By Maha Hosain Aziz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Maha Hosain Aziz is a professor of politics (adjunct) at NYU's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a senior analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat. The views expressed are her own. She recently authored the Wikistrat-crowdsourced report on Myanmar’s political risk and futures.
News earlier this month that the White House had decided to extend some economic sanctions against Myanmar may have taken some by surprise. After all, the country is broadly seen as having taken significant political and economic strides after being ruled for decades by a draconian military junta, not least in the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners.
The reforms, which President Barack Obama suggested marked “a new direction” for the country, have prompted foreign investors to flock to the country, for everything from marine tourism, onshore reserves, offshore oil, mineral extraction to the fastest market for new and used cars. In addition, more than 5 million foreign tourists are expected in the country in 2015, and the country also received $4.1 billion foreign investment in the fiscal year 2013-14, up from $1.4 billion in 2012-13 (mostly from China, Thailand and Hong Kong).
Meanwhile, the military’s historical control over the economy is also “significantly weakening” due to reforms, according to a recent report from the International Crisis Group. The report notes, for example, that the military’s holding company, Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, no longer receives tax free status and is being pushed out of key sectors it previously monopolized, such as edible oil imports.
Editor’s note: Maha Hosain Aziz is a professor of politics (adjunct) in NYU's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, a senior analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and advisory board chairwoman of Afghanistan’s first university e-mentoring program (New Silk Road Generation). The views expressed are her own.
Asked to name organizations tied to extremism, most people would likely list the usual suspects – Islamist militant groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban. But a spate of recent attacks has highlighted a growing problem that is threatening to destabilize parts of Asia, and it hails from what might seem to many a surprising source – a militant strain of Buddhism.
In Sri Lanka, for example, reports surfaced in January that eight Buddhist monks were involved in an attack on two churches in the southern town of Hikkaduwa. Another group, the Buddhist Power Force, is said to have been targeting Muslim minorities, and has pushed to ban headscarves, halal foods and other Muslim businesses. In July 2013, Buddhist mobs reportedly attacked a mosque in the north-central town of Dambulla; in August that year, a mosque was attacked in Colombo, sparking clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that left at least a dozen people injured. Sadly, the response from the Sri Lankan government, distracted as it is by the ongoing fallout since the end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, has been muted at best.
By Greg Scoblete and Kevin Sullivan, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Greg Scoblete and Kevin Sullivan are the editors of RealClearWorld, which recently named GPS one of the top 5 international news analysis sites of 2013. The views expressed are their own.
There was no shortage of eye-grabbing global headlines in 2013. The Catholic Church chose a new Pope. China and Russia flexed their muscles. The U.S. and Iran, meanwhile, took a step back from the brink of what looked like a potentially explosive confrontation. But while these stories commanded an ample share of media attention, we’ve found four significant stories that may have slipped under your radar.
Global poverty retreats
With Southern Europe still reeling and the anemic U.S. recovery wobbling along, good economic news has been in short supply. But if you widened the lens, 2013 actually delivered some encouraging, indeed historic, news. It came in the form of a study from Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative that concluded that developing countries were enjoying remarkable success in alleviating the worst poverty. They’ve had so much success, in fact, that Oxford predicted that crushing poverty in many of the least developed countries in the world (think Bangladesh, Rwanda, Nepal) is actually on track to be fully eradicated within 20 years.
This optimism was echoed by the United Nations’ 2013 Human Development Report, which noted that “[n]ever in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast.”
By Jonah Blank, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is author of the books Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and Mullahs on the Mainframe. The views expressed are his own.
The explosion in downtown Yangon blew out a window overlooking the iconic Sule Pagoda, injuring an American tourist and littering the busy street with shards of glass. The attack, on the Traders’ Hotel in the heart of Myanmar’s commercial center, was one of at least nine bombings to rack the nation in a single week earlier this month, leaving three dead, 10 wounded and many thousands of others worried about what the future may hold. But who is behind the attacks? And should Myanmar brace itself for a period of violent chaos?
Throughout the period of military rule in Myanmar (also called Burma), small-scale explosions were a standard tactic among several of the nation’s long-running insurgencies. Since President Thein Sein started a program of reform and reconciliation in 2011, however, such attacks had essentially ceased. After a half-century of hermetic authoritarianism, Myanmar’s re-entry into the world community has been one of the biggest (and most optimistic) stories in Asia. Yet an upswing in ethnic and religious conflict could put Myanmar’s progress at risk.
On October 18, government authorities blamed rogue elements of the Karen National Union for the attacks, but the Karen rebels deny involvement and no other group has claimed credit. It is not even certain that all of the attacks had the same source. The list of possible culprits is long.
By Jim Della-Giacoma, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jim Della-Giacoma is the Asia Program Director of the International Crisis Group. Its report ‘The Dark Side of Transition: Violence against Muslims in Myanmar’ was published on October 1. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Myanmar’s transition has been remarkable, but it has also been tarnished by violence against its Muslim community. Indeed, these deadly attacks pose a threat to Myanmar’s nascent democracy, as well as its image regionally and internationally.
Visiting Rakhine state, where violence took place this past week, President Thein Sein said: “It is important not to have more riots while we are working very hard to recover the losses we had because of previous incidents. The Rakhine state government needs to cooperate with the people to avoid more conflict by learning from the lessons of previous riots.”
More needs to be done. Improving police capacity with better training and equipment is one important element, and outside expertise and assistance can accelerate the necessary changes.
But the answer to resolving this difficult issue can also be found in each and every town in Myanmar. The country’s Muslim community is diverse and found in all cities, most towns and many villages. In addition, Myanmar’s Muslims have long been intimately entwined with the country’s commercial life, and there is a high and lingering financial cost to violence when part of the commercial district of a town is destroyed. For example, attacks on the Muslim community left Meiktila's markets depleted, kept visitors away and cut access to the informal financial system.
By Lisa Misol, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Lisa Misol is a senior researcher on business and human rights with Human Rights Watch in New York. The views expressed are her own.
Emerging from diplomatic isolation and Western economic sanctions, Myanmar wants to be the “it” destination for foreign investors.
Last month, foreign business leaders flocked to the capital, Naypyidaw, for the World Economic Forum on East Asia, a regional version of the powerhouse gathering. Major global brands have been enticed by Myanmar’s largely untapped potential, and the momentum is still picking up: General Electric, the first American company to sign a deal after U.S. sanctions were lifted last July, formally launched its Myanmar office in late May. On June 4, Coca-Cola opened its first bottling plant in the country in 60 years, on the heels of Carlsberg and Heineken. Then, on June 27, Myanmar’s government awarded highly anticipated licenses to extend cell phone and Internet service to telecommunications firms from Norway and Qatar.
More investors are lining up. In the petroleum sector, dozens of companies from around the world reportedly bid on 30 sought-after offshore oil and natural gas fields last month. A shortlist has not been announced, but prominent American, Asian, and European oil firms are seen as likely contenders. At least 20 more fields are to be offered next.
By Suzanne DiMaggio and Priscilla Clapp
Editor’s note: Suzanne DiMaggio is vice president of global policy programs at the Asia Society. Priscilla Clapp is a retired minister counselor in the U.S. Foreign Service and former Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Burma. The views expressed are their own.
The still nascent transition in Myanmar has emerged as one of the most promising efforts at democratization in the world today. After more than half a century of brutal, debilitating military rule, the country is in the process of a calculated top-down course reversal, which has unleashed a bottom-up awakening of political, economic, and civil society activity.
Notwithstanding the progress to date, from now until the next general election in 2015 the country’s reform leaders – including former general turned President Thein Sein, parliamentarian and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and speaker of parliament’s lower house Thura Shwe Mann – will face a range of challenges that will test their capacity and threaten the durability of the transition. Among the most urgent priorities are resolving ethnic and sectarian conflicts within Myanmar’s diverse society, creating jobs for the vast majority of the population who live in poverty, continuing to transform the role of the military, tackling corruption, and establishing the rule of law.
By Rep. Trent Franks and Rep. Rush Holt, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) are members of the U.S. Congress. The views expressed are their own.
For the first time since hosting Burmese dictator Ne Win nearly 50 years ago, the United States will host another head of state from Myanmar. The historic visit from President Thein Sein on Monday will, no doubt, lead to much discussion of Myanmar’s extremely long road toward democracy and whether there may be a relapse in their recent reform. It is also an opportunity to evaluate America’s new Myanmar policy.
As the U.S. reengages with Myanmar, also known as Burma, some Americans have lost sight of the ongoing, violent war against many of Myanmar's ethnic and religious minorities. This being the case, the U.S. must closely evaluate its policy towards Myanmar and ensure that no action or word from the U.S. government be interpreted as a lack of concern for human rights abuse that continues in Myanmar, some of which Human Rights Watch has gone so far as to call “a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
The U.S. relationship with Myanmar from 1990 to 2011 was virtually nonexistent, governed by strict sanctions brought about by the military government’s widespread, often brutal, violation of basic rights.
By Gareth Price, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Gareth Price is senior research fellow on the Asia Program at Chatham House. The views expressed are his own.
The EU’s announcement Monday that it is lifting sanctions against Myanmar, following their suspension last year, poses some important questions about the country’s future political and economic development – and the role of the international community.
Discussing the suspension of sanctions, which had been in place since 1990, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said last April that "great progress has been made” in Myanmar, but added that he was "very concerned about conflict and human rights abuses." These concerns justified suspending rather than lifting sanctions. A year on, it is unclear that those concerns have been eased.
In the intervening twelve months, what amounts to a pogrom has been launched against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The Rohingya are Muslim, are denied citizenship and so are effectively stateless. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, more than 125,000 have been displaced.
By David Scott Mathieson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Scott Mathieson is a senior researcher covering Myanmar in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.
Myanmar President Thein Sein has been touring Europe touting his country’s unlikely transformation in the past two years from the archetype of authoritarian repression to a supposedly shining example of peaceful transition towards democracy. But how much of this is real reform and how much is window dressing? How much have human rights genuinely improved on the ground in Myanmar?
To be sure, Myanmar’s quasi-civilian government has enacted a series of changes and made further promises to the international community that justify increased engagement. Several hundred political prisoners have been released in a series of amnesties, restrictive laws repealed and new laws on peaceful assembly and association promulgated (though not without flaws), media restrictions largely removed, government and military commitments to end forced labor and child soldier use by 2015, and the government signing ceasefires with ethnic armed groups.
Editor’s note: Patrick Cronin is senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are solely those of the author.
By Patrick Cronin, Special to CNN
Myanmar’s nascent liberalization is at a critical juncture. In the next few months we will know whether or not President Thein Sein’s attempt to transform his country from pariah state ruled by a junta to a normal, functioning state of almost 60 million people will succeed.
The record so far is impressive. Since assuming power early last year after what admittedly appeared to be rigged elections, Thein Sein has surprised observers. He has reached out to Aung San Suu Kyi, now free from house arrest and seated in parliament, and restored multiparty politics. He's determined to achieve a comprehensive ceasefire, putting at least a pause if not an end to the almost ethnic conflicts that have bedeviled the country for decades. And his team is trying to design a strategic framework for replacing a kleptocratic economy long mismanaged by generals. However imperfect Thein Sein’s administration, it nonetheless represents Myanmar’s best chance for a better future.
Editor’s note: Thorbjørn Jagland is chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and secretary general of the Council of Europe. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Thorbjørn Jagland.
At long last, it seems, Aung San Suu Kyi can deliver her Nobel lecture.
The pro-democracy campaigner from Myanmar will be in Oslo on Saturday to accept the Nobel Peace Prize she won in absentia more than 20 years ago.
It will be one of the greatest events in Nobel history, and it gives us the opportunity to reflect on human rights and what they require of us.
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