The Burma Spring

Myanmar's new rulers seem to be serious about change we can all believe in. So what can the West do now to end decades of isolation?

These are heady days for those long hoping for change in Myanmar. The government, which was installed on the back of a sham election that saw the ruling junta ditch their military uniforms for civilian garb, has set out an ambitious reform agenda and seems to be trying to stick to it. After 20 years without a parliament and democratic process, its new leaders are now showing a surprising impatience with the status quo and are changing the way this country is ruled. Western policymakers should sit up and take notice of these reforms -- and, most importantly, respond.

The new government's apparent decision this week to shift its stance toward the prisoners of conscience in Myanmar's jails is an important sign of its efforts to promote internal reconciliation in the divided country. On Oct. 12, it released more than 6,359 detainees as part of a general amnesty, first hinted at in a landmark parliamentary motion urging the president to consider such a move. While the exact number of political prisoners among those released is yet to be confirmed, Amnesty International has said that the government released at least 120 of some 2,000 incarcerated political detainees.

Although the actual figure may be debated, it is the quality as much as the quantity that is significant. While less well-known than Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a number of leading dissidents appear to be among those released, such as Ashin Gambira from the All Burma Monks' Alliance, who led street protests in 2007; comedian and social activist Zarganar, who criticized the government's response to the devastating Cyclone Nargis; and a prominent ethnic figure, Hso Ten, who headed the Shan State Army-North armed group.

The fact that the release was channeled through the new institutions of the presidency, parliament, and the country's fledging human rights commission lends it an unprecedented institutional basis that makes it harder to reverse. The vote in favor of the parliamentary resolution on the amnesty included the military's faction, indicating the move is openly backed by the armed forces in a way that previous releases have not been. Opposition figures in Myanmar believe that this is the first stage of a phased release of political prisoners, possibly with two more tranches in coming weeks.

The release should not be interpreted as a stand-alone event. In recent months, President Thein Sein has reached out to prominent critics, including Aung San Suu Kyi. He has made overtures to armed ethnic groups, signing preliminary peace agreements with the Wa and Mongla, which like others are still fighting a 60-year civil war. Controls on freedom of expression and the right to organize have been loosened. Myanmar has set its sights on chairing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014, which will require even more dramatic steps to alter the old mindset and become more integrated with its neighbors.

Some critics doubt the government's commitment to the reforms. But since the International Crisis Group released its Sept. 22 report, "Myanmar: Major Reform Underway," which foreshadowed greater political, economic, and human rights changes in the country, some of the subsequent positive actions have exceeded our expectations. This includes the decision to suspend construction of the controversial Chinese-backed Myitsone hydroelectric dam, which would have flooded Kachin lands and created an environmental disaster for those living downstream on the Irrawaddy River. All these moves should be seen in the context of a country seemingly now determined to pull itself out of decades of isolation.

Many recent visitors have made similar observations, as visas are increasingly issued freely, even to exile media. "I almost left the country thinking they're moving a little too fast. I never thought I would say that about Myanmar," Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told the Financial Times after a trip this week. He cited the lifting of bans on websites, the chief censor's proclamation that all forms of censorship should be reviewed, the broadcast of lively parliamentary debates, the toning down of propaganda, and the positive statements from Aung San Suu Kyi after she met with the president on Aug. 19.

These are real changes, not just words. And they can effect political activity inside the country, create a more open environment, and add momentum for further change. But they are just a start on a long road ahead and do not guarantee reform will succeed. There are still many challenges to be tackled, including the difficult tasks of healing deep ethnic divisions, overcoming the legacy of decades of armed conflict, taming the brutality of the armed forces, freeing all political prisoners, fully restoring basic civil liberties, and allowing a truly free media.

But there is finally reason for optimism in Myanmar. The message from the prisoner release is that key benchmarks many in the West have insisted on are being reached. The skeptics in the international community need to acknowledge and support such a dramatic policy shift by immediately allowing institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to provide greater advice and by finding new ways to interact directly with the government, parliament, and nascent human rights commission. Simply noting the positive change but waiting to see more before reciprocating would be a mistake.

This prisoner release is a genuine move and must elicit a positive response in kind by the West -- showing the Myanmar government that it is serious about engagement. Restrictions on international aid and advice should be the first to go. Failure to do so or shifting the goal posts by replacing old demands with new ones would undermine the credibility of these policies and diminish what little leverage the West holds. It is time to support Myanmar's reformers rather than just give them another lecture.

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The End of Ukraine's Golden Girl?

After a bizarre show trial, Yulia Tymoshenko is going to jail. But it may be her country that suffers.

KIEV, Ukraine – On Tuesday, Oct. 11, the final curtain fell on the politically charged drama that has up to now been the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko. The former Ukrainian prime minister received a seven-year prison sentence. But is this really the last we'll hear of the golden-plaited, onetime darling of the Orange Revolution?

On its last day, the trial that has transfixed Ukrainians and international observers for more than three months began as always: amid chaos.

A police paddy wagon transported Tymoshenko, the leader of Ukraine's political opposition, from a jail cell to the courthouse in central Kiev. There, riot police held back the throngs of her supporters, who heaved like an ocean swell, trying vainly to break through the cordon. Meanwhile, only meters away -- and separated by another line of helmeted police -- a smaller rent-a-crowd of her opponents blasted music and anti-Tymoshenko speeches from Lollapalooza-sized speakers in an attempt to drown out the equally ear-splitting levels of noise coming from her supporters.

Inside the courtroom the political drama switched into high gear. Judge Rodion Kireyev, a 31-year-old, heavy-set, Harry Potter look-alike, read a summary of the case for close to four hours. When the verdict finally came, much of it was inaudible, as Tymoshenko launched into a soliloquy that drowned out the soft-spoken Kireyev. "Glory to Ukraine!" she said. "This verdict will not stop me."

But it was Kireyev who had the last word in the end. Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison, with an additional fine of some $190 million. She was also barred from holding government posts for three years after her prison term.

Tymoshenko's trial began on June 24. She was charged under a Soviet-era statute of abuse of office, a criminal offense in Ukraine with a prison term of up to 10 years. The accusations stemmed from an agreement that she brokered with Russia in January 2009, during the two countries' so-called "gas war," which had resulted in the Kremlin's cutting off gas supplies to Ukraine and large parts of Europe. At the time, she was prime minister and engaged in a vicious power struggle with her onetime Orange Revolution ally, President Viktor Yushchenko.

Tymoshenko outmaneuvered Yushchenko and dramatically flew to Russia to hammer out a deal with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. She returned to Kiev, she thought, a hero -- and well-placed to win the country's presidential election in the beginning of 2010.

Voters, however, had grown tired of Tymoshenko and Yushchenko's ceaseless bickering. Many viewed her -- a mini-oligarch in her own right after running a gas company in the 1990s -- as just another corrupt politician. She lost in a runoff to Viktor Yanukovych, the very man whom she and Yushchenko had vanquished in the Orange Revolution.

Yanukovych moved quickly to secure his grip on power. Tymoshenko was quickly replaced as prime minister through a series of deft parliamentary machinations. (Yanukovych at first could not remove her because, when elected, he did not have a legislative majority. He resolved this by simply changing the Ukrainian Constitution to suit his needs.) Soon after, members of her inner circle found themselves under investigation, charged -- or in jail. Yuriy Lutsenko, her interior minister, was arrested as he was walking his dog one Sunday. His trial on charges of misusing state funds is ongoing.

Tymoshenko had three criminal cases opened against her, but the one the government chose to try her first for was over the gas deal. Prosecutors maintained that she signed the deal without the approval of the rest of the government. Moreover, the price that she agreed Ukraine would pay for Russian gas was inflated, they said, and cost the government hundreds of millions of dollars.

Once the trial started, Tymoshenko, whose ratings had been dropping, found herself in her element, cast once again as the plucky, persecuted truth-speaker to power. Tymoshenko on a good day is easily Ukraine's most charismatic leader. (On a bad day she has post-Soviet politicians' unfortunate habit of droning on interminably and discursively.) A striking 50-year-old, she effortlessly switches between the roles of she-tiger and populist, and sometimes girlish coquette.

Inside the courtroom, she harangued witnesses, speechified, and made life in general miserable for Judge Kireyev, whom she refused to stand for, saying that he was just a government stooge. (At one point, she tweeted from the courtroom that Kireyev was a "bedbug.") On Aug. 5, after she ridiculed the current prime minister, Mykola Azarov, during his testimony, Kireyev jailed Tymoshenko for contempt of court for the remainder of the trial.

As the case dragged on, criticism from the outside began to mount. Western governments issued statements that they were "concerned" that the trials against Tymoshenko and her allies "could be" politically motivated. Privately, they were even more certain. The case against Tymoshenko was flimsy, they told journalists, for what amounted to an administrative offense. Even if she overstepped her authority, she ultimately had received the worst political punishment by being voted out of office.

In the end, the disapproval became more pointed. At an international conference in September in the Ukrainian seaside resort of Yalta, European officials threw the linguistic kid gloves aside and told Yanukovych bluntly that they expected Tymoshenko to be set free. If she wasn't, relations between the European Union and Ukraine "will hardly be the same," said Stefan Fule, the EU commissioner for expansion.

To the east, Russia also weighed in. Yanukovych's government is trying to renegotiate the gas deal Tymoshenko signed. The trial, the Kremlin said, was a full frontal attack on the agreement. Yanukovych, it should be noted, has bucked initial predictions that he would return Ukraine to the Russian fold. In recent weeks, the two fraternal Slavic nations seem to be drawing further apart, due in part to the bad blood over the gas agreement.

So the Yanukovych government officials found themselves in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't dilemma. What to do with a problem like Yulia Tymoshenko?

If she were found guilty, Kiev risked inviting the wrath of the international community. What's more, European officials said that two agreements that Ukraine is negotiating with the European Union on free trade and a closer political association could be jeopardized. Although the deals will probably be signed, they still need to be ratified by all 27 member states' parliaments -- no sure thing in this political environment. This would be highly difficult after a Tymoshenko conviction, EU officials said.

On the other hand, releasing Tymoshenko was not an enticing option either. Once liberated, she would undoubtedly resume her attacks on the Ukrainian leadership with doubled intensity. And Yanukovych and his Party of Regions would face a galvanized opponent in parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2012. A compromise solution was floated of giving Tymoshenko just a suspended sentence. But even this was not a way out: The Europeans would not be satisfied because she still could not run for office.

In the end, Ukrainian officials went with the hard option. Why, however, is anyone's guess. Is it because Yanukovych has given up on Europe? Or just the opposite: He believes that Brussels will eventually cave and accept Ukraine, warts and all, rather than push the country into the arms of the Russians? Or perhaps the verdict was just a move in a drawn-out game of chess between old political enemies? Despite the verdict, Tymoshenko's lawyers have said that they will file an appeal next week -- even while the other two criminal cases are pending against her.

Whatever the reason for the verdict, international reaction nevertheless was swift and resolute. Yanukovych had crossed a line. The European Union's foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that the sentence would have "profound implications." German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said the decision was a "step back for Ukraine" and "would have consequences."

Russia's Foreign Ministry for its part issued a statement saying Tymoshenko's conviction carried an "obvious anti-Russian subtext." And Putin later chimed in, saying that he was "perplexed" at the decision, which he found "unfair." (The parallels to the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case have not been lost on a number of observers, however.)

Meanwhile, Ukraine's fractious and anemic opposition appears to finally have a cause to rally around. They plan to hold a major demonstration in front of the country's legislature, the Verkhovna Rada, on Friday. Yushchenko has avowed that the case "is not political." He even testified at her trial -- though his car was pelted with eggs as he left. As to whether this signals the end or the rebirth of the Orange Revolution movement, so far large crowds have failed to materialize.

On the sidewalk in front of Kiev's Pechersk district courthouse, the pro-Tymoshenko tent city still stands; the hundred or so people there, many from her political base in the country's west, say that they will remain until Tymoshenko is released. One wonders whether they are prepared to live there for seven years.