxi with a middle-aged Burmese man, driving through central Yangon. We were discussing Burmese history from the Thirty Comrades to the protests of 1988. Then, when I mentioned the recent high-profile meetings between U.S. officials and the Burmese government, he summarized present-day issues for the Burmese people.
“The people…we just want to be free. Young boys, young girls, they have to work two or three jobs just to have enough to eat. They work jobs they don’t want to work…the girls have to work at karaoke bars [where they have to feign interest in male customers] just to get some spending money.”
To say that Myanmar is a troubled country is to make a gross understatement. Myanmar ranked third to last in Transparency International’s most recent annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), just ahead of Afghanistan and Somalia but behind Sudan and Iraq. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates that at least 451,000 people are internally displaced in Myanmar.
The State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Myanmar listed multiple violations by the government, including indefinite detention without charges, attacks on ethnic minorities and infringements on civil liberties.
Last year, the ruling junta published a new constitution which creates a bicameral national legislative body along with state and local legislatures. Elections will be held for these seats next year. Many dismiss this as mere window-dressing to further legitimize the junta. Still, some of the provisions of the new constitution appear to provide, at least on paper, significant opportunities for civilian participation in government.
The new national legislature has the potential to allow popularly elected civilians to have unprecedented control over policy. For example, according to Section 96 of the new constitution, the legislature has the power to regulate commerce, labor organizations, taxation, and civil and criminal laws. The President has the ability to make comments and suggest amendments to the bill, though the constitution appears to be silent on whether the President has veto power.
Even though at least 25 percent of the total seats in the legislature must be occupied by military personnel, this still opens up legislative participation significantly.
Yet the Commander-in-Chief of the military retains significant powers, including the ability to declare a state of emergency and with it attain full executive, legislative, and judicial powers and the ability to suspend fundamental rights. The constitution does not mention the possibility of removal of the Commander-in-Chief.
According to the 2008 constitution, there can only be three presidential candidates in a given election; each house of the bicameral legislature selects one candidate, and the military (Tatmadaw) selects a third. But there are several limitations on who can run for president. Persons who are serving time in prison cannot be candidates, which disqualifies many political dissidents.
Also, Buddhist monks are not allowed to run for legislative office. Some commentators have argued that this is malicious disenfranchisement stemming from the monks’ participation in the Saffron Revolution of 2007 — although many Buddhist intellectuals believe that monks should not be political.
Notably, persons cannot run for president or vice-president if they have a parent, spouse or child who owes allegiance to a foreign power, are subject to a foreign power or have citizenship with a foreign country. This impacts Burma’s most famous dissident, Aung Sun Suu Kyi. While some commentators assert that Nobel laureate Suu Kyi’s marriage to British academic Michael Aris excludes her from the elections, this is probably inaccurate.
The road leading to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house.
Michael Aris died in 1999, meaning that currently Suu Kyi has no spouse. However, if Myanmar adheres to the 2008 constitution, she would be disqualified for another reason. Suu Kyi has two sons (Kim and Alexander) who reside in the United Kingdom and are British citizens.
Suu Kyi, who has been in detention for most of the last two decades, will still be under house arrest at the time of the elections, although the Burmese Supreme Court has agreed to her an appeal.
In support of Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), — which scored a runaway victory in the 1990 general election but was not allowed to take office — the U.S. government has isolated the military junta for two decades with little result.
The Obama administration now is trying out a different tack: engagement with the junta — spearheaded by U.S. Senator Jim Webb. Recently Suu Kyi changed her position on sanctions as well, in a sign she too may be modifying her strategy.
Meanwhile in the newly-built capital of Naypyidaw the Parliament building looks like it will be completed in time for the 2010 elections. Last month, I saw workers scrambling to lay down asphalt from the public street to the Parliament, on long roads that are now only adumbrated dirt paths.
Only time will tell what – if anything — Parliament’s new civilian representatives will be able to accomplish after next year’s elections – and whether the citizens of Burma will be any better off.
– Michael Lwin
December 7, 2009
Afghanistan troop surge enlarges U.S. military footprint
A U.S. soldier in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo: Flickr user USArmy
Ambassador S. Azmat Hassan is a former Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations. He is currently an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University and is a contributing Worldfocus blogger.
After an unusually lengthy and public deliberative process, President Obama has decided to induct a further 30,000 troops in war torn Afghanistan. He further stated that the U.S. would start withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. But he left open the timeline for total withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Domestic politics dictate that U.S. presidents cannot appear to be weak. His Republican opponents had started accusing him of dithering on Afghanistan. This consideration was probably an important factor in tilting Obama toward the military surge.
In reinforcing the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, Obama is aware that its repercussions are likely to define his presidency. His political future could depend on the outcome of this gamble.
Could Afghanistan become Obama’s Vietnam? Despite his statements suggesting what happened in Vietnam is not analogous to how the U.S. is pursuing its objectives in Afghanistan, observers keep drawing parallels between the two situations. The ensuing months will provide an answer.
Just like the corrupt and inefficient South Vietnamese government that could not withstand the North Vietnamese military onslaught, Hamid Karzai’s government has proved equally inept in countering the Taliban. Even after 8 years of huge military and financial support by the West, Karzai’s writ does not extend much beyond Kabul.
His situation seems further compromised by the recent presidential election which was seen by Afghans — as well as outsiders — as deeply flawed. Karzai today wields neither much legitimacy nor authority in the eyes of an increasing number of his disillusioned countrymen. The stock of the Taliban has naturally risen as that of the Afghan government has dwindled.
To expect Karzai and his government to change enough in the next 18 months to defeat a rejuvenated Taliban is virtually asking for the impossible. Most of Karzai’s army consists of the majority ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Afghanistan’s tribal dynamic suggests that it is unrealistic to expect a Pashtun to fight a fellow Pashtun at the behest of an Afghan government which is considered illegitimate, corrupt and inefficient by many Afghans.
Ordinary Afghans are angry at the riches accumulated by Karzai’s cronies through the burgeoning drug trade, bribery and endemic corruption. A large number of Afghans have suffered under this Western-supported dispensation.
Since a military victory by the Afghan army supported by the U.S. and NATO troops seems improbable, it may be useful for the U.S. to encourage Karzai to initiate a political process with the Taliban. The additional U.S. troops will remind the “moderate” Taliban that a Taliban victory is not around the corner. They could be weaned away from the hardcore Taliban.
Political reconciliation will allow the U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan with some semblance of honor. The government of national reconciliation that hopefully emerges in Afghanistan will have to guarantee that al-Qaeda will not be permitted to operate from Afghan soil. We should realize that al-Qaeda is a much diminished force in Afghanistan. The al-Qaeda leaders are not Afghans. They are Arabs.
The Afghan government, of which the Taliban will be a constituent, may thus not see any advantage in allowing this foreign group the latitude to operate in Afghanistan, which they did 8 years ago. This development will be in consonance with American national security interests.
Only a political process can end Afghanistan’s unending misery. It is well known that it is not possible for nation building to occur while a war is going on — in any country. Reconstruction and development occur when the guns become silent.
– S. Azmat Hassan
December 2, 2009
New EU leader inspired by traditional Japanese haiku
A ceramic frog dedicated to the Haiku poet Basho, at Basho Inari Shrine in Tokyo. Photo: Flickr user Maynard
Hsin-Yin Lee, a former associate producer at Worldfocus, is a news editor at the “China Times” in Taipei.
With all eyes on the Wall Street crisis and China’s rise, it’s rather refreshing to see the first EU president being elected — not to mention that he is also a haiku poet.
Herman Van Rompuy, the future head of the EU, is probably best known for his low profile. However, his passion for haiku has helped him build up a reputation in Japan.
Described as the “EU’s gentle leader” by the Japanese media, Van Rompuy’s charisma seems to lie in both his discreet political philosophy and his pleasant personality. In his personal blog, Van Rompuy played a little joke with himself by writing about his baldness:
“Hair blows in the wind / After years there is still wind / Sadly no more hair.”
Not as welcoming as the Japanese media, the Europeans are more critical about Van Rompuy’s leadership. The Independent, ridiculed him in an article “Meet Haiku Herman, Will Europe make him a very famous Belgian?”
The newspaper also held a friendly competition on Brussels-themed haiku. Although the satire is truly funny, somehow I felt that people have a misconception of haiku and take it as doggerel or merely as a practice of broken grammar. Look at the works by the Independent staff and you might agree with me:
“He writes poems! / That should cheer dull hours / Of talks on iron ore tariffs.”
“Vintage wine at lunch: / Expensed. At least it’s not / American, you claim.”
To better understand Van Rompuy, I’d suggest that we begin with haiku — the traditional wisdom of Japan. Consisting of 5/7/5 syllables respectively in three metrical phrases, each haiku attempts to reveal a moment of insight.
Such a moment was best illustrated in a famous haiku written by the 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho:
“Old pond / A frog leaps in / Water’s sound.”
(Original: 古池 や furuike ya / 蛙 飛込む kawazu tobikomu / 水 の 音 mizu no oto)
This haiku was carefully created so as to lead to a splash that sets off ripples of thought for the reader. In addition, you can probably feel the late-summer nostalgia here–which is why each haiku contains a kigo, or seasonal reference, to touch off the seasonal miracle of mother nature. In the case of Basho’s haiku, the kigo is “frog”.
What haiku shares with people, in my opinion, is appreciation of the present. Unlike the Christian tradition of questioning our lives “out there,” haiku focuses on “just this” — just this moment, no more nor less. In times of turmoil, it might help people slow down, take a deep breath and start out once again.
While some haiku followers try to engage the material life as little as possible, others argue that a true haiku mind is oriented to the world and people must learn how to work in harmony. Now, does it sound more like an idea the world leaders can apply in the Copenhagen Summit?
Whether Van Rompuy can borrow haiku’s wisdom in political affairs remains unclear. Perhaps not surprisingly, he had already made a first step. At a press conference in October, Van Rompuy read one of his haiku works that explained how Belgium, Spain and Hungary will cooperate on EU policy issues in 2010:
“Three waves, / Roll into port together, / The trio is home.”
December 1, 2009
Calling the world’s attention to the caste issue in India
Activists say that India’s PM has been reluctant to address casteism head-on. Photo: Flickr user LondonSummit
For more on the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Washington D.C. last week, Worldfocus spoke with Ramaiah Avatthi, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
Currently a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia University, Ramaiah contends that Manmohan Singh has largely ignored the issue of caste-based discrimination and atrocities.
The caste system is the traditional South Asian hierarchy that consigns people, based on their birth, to ranked social classes.
Worldfocus: Do you think Prime Minister Singh avoided certain issues during his U.S. visit?
Ramaiah Avatthi: Before Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International urged Obama to persuade Singh to address the human rights concerns, particularly caste violence against Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables). This group, also known as Scheduled Castes, constitutes 166 million in India — and up to 250 million in South Asia.
The two leaders focused on Afghanistan/Pakistan, the fight against terrorism, global warming, economic development and nuclear proliferation. Thus the scope for discussion of caste was very limited.
Worldfocus: How would you assess casteism in India today?
Ramaiah Avatthi: The Dalits are subjected to inhuman torture and humiliation when they try to live with dignity like other citizens of India. Their assertiveness is often met with dire consequences.
There have been incidents in the recent past in which some Dalits were forced to consume human excreta and urine. Some were blinded by pushing needle into their eyes. Dalits have been raped and murdered and sometimes paraded naked.
Some non-Dalit families, particularly in states like Haryana, choose to kill their daughters for their “crime” of falling in love with Dalit boys. They are denied the minimum wage and forced work for generations as bonded labor. Most child labor also belongs to Dalit communities. This is not a thing of the past but is very much a part of day-to-day reality in most parts of rural India.
Worldfocus: What concrete policy changes should PM Singh implement?
Ramaiah Avatthi: There are a number of Constitutional safeguards to protect Dalits from injustice and exploitation. But we need more welfare measures to improve their educational and economic condition and to ensure representation in decision-making bodies.
Worldfocus: Has the international community taken note of the Dalit situation?
Ramaiah Avatthi: With the relentless efforts of Dalit activists and civil society organizations in the last 50 years, the issue of caste has come to center stage at the UN. Yet, violence against Dalits continues.
According to our National Crime Records Bureau, the number of crimes against Dalits increased from 26,887 in 2004 to 27,070 in 2006. Even brutal crimes such as rape and murder are on the increase. For instance, the number of Dalits reported to have been murdered by non-Dalits was 654 in 2004 and 674 in 2007.
Similarly, the number of reported cases of Dalit women being raped by the non-Dalit men was 1157 in 2004 and 1349 in 2007. Why do crimes against Dalits continue unabated, despite powerful laws against atrocities? Is the law ineffective — or the government?
It is interesting to note what Martin Luther King said in 1955: “You have never had real peace in Montgomery. You have had a sort of negative peace in which the Negro too often accepted his state of subordination. But this is not true peace. True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. The tension we see in Montgomery today is the necessary tension that comes when the oppressed rise up and start to move forward toward a permanent, positive peace.”
It is also interesting to note what the Indian Prime Minister said in his speech at the White House on November 23: “India and the U.S. are bound by democracy, rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms.” This was a response to President Obama’s declaration that the relationship “between the U.S. and India is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”
The crux of the matter is whether such statements will remain merely rhetoric — or will actually promote justice for oppressed communities in both countries.
– Ben Piven
December 1, 2009
Gender politics drives high HIV rates for African women
Gloria, who is HIV positive, in Khayelitsha township outside Cape Town where the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is holding an AIDS awareness campaign. South Africa. Photo: Trevor Samson / World Bank
Ayo Johnson is a contributing blogger for Worldfocus. His full post on HIV in Africa can be found here at his blog Africa Speak International.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) estimate that there are currently 33 million people in the world living with HIV. There are an estimated 24 million people living with the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 61% of those infected are women. In South Africa and Zimbabwe 75% of young people infected are girls between the ages 15-24.
Factors that have contributed to HIV increase are cultural taboos and gender inequality. It is difficult for women to choose their sexual partners, how often they are intimate, or to demand the use of condoms. Women are also more vulnerable than men due to the prevalence of underage sex, early marriage, polygamous relationships and female circumcisions.
In South Africa, rape and drug dependency make women vulnerable to sexual exploitation and infection. In Sierra Leone, it is common practice for so-called “sugar daddies” to offer schoolgirls material goods and cash in return for sexual favours, often exposing them to the disease. This can happen with the consent of older family members who are powerless to act due to poverty and ignorance.
UNAIDS urges governments to get the right laws and policies in place to ensure women are educated and empowered — for example the ability to keep land, homes and assets when their husband dies.
Governments need to reverse policies on gender inequality, forge closer relationship with NGO’s and private entities, and encourage community-based support groups, clean drinking water and good nutritional food. Failure to provide these basic human requirements risk women becoming an endangered species and endangering the fate of human race.