BURMA’S ROAD TO DEMOCRACY: China v West in Burma

From Asean Center for Human Rights(http://www.achrweb.org/Review/2011/234-11.html)

Immediately following the historic visit of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Burmese President Thein Sein signed a bill on December 2 that gives the Burmese the right to peaceful protest under specified circumstances.

Prior to the meeting with Mrs Clinton, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi told the Associated Press on November 30 that she has not changed her position supporting sanctions against her country’s military-backed government.

After the visit Mrs Clinton, however, stated that apart from exchanging ambassadors, the US would relax some restrictions on international financial assistance and development programmes in Burma. This would allow the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to assess the needs of Burma.

Whether the Western sanctions imposed on the junta in the 1990s had any significant impact on Burma’s political process beyond symbolism, is debatable. At the time when Burma needed hard foreign currency, the Western sanctions were offset by business with China, Singapore, Thailand and India.

If the sanctions were not effective, it is equally pompous to claim that the so-called “constructive engagement” without naming and shaming the junta as practiced by India, had any impact on Burma’s democratic political process. India has been desperately mimicking China – a fact abhorred by the pro-democracy activists – even when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations became increasingly vocal for the release of Mrs Suu Kyi and the need for national reconciliation.

If Mrs Suu Kyi were to be under house arrest today, India would still be, quite deplorably, doing business as usual with the junta.

The junta’s change of heart for democracy has more to do with Burma being reduced to another Chinese province, than the junta reeling under sanctions or a strong pro-democracy movement inside ethnically divided Burma. The junta’s choreographed democracy must be analysed from a historical perspective.

One of the despicable measures taken by Gen Ne Win following the coup of 1962 was to seize the properties of Indian-origin Burmese who had been living in Burma for generations, by nationalising private property in 1964. Over 300,000 ethnic Indians were also expelled. Gen Ne Win feared domination by the Indian-origin Burmese in the administration and major business enterprises.

About 50 years later, Burma finds itself in the same situation, but now with the Chinese. In the last 20 years, millions of Chinese have moved into Burma from neighbouring Yunnan and other provinces. From Burmese timber and gems to mines, oil and gas, the Chinese control everything. Mandalay today looks more a city of China than Burma, with Chinese-owned hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and small businesses. The Chinese festivals have become an integral part of the city’s cultural calendar. The huge investments made by China mainly benefit itself. The Myitsone Dam being built at the cost of US$3.6 billion in the Kachin State and suspended since September 30, was supposed to provide electricity to China for 50 years despite severe power shortage in Burma.

As the Burmese have been pushed to the margins, resentment against the Chinese has become all pervasive.

However, the junta cannot afford to expel the Chinese the way it expelled the Indians. It desperately needs to counter-balance China. Not surprisingly, while Burmese Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin visited Beijing on October 10 to explain the cancellation of the Myitsone Dam at the cost of a hefty cancellation fee of US$42.5 million, President Thein Sein launched his three-day state visit to India from October 12.

India alone cannot be the counter-balancing alternative to the Chinese domination built over 20 years of almost monopolistic access, given that it was only China that could protect the junta from the United Nations Security Council’s radar. China’s direct investment had risen to $15.5 billion in March 2011 from $12.3 billion at the end of 2010. In comparison, India’s investment in Burma amounted to $189 million as of June 2011 since the junta opened to foreign investment in 1988. While China invested in every sector, India, out of US$189 million, has invested $137 million in the oil and gas sector. India currently ranks 13th in Burma’s foreign investors’ line-up. Bilateral trade between China and Burma in 2010 was about $4.4 billion and during the first quarter of 2011 it was $1.6 billion. In comparison, Burmese-Indian bilateral trade reached $1.071 billion in 2010-11, way behind China, Singapore and Thailand. While China plans to build railway lines up to Kyauk-Phyu port in the Arakan province by 2017, India has no plans to connect even Aizawl in Mizoram with a railway.

Therefore, the junta had no other option but to open up Burma to the world which boycotts it. This called for meaningful democratic reform, including the immediate release of at least 2,000 detained political prisoners and the holding of free and fair by-elections for the 48 seats in the coming months, in which Mrs Suu Kyi herself will contest.

At the bilateral talks held in capital Naypyidaw on December 6, Japan stated that it intends to resume full-fledged Overseas Development Aid to Burma if the government improves its democratisation and human rights situation. If the military-backed government frees all the political prisoners and allows free and fair by-elections in the coming months, the US and the European Union must consider lifting the sanctions as the key to glasnost in Burma.

Burma needs aid but it equally needs foreign investment. Sanctions might not have had any impact to oust the junta but the sanctions were instrumental in preventing Western investment into Burma that could have only strengthened the junta. The sanctions have created a situation where Burma has been effectively reduced into a Chinese province; and this also triggered the democratic reforms by the recalcitrant junta. It is one thing to impose sanctions; it is another thing to counter the entrenched position of China, especially when the spotlight is on the same natural gas resources, including proven recoverable reserves of 18.012 trillion cubic feet estimated offshore and onshore gas and 3.2 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil reserve.

It is essential to ensure a clear roadmap to democracy before Japan and the West join the rat race for exploitation of the natural resources of Burma. [End]

Youth Knowledge of Democracy Lacking: Survey

By Sun Narin

United Nations Development program (UNDP) did a survey of the population of 2000 students nationwide in 2010 regarding the country’s democracy and the results revealed on Thurday July 21st, 2011 that Cambodia’s youth lack knowledge of the country’s democratic institutions and their roles. 

According to UNDP website, Cambodian youth feel optimistic about the overall direction their country is taking but face challenges on the way to a meaningful participation in the political and socio-economic life of Cambodia. A lack of knowledge and understanding of democratic processes and difficulties expressing issues of concern are among the obstacles to greater youth participation as citizens.

The baseline study involved face to face interviews with 2000 youth aged 15-24 discussing civic participation, knowledge of democratic institutions and electoral participation. It showed that respondents’ knowledge of democratic institutions and their roles was very limited, particularly of elected bodies such as the Parliament and commune councils, a study said.

“Commune councils were a widely familiar institution but what they do was less clear to respondents. Ninety-two percent of youth had heard of commune councils. However, nearly a third of those who were aware of commune councils did not know what they do,” the study said.

“Parliament was the least familiar to youth, with just three-quarters having heard of ‘Parliament’, and two-thirds of these people not knowing what parliament does.”

Youth are the key to democratic participation in Cambodia with two out of three people in Cambodia being under the age of 25 years old and more than 30 percent of the population aged between 10-24 years. Active and meaningful youth civic engagement is essential to Cambodia’s development.

The study found that 54 percent of respondents who were eligible in the 2007 Commune Council election did not actually vote and that 21 percent of the young eligible voters were not registered at all. Youth participation in community-based activities is very important, and yet only 4 percent of the respondents said that they had participated in making decisions on community plans, according to the study. Among the issues to be addressed, the participants of the study mentioned community issues, corruption, gangs, health and domestic violence.

In my opinion, the lack of the youth knowledge of democracy is because of some reasons below.

1. Freedom of expression is still limited and under the suppression of the government: students and youths do not dare to express their opinion and they think if they know much about this they will get into trouble.

2. The access of information: the government limits the information for the people to know through media.

3. The lack of media in the countryside, especially newspaper.

4. Youths themselves do not have the attitude to learn news through television, radio and newspapers. I see that most of Cambodia’s youths do not have the habit of reading newspaper.

5. The subject related to democracy is not widespread in the general knowledge schools. Therefore, students are not able to learn.

As the solution, the government should open the freedom of expression for the people and the access of information for the students as well as the general people. There should be more education on the democracy at schools and on televisions and other media. As the students themselves, they should have the attitude of reading and learning through the media such as television and newspaper, so they will understand much about what is going on with their country and can participate more as the civic engagement.

Information for democracy’s sake

The story will be published in Lift Magazine, the Phnom Penh Post tomorrow

Sun Narin

“Let people know the facts, and the country will be safe,” were the words of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States.

With his usual talent for combining eloquence and brevity, Lincoln needed only these 12 words to describe the crucial importance of an educated, well-informed society in maintaining a functioning democracy.

Also implied in this statement is the necessity of strong institutions for journalism and education to distribute this information and a government that makes accurate and applicable information available.

Cambodia was ranked 154 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, making Cambodia one of the least trusted governments by its people.

It doesn’t take more than a few calls to government officials for journalists in Cambodia to understand what this means for people who rely on official information and statements do their job.

“I am busy with my work,” is a common excuse given by government officials when called by journalists.

“You should ask my higher-ranking person in my ministry.”

“You should ask another groups working on this.”

“You have to send an application, with questions, requesting an interview.”

Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies, suggested that government officials do not speak to journalists partly because they don’t understand the principle of democratic society, a free press and individual rights of speech and expression.

Secondly, he said, the Kingdom’s bureaucracy is so tight that officials do not dare to say anything that might attract the scorn of higher-ranking officials and possibly cost them their job.

“We do not have a freedom of information law requiring state institutions to differentiate between genuinely confidential information and information that they would simply prefer to share.”

“They [government’s officials] can refuse to talk to journalists because there is no law to punish them,” he said, adding that some journalists have invited a negative reaction from the government by showing a pattern or hostility in their treatment of government sources.

Pa Nguon Teang, the director of the Cambodian Centre for Independent Media, said that the political environment of the country is not subject to a democratic process

“Some officials do not dare to speak to journalists because they are involved in corruption,” he said. “They do also not have the ability to work through and understand related information so they refuse to comment.

“No law forces them to speak, so they choose to be silent. People have to express their wish that [government] officials serve the public by providing information to the journalists,” he said.

The Royal Government of Cambodia committed to passing a freedom of information (FOI) law to meet international standards in 2003, but despite various public and private workshops and discussions on drafts of the act, no law has been passed a decade after their initial deadline passed.

According to Law on the Regime of the Press which was enacted in 1995, article 5 states that requests for information shall be made in writing and specify clearly of the information which is requested to the institutions. The law continues that competent officials who govern the responsible institution shall respond in writing to the request within 30 days. If the request is denied in whole or in part, reasons for such denial shall be indicated clearly in writing.

While the law does require some accountability from the government, it allows the government to stall long enough to be of little use to journalists often writing on a deadline.

Although a number of government decentralization and accountability efforts have been launched over the past decade to bring decisions closer to the people they impact, the rigid hierarchy of the ruling party also contributes to the refusal of local officials to talk with journalists and open their doors to citizens.

Journalists, after all, work to pry off the lid on stories related to official improprieties, inefficiencies and contradictions, leaving officials fearing for their job little choice but fighting back to keep them sealed.

The fact that politicians in Cambodia have a negative attitude toward journalists is no offence in itself; even Lincoln offered tame criticisms on particularly aggressive journalists. He is quoted in a biography by Richard J. Carwardine as saying that “he should judge the line of tactics which [a certain type of journalist (s)] intended to pursue was that of personal ridicule.”In modern English: some journalists are trying to make him look bad, rather than pursing accuracy.

Lincolns distaste for hostile journalists is, in many ways, a precondition of democratic politicians who followed, with public persona and professional aspirations irreversibly intertwined. Lincoln reserved criticism, after all, must be seen within the context of his earlier quote. In the end, he trusted that the facts would speak for themselves, and felt no need to silence smear campaigns as he believed their untruth would be inevitably exposed.

While Lincoln and Hun Sen may both prefer that journalists do not dirty their names in print (or on TV and the Computer), Lincoln’s government showed unwavering respect for the right to freedom of the press and, simply put, Cambodia’s government has not.

Cambodia’s press was again labelled “not free” in the Freedom of the Press 2011 report, released by United States-based watchdog organisation Freedom House, and the Kingdom fell seven spots to 141 out of 196 countries and territories rated this year.

“This is the confusing concept held by the government: that providing information on negative points to the public is bad,” Moeun Chhean Nariddh said. “In democratic nations, there are checks and balances. The government cannot see their mistakes on all sides. The public and the journalists are their only eyes.”

“Information is a great democratizing power, allowing us a chance to effect change and alleviate poverty,” said Koffi Anan, who was replaced by Ban Ki-moon as the United Nations secretary-general of the United Nations in 2007. The free flow of information, to the man who once led the most powerful international governing body in the world, should not only be tolerated by policy-makers, it is a tool to eliminate the ills of the societies they serve.

Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS), a German foundation for political education, has been active in Cambodia’s media sector since 1994. They are currently working with existing Cambodian institutions to improve access public information in the sub-national level, as part of their democratic development initiative. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Information in 2010 to train government officials at the local level in public relations with the aim of opening channels for information to reach the general public.

KAS Country Representative Rabea Brauer, said that the governors or other officials of sub-national levels are often willing to inform the public when asked, but do not see informing the public about major developments or decisions as part of their professional responsibilities.

“Being the provincial governors, being the head of the provincial councils, you want information flow,” Rabea  Brauer says. “You want to reach out to your citizens. You want them to feel responsible and accept your decisions. You want them to participate and respect your work.”

She said that KAS would provide information officers for the upcoming training, which would educate officials from every province on the methods and techniques of a responsible spokesmen, in order to establish link between citizens and the administration controlling many aspects of their life.

“In the future we will see a demand for more information on both sides, including the government,” she said, going on to point out that today many officials are still unable to deal confidently and comfortably with the current amount of media coverage.

Sieng Suthang, the vice governor of Battambang province, who is one of three KAS trained spokesmen in the county, said that gathering and distributing information has been quite easy for him to integrate into his other professional responsibilities. He says he just looks at the reports being released and stays in constant contact with others working within the government in Battambang.

“It is necessary and it is the role and responsibility of the sub-national administration to serve the public,” he said, also admitting that journalists still beat them to some stories.

As Sieng Suthang sees it, his duty to share information extends to issues of land concessions and corruption, explaining that if he does not tackle these questions there is no one else in his jurisdiction who can.

“There is no reason to hide information and there are no higher level people prohibiting us. If we know the issue clearly, we will tell the media, but we have to find out explicitly,” Sieng Suthang said.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith was unavailable when contacted to comment on this story, but he told the workshop on “Improving Outreach, Public Relation and Information Strategies on Sub-National Level”, organized by KAS last month, that public relation officers play a key role in the governments handling of information. “They are bridges to provide information to the people through the media.”