Democracy Lab Weekly Brief

Welcome to the Weekly Brief from Democracy Lab, Foreign Policy's new online project devoted to the story of societies attempting to make the difficult transition from authoritarianism and closed economies to democracy and openness. A unique journalistic collaboration between FP and the Legatum Institute, Democracy Lab pursues this story through a genuinely global prism. Our coverage includes our new Transitions blog, a collective report from countries all along the spectrum of change, as well as case studies, in-depth investigations, and topical reporting - all aimed at illuminating the day-to-day complexities of this constantly evolving story.

Now for our take on the week's events:

The story in Burma (Myanmar) gets more interesting by the day. Last week's release of political prisoners has Western governments wondering whether it's time to ease up on sanctions. During a meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma early in the week, U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell hinted that Washington might be prepared to reconsider its stance if reforms continue while emphasizing that the U.S. will follow Aung San Suu Kyi's lead on the matter. (For the moment, she and her fellow activists say that the government hasn't done enough to merit a relaxation of the West's bans on dealings with the regime.) By contrast, President Thein Sein, in an interview with The Washington Post, urged the West to lift sanctions now. He also said that he'd be willing to consider Aung San Suu Kyi for a government post if she wins a seat in parliamentary by-elections in April.

The Arab Awakening continues to offer a mixed picture. An IMF delegation visited Cairo without coming to an agreement on an envisioned $3.2 billon loan to boost that country's struggling economy; the two sides promised to continue the talks in February. Yemenis are preparing for next month's presidential election next month amid controversy over a proposed "immunity bill" that would protect current President Ali Abdullah Saleh from prosecution if he agrees to cede power. And in Syria, where dozens of activists appear to be dying in clashes with government forces each week, opposition forces succeeded in gaining tenuous control over the town of Zabadani, on the border with Lebanon.

Elsewhere, Bangladeshis awoke to the news that their government had foiled an attempted coup back in December. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan backed down on his campaign to end popular fuel subsidies but showed ominous signs of an inclination to retaliate against protestors.

Finally, the annual Freedom House report on the state of democracy counted Ukraine, Hungary, and South Africa among countries that have shown signs of backsliding on fundamental freedoms.

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Charles Villa-Vicencio explains how the experience of South Africa's truth and reconciliation process could help the countries of the Arab Awakening.

Sheldon Garon argues that Chinese save a lot because their government has created institutions that provide corresponding incentives.

Christian Caryl makes the case that the recent victory for Malaysia's opposition undermines the arguments of authoritarian rulers around the region.

Min Zin offers an update on sanctions against Burma.

Mohamed El Dahshan celebrates one year of Tunisian revolution and worries about Twitter's treatment of its non-American clients.

Democracy Lab

Burma: Movement on Sanctions

On Monday (Jan. 16), U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on a visit to Burma, met for the first time with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

McConnell, the Senate's leading Republican, called it "an emotional moment," and said that both of them had probably thought "that we were never going to meet." "It's an incredible day," he continued.

McConnell, who has long been one of the biggest supporters of Burmese democracy movement, also welcomed president Obama's decision to restore full diplomatic relations with Burma last week. (That, of course, was in reaction to the Burmese government's release of hundreds of political prisoners and its conclusion of a cease-fire agreement with the Karen ethnic rebel group.) The Senator said that he is also convinced that Burmese President Thein Sein is "a genuine reformer" after meeting with him in the capital of Naypyidaw. McConnell also hinted that sanctions on Burma could be eased or lifted following the April by-election, which Aung San Suu Kyi (known to the Burmese as "Daw Suu") and her supporters are going to contest.

McConnell laid out three criteria for the removal of sanctions. First, the government should accept the presence of international observers at the April by-elections. Second, it should stop fighting with the country's ethnic minorities. And third, it should end its murky relationship with North Korea.

More importantly, the Senator said he would take advice from Daw Suu on the sanction issue. Many U.S. lawmakers share McConnell's optimism.

This is pretty remarkable stuff. McConnell is the architect of sanctions against the Burmese junta. The Burmese military and some foreign experts have tended to see him as a hardliner, a staunch advocate of tough measures against Burma's rulers.

Other countries are already forging ahead. Australia eased travel restrictions against Burmese officials in early January. Norway has decided to lift trade and investment sanctions. Some members of the European Union are considering whether to start lifting sanctions against Burma as early as February to encourage the reform process.

Now some of my own sources in Washington tell me that it's possible there could be a gradual lifting of some elements of the wide-ranging American sanctions against Burma, which include an arms embargo, bans on imports and investment, a ban on visas for senior government officials, and financial sanctions against regime leaders and their cronies.

The first thing to go would be a removal of the visa ban against officials. It would allow U.S. lawmakers to invite members of the Burmese parliament to the U.S. to provide them with exposure to democratic institutions. Then, depending on the results of the April-by election, President Obama can decide whether he wants to renew the investment ban, which runs out in May. Obama could also lift the 2007 presidential executive order that imposed financial sanctions against the regime's officials for their crackdowns against Buddhist monks and protestors in the same year.

Aside from this, though, other changes in the sanction regime, such as the arms embargo, are not likely to take place soon. Meanwhile, most of the major sanctions against Burma require congressional action, since they were passed into law by the Congress.

Some lawmakers are skeptical. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, has criticized U.S. concessions to the Burmese regime as premature. As a result, it's entirely possible that some of the sanctions could continue right up until the next general election in Burma in 2015.

In any event, McConnell will be meeting Daw Suu several more times to coordinate the process. One can only hope that he'll with meet other stakeholders in the country, including representatives of the ethnic minorities and the leaders of the 88 Generation Student Group.

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