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Now I don’t usually look to Foreign Policy magazine for my advice on revolution, but this article just seemed too relevant not to share.  Not only have I long struggled against this country’s over-enthusiasm for online organizing (seemingly at the sacrifice of actually rolling up sleeves and getting out in the streets talking to people), but as some of you know, my college classmate Adnan Hajizada was jailed last July for his politicized video blogging as a part of his effort to organize Azeri youth for democracy in Azerbaiajan.

Food for thought to share.

“Twitter Will Undermine Dictators.”
Excerpt from “Think Again: The Internet”, Foreign Policy May/June 2010

#Wrong. Tweets don’t overthrow governments; people do. And what we’ve learned so far is that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes. Cheerleaders of today’s rapidly proliferating virtual protests point out that online services such as Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube have made it much easier to circulate information that in the past had been strictly controlled by the state — especially gruesome photos and videos and evidence of abuses by police and the courts. Think of the Burmese dissidents who distributed cell-phone photos documenting how police suppressed protests, or opposition bloggers in Russia who launched as a Wikipedia-like site that allows anyone to upload photos, names, and contact details of purported “enemies of democracy” — judges, police officers, even some politicians — who are complicit in muzzling free speech. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously declared last year that the Rwandan genocide would have been impossible in the age of Twitter.

But does more information really translate into more power to right wrongs?

Read the rest of this entry »

With news of bombings galore, war, extreme poverty, AIDS, and corruption dominating headlines day after day, it’s hard to keep hope for progress alive. I struggle with this, especially when I read stories like ‘Kabul: a city where war is never far away,’ a short piece by photojournalist Tyler Hicks about the harshness of life in Afghanistan’s capital city:

Generations of conflict have numbed the senses. From the Russian
occupation during the 1980s, through the years of Taliban rule in the
1990s, and now the intensifying coalition war against the Taliban
insurgency, violence has become ingrained in their lives. After a
recent period being embedded with the U.S. Marines in southern
Afghanistan, I stopped in Kabul to wander the streets and take photos
of a city forever in transition. The Western presence was something not
tolerated during Taliban rule, so there have been some changes.

Hicks does write about some almost funny, surreal changes to the city, including a shopping mall and a fast food restaurant called KFC: Kabul Fried Chicken. But then it’s back to the bleak and disturbing:

Meanwhile, refugees and internally displaced civilians, left
homeless by decades of war, have created a beggar society, with the
sick and disabled desperate for food and work. The cost of housing in
urban Kabul is very high compared with that in the countryside, and
many people live in crumbling buildings and makeshift tents.

There is also, on a hill overlooking the city, an Olympic-size pool
built by the Soviets in the 1980s. It is said that the Taliban forced
criminals off the platforms to their deaths at the bottom of the pool.

Now, as then, it contains little or no water.

What a mental image. Chilling.

Given all that, how do we (and by "we" I mean scholars, activists, people working for the international community, NGO employees, and ordinary citizens) maintain hope for Afghanistan, which, as Hicks eloquently pointed out, has now seen almost continuous conflict for nearly three decades?

When the overall picture is grim, we need to look for small measures. There are people, Afghans and foreigners, risking their lives to improve the lives of the women, men and children of Afghanistan, and we owe it to them to believe that the outcome has not yet been decided.

I got into a major argument with a former colleague in Bosnia and Herzegovina about this time last year. He told me I was naive to believe Bosnia would move closer to the EU in the next few years and ultimately end up a member state, along with most, if not all of the other states of the former Yugoslavia. I told him my vision was a long-term one. Yes, there were huge political and institutional problems in the country –and there still are– but there can only be one way for this to go –forward. There will be setback and crises along the way –hell, the state-level government basically shut down last summer– but progress, however slow and uneven, is still progress.

My colleague chuckled and said I hadn’t lived in the region long enough. Annoyed, I asked him the following: if you can’t maintain hope for a place like Bosnia, which has been at peace for twelve years and made tremendous progress, what should we do about countries like Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Zimbabwe , with their hundreds of millions? Should we say, "Sorry history dealt you a s***y hand," and walk away?

I don’t want your arguments. We cannot write off vast swaths of humanity because the present is looking bad. What some may call the stubborn and naive idealism of youth, I call the only viable option.

There is a lot of cynicism among people who work in human rights, humanitarian aid, international criminal law, conflict resolution, economic development, and all the interrelated fields. This is understandable, but I think we risk failing the people whose lives and futures depend on our work when we stop believing we can succeed, if not soon, at least in the long run. Realistic goals must be set, of course, and expectations sometimes have to be adjusted to reality in the field. But attitude affects everything. I know I work harder when I feel like I can actually make a difference, even a small one. If I get a refugee student into college, who knows what she or he may go on to be and achieve?

Can I bring peace to the DRC? No, but maybe I can help someone else to one day have chance at just that. Maybe just maybe.

Burnout is dangerous, in my rookie opinion. When you lose all hope, you should step back, take a break, and reevaluate whether you should still be working in a job that could be filled by someone who still has the energy and optimism to go forward.

An acquaintance of mine is working on an education project in Afghanistan, and he just returned to the US. I’m going to ask him to do some guest blogging if he has time.

San Francisco Green Festival, November 9-11, 2007

Introducing Amy Goodman, Jason McKain, of Free Speech TV told audiences of the need for “connecting to movements for empowering local citizens to revitalize democracy,” and the need for media to “represent community interests, not corporate interests.”

Who is Amy Goodman? A tireless advocate for free speech, free press and democracy now, an investigative journalist, author and occasionally, an inspirational speaker.

“Every time we run Democracy Now something happens… It’s as if we’ve entered into a democratic dream-state,” McKain said, “we see the resilience and power of people fighting back.”

Short in stature, but enormous in presence, Amy Goodman began by using the date to commemorate Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death. A Nigerian author and environmentalist, Saro-Wiwa spoke out against Shell in Nigeria, and lead nonviolent protests before his trial, allegedly under the watchful eye of Shell oil, and subsequent execution November 10, 1995.

Goodman then went on to discuss Burma. While Condoleeza Rice has castigated China for supporting the regime, Chevron continues fueling the military junta for supporting the regime. Despite US government sanctions on Burma, as a company, Chevron is not being held accountable. Despite Rice’s rhetoric, she has served on the Board of Directors for Chevron ( yet has not taken action to hold the corporation accountable.

The oil theme persisted, and Goodman went on to discuss British Petroleum (BP) and it’s impending $500 million dollar partnership with the University of California school system over the next ten years, as well as Exxonmobil’s $100 million dollar project at Stanford University. Conflict of interest? Perhaps. Especially when considering Exxonmobil allegedly spent millions to deny global warming was fueled by people.

The most recent San Francisco oil spill highlights the importance for developing, creating and sustaining alternatives to oil.

The end of her speech shifted focus from oil to instances of successful movements and protests from the Port of Olympia, Washington to Jena, Louisiana. She mentioned her newest book Static, and implored the audience to support free media, “We need a media that is the fourth estate, not one that covers for the estate.”

Goodman’s short speech exposed issues and corporate ties unexposed by other media sources. If Americans for Informed Democracy is to persist as a useful and active organization which brings issues to light, the issues discussed by Goodman and Democracy Now must be brought to light.

Democracy Arsenal‘s Heather Hurlburt spells it out.

5 Simple Rules for Democracy Promotion
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

1.  It’s their democracy.  So shut up, already.  This Administration did considerable harm to democracy activists across the Middle East, as well as the folks who came out of the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia with governing responsibilities, by seeming to take too much credit.  This makes the locals look like puppets (see under:  Iraq) instead of folks who are expressing indigenous forms of an indigenous desire for universal freedoms.  Yes, I want to see this Administration speak loudly and clearly about repression in Burma — but please, no more chest-thumping about what support we’re giving whom.  People who are showing that much determination and courage deserve not to be miscast as our puppets.

2.  Get the money to the right people.  This is the problem with Administration programming for Iran, which shovels money to Iranian-Americans; and with Iraq, which seems to have shoveled money to Ahmed Chalabi and other folks who, it turned out, had absolutely no talent for winning the elections we were so desperate to have.  How to do this effectively?  Refer to Rule No. 1.

Chalabi’s inability to win elections wasn’t his biggest flaw. His biggest flaw was being a corrupt, self-serving warmonger.

3.  Lengthen your time horizonsAung San Suu Kyi has been in military detention 11 of the last 18 years.  She won the Nobel back in 1991.  Nelson Mandela was in prison 27 years.  Transitions to democracy in South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, Greece took decades.  Democratization doesn’t happen in State-of-the-Union-friendly timespans.

4.  Read the literature.  We actually know quite a bit about what works well — and what doesn’t — for outsiders who want to support democratic progress.  A great place to start is Tom Carothers’ recent monograph on saving democracy promotion from itself — Democracy Promotion During and After Bush.  His How Democracies Emerge: The Sequencing Fallacy is a nice summary of the last ten years in the literature, for the wonkier among us.

5.  Don’t overpromise.  Helping others attain the freedoms we cherish is a noble goal.  It is not, however, a short-term project; even less is it a short-term answer to pragmatic security and economic needs, or even to urgent human rights and humanitarian concerns.

This isn’t rocket science, folks. It’s called learning from history, and paying attention to the present. Sadly, our current government  has proved unwilling to do either.

The regime in Burma is one of the worst on the planet. That’s been clear for decades. Now, it may have massacred thousands of monks who took part in pro-democracy demonstrations.

If the reports are true, there isn’t really any way to convey in a blog post how utterly messed up that is.

Passport has more, and hits the nail on the head with this one line about US indifference: “[…] if 100,000 people were marching the streets of Baghdad or Riyadh, or if thousands of Catholic priests were lying dead in Vatican City, you can bet there would have been a little bit more action by now.”

And by the way, the above statement should go for the stuffed suits in Brussels, London, Berlin, and Paris, too.

Brussels and Washington need to get their acts together. Thousands of people are reportedly still detained by the regime, some awaiting execution for participation in the demonstrations. Their lives are at stake. The clock is ticking.

Fred Hiatt writes in the Washington Post about what the US should do (and, again, I would add the EU):

And here’s something else I would do: Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can’t have both.

[…] If a threat to those Games — delivered privately, if that would be most effective, with no loss of face — could help tip the balance, then let the Games not begin. Some things matter more.

They certainly do.


August 2020

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