Sri Lanka’s Political Faltering and Entrenched Ethnic Divisions

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an Independence Day speech to ease tensions over the recent arrest of opposition leader Saratha Fonseka, following elections in January 2010. Photo courtesy of Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Reuters.

September 9, 2011

Brookline, MA

After more than a quarter century of violence and ethnic division, the world had cause to hope that Sri Lanka’s May 2009 military victory over the rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, would finally bring peace to the small island nation.  That fragile peace now appears fraught with tension as longstanding emergency laws remain in place, allowing the government unrestricted detention and military surveillance over ethnic minority Tamils in the North.

Despite international criticism and high level reviews conducted by independent organizations like New York-based Human Rights Watch, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government still detains 3,000 former rebels of the 11,000 that surrendered at the end of the war. The Sri Lankan government has been accused of widespread abuses in its efforts to stamp out the insurgency, and a UN panel has cited the possible slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in the final push northward.[1]

Presidential elections in January 2010 following the military campaign ensured Rajapaksa’s enduring power, as he consolidated his grasp on the presidency and proposed to amend the constitution in order to remove presidential term limits.  He arrested the opposition leader Saratha Fonseka, a former general and leading ally in the war against the Tamil Tigers.  Mr. Rajapaksa had in fact campaigned on a platform to devolve power by giving more representation to regional bureaus. Ironically, he may now be rescinding those offers because elections this summer gave Tamils a majority in 18 of 26 local councils in the North and East of the country, regions with abiding loyalties to the ethnic minority.[2]

The Rajapaksa administration has promised to rebuild infrastructure, schools, and health services in the war torn areas, focusing on national reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil population.  Those vows look strikingly hollow as little development has been made on these fronts.  If Rajapaksa can give credence to his reform platform by decentralizing power, releasing prisoners, and bolstering local representation as well as development, he may be able to pave the way toward lasting peace and stability. But if the President continues to consolidate power and ignore Tamil demands for equal opportunities and welfare, the country may resort to its violent tradition of ethnic division.

[1] Bharatha Mallawarachi, “Sri Lanka Said to Still Violate Rights: Laws Keep Many Ex-Rebels in Jail,” in The Boston Globe, Sept. 9, 2011.

[2] Lydia Polgreen, “Tamil Parties Make Strong Showing in Sri Lanka,” in The New York Times, July 24, 2011.

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China’s Problems

Riot police in Zengcheng, China (Photo Courtesy of Reuters)

Washington, DC, July 28, 2011

This week has revealed a host of internal and international problems confronting China. While the list is nothing new, the fact that they have all come to a head at once indicates mutually reinforcing crises that will inform any shift in China’s domestic and foreign polciies if they are to respond adequately. Chinese officials must simultaneously grapple with infrastructure failures, social unrest in new-urbanizing provinces, and contention with neighboring countries in the South China Sea.

Last week, a high-speed rail crashed in eastern Zhejiang Province, killing nearly 40 people.  China’s expansive rail system had long drawn criticism from outside observers as well as Chinese whistleblowers in the know, despite high level boasts and state-led investments that waxed eloquently of its triumphs.

Just two days ago, protests and clashes with police rocked the city of Anshun in Guizhou Province after Chinese security forces reportedly beat to death a one-legged street vendor.  Mr. Deng Qiguo, 52, had started an argument with auxiliary security forces, but details remain sketchy.  What resulted was an eruption of violence and chaos in the city, pointing to a now undeniable trend in China’s ongoing urbanization and massive economic transformations.

Social inequality and unrest, long swept under the carpet by state-censored media, now demand the Communist Party’s concerted attention.  If China is to maintain double-digit annual growth rates – indeed, as many experts speculate it won’t be able to uphold – it must redirect its focus toward a more balanced and socially conscious development agenda.

Finally, the South China Sea has been an area of heated controversy among China, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, and the United States.  While China claims roughly 80% of the territory contained in these waters, other nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam contest those sovereign claims.

ASEAN nations, buoyed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of support at a summit in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, last year, have held joint talks between Southeast Asian naval chiefs this week to express common agreement regarding China’s illegitimate claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands archipelagos.  The newfound regional solidarity on this cause should give China reason to pause before pursuing further aggressive relations in the South China Sea.

What do these three critical issues have in common?  Well, China has to start investing in quality infrastructure and social welfare rather than seeking purely quantifiable economic gains.  Otherwise, widespread unrest and the collapse of its transportation (as well as manufacturing and export) industries, are inevitable.

The same may be extended to China’s foreign policy.  The middle kingdom must re-examine its regional partnerships in light of widespread distrust of its overreaching territorial projections, which have only led to fear and opposition.  If China really wants the US to adhere to non-interference in its territorial disputes, Beijing must reassure its Southeast Asian neighbors with a more transparent and cooperative stance in the region.

Posted in Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Southeast Asia | Leave a comment

The Lady’s Last Act? Aung San Suu Kyi’s Influence May Be on the Wane

July 14, 2011

Washington, DC

Photography courtesy of The Telegraph

Last week, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the disbanded National League for Democracy, traveled to Bagan amidst widespread speculation of military violence.  Suu Kyi’s NLD won the previous 1990 elections, but the ruling military junta prevented a transfer of power.  In 2010, the generals outlawed the political party when it chose to boycott the unfair elections in November.  The last time Suu Kyi traveled outside of Yangon, where she has been kept under house arrest for nearly 15 of the last 21 years, was in 2003.  During that trip, thugs threatened her life and killed a number of her colleagues, probably at the behest of the generals.

During this trip, Suu Kyi is not allowed to engage in political behavior, but large crowds greeted her arrival.  Her widespread popularity remains strong, though her political party now finds itself on the sidelines of the political center in the capital Naypyidaw.  While she continues to travel and to speak with foreign diplomats and human rights activists, it remains unclear whether she will be able to remain pertinent to the process of national reconciliation she has long advocated for in Burma.  If Burma’s young parliamentary government can prove itself an appealing forum for political debate, she may be forced to retire from her lead role in Burma’s democracy movement.

The Lady obviously maintains widespread popularity amongst Burma’s people and thus the government remains wary of her influence, but does she still offer a pragmatic hope for national reconciliation in Burma?  Her longtime championing of the democracy cause has come across a roadblock with the disbanding of her party, but her efforts to promote internal stability and peace remain just as relevant today as various ethnic groups currently engaged in warfare with Burma’s tatmadaw step up their resistance efforts against incursions into their territories.  She still has a leadership role outside of Burma’s new parliamentary government and is able to communicate with international diplomats like Senator John McCain, who visited Burma last month and urged reforms in the capital, holding separate meetings with Suu Kyi and various opposition groups.  As China urges Burma’s military to show caution in protecting its strategic investments in Northern Burma, Suu Kyi should seize on joint security interests between China, Burma, and the US, in an effort to promote human rights and stability inside her country.

Posted in Burma/Myanmar, Human Rights | Leave a comment

Emerging State-Society Relations in Burma: A Chance for Reform?

June 27, 2011

Washington, DC

In November of 2010 Burma’s long-ruling military junta held the first multiparty elections in two decades.  The previous elections in 1990 witnessed a roughly two-thirds vote in favor of the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of the 1988 student demonstrations opposed to the previous regime of General Ne Win’s Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).  The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), then in power in Burma, denied the NLD a transfer of power and imprisoned countless opposition leaders.  The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, formerly SLORC) hailed the 2010 elections as a path forward to “discipline flourishing democracy” under a civilian government, though Western observers and Burmese exile groups largely decried the elections as a ruse to keep Senior General Than Shwe in power[1].

The 2010 elections was a highly ordered process of regime consolidation vis-à-vis a partial withdrawal of military officers from direct political power.  The shift to a new political apparatus represented an “elite collective action,” to borrow Dan Slater’s phrase, most importantly one that was non-threatening to those with a concentration of power and resources at the state center.[2]  The 1990 elections had left an indelible mark on state-society relations in Burma, and the outright NLD victory was a mistake the military was unwilling to repeat by allowing any genuine space for political opposition.  Moreover, the enduring institutional links created by nearly half a century of military rule had a large impact on the process and outcome of the 2010 elections.

Burma has had numerous elections of different types and at different times in its political history.  To say that Burma does not have a strong historical precedent for free and fair elections would be simplistic and dismissive of past examples.  To point to a trend line—have elections gradually become more transparent? have they extended access to power to more people? or have they concentrated power in the hands of a few?—is more complicated, however, especially considering the more uneven political terrain in Burma under military dictatorship since 1962.

On the one hand, authoritarian elections are a way to contest the powers that be and open up a degree of power sharing to other political parties (access to power); on the other hand, the authoritarian regime strictly controls the electoral process and the rules of the game (exercise of power).  The rules surrounding power and the conception of power itself thereby change during and through the electoral process.[3]

The SPDC forced a constitutional referendum in May 2008 to establish the framework for the next elections and subsequent transfer of power on their terms.  The 2010 electoral laws made sure both to invite electoral participation by political parties and to undercut mass mobilization by any significant coalition against the USDP.

The regime navigated the 2010 elections along with a forced constitutional referendum in such a way that neither event would pose a serious challenge to the authority of the state elites, whose security remains more or less guaranteed by enduring political loyalties and economic links to key power holders.  At the same time, the generals had to put on just enough airs of democratic intentions to gather a degree—however slight—of international credibility.  In the most cynical sense, it appears they succeeded brilliantly in this guided political transition.

As the regime began to privatize the economy in the 1990s/2000s, power and resources began to decentralize while forging connections between military and civilian elites who are able to find common ground in developing their nation’s economy.  At the same time, the military has ceded some local authority to civil society actors with a humanitarian agenda as long as they are willing to engage with the regime and operate within the system.  This nascent elite network has grown from the election’s transition to parliamentary government as well as the spur of foreign investment from the likes of China and Thailand.

The new parliamentary government has yet to demonstrate substantial political reforms, but subsequent elections will no doubt reflect 2010’s precedent and build on the coalitions that are now operating.  It is therefore critical to understand the power dynamics and stakeholders in contemporary Burma in order to know what developments to expect on the horizon and to identify responsible partners for engagement.

[1] Conversely, China and Russia (not surprisingly) abstained from a UN resolution to condemn Burma’s elections as unfair, and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan defended the elections as “credible and transparent”.  BBC, “UN Condemns Burma’s Human Rights and ‘Unfair’ Elections,” Nov. 18, 2010; Saw Yan Naing, “Burmese Elections Expected to Be Credible: Asean Secretary,” The Irrawaddy, Feb. 24, 2010.

[2] Dan Slater, Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[3] In Burma, the military regime withheld the dissemination of election laws until March and closely managed the registration of political parties and media coverage, thereby creating favorable conditions for the incumbents.  See Ashley South, “Burma’s Electoral Dilemmas,” The World Today (2010), 27.

Posted in Burma/Myanmar, Civil Society | Leave a comment

2010 in Review

The stats helper monkeys at mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,500 times in 2010. That’s about 4 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 28 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 54 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 63mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was July 18th with 39 views. The most popular post that day was Pawn Shop Hotel, or How I Neatly Avoided Working in a Burmese Kitchen.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were,,,, and

Some visitors came searching, mostly for shan army burmese, con trau, “collective consciousness of civil society”, 2 con trau, and +”jeffrey race” +”bangkok post”.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Pawn Shop Hotel, or How I Neatly Avoided Working in a Burmese Kitchen July 2010


Beyond Chinglish May 2010


Civil Society and State Policy in Southeast Asian Countries: Examples of Authoritarian Control and Civil Society’s Responses August 2010


A Trip to North Thailand – Shan Burma Border September 2010
1 comment


Culture of Corruption, Part 1 May 2010

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Merry Christmas! (in Viet Nam Fashion)

A typical scene during Christmas in Ha Noi, the capital of Viet Nam

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Wikileaks, Lady Gaga, and Kim Jong Il

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange


Brookline, MA

The past week has seen much speculation about the significance of Wikileaks’ 250,000 leaked diplomatic cables, most of which are still to come. When Private Bradley Manning shared the secret of his “Lady Gaga” CDRW with a hacker that turned him in to the government, he may have agreed with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange on the need for government transparency at any cost. But “at what cost?” has been the damning counter-argument to Wikileaks’ mission by Americans who accuse Assange of endangering US foreign service officers, the armed forces, and the larger mission of US foreign policy, which operates on the assumption of protected secrecy.

Yet, Wikileaks does not represent the watershed revelations that the Pentagon Papers of 1971 did, as some have alleged. When senior state official Daniel Ellsberg’s release of files proving the Nixon administration’s early doubts about the Vietnam War showed on the front page of the New York Times, those secrets reflected deep flaws on the part of US policy makers and deeper fault lines between the public perception of the war and the views of powerful politicians.

Neither does Wikileaks signal the end of government secrecy, or the end of transparency and information sharing, on the opposite end of the spectrum, for that matter. While this diluvian leak may have exposed some embarrassing high level chit-chat and inner State Department thinking, the material and subject matter are not that bad. In fact, they show an adept US foreign service corps and rather sophisticated strategy on the part of those diplomats.

“First, there is little deception,” says Fareed Zakaria.¹  “The WikiLeaks documents…show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly…And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests.” While the US needs secrecy to operate and negotiate successfully, the information leaked is neither incriminating nor jeopardizing the security of our foreign officers.

“If we’re looking for bad government policies,” adds Zakaria, “perhaps the place to look is not in the cables but in the new data-sharing craze. The leaks are, in some ways, an unintended consequence of Washington finally getting its information act together.” So was this the inevitable result of new information sharing technology and database coordination? Probably not: the US has designated 75% more files secret since 1996, while the number of files produced has grown exponentially.²  Furthermore, the Obama administration has significantly expanded the number of foreign service officers and embassy personnel, while granting more government employees in the field access to classified documents. The problem is one of labeling and numbers.

After the Pentagon Papers exposed Nixon and Kissinger’s criminal actions hiding the truth of US intervention in Vietnam, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart prophetically said, “When everything is classified, then nothing in classified.”³  Meaning, the sanctity of what is and isn’t “classified” has lost any connection with reality. Nowadays, just about everything is labeled secret, from details of a wedding in Dagestan to murmurs of Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe pondering a purchase of Manchester United.

The State Department has made some progress in assembling information into a linked database that is now accessible to the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department, which formerly blocked communication avenues between those agencies. The new system seems to have a few glitches, but there’s no reason why a field soldier like Private Manning in Iraq should be privy to what China says about North Korea behind closed doors (that Beijing is losing patience with ailing ruler Kim Jong Il’s regime is promising news, by the way). Zakaria again:

If Private Bradley Manning had not gone to WikiLeaks, he would have found some other outlet to disseminate the data. Our anger at WikiLeaks should not obscure the fact that it is Washington’s absurd data-sharing policy that made this possible. That’s the scandal here that needs fixing.

Perhaps it is Julian Assange, ironically, who can best see the real significance of the leaked cables in the midst of the media frenzy surrounding his capture: “The media scrutiny and the reaction from government are so tremendous that it actually eclipses our ability to understand it.” And that’s more important to understand than trumped up rape charges over Assange’s head from Sweden. Let’s take a serious look at this rare glimpse into US foreign policy and the international relations between regional powers like the Middle East and rogue states like Iran.

¹ Fareed Zakaria, “It’s Not So Bad,” in Time, December 13, 2010.

² Massimo Calabresi, “The War on Secrecy,” in , December 13, 2010.

³ Ibid.

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