What's Next for Burma's Democrats?

Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but the Burmese junta's insidious co-option of "democracy" highlights that real change is still a long way off.

Burma's rigged elections on Nov. 7 did little more than affirm the ruling military junta's willingness to subvert the popular will in order to maintain its grip on power. However, one positive development did come from the tightly controlled election: Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's most prominent democracy advocate, was released from house arrest on Nov. 13, after seven-and-a-half-years. Since her release, she has been busy: meeting with her party members, supporters, diplomats, ethnic leaders, civil society actors, and families of political prisoners; speaking with foreign dignitaries and leaders; and answering questions from international media. She has consistently said that she will continue to work for national reconciliation in Burma through a meaningful political dialogue, though she's well aware that her newfound freedom might not last long.

The fraudulent election results were not a surprise for Aung San Suu Kyi or her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), which boycotted the campaign. From its onset, many loyalists to the party and the movement, including myself, advised the NLD to disassociate itself from this fake election. There were some individuals who were more optimistic, arguing that the election marked the beginning of a transition to civilian democratic rule. But no longer is this the case -- the military junta's brazen theft of the election should have dispelled any remaining doubts about its intentions. The only question is: What's the next step for Burma's pro-democracy movement?

The phony democratic institutions established by the junta offer some hints about the pace of political developments in Burma. According to the 2008 Constitution, the junta must convene the lower house of parliament within 90 days after the election. Parliament's upper house will assemble a week later, followed by the Union Hluttaw -- a joint session of the lower and upper houses -- summoned 15 days later to elect the president. This will likely be completed by early March 2011.

Needless to say, both retired and active military generals will control the new parliament, together with their business cronies and drug lords who hold significant positions and powers within the military junta's political wing, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). There is little to no chance for the opposition members of parliament (who hold, at the whim of the junta, 15 percent of seats in the lower house and 17 percent of seats in the upper house) to address their concerns effectively. Than Shwe, the paramount leader in this criminal ring, is expected to become the president and chairman of the National Defense and Security Council, the most powerful institution in Burma -- equivalent to China's Central Military Commission.

The structure of the Burmese government will change, but the political game will continue to be monopolized by the same old figures and played with the same destructive attitude. Than Shwe will still maintain his supreme authority over the government and the military at least for the next five years, the duration of one term in office. And the military's regular offensives against ethnic minorities will continue, if not escalate, in an attempt to place all armed groups under the direct command of the Burmese Army, a policy known as "Tatmadaw" in Burmese.

The ruling clique will also continue to enrich itself at the expense of the Burmese people. A group of business cronies and family members of military generals monopolize the country's economy and control all access to the country's natural reserves and resources. The well-known tycoons Khin Shwe (of the firm Zay Gabar) and U Htay Myint (of Yuzana), both of whom are currently targeted by U.S. financial and banking sanctions, are now elected members of parliament with USDP tickets. Another junta crony under U.S. sanctions, Zaw Zaw, was recently granted a major contract to build the Dawei deep-sea port project, an $8.6 billion project mainly financed by Thailand, with the blessing of Than Shwe. Another of Than Shwe's favorites, Tay Za, (also under U.S. sanctions) operates several jade and ruby mines in Kachin state.

Despite these obvious obstacles, there is still hope that tangible positive change will come to Burma. The recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi has effectively re-energized the democracy movement inside and outside the country. People from all walks of life -- including NLD members, independent democracy activists, Buddhist monks, students, ethnic minorities, citizen journalists, farmers, laborers, and even the military and ethnic armed resistance groups -- have joined her network to press for a democratic and peaceful transfer of civilian power in Burma.

In the following months and years, Burma will witness the growth of a new civil society movement that exists in parallel with the ruling government and aggressively challenges it for popular support and legitimacy. There is no doubt that the new regime will launch propaganda attacks and restrictions against this newfound movement to undermine its efforts to expand its capabilities.

This civil society movement has believed that political dialogue is the only desirable and plausible way to achieve its aim of national reconciliation and democratization. However, the military junta's attitude for the past 22 years has demonstrated complete apathy -- if not outright antagonism -- toward Burma's pro-democracy movement and its demands. Unless this movement gathers more strength to exert further pressure on the regime, there is no doubt that the junta will continue to ignore our repeated calls for dialogue and national reconciliation.

The international community, and especially the United States and Western democratic countries, must do everything in its power to bring about these reforms. It is imperative to keep existing sanctions on Burma in place, while expanding targeted financial and banking sanctions against the military regime's cronies in the business world.

The escalation of the civil war between the Burmese Army and ethnic minority forces also looms on the horizon. The cease-fire between the junta and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, an ethnic rebel group, broke apart on election day, and conflict on the Thailand-Burma border will likely escalate. Another ethnic group, the Karen Peace Council, recently found the bodies of six of its members who had been arrested on Nov. 30 by the military. Meanwhile, the junta has been increasing troop numbers and deploying heavy artillery in the ethnically dominated Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and Kachin states. Ethnic resistance groups, including the Kachin Independence Army, Shan State Army, New Mon State Party, United Wa State Army, and Karen National Union are preparing for renewed conflict. This development will no doubt worsen the horrific human rights violations and crimes against humanity in ethnic-minority areas.

In addressing this situation, the international community must recognize that an ounce of prevention is superior to a pound of cure. The United States and its allies should press for the creation of a U.N.-led commission to investigate crimes against humanity in Burma. Toothless resolutions and statements just won't do. A credible international inquiry of this kind could prevent future human rights violations and also pressure the regime to engage in a dialogue with its critics.

The United States should continue to engage with the regime, but it should not be a unilateral effort. Washington should work together with Asian governments, including those of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, which have expressed interest and seriousness in restoring stability and democracy to Burma. This multilateral approach will bolster the U.S. message to Burma's leaders, while also serving to balance against China's growing influence. U.S. President Barack Obama can begin these initiatives by appointing a U.S. special policy coordinator for Burma, as mandated by Congress, to coordinate sanctions and diplomacy within the U.S. government and with other countries, without further delay.

Aung San Suu Kyi cannot work alone; she needs help from the international community. And the Burmese people are expecting the international community to listen to their voices and concerns. They need both moral and practical support to strengthen the democracy movement. It would be irrational and irresponsible for the international community to consider lifting the current sanctions and allowing foreign investments return to Burma; doing so will only enrich the top tiers of the military regime and their business associates while enslaving millions of people under their oppression.

Instead, the United States should direct its energies to solidifying this grassroots civil society movement, which is Burma's best hope for lasting and effective political change in a country that for too long has been oppressed at the point of a gun.



Censorship Without Borders

China's campaign of intimidation in the run-up to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is just the tip of the iceberg. The regime's crackdown on freedom of speech is spreading to other countries as well.

With the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarding the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo on Dec. 10, the Chinese government finds itself obsessed with awards. And there is one field in which China certainly has proved itself worthy of recognition: It has demonstrated world leadership in the development of innovative methods of internal censorship. China's efforts to muzzle any coverage of the awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu has also brought to the forefront the regime's determination to extend its censorship methods beyond its borders.

China's campaign began with a pre-emptive effort to bully the Nobel committee into rejecting Liu and other Chinese dissidents. Once that effort failed, the authorities denounced both Liu and the Nobel committee with vitriolic language -- Liu was called a "criminal" and the award decision an "obscenity" -- that went well beyond the vocabulary employed by the Soviets when dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were similarly honored.

At the heart of Beijing's strategy is an effort to manage the message that its own citizens, and people around the world, hear about the decision to award the Nobel Prize to Liu. China is setting a 21st-century standard for media manipulation that many outsiders have failed to adequately appreciate. The Chinese Communist Party has leveraged China's growing economic wealth, using advanced censorship techniques that use market forces to reinforce its political control.

Economic coercion is the lifeblood of China's transnational censorship. In the case of the Nobel award, Beijing warned that countries must "bear the consequences" if they attended the ceremony honoring Liu. The Chinese government also threatens to boycott or withdraw government funding from cultural events to pressure them to toe its political line.

For example, the Chinese government threatened to boycott the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair, to which it had contributed $15 million, unless two Chinese writers were excluded from the event. The German event organizers initially revoked their invitation to the writers in response to Chinese pressure. However, the writers were eventually allowed to participate after the intervention of the German branch of PEN, an organization that protects freedom of expression.

China's economic coercion is designed to produce an insidious form of self-censorship. Thus, the Hong Kong edition of Esquire magazine apparently pulled a feature story on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2009; a prominent legal journal in Hong Kong made a last-minute decision not to publish an article on Tibetan self-determination in 2008; and a blackout on independent coverage of the Falun Gong is believed to be practiced among certain Hong Kong and Taiwanese outlets whose owners have ties to Beijing.

At the same time, China has fine-tuned the traditional, punitive methods of control at its disposal. China's media landscape is actively policed by government officials who possess the most sophisticated technology available on the world market. Ironically, this is one of the benefits that have accrued to the government due to its decision to open the country to international trade.

Domestically, China's state-controlled television stations have subjected Liu to an Orwellian campaign of demonization. Simultaneously, Beijing's sophisticated Internet censorship apparatus has kicked into overdrive to sanitize discussion of the Nobel award and stop Chinese from accessing his writings.

For a time after the award's announcement, state media squelched any mention of the Nobel Prize. Soon thereafter, state-controlled media was used as an instrument to discredit the Nobel committee and the award recipient, often by stoking nationalist fears of Western domination. Even though some tech-savvy Chinese were able to circumvent censorship, an employee of the company that runs the popular Chinese instant-messaging system QQ told the Associated Press that "only 10 percent of people in China have heard of [Liu]."

This week, Chinese censors reportedly began blocking the websites of news organizations, including the BBC and CNN. On Dec. 5, the authorities disrupted a Japanese language broadcast from NHK, Japan's national broadcaster, which was reporting on Liu. China's efforts to censor these foreign broadcasts, which are usually available only in high-end hotels and inaccessible to ordinary Chinese, highlight its determination to cut off any information related to the Nobel award.

China's latest censorship campaign is hardly an isolated case -- indeed, it's only Beijing's latest attempt to extend censorship beyond its borders. This strategy is designed to prevent the outside world from honoring, or even listening to, critics of regime policies and to squelch discussion of sensitive issues like China's suppression of minority groups.

In 2009, China pressured organizers of arts festivals in Taiwan and Melbourne, Australia, to shelve a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uighur activist. Its efforts in those two instances failed -- but, in other cases, they have met with greater success. South Korea denied entry to a Uighur activist to a conference on democracy in Seoul that same year. This January, the Palm Springs Internet Film Festival also came under pressure when Beijing withdrew two films in protest of the festival's screening of a film on Tibet.

If there are differences between the regime's response to Liu and previous incidents, it can be found in its intensity, relentlessness, and seeming indifference to world opinion. But the goal is similar -- to identify intellectual "no-go areas" that governments, the arts community, and private institutions feel compelled to avoid.

While the Chinese government's gambit to impose censorship beyond its borders has met with mixed success in the run-up to the Dec. 10 ceremony, the real test lies beyond the awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu. The Chinese leadership is calculating that its intimidation today will lead to a more compliant attitude among foreign governments and news organizations in the future.

The response from the United States suggests that it is not likely back down in the face of China's bullying tactics. However, other democracies, such as Serbia, have been less resolute. In the future, given China's rising wealth and power, they will no doubt be tempted to anticipate China's preferences and quietly accommodate them. Those committed to freedom of speech must speak up loudly and regularly to remind these countries that such a course of action would be totally at odds with the values Liu Xiaobo seeks to defend from his prison cell.