Democracy Lab

The Optimist's Case for Yemen

Her country is in turmoil. But Yemen’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate believes that the revolution can still succeed.

Tawakkol Karman is a firecracker. Her eyes sparkle; her smile is warm and contagious. She wears a vibrant, colorful headscarf. This is a woman burning with intelligence, energy, and idealism. 

In Yemen they call her the "Iron Woman" and the "Mother of the Revolution." When she won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 32 in 2011, she was the youngest person ever to do so. (She was a co-recipient with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee). Karman is only the second Muslim woman to have won the prestigious award. (Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi was the first, in 2003.) 

And Tawakkol Karman now finds herself and her work in a very tight spot. 

I'm in Qatar, where I chaired an opening session of the Doha Forum that included the kinetic and inimitable Karman. The mood here hasn't exactly been cheerful. In one session, a Gulf participant sardonically challenges an E.U. ambassador to explain how Europe can help the people of Syria "when it has no fighters to send." In another, a pro-democracy Egyptian tells the assembled that "Egypt is in deep shit." 

Then there's Karman's Yemen. She has become the symbol, and the inspiration, of a country that is more than a little wobbly. Over a cup of tea in a quiet corner of our hotel lobby bar, Karman generously devotes part of her morning trying to peel for me at least a few of the layers. 

Start with very recent history. In 2011 Yemen saw massive protests against the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh who had ruled Yemen since 1978 (a year longer than Hosni Mubarak reigned in Egypt). Karman played a key role in organizing the protest movement and quickly became the public face of the anti-regime demonstrations. 

Karman began her career as an activist around 2005. "I learned at home growing up," she tells me, "you don't wait for solutions, you go out and find them." As chair of the group Women Journalists Without Chains, she fought routinely to get dissidents out of prison -- that is, when the mother of three wasn't in jail herself. In 2006 Karman started an SMS campaign that reached 200,000 people across the country. "This was most dangerous," she recounts with a note of evident satisfaction, since all texting in the country had, until then, been under the exclusive control of the military. To pull all this off, Karman was assisted by two of her brothers, both programmers. 

Karman's entirely self-taught English is broken, but clear and colloquial. She's even picked up the expression "look" to begin sentences where she wants to push a point. When I ask Karman about her penchant for fashionable hijabs, she laughs and responds, "Look, I used to wear the full burqa until 2005 or so!" 

Karman is a journalist, an advocate of human rights (a labor of love shared by her husband), and a visionary. She states repeatedly in interviews that she wants democracy, rule of law, and western-style human rights for Yemen. Is she realistic about the future? As she described her goals for the planet in her Nobel acceptance speech, she asked at one point, "Am I dreaming?" (Imagination seems to run in the family; her brother Tariq is a poet.) 

But there is now at least a mechanism for reform and a concrete path forward for her country. 

When things in Yemen finally came to a head two years ago, then-President Saleh transferred power to his deputy, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Hadi became president in a February 2012 election in which he ran unopposed. Since then, the country has embarked on a process of reconciliation. 

On March 18 Yemen launched its National Dialogue, a consultative process that encompasses more than 500 representatives from across the country. Among their ambitious aims: to amend the constitution; to reconcile groups in armed conflict; to tackle issues of governance; to re-work Yemen's social contract; and to prepare the country for general elections in 2014. 

One challenge for Yemen is the sheer enormity of the country's problems, including wide-spread poverty, illiteracy, crime, corruption, internal armed conflict, threat of civil war, and a growing al Qaeda presence. 

Another is that the National Dialogue is revealing just how deep the country's social and political fissures are. Most representatives from the southern separatist movement have refused to participate; two more withdrew earlier this month. Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa, having fallen out with President Hadi, declined to join as well. Also absent is the influential tribal leader Hamid al-Ahmar as well as -- calamitously, one might think -- the most famous Yemeni of them all, Karman herself. 

Karman protests that too many culprits from the former regime are involved in the National Dialogue. She also laments the lack of women, young people, and civil society leaders around the table. Nevertheless, she's not at all pessimistic. She thinks the National Dialogue can succeed. I push her to explain her near pathological optimism for her country's future, the work of the National Dialogue included. Karman keeps reminding me that all progress is relative and that her country has already made truly unimaginable advances in just a few years. She has a point. 

Yet Yemen's predicament remains delicate. President Saleh once said, in fact, that politics in his country is "like dancing on the heads of snakes." There's simply no single person, party, or plan that can move things forward smoothly without serious conflict. In truth, Karman's homeland -- she beams with pride and patriotism when speaking of her nation's history and fellow countrymen -- is at real risk of becoming a failed state. 

Facing Yemen's future requires nothing less than herculean patience and faith. But Steven Spiegel, director of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development (CMED), argues that the country's turmoil offers opportunities: "Upheaval can be chaos, but it can also be opportunity for reform and development." Spiegel, who has been faithfully supporting democrats in the region for many years, cannot be dismissed out of hand. A few years ago, after all, no one could have possibly predicted that the country would be where it is now. 

Karman has faith. She says that her heroes are Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (She adds that the American -- "Martin," as she affectionately refers to him -- is her favorite.) 

Of course, it took Americans decades to end segregation. Do Karman and her allies have the patience? She certainly has the vision.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Too Fast, Too Soon

Why Obama's embrace of Myanmar is putting the cart before the horse.

On Monday, Myanmar President Thein Sein had a historic meeting with President Barack Obama -- the first time a head of state from the country has visited the White House in nearly 50 years. Obama praised Thein Sein's leadership "in moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform," before discussing joint projects that U.S. assistance will focus on in Myanmar, such as improving agriculture. A pleased Thein Sein replied, "I will take this opportunity to reiterate that Myanmar and I will continue to ... move forward so that we will have -- we can build a new democratic state -- a new Myanmar."

Talk about a reversal of fortune. Only three years earlier, not only would this meeting have been impossible, but nearly every top leader in Myanmar had been barred from entering the United States and most other leading democracies. Sanctions hobbled the country's economy. Members of the U.S. Congress regularly castigated Myanmar as one of the most tyrannical societies on Earth. Former President George W. Bush in 2007 even canceled a planned summit with the regional body the Association of Southeast Asian Nations simply to avoid having to interact with Myanmar.

In the days before Thein Sein's visit, nearly every U.S. official who spoke publicly about the country painted it as a potential model of emerging democratization -- a bright spot in a world where democracy has regressed for the past seven years, according to the global monitoring group Freedom House. Since the United States began easing sanctions in 2012, American companies have started to flow into Myanmar -- perhaps the largest untapped emerging market the world. In April, Ford announced that it will open a car dealership in Myanmar, the first major automaker to do so, while General Electric, Caterpillar, and many other multinationals are looking to expand their businesses there. The U.S. view on Myanmar has indeed switched 180 degrees -- yet it remains dangerously black and white.

While the country has taken important steps toward democratization, its opening has also unleashed dangerous forces that have led to scores of violent attacks against Myanmar's Muslim minority, which make up about 4 percent of the country's 60 million people. As Reuters reported in mid-May, "In an echo of what happened in the Balkans after the fall of communist Yugoslavia, the loosening of authoritarian control in Myanmar is giving freer rein to ethnic hatred." The attacks are destabilizing the country and creating the possibility of nationwide violence, upsetting Myanmar's fragile transition and creating instability in the middle of the most important region in the world for the United States. (Militants in Indonesia, angry at the attacks on Muslims in Myanmar, reportedly tried to bomb the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta.)

The attacks, which in 2012 killed at least 192 people but seemed confined to the western state of Rakhine, have since spread -- and the Myanmar press reports burnings, beatings, and evictions of Muslims throughout the country. In an April report, Human Rights Watch labeled the violence "ethnic cleansing" and "crimes against humanity," noting that state security forces participated in the attacks alongside mobs -- together burning mosques, driving Muslims from their homes, and preventing people from assisting the injured and dying.

Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's leading moral authority, has said little about the attacks against Muslims. In a statement to Global Post in May, Aung San Suu Kyi's spokesman claimed that his boss has little interest in supporting the Rohingya's claims for rights and citizenship -- a shocking response by the Nobel laureate, renowned around the world as a champion of freedom and rights. "She believes, in Burma, there is no Rohingya ethnic group," the spokesman said -- in other words, that they do not deserve the protections Myanmar's constitution grants to other ethnic groups.

Despite the supposedly liberal leanings of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, I have found that most activists and leaders express disdain for Myanmar's Muslims. Even famed activist Ko Ko Gyi, almost as well known in Myanmar as Suu Kyi for his long fight against the former military regime, blamed "the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called Rohingya and the mischievous provocations of some international communities," in a widely-publicized announcement in July 2012. Neither the government nor Aung San Suu Kyi has offered a viable plan for how to create a more federal state, essential in a country with so many ethnic minority and religious groups, and so little trust in the central government.

Meanwhile, not a single prominent opposition leader, activist, or government official has even yet admitted that ethnic cleansing is taking place. To his credit, Thein Sein deplored the violence in a May speech, saying that the government will "take all necessary action to ensure the basic human rights of Muslims." Over the past five months he has declared states of emergency, due to inter-religious violence in several parts of the country, and has deployed the army in an attempt to stop the bloodshed. Even if the military is not complicit in the attacks, it brutalized the people of Myanmar for five decades, and has little knowledge of how to peacefully quell protests. Besides these ineffective military moves, Thein Sein has taken few concrete steps to improve the situation. 

Emboldened by the lack of action taken against marauders and killers, Buddhist extremists have recently launched a national anti-Muslim campaign. Called the 969 Movement, after an auspicious number in Buddhist numerology, the campaign calls on citizens to avoid Muslim shops and properties, and tacitly encourages attacks on Muslims. 969 followers encourage Buddhist shop-owners to put 969 stickers on their stores, identifying them as Buddhist-run, and have reportedly punished shops that do business with Muslims. The Internet has become a rallying ground for the movement. Web access in Myanmar is so new, and the media repressed for so long, that hate speech and wild conspiratorial rumors now dominate online articles and postings.

Meanwhile, gross attacks on human rights go unpunished. In the town of Okkan in central Myanmar, gangs of Buddhists armed with swords and machetes attacked Muslims across their community in April, burning down houses and hacking people to death. The violence followed a minor altercation between a Muslim woman and a young Buddhist monk, in which the woman appeared to have accidentally knocked over and broken his alms bowl. The leading Myanmar magazine The Irrawaddy reported that the gangs "appeared to be a well-organized mob, complete with scouts and checkpoints" -- scenes eerily reminiscent of the 1995 massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, or the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Many Muslims in the cities of Yangon and Bago, and in other large towns throughout the country, are now afraid to go to the mosque, enter shops catering to Muslims, or show displays of their faith outside their homes or stores.

And yet most of the rest of the world seems to have ignored Myanmar's looming catastrophe, seemingly convinced that all is well -- or will be soon. On the same day in April that Human Rights Watch released its report, the European Union lifted its remaining sanctions on Myanmar -- a move subsequently criticized as premature. The United States has maintained restrictions on a few top Myanmar leaders, but has also removed sanctions. 

After his Monday meeting with Thein Sein, Obama said he expressed "deep concern" about the violence. This is admirable, but Obama and other world leaders should do more -- calling for more severe punishment for the instigators of the attacks would be a start, while the international community should promise to slow the torrent of aid and investment until ethnic tensions have calmed. Then, the government, the opposition, and prominent ethnic and religious leaders, with the prodding of the international community, need to quickly develop a plan for devolution and federal government. Aung San Suu Kyi, for her part, needs to be less reticent in speaking out on the rights of all people in Myanmar, and on the need to halt ethnic and religious attacks.

Moreover, the Myanmar government, with the help of donors, needs to focus incoming aid money on areas crucial to restoring peace. These include: creating a civilian-controlled police force, which can protect law and order and reduce the need for army intervention in conflict areas; training young journalists to understand the need for sourcing stories; and launching mediation efforts to increase people-to-people dialogue among ethnic groups and religions.

At the same time, regional governments and Western donors must more effectively plan for Muslim refugees fleeing the violence. The United Nations Refugee Agency, and wealthier nations, could fund temporary camps for the refugees who are fleeing in Thailand, and help some resettle into third countries like Malaysia. Perhaps then, on Thein Sein's next visit, Obama can praise change in Myanmar without having to paper over the country's major problems.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images