Sunday, April 29, 2012

PacificUS moves to new website

Please update your bookmarks! PacificUS has a new image, and is now located at a new address:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Myanmar on the Precipice: How Suu Kyi & the NLD May Learn from History

Myanmar’s April 1 by-elections are over, but tensions and uncertainty still hover – will the National Democratic League elected officials be able to maintain their seats within Parliament for the remaining term without military interruption?  Will the new government be able to effectively pass progressive reforms despite the military grip on power? How will the celebrity of Aung San Suu Kyi impact the party’s effectiveness and foster an environment for a fair democracy? All these questions and more are swirling around the media, academia, and importantly are in the minds of the Burmese. The relatively smooth elections on April 1 were a positive sign despite corruption allegations. The next three years until the general election may seem like a decade if reforms move at a staggered pace.  Lessons can be learned from Myanmar’s rich history, including its struggles with democracy, civil war and involvement of outside powers. 

The transitions of power between democracy and coups from the 1940s to 1980s demonstrate the perplexities in Burma/Myanmar politics and the ways that individuals and parties have tried to cling to power. In the early 1940s Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, attempted to lead an ‘independent’ Burma free from British rule, Aung San and his colleagues courted the Japanese; they spent months training and fighting with Japanese soldiers and even wore kimonos during their flirtation with Fascism.  Aung San wrote “There shall be one nation, one state, one party, one leader…there shall be no nonsense of individualism.  Everyone must submit to the state which is supreme over the individual.” (Thant, 2006, p. 229)  The slogan of the Burma National Army in 1943 while he was War Minister still reigns today – “One Blood, One Voice, One Command”.   Luckily Aung San turned against Fascism just in time in 1946 to help Burma in its first democratic elections; however, he always held onto his belief in statism and the determination that his party’s views were best for the country.  When Aung San negotiated with the Japanese and the British to enable an independent Burma, he demanded that his party automatically receive a majority in the provisional government council, with more rights than other parties and in disregard of ethnic minoritiesIn a way, Aung San eventually led the U Nu government to democratic power through the 1947 Constitution.

Burma has yet to achieve sustained democracy; greed, corruption, military strength and politicians that feel they’re infallible have impeded its perpetuity.  By the late 1950’s, Independent Burma’s first elected government under Prime Minister U Nu experienced a decline in influence.  After ten years in power and in spite of electoral success, U Nu’s party began to break apart.  The league had been a mixed grouping of competing interests, goals and loyalties, sealed by relationships at the very top. (Thant, 2006, p. 283) The friends and colleagues in government grew tired of each other and mutual confidence began to wane.  The league lost much of its support and started to rely on extremist wings for continued support in Parliament, causing worry amongst the military.  In September 1958, rumors of a coup d’├ętat circulated; eventually forces under command of future NLD leaders surrounded the government buildings as a “preemptive coup”; several days later U Nu announced that he had asked General Ne Win to assume a “Caretaker Government” due to the current security status of the country, until new elections could be held.

The Caretaker Government that lasted until 1960, stabilized the country reducing crime and making some inroads regarding ongoing ethnic conflict. (Thant, 2006, p. 284) However, when time came for the next national election, the military leaders failed to win over the public, and U Nu’s former government easily regained power.  General Ne Win projected an unconcerned image publicly to the media, but his military “believed they had acquitted themselves admirably and could run the country better than anyone else. They wanted another chance, this time without any electoral deadline looming overhead.” (Thant, 2006, p. 285)

General Ne Win took over Burma with a military order for the second time in 1962; the ruling party had helped the country move forward and could not understand why the military-backed party didn’t gain the people’s trust for another term.  The first military government used technocrats to rule effectively; the new military government, however, worked in an opposite way, distrusting and firing educated civil servants, academics, and others within the educated professional class.  The government abolished many foreign aid agencies, international education exchanges, and closed Burma to the outside world.  The effects of decades of inefficiencies, military rule and the path toward a totalitarian state by General Ne Win from the 1960’s to 1988 can still be seen and felt across the country.  Rather than turning Burma into a national-socialist utopia, Ne Win turned it into one of the poorest and least developed countries in the region.  Now with a civilian leader in charge – but strongly backed by the old ruling military order – the country may yet fall back into disarray come next election.  A major difference this time, however, is that the world is watching and advocating for democratic normalcy and greater freedom, with its ASEAN neighbors and the US noting every step. 

When Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1987 to take care of her mother, she also prepared herself for potentially having to nurse the country back to health.  A strong and determined leader, she has claimed her place in history but is just getting started.  Suu Kyi’s discussions with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, United Nations delegations and other diplomats demonstrate the faith and authority that the international community has in her opinion and commitment to a free Burma.  It is amazing that Suu Kyi has made it this far despite assassination attempts, but the current leadership knows that they need to keep her placated to survive.  Prior to the election, Joshua Kurlantzick wrote in Foreign Affairs that Thein Sein would actually be at a loss if Suu Kyi did not win her parliamentary seat; the international community and Burmese would not accept the election results as being accurate.  In this way, one hopes Suu Kyi is in fact fostering a more genuine democratic spirit amongst military leaders.

Suu Kyi has changed Myanmar’s fate, but can she continue to move the country forward? As much as Suu Kyi is the focus of the changing political landscape in the country, her party lacks enough parliamentary seats, internal experts and policies recommendations to peacefully develop the country; as well, they need to foster more leaders to counter the stubbornness Suu Kyi shares with her late father. Furthermore, a collaborative effort will be necessary to make the economic and political changes necessary to restore a collective national pride and governmental legitimacy.  The NLD will need to keep its relations with the ruling government amiable in the same way that Thein Sein, the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the military need a peaceful environment with the NLD to maintain their status.  All sides will have to compromise in one way or another to keep ASEAN on its side. 

The April 13 visit by British Prime Minister David Cameron to Myanmar is a striking sign that the West is interested in Myanmar’s development; that decided to take a business group to investigate leaves me on edge that the country’s natural resources or economic market could potentially be ruthlessly exploited.  The bilateral and multilateral meetings to come in the next few months should provide greater insight into how things will develop in Myanmar.  The more unfiltered information sent out to the international press and the more access foreign press and nonprofits are able to gain within the country, the better.  The international community no longer seeks to alienate the government of Myanmar but they must not let the state reign ‘supreme over individuals’.

Aung San Suu Kyi, like her father, has found herself at an important precipice in Myanmar’s politics. The fragile balance that has emerged out of the most recent elections could point toward a more stable and more prosperous future for Myanmar’s people, but also looms at the edge of renewed military rule. The hope is that Suu Kyi and that NLD can navigate this situation without repeating mistakes of the past.

*Note: this post uses the name “Burma” to refer to the time before the country was renamed “Myanmar”. The people of Myanmar are referred to as “Burmese”.

Reference: Thant, Mynt-U (2006). The River of Lost Footsteps: A personal history of Burma. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, NY.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A Review of Water: Asia’s Next Battleground

In much of Asia, the growing middle class is driving up demand for freshwater supplies, water-intensive crops and resource-intensive goods that have been taken granted for in the West.  With only one-third of global water resources for three-fifths of the world’s population efficient use and management of water is critical to social, political and economic stability in Asia.  Climate change and increased demand are putting strain on the global water supply and uncertainty of future reserves and access to existing stores is making water a disputed commodity. 

In Water: Asia’s Next Battleground, Dr. Brahma Chellaney explores the geopolitical consequences of water management policies in Asia set against the landscape of a water-stressed continent.  A fantastically detailed look into the domestic and international issues of several key states in Asia, the book demonstrates that the management of the increasingly scarce and necessary resource is invariably complex and can create tensions among neighbors.  As potential solutions to an impending crisis, Chellaney calls for the establishment of Asian norms for transboundary water resources, inclusive and coherent basin organizations, and a holistic approach to planning, conservation and water quality.  China is at the heart of the problems and solutions of the impending water crisis in Asia, with its reluctance to be a leader for multilateral arrangements, its focus on dam-building and neglect of the environment.  

Poised to become the scarcest essential resource in the world, water scarcity affects internal and external security of states.  Compared to all other regions, Asia has the least amount of freshwater per capita and one of the lowest levels of water productivity and efficiency.  Chellaney defines water shortage as “an absolute deficiency where the level of available water cannot meet basic societal and economic needs”, and water stress as having “less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per capita”.  The goal of water security is for every person to have dependable access to sufficient, safe and affordable water, while keeping the ecological systems intact and thriving.  Asia is, according to Chellaney, negligent in its use and management of natural resources, and water is no exception.  Inadequate supply, increasing pollution and diminishing natural wetlands are critical issues faced by the rapidly-developing states at a time when demand continues to rise.

Improvements in irrigation technologies and better widespread use of drip irrigation may improve Asia’s water security.  While the rest of the world uses rainwater as its primary source for agriculture, Asia has a much higher percentage of cultivated land using irrigation than any other continent.   Chellaney calls Asia “the global irrigation hub” and notes that the Asian method of irrigation is making the land less productive than rainwater-fed land.  Throughout the book, Chellaney reiterates the need for more investment in drip irrigation, particularly in India, and steadily criticizes China’s South-North Water Diversion Project as another troubled megaproject.  Large-scale irrigated farming has helped to reduce rural poverty and enabled greater agricultural self-sufficiency in many Asian countries.  As top water-intensive crops, rice and cotton continue to be critical to Asian livelihoods.  Despite food security underpinning the rise of Asian economies, the increasing population and their desire for water-intensive products are fueling rivalries and tensions. 

The Tibetan Plateau and Brahmaputra River are examples of significant areas where access to water is being controversially modified.  With control of the Tibetan Plateau, China has attempted to tap resources from each international river originating in the area; Chellaney suspects that a central part of the Great South-North Water Diversion Project in China is the diversion of the Brahmaputra River.  As the essential river for Bangladesh and a critical basin for India, any plans to modify the flow or affect the ecosystem of the Brahmaputra River will impact millions of people.  The increasing number of Chinese-led megaprojects exploiting rivers flowing from the Tibetan Plateau are worrying their neighbors and making water a divisive issue.  Chellaney lambasts the Chinese government, run by individuals with engineering backgrounds, for perpetuating Mao’s idea of controlling nature rather than bending to it (ignoring potential environmental damage and disruption to wildlife) and for resettling entire villages and towns to make way for megaprojects.  China has more dams in operation than all other countries combined, and has over 100 dam projects in dozens of countries.  However China continues to publicly claim that is has no plans to divert the Brahmaputra River, and Indian suspicion of this claim is growing.  Despite its unique position supplying river waters to the most individual countries, China does not have a water-sharing agreement with its neighbors or co-riparians and is instead embroiled in disputes with riparian neighbors; rather than joining the Mekong River Commission or other multilateral solutions, China’s preference for bilateral arrangements somewhat undermine the Commission and future efforts.

Much of the conflict – current and potential – over water access seems to be on racial and ethnic lines.  Tensions among different ethnic groups within Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka and India are made worse by water disputes.  Chellaney’s case studies demonstrate limited ability of a purely supply-side strategy to meet the challenges brought on by water distribution.  In each of these states, governance is poor and water disputes are associated with “deeper socioeconomic discontent, fueling a cycle of unending unrest and sporadic violence”.  When citizens lose confidence in the ability of their government to be fair and impartial, new threats arise from an erosion of the rule of law.  Chellaney offers a direction for relevant states in Asia to mitigate their water-sharing disputes and challenges, but the book would benefit from a more detailed prescription and less repetition of his outwardly anti-China rhetoric.  

For both domestic and international disputes, Chellaney prescribes a holistic approach that is long-term, adequately integrates both demand management and supply-side approaches, focuses on quality as much as quantity of water, and utilizes input from diverse stakeholders and management at  different levels.  Cooperative relations are necessary to solving water disputes and protecting resources for the future; these relations can then broaden to include additional areas of cooperation.  There must be trust among co-riparians, with competition for resources minimized to enable a foundation for a contemporary water-sharing agreement.  While Asia could use another green revolution to institute more practices for efficient water use, another significant need is to build institutions to facilitate a water-sharing framework in transboundary basins.  Strategic planning and resource management are key to supervising stocks of Asia’s water supply; however without unified norms and institutions accountability and structure will be lacking.