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News and Views
Commentary from experts on the directions and challenges of democracy assistance programs.
|September 21, 2012||
In his piece for The New York Times, Thomas Fuller profiles U Tint Swe, head of the Ministry of Information's Press Scrutiny and Registration Division in Myanmar, who for nearly 50 years managed the censorship of all publications in the country, from poems to books to the phone book yellow pages. Through Tint Swe’s story, Fuller tracks gradual changes in the government of Myanmar—the dissolution of military rule, the election of President Thein Sein, as well as the release of political dissidents from prison—which lead to the announcement that the censorship office would be permanently closed.
Tint Swe, a former military officer also known as “the literary torturer,” was chief censor during some of the most difficult times of military rule, including the 2007 uprising lead by Buddhist monks and the 2008 storm that killed 130,000 people. He said that at the time, “‘censorship was necessary…to maintain order and stability.’”
However, in a recent interview with Fuller, Tint Swe said that “‘the work [he] was doing was not compatible with the world, not in harmony with reality.’” Tint Swe recently helped organize a conference on the future of journalism in Myanmar. Over the past year, the censorship office gradually dismantled the system of censorship by exempting certain topics, beginning with articles on entertainment, health, children and sports and finally last month exempting the topics of politics and religion from censorship.
Tint Swe says that in terms of censorship, “‘there is no U-turn,’” and that he is “‘proud [he is] the one who stopped it.’”
Amid fears of backsliding from recent reforms, Kyaw Min Swe, an editor of a local newspaper which the government temporarily suspended from publication on multiple occasions, tells Fuller that abolishing censorship is not enough, that the entire Ministry of Information must be abolished, because a ministry of that kind is “‘mostly for dictatorships.’”Read More
|September 21, 2012||
This New York Times editorial argues that the U.S. should ease sanctions against Myanmar, based on the substantial democratic progress the country has made. During President U Thein Sein’s first year in office, he has released hundreds of political prisoners, allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to run and participate in Parliament, and, lastly, he has set into motion economic and political reforms, “including a new law relaxing press censorship.”
While progress has been made, “there is reason to be on guard,” notes the editorial board. Myanmar is still in need of “land reform, a professional military under civilian control and an end to human rights abuses.”
While Myanmar’s path to democracy is “fragile,” the country has become a “model of effective collaboration on the path to democracy — between Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr. Thein Sein and, in the United States, between Republicans and Democrats.” The U.S. decision “to engage with Myanmar on a step-by-step basis” is “worth noting in this era of dysfunctional politics.”Read More
|September 19, 2012||
Afer years of reporting on Aung Sann Suu Kyi, Fred Hiatt reflects on his first in-person meeting with the the Nobel laureate and famed Burmese democracy advocate in his piece for The Washington Post.
Hiatt writes about her “insistent positivity,” in light and in spite of extreme hardships she has endured, including house arrest, a close assasination attempt in 2003 and the death of many of her comrades in the notorious Insein Prison. He concludes that her “positivity fits with a political strategy focused very much on the long view.”
In terms of her political agenda, Hiatt notes that Suu Kyi’s new role means she must redefine herself “from icon of freedom to something arguably more difficult: politician.” When asked about her relations with the regime after the National League for Democracy‘s (NLD) recent victory in the April by-elections she replied, “I hope they will not look at my popularity but my desire to cooperate with them. I want reconciliation.”Read More
|September 18, 2012||
In his article for the International Herald Tribune, Dayo Olopade outlines the many challenges facing Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, the new president who won a decisive vote among parliamentarians in the recent election. Within days of his inauguration, Mohamud survived an assassination attempt, an event “emblematic of the challenges ahead.”
Mohamud, “a political outsider who comes from the comparatively taint-free academy,” is seen as a symbol of change and a movement forward for Somalia.” To many, he was a surprising choice as he was not a favored member of the Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) and only became a member of parliament last month. During his frequent radio commentary, Mohamud focused on improving “education for the vast youth population, which is vulnerable to the influence of groups like Al Shabab.”
On election day, people around Mogadishu were reported chanting, “‘Somalia has been liberated! The new president is here.’” While his election has brought promise to the Somali people, concerns remain about the country’s future. As Olopade reports, Mohamud will have to fight for a more “representative democracy” and select a cabinet that “favors corruption-free outsiders.”Read More
|September 18, 2012||
In Suzanne Nossel’s piece, “The Lady and the Tweet,” she reflects on how the new “tools and devices” of the 21st century have changed human rights activism. Nossel believes that the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was released from house arrest after more than 20 years and became an elected parliamentarian during the April 2012 by-elections, is an inspiration that will “motivate new activists to press for human rights.”
Nossel examines what channels and outlets “new activists” will use to campaign for human rights. She points out that the days of “letter-writing campaigns, vigils, and protests...” have largely been replaced by the use of social media outlets.
She cites the example of how million advocated for the release of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese lawyer who escaped from house arrest to the U.S. embassy in China. “The scale of the outrage and media frenzy forced China to release Chen,” and showed the power of social media in pushing an issue on to the global agenda.
Despite the accomplishments that digital human rights activism has celebrated, Nossel argues that online action is “a vital entry point, but is the just the start of the journey for those aiming to bring lasting change.” Whether people are tweeting, writing letters, signing virtual petitions, logging into digital town halls or orchestrating protests, the role of activism remains an integral part in impacting long-term change.
Nossel says that Aung San Suu Kyi’s appeal that “‘the often repeated truth that one prisoner of conscience is one too many’” makes clear that “in fighting for their causes one by one, we can give new hope to dissidents around the globe—and a renewed purpose and energy to those who seek to free them.”Read More
|September 16, 2012||
With roughly half of the world living under democracy “of some sort,” Akhil Reed Amar commemorates the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, which he believes “precipitate[d] this stunning global transformation.” In Amar’s op-ed, The Audacity of Democracy, he reflects on the ratification of the constitution and explains how it continues “to propel” America and the world forward.
Amar revisits the process of how the U.S. constitution was “ordained” and “established” through a series of special state elections based on popular votes. This unprecedented process helped shape both the future of the U.S. and the world. “…Before the American Revolution, no regime in history….had ever successfully adopted a written constitution by special popular vote.”
Through his recollection of the U.S. constitution’s history, Amar asserts that we should continue to care about the spread of democracy today “because no well-established democracy in the modern era has ever reverted to despotism.”Read More
|September 16, 2012||
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl reflects on the death of Cuban political activist Oswaldo Payá last July, and the circumstances surrounding his controversial death. Diehl describes a recent meeting in Washington, D.C. with representatives of Payá’s Christian Liberation Movement, including Regis Iglesias Ramirez, “an associate of Payá and former political prisoner who says he is determined to expose what he believes was a state-sponsored murder.”
Diehl writes of the events surrounding the car crash that killed Payá and contemplates whether the Cuban government played a role in his death. Payá’s associates, said Diehl, referred to text messages from the day of the accident as well as remarks from the survivors of the crash as evidence of foul play.
According to Diehl, though “the regime has been seeking accommodation with the Catholic Church and Western governments,” Iglesias believes that “Payá… had become an obstacle to Castro’s strategy, labeling the liberalization ‘the fraudulent change’ and organizing support for an alternative platform demanding free elections.”
He concludes that, “as long as the Castros continue to rule Cuba, it probably won’t be possible to determine the truth.”Read More
|September 5, 2012||
In this piece for TechPresident, David Eaves writes about efforts around the world to monitor parliaments and legislative bodies, and to make parliamentary information more open and accessible. Eaves notes several parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) that have had success, suggesting that “there is an appetite for better access to legislative bodies through open data.” However, he also says that legislative bodies themselves have a large impact on the success of citizen engagement and access information, and “sadly, legislative bodies have not always been interested in enabling innovation in this space.”
Eaves addresses the launch of the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness by NDI and its partners, but questions the success of such a coalition of PMOs. He notes that though 70 PMOs signed the Declaration, no parliaments were included on the list. Eaves suggests that “such a global partnership of organizations seeking legislative transparency likely has the best hope of success among governments that already have a strong streak of transparency to them, such as Sweden and Norway,” or in newly developing democracies where “outdated and opaque processes have not become hallowed ‘traditions.’”Read More
|August 22, 2012||
In a recent article in Voice of America, Scott Stearns summarizes Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s controversial 20 years in power. Stearns notes his achievements, which included helping end the communist “Red Terror” of Menigstu Haile Mariam, stabilizing security efforts in the Horn of Africa and, most notably, his success in fueling economic growth.
While Meles will be remembered as a principal ally to the U.S. for his counterterrorism efforts, Stearns cites criticism from both the State Department and Amnesty International on his human rights record, including a current report that mentions Meles’ use of torture, abuse and mistreatment of detainees by security forces.
“He did a lot to stabilize the country and the Horn of Africa,” said Chris Fomunyoh, NDI’s regional director for Central and West Africa, in an interview for the article. “But he’s also left a very questionable legacy in regard to human rights, respect for the media, freedom of the press, respect for the opposition and creating political space in Ethiopia.”
Stearns explains, “reflections on the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi are as mixed as his legacy.”Read More
|August 22, 2012||
In an article for Voice of America, Scott Stearns reports on how the death of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will affect Ethiopia internally as well as the Horn of Africa at large. Meles is most known for playing an integral role in stabilizing relations between South Sudan and Sudan, particularly by providing peacekeepers in the troubled Abyeh area. Despite Zenawi’s legacy as a stabilizing force in a volatile region, many believe that certain conditions within Ethiopia will improve because of this political transition. Citing Chris Fomunyoh, NDI’s regional director for Central and West Africa, Stearns says that Meles “never found the balance between the growth of commerce and the expansion of civil liberties.” A spokeswoman from the State Department said that many in Washington hope Ethiopia’s new leaders will improve human rights.