Tensions between Burma's Buddhists and Muslims have flared up again, this time in Meiktila, a town in central Burma. A brawl between a customer and a seller in a local market on March 20 triggered a fight that broadened into a full-fledged sectarian riot. State-run media reported that 32 people died in the violence. The government announced a curfew for Meiktila and two nearby towns. For the moment, the situation in Meiktila appears to be under control. It should come as no surprise that most of the lives and property destroyed so far belong to Muslim residents of the community. Independent observers said that the damages -- including the death toll -- are likely higher than the government's report.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Civil war has plagued Burma for over sixty years now. At a number of times throughout that period, the ethnic rebel groups fighting for autonomy from the central government attempted to join forces. But their common foe, the Burmese military, consistently refused to have any dealings with alliances that tried to bring together all the restive minorities into a common front. The reason for this was simple: The generals always understood that ethnic rebels tend to be a fractious bunch, and that it's only too easy to incite defections by playing to a particular group's sectional interests (whether it be the offer of a favorable deal or the threat of a harsh crackdown). As a result, the Burmese army developed considerable expertise in the subtleties of divide and rule.
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages
Last week the UN finally released a controversial report that accuses Uganda and Rwanda of supporting rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When a leaked version of the report first appeared in October, Uganda's Army spokesperson, Felix Kulayigye dismissed it: "It's hogwash, it's a mere rumor that's being taken as a report," he told Radio France Internationale. "It's undermining the credibility of the mediator which is Uganda, and when you undermine the credibility of the mediator you are actually undermining the entire process."
PETER BUSOMOKE/AFP/Getty Images
Ben Bland argues that Vietnam's economic miracle is losing steam, and makes the case for why the Communist Party is to blame.
Gamze Coskun explains why Turkey's rhetoric about promoting democracy in the Middle East lags behind its capabilities.
Karen Coates reports on why Cambodians would like to see Obama defend their human rights.
Juan Nagel explains why Venezuelans vote the way they do.
Min Zin offers a few helpful tips to President Obama in his dealings with Burma.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
Seamus Martov explains why conflict and cronyism in Burma are hurting tigers as well as people.
The United States Institute of Peace presents a valuable new report on the politics of security sector reform in Egypt.
Morten Jerven argues that bad statistics are misleading us about the health of African economies.
The Cairo Review of Global Affairs offers an interview with former U.S. Ambassador, Ryan Crocker on the Iran and Syria crisis and what we can learn from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At The Monkey Cage, James Fearon wonders why it's so easy to seize power in certain African states.
The FT's Jonathan Kay shares his thoughts on the motives behind rent-seeking.
Aidan Hartley tells the story of a successful London restaurateur who returned to his home in Somalia to show the flag against the Islamists of Al-Shabaab.
The International Crisis Group presents a paper detailing possible paths out of the crisis that Egyptian politicians now find themselves in.
Photo by ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
The sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims that started in western Burma last June has now taken 200 lives and caused some 100,000 refugees. This issue should take a prominent place in President Barack Obama's agenda as he stops off in Burma this week. It will be the first time that any U.S. president has visited the country.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Mac Margolis explains why Brazilian political consultants are all the rage in Latin America and beyond.
Min Zin anticipates President Obama's planned trip to Burma and what it might mean for the development of the country's democracy.
Pedro Pizano and Jamie Leigh Hancock offer a rare glimpse inside one of Africa's harshest dictatorships.
Based on an interview with Transparency International co-founder Laurence Cockcroft, Christian Caryl contends that corruption is set to become one of the defining political issues of the twenty-first century.
Liana Aghajanian reports on Armenians' revolt against the political and economic power of business tycoons.
Azzurra Meringolo interviews the leading Bahraini human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja.
Juan Nagel looks ahead to the approaching state elections in Venezuela and wonders whether the opposition will have a chance.
And Endy Bayuni tells the sad story of a scandal over judges with poor judgement.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, writing for the Legatum Institute, present an outline for a post-war transition in Syria.
Democracy Digest examines Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's vow to stay no matter what, and analyzes the impact of his statement on the continuing civil war.
Writing for the Center for International Policy Studies, Alexandra Gheciu examines the possibility of military intervention in Mali.
At Jadaliyya, Fawwaz Traboulsi maps out the political opportunities that the Arab Spring has provided to the forces of the left -- and suggests how they might be exploited.
Shannon K. O'Neil at the Council on Foreign Relations analyzes how U.S. state votes on the decriminalization of marijuana will affect drug policies in Latin America.
Radio Free Asia provides a profile of the "multimedia monk" who has been campaigning for human rights in Cambodia.
The Economist presents a video report on the ethnic violence in western Burma.
Golnaz Esfandiari, author of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty's Persian Letters blogs, provides a unique look into the mindset of one of Iran's basij paramilitaries.
At Al-Akhbar English, Sarah El Sirgany offers an intriguing comparison of the U.S. and Eygptian presidential elections.
Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages
M. Steven Fish and Katherine E. Michel explain why Tunisia is taking the right approach to establishing democractic institutions.
Anne Applebaum explores the motivations for people to support authoritarian regimes.
Dalibor Rohac argues that religion isn't necessarily the key to understanding the success of Islamist parties in the MENA region.
Endy Bayuni explains the tensions underlying recent violence among Indonesian migrants.
Peter Passell introduces the Legatum Institute's 2012 Prosperity Index.
Jackee Batanda reports on the corruption scandal that has soured Uganda's relations with foreign aid donors.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
David Rieff attacks the assumptions behind America's democracy promotion agenda.
The Arabist provides alternate sources of English versions of the new Egyptian draft consitution -- with a bit of arch commentary along the way.
Amrit Dhillon criticizes the Indian government's restrictions on morphine for the poor.
At The Monkey Cage, Joshua Tucker offers a handy overview of Ukraine's parliamentary elections and what they tell us about the Ukraine's continued drift toward authoritarianism.
Writing for The Irrawaddy, Burmese journalist Aung Zaw explains why the resurgence of ethnic conflict in northwestern Burma bodes ill for the next phase of reforms.
At Jadaliyya, Basma Guthrie and Fida Adely explain why the Jordanian government is tightening the screws on the domestic media.
Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch writes on the burgeoning dissatisfaction in Kuwait.
Writing for OpenDemocracy.net, Paul Rogers argues that western intervention in Mali would be a gift to Al Qaeda.
Democracy Digest offers a useful situation report on the state of democratic institutions in Tunisia.
[The photo above shows Cubans lining up to receive government coal rations in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.]
Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images
Indonesia has long prided itself on its remarkably cohesive identity as a nation comprised of many different ethnic groups. But lately this sense of unity has been showing dangerous signs of fatigue. The reason: Rising violence involving people resettled from the overcrowded regions of Java and Bali to other islands in this vast archipelagic state.
Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images
Writing from Libya, Christopher Stephen offers a forensic analysis of the Benghazi consulate attack.
Syrian dissident Ahed Al Hendi recalls what it was like growing up under the personality cult surrounding the Assads.
Christian Caryl examines little-noticed corners of the Arab world where the spirit of rebellion continues to smolder.
Jon Temin explains why Sudan's governance problems are too deep to be cured by concessions to breakaway regions.
Guest blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad casts a critical eye on Mideast potentates who are using blasphemy laws to silence critics.
Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez analyzes the factors influencing Venezuelans' decisions to emigrate after the Hugo Chávez victory in this month's presidential election.
Katrina Lantos Swett and Robert P. George make the case for keeping post-revolutionary constitutions in the Arab World free of blasphemy laws.
Jackee Batanda observes plans by the Ugandan security forces to crack down on the country's social media.
And Endy Bayuni writes about the political strategy behind Indonesia's creeping liberalization of laws on capital punishment.
And now for this week's recommended reads:
In a new paper from the Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh proposes a path forward toward a solution to Syria's deepening crisis.
The Inter American Press Association warns of a rising threat to press freedom from authoritarian governments and violence across Latin America.
Democracy Digest analyzes a political assassination in Tunisia that could have a profound effect on the course of the revolution.
As talk grows of a possible military intervention in Mali, the Council on Foreign Relations offers a useful backgrounder on Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. (The photo above shows Tuareg fighters in northern Mali.)
An intriguing blog post from The Economist describes the crucial differences in local government around India.
Ivan Krastev reflects on the importance of trust in democracies in a recent TED talk.
Courtesy of The Atlantic.com, Russian dissident Sergei Udaltsov live-tweets his detention.
And finally, be sure to check out this thought-provoking obituary of Cambodia's King Sihanouk, who died this week at age 89.
My former colleagues in Burma are preparing a special commemorative ceremony to be held next week to honor a fallen hero, Thet Win Aung. They've asked me to write an essay about him, as they plan to publish a book about him on the sixth anniversary of his death. For several days I've been unable to complete the task.
The Lady continues her U.S. tour. Aung San Suu Kyi has already visited Washington, DC, and New York City, and now she's on her way to the West Coast. Last week I had the privilege of flying to the U.S. capital to see her during her stop there. It was a great honor to greet her again in person. It was 23 years since we had last seen each other.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages
Christian Caryl reports on the Salafi movement, which has been implicated in many of this week's protests around the Middle East.
From my observation of democracies around the world, I'm worried that the risk of a slide into authoritarian rule in South Africa over the next several years is rising and substantial.
This pessimistic view emerges from an unconventional understanding of what makes democracies survive or fail. For the past couple of decades, American scholarship on this subject has emphasized popular legitimacy and the habituation of elites to democratic norms and procedures as the means by which democracy solidifies. In this view of the world, the passage of time without failure is considered a useful indicator of consolidation, because time roughly measures the amount of habituation that's taken place. If that's right, then the 18-year run of South Africa's post-apartheid democracy bodes well for its ability to survive shocks that would break younger regimes.
Syrian journalist Malik Al-Abdeh argues that the Syrian National Council's lack of leadership has been a disaster for the revolt against Assad.
Political analyst Jay Ulfelder explains why Kim Jong Un may be about to embark on reform in North Korea.
Blair Glencorse and Charles Landow report on five East African nations that are working towards an economic community modeled on the European Union (but without a common currency, thank you).
In 2009, Moe Thee Zun, a famous student leader during Burma's 1988 pro-democracy movement and a former chairman of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, flung his shoe at a car carrying then-prime minister Thein Sein while he was attending the UN General Assembly in New York. He argued that Thein Sein and the repressive military junta ruling Burma do not represent the people of Burma -- whom they brutally killed during the peaceful protests of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Now Moe Thee Zun is back in Burma after 24 years in exile. The student leader, who was condemned to death in absentia by the old military regime, can now legally return to his homeland -- now that-President Thein Sein's pseudo-civilian government has removed his name, along with 2,081 others, from a blacklist denying him entry into the country. After his arrival on Saturday he held a press conference at which he declared that he had returned to help the president's reform process and make peace in the war-torn areas of the country.
Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages
Three Princeton researchers (Morgan Greene, Jonathan Friedman, and Richard Bennet) tell the story of how post-Yugoslavia Kosovo (with some help from the international community) managed to pull off a remarkable feat of state-building.
Endy Bayuni explains why Indonesians disagree about the start of Ramadan, and what it says about the country's climate of religious toleration.
Sectarian violence in the western region of Burma that shares a long border with Bangladesh has now claimed at least 25 lives since Friday. President Thein Sein has declared an emergency in Arakan State, where a feud between ethnic Arakan Buddhists against stateless Rohingya Muslims has spiraled into full-blown communal violence. The looting, arson, and mob clashes are spreading fast.
Although a predominantly Buddhist state, Arakan is home to a large number of Muslims, including the estimated 800,000 Rohingya, who are regarded by the Burmese government as stateless illegal aliens. The United Nations has described them as one of the world's most persecuted minorities. However, many Burmese call them "Bengalis," or even use a racial slur, kalar, a derogatory term for foreigners, especially those of Indian appearance.
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/GettyImages
As of June 9, the war in Burma's Kachin State has been going on for one year. It's a sad anniversary.
In early January 2012, the Kachin journalist Lahpai Naw Ming was hit by a bullet fired by a Burmese soldier. But Naw Ming's companions had no way of getting him to a hospital for immediate treatment, because of the heavy on-going fighting between Kachin rebels and Burmese government troops. Bleeding profusely, the 44 year-old Kachin journalist was forced to hide in a trench in the Kachin lines for almost two hours. By the time he arrived at a hospital in a Chinese border town, the bullet in his throat had already caused damage to his main nervous system.
"I still can't move the lower part of my body up to the chest," Naw Ming told me on the phone from his hospital bed. As the chief reporter for Kachinland News, Naw Ming filed a series of dispatches from the frontlines of the war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese government troops, which broke out last June after 17 year of a ceasefire agreement. The journalist also documented on video how the Burmese army has wantonly killed Kachin villagers and razed their houses.
Ahead of Sunday's presidential elections in Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said he may run for president for a fourth time in 2018. But some observers think he may face significant challenges during his third term.
At a European Union summit in Brussels, Serbia finally received official approval as a candidate for membership in the EU. At the same the EU's 27 member nations withdrew their ambassadors from Belarus.
The Spanish Supreme Court acquitted Judge Baltasar Garzon, who had been accused of violating a 1977 amnesty law when he tried to prosecute crimes committed during the Franco era.
Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images
There's an old Acholi proverb: "Land is like a fish with its mouth wide open, waiting to swallow you." If there's one thing that unites the Acholi people, it's the obsession with land.
For the past four or five years I've been observing the growing land conflict in Acholi. The land question has become a leading subject of debate and discussion.
There seem to be many different people who want to have land in Acholi, and they have many ways of getting it. Some have used the government structures; others have simply grabbed it by force. Officers of the Uganda People Defense forces (UPDF) have been accused of amassing huge chunks of land in the region in the wake of the devastating conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).
Tensions soared in Senegal ahead of the Feb. 26 elections as security forces clashed with protestors. Opposition leader Youssou N'Dour, the singer, was injured during a political rally. At least six protestors have reportedly died over the past month. Nigerian ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo met with the government and opposition leaders in an effort to mediate the political standoff.
President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali said that presidential elections will be held on time in April despite a heavily-armed Tuareg uprising taking place in the north of the country.
The International Criminal Court announced it will investigate possible war crimes committed in Cote d'Ivoire as far back as 2002, after Laurent Gbagbo became president. The court was previously only looking at crimes committed in the violence that followed the 2010 election when Gbagbo, currently in jail in The Hague, refused to step down.
In Burma, the largest strike since 1938 is testing the limits of the new law allowing labor unions. China's leaders urged the Burmese government to reinforce its control over the two countries' turbulent border.
Experts warned of potential security risks in the lead-up to Timor-Leste's general elections in March.
The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is expected to call on the Sri Lankan government next week to report its progress on investigating possible war crimes committed at the end of the civil war in 2009. The UN also wants to see an accounting of reconciliation measures taken by the authorities.
Amid the continuing political crisis in the Maldives, the Commonwealth urged government and opposition to start an immediate dialogue leading toward early elections at the end of 2012.
CAMILO PAREJA/AFP/Getty Images
For the first time in years, the Venezuelan opposition united to choose a single candidate to run against President Hugo Chavez in elections scheduled in October. After some initial disagreements, the opposition succeeded in destroying the lists of who had voted in order to assure confidentiality and safeguard the voters against possible reprisals.
In Ecuador, a court sentenced a columnist and three executives of the El Universo newspaper to three years of prison and $40 million dollars in damages for libeling President Rafael Correa.
Meanwhile, there was growing political turmoil in Panama, with violent clashes reportedly stemming from President Ricardo Martinelli's growing authoritarianism. Indigenous people in the highlands of western Panama have been protesting government plans for huge new copper mines and hydroelectric dams.
On Sunday, President Thein Sein gave a speech on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of Burma's Union Day. There are several reasons why this speech is worth noting. The president said that his government is holding talks with armed groups aimed at securing "eternal peace," an effort that requires the "participation of the entire national people." In effect, he was vowing to end the civil war that has plagued Burma for more than sixty years. (For an official copy of the speech, see here.)
Perhaps the most attention-grabbing fact in his message was the president's reference to the Panglong Agreement, the 1947 deal reached with the country's disparate ethnic groups by independence leader Aung San. It was this agreement that formed the basis for the union between the majority Burmans and the ethnic minorities.
Despite this, it's been quite a while since the country's leader was willing to give a positive mention to the Panglong Agreement in a Union Day speech.
In his Union Day messages, Than Shwe, the leader of the military junta, not only passed over the Panglong Agreement in silence, but also refused to mention the role of Aung San, who happens to be the father of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. (She's shown in the photo above, against the backdrop of an image of her father.)
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images
On Friday, the Burmese monk Shin Gambira, one of the leaders of the 2007 protests, was reportedly detained by the authorities. Earlier this week, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi received formal approval from the election commission to run in the parliamentary elections in April and a UN envoy said Burma was considering allowing foreign election observers in to monitor the polls. The US waived one of its sanctions against the country, making it easier for Burma to get help from international financial institutions, and reports indicated CIA director David Petraeus may travel to Burma later this year. According to a report ranking countries on their respect for the rule of law, Burma ranked last out of 197 countries, offering the least legal protection for foreign companies and investors.
Thailand's ruling party submitted a plan to the Parliament to amend the country's constitution, which was drafted after the 2006 coup. A similar attempt four years ago led to large protests.
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), the country's notoriously powerful spy agency, faced a rare wave of court actions against it. Although most of the cases have little chance of success, some analysts believe they demonstrate new resolve on the part of the judiciary to curb the power of the security establishment.
Two Tibetan brothers are said to have been shot down by Chinese security forces. They had been on the run since participating in January protests against Chinese rule. This comes after another Tibetan protester was reported to have set himself on fire in China's Sichuan province. A Chinese human rights group said that a dissident writer had been sentenced to seven years in jail for inciting subversion in a poem he wrote. Three other dissident writers have been sentenced to jail in the past few months.
The Maldives President resigned - under duress, according to him - after three weeks of protests and a police mutiny. Since then there have been violent clashes, and the Maldives' Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against the former president and the former defence minister. The UN arrived Friday to meet with both parties.
(As FP's Joshua Keating noted in his report on the turmoil, the incident reminds us coups have become an increasingly rare phenomenon in recent years.)
Spain's notorious international human rights judge Baltazar Garzon, most famous for indicting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998, was convicted for overstepping his jurisdiction and barred from the bench for 11 years. (The photo above shows a pro-Garzon demonstration in Madrid.)
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images
Generally speaking, women have not exactly been conspicuous among the leaders of the ethnic minorities that are at odds with the Burmese central government. But that may be changing.
In late January, a group representing the Karen, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Burma, issued a statement calling for women to be given a bigger role in the peace talks between Karen rebels and the government. "Our concerns must be brought to the negotiating table, and the abuses we have suffered must be redressed and prevented once and for all," Naw Zipporah Sein, who is the General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU), told me on the phone. She was speaking from a town on the Thai border. (The photo above shows a Karen girl in a refugee camp in Thailand.)
Before she was elected to that post in 2008 she served the head of the Karen Women Organization (KWO). It was under her leadership that the KWO published a widely noted 2004 report entitled "Shattering Silences," which documented 125 cases of the systematized rape and sexual abuse of women allegedly committed by Burmese military troops in Karen State over a twenty-year period. Today, despite her unprecedented leadership position in the KNU, Zipporah Sein told me that she's still unhappy with the status of Karen women. To the injury of maltreatment on the battlefield by government troops comes the insult of inadequate representation in the ruling circles of the rebel leadership.
The KNU, one of the most powerful rebel groups in Burma, has been fighting for ethnic autonomy since 1948. The government recently announced that it had concluded a cease-fire deal with them. A few days ago, however, it was none other than Zipporah Sein who called that agreement into question. The New York Times quoted her as saying that "[w]e still need to discuss the conditions."
Efforts to stop the fighting drag on. As the latest in a series of fragile ceasefire deals, the Mon ethnic group, which operates along the Thai-Burma border, announced last Wednesday that it reached "a preliminary ceasefire agreement" with Burma's pseudo-civilian government.
Similar agreements have been struck recently between the government and other ethnic rebel armies, including the Shan State Army-South, the United Wa State Army, and at least seven other armed groups. The one major exception is the continuing war between the Kachin and government troops.
PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP/Getty Images
As I write this, Burmese government troops are still staging attacks on the Kachin ethnic rebel group - even as the two sides have been trying to conduct negotiations in the Chinese city of Ruili, just over the border. The new Burmese president Thein Sein, an ex-general, has publicly ordered the army to stop its offensive twice (once in mid-December, and more recently last week). But the army has kept fighting.
Khin Yi, the minister of immigration and population in the government, was recently forced to confess that the president's orders had not "reached the grassroots level."
In 1994, the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) agreed on a ceasefire. It held for 16 years. Then, in June 2010, the ceasefire broke down. The war that has gone on since then has caused over 60,000 people to flee the fighting.
The KIA, which has 10,000 armed troops (see photo above) and operates in northeastern Burma along the border with China, questions the government's sincerity. Yesterday I managed to call Gen. Sumlut Gun Maw, the vice chief of staff of the KIA and one of its most influential leaders, who spoke to me from his headquarters in the city of Laiza. "The new government tells the international community that it is all for peace, peace, and peace," the general said. "But right now there are still 48,000 soldiers, or 120 battalions, attacking us and trying to encircle us."
Since 2009, the Burmese military has pressured no less than 17 armed ethnic groups to lay down their arms and accept a new status as "border guard forces" under the military's direct control. But some of the big rebel groups -- including the KIA's political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) -- refused to give in to the junta.
After the military succeeded in cracking down on the Kokang ethnic group's bases along the China-Burma border in mid-2009, the generals were emboldened and launched a major offensive against the Kachin in 2010.
Gun Maw told me that the Kachin regard the ceasefire offers they're now getting from the government as a warmed-up version of an earlier truce deal that existed before the border guard plan. The new government, which came into power last year, abandoned that plan after it met with massive resistance from the ethnic armies. Gun Maw says that the government is merely attempting to undo the damage it did to the ethnic groups in 2009-2011. He believes the generals simply want to hold the minority groups at bay for a time as they try to improve their international image.
In early January, the Burmese government reached a preliminary ceasefire agreement with another big ethnic rebel force, the Karen National Union, which is based in southeastern Burma near the border with Thailand.
I didn't sleep at all last night. But it was worth it. I spent the night speaking with former friends and colleagues in Burma who were released from prison at midnight here on the West Coast of the U.S., where I live. (That was early in the morning local time.)
Yesterday I received a message from the family of Min Ko Naing (shown in the picture above back in 2007). You probably haven't heard his name unless you're Burmese. But within the country he's widely known as the second-most-important opposition leader, right after Aung San Suu Kyi. As the head of the national student association back in 1988, he organized many of the demonstrations and protests against the generals that rocked the country that year. His name, Min Ko Naing, means "Conqueror of the King," so the presence of that name on many of the leaflets that called upon people to resist had a certain symbolic resonance.
When the military cracked down, shooting thousands of unarmed demonstrators, he was a prime target for arrest. His first sentence in jail, which started in 1989, lasted for 15 years. Upon his release, he reorganized the veterans of the 1988 student groups into a new movement and launched a series of public campaigns calling for a national reconciliation. In 2007, when Buddhist monks led the people to another mass protest that came to be called the "Saffron Revolution," he again played a major organizing role. He landed in jail once again - this time with a sentence of 65 years. His alleged crime was sending and receiving e-mails considered "detrimental to national security."
What the message from his relatives told me was the news that we've all been waiting to hear for weeks: Min Ko Naing's family members had been informed that the authorities were about to free him, along with a long list of other famous prisoners. For some time the government had been dropping hints that a major release of political prisoners was on the way. According to the rumors, the big day was supposed to be Jan. 4, Burma's Independence Day. But it came and went with only an announcement of a reduction of sentences for some of those in jail. That was a big disappointment. People were wondering whether this meant that all of the government's recent promises of liberalization were a hoax.
But suddenly the story took a different turn. After sending me the message, Min Ko Naing's relatives set off for the prison in central Burma where he was locked up. They took up position outside the entrance of the jail and waited. And then, at 10 AM local time, Min Ko Naing came out, a free man. Thousands of local people came out on to the street and greeted him. His family took him to a house in the nearby town.
They had given me a phone number, and finally, around midnight in California, I made the call. I was expecting to hear the voice of the man whose number I'd been given, but it was Min Ko Naing himself who answered. I immediately recognized his voice. Back in 2004, I was the first person to interview him when he was released from jail then. Now, a few hours after he walked out of jail, I was on the phone with him again.
It was a surreal moment. It was hard to believe that it had finally come. As we spoke, a crowd of ordinary people and media, thousands altogether, were gathering outside the house he was sitting in, desperate to hear what he had to say.
His first concern, he told me, is to make sure that the rest of Burma's political prisoners are freed. This morning's release involved hundreds of them, including some of the most important leaders of ethnic resistance groups and some of the Buddhist monks of the Saffron Revolution. But there are still dozens in jail.
KHIN MAUNG WIN/AFP/Getty Images
Welcome to "Transitions," the Democracy Lab blog. As the title suggests, we aim to use this space to tell the story of political and economic change experienced by nations around the world as they strive toward greater freedom and prosperity. It’s a story of great complexity, and it rarely follows clean, straight lines. But our contributors -- respected journalists and experts from around the world -- have the advantage of being able to tell it from the inside.
The continuing saga of the Arab Awakening still holds the world's attention, of course, and we'll follow it through the eyes of Mohamed El Dahshan, an Egyptian development economist who also tracks events in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region.
But we shouldn't forget other parts of the world that are going through their own transformations. One of the most dramatic is taking place in Burma (aka Myanmar), where long years of harsh military rule are gradually giving way to greater openness. Min Zin, a Burmese political scientist and writer now contemplating a return to his home country after long years in exile, will report for us on what's happening there.
Transitions come in a variety of flavors. Venezuela faces a crucial presidential election this year, and journalist Francisco Toro and economics professor Juan Cristóbal Nagel are perfectly positioned to document the twists and turns to come. Jakarta-based journalist Endy Bayuni will write about the continuing travails of Indonesia’s vibrant yet fragile democracy. And writer Jackee Budesta Batanda and development expert Denis Barnabas will keep us up to date on the drama of Uganda’s struggle to reconcile the need for stability and growth with the search for a liberal society. This is an agenda-free space. Our writers will call it as they see it. But nor they can be pretend to being completely disinterested in the outcome. These are their countries, and this is their story to tell. We hope you enjoy the ride.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.