Friday, July 24, 2009

Trial of Aung San Suu Kyi nears conclusion

The country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has had only brief encounters with democracy since gaining independence in 1948 from the British. Most of its post-colonial governance has been by military rule. The most recent strongman dictating the affairs of state is Senior General Than Shwe.

Violent protests in 1988 over the mismanagement of the government and economy led to democratic elections in 1990. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won 60% of the vote and 80% of the seats in parliament. The military backed National Unity Party won on 2% of the seats in parliament. The military annulled the results of the election.

Aung San Suu Kyi, inspired by Mahatam Gahdhi, entered politics to work for democratization of her country. She helped founded the National League for Democracy and would have likely been elected Prime Minister if the 1990 election results had been allowed to stand. She is a Buddhist who won the Rafto Prize and the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent pro-democracy struggle under the Myanmar dictatorship. She has also been under house arrest by the dictatorship most years since then.

On May 3, 2009, an American,John William Yettaw, swam across to the residence where she was under house arrest. It is unknown what his motives were. On May 13, Suu Kyi was arrested for violating the terms of her house arrest because the swimmer, who pleaded exhaustion, was allowed to stay in her house for two days before he attempted the swim back.

The trial hearing the charges against her started on May 18 is nearing its conclusion. She faces up to five years in prison if found guilty. The latest is from the Associated Press via the Miami Herald:
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was "absolutely dissatisfied" that her trial was adjourned Friday because it will give the prosecution more time to prepare its case, her lawyer said.

Suu Kyi's trial was postponed until Monday after her defense gave a 30-page closing statement, said one of her lawyers, Nyan Win.

Suu Kyi, 64, is charged with violating the terms of her house arrest by harboring an uninvited American man who swam to her lakeside home and stayed for two days. She faces a possible five years in prison.

"Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she was absolutely dissatisfied with the arrangement - giving more time for the prosecution to prepare the argument," said Nyan Win, using the respectful term "daw" for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Nyan Win said to ensure fairness, the usual practice is for courts to allow both parties to give their closing arguments on the same day.


The trial started May 18. The court had approved 23 prosecution witnesses, of which 14 took the stand. Only two out of four defense witnesses were allowed.

Yettaw has pleaded not guilty and explained in court that he had a dream that Suu Kyi would be assassinated and he had gone to warn her.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been under military rule since 1962.

Suu Kyi's opposition party won national elections in 1990, but Myanmar's generals refused to relinquish power. Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.
You can read the entire AP piece here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Abortion providers under siege

Women in a half dozen states studied by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CPR) face a dwindling number legal and safe abortion services as states impose regulations applicable only to abortion providers and so-call pro-lifers threaten violence and death. This from McClatchy:
An abortion-rights group said Wednesday that doctors and clinics that perform abortions in six states "are routinely targeted" for legal and physical harassment, including death threats, and called on the Justice Department to do more to protect clinic workers.

In a report, the Center for Reproductive Rights said that women seeking to terminate pregnancies in those states face a dwindling supply of providers as threats and intimidation take their toll.
Nancy Northup, the center's president, said the number of physicians and clinics providing abortions has fallen by 25 percent since the 1990s.

Two of the states, Mississippi and North Dakota, have only one abortion provider. The other studied states were Missouri, with three, Alabama, with seven, Pennsylvania, with about a dozen, and Texas, with about 40.

Even in states with multiple clinics, however, most are clustered in urban areas, leaving women in less populous regions to travel long distances for the service.

The center concluded the study before the killing in May of Dr. George Tiller, who ran a well-known abortion clinic in Wichita, Kan. An abortion opponent has been charged with shooting Tiller inside his church as Tiller was serving as an usher during Sunday services.


Abortion became legal nationwide in 1973 as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade. About a third of all women will have the procedure during their reproductive years, according to the report.

The group said it singled out the six states for study because they were geographically diverse and illustrative of the problems abortion providers face.

All six have some sort of laws restricting abortion, regulations that apply only to abortion providers and recurring problems with clinic protests, intimidation and threats.
You can read the entire article here and access the CPR report, Defending Human Rights, here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dave Brubeck: “Blue Rondo a la Turk”

This is the Dave Brubeck Quartet (Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on saxophone, Eugene Wright on the bass, and Joe Morello on the drums) on an Australian television special sponsored by Craven Filter cigarettes in the early 1960’s.

Blue Rondo a la Turk” starts in the uncommon time signature of 9/8 (the rhythm of the Turkish zeybek – folk music and dance from Western Turkey) while the saxophone and piano solos are in 4/4. The composition echoes Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” from his Piano Sonata No. 11.

The downside of federalism in facing national and global challenges

Federalism is the system of governance in which sovereignty is divided between a central authority and constituent political units. In the United States this system is distributes power between a central national government and fifty state governments.

U.S. political history is full of conflict about the proper definition of power between the national and state governments whether it pertain to the Articles of Confederation, the American Civil War, “states’ rights”, civil rights, and on and on. The governance of states is based upon boundaries drawn, in some cases, centuries ago. Boundaries of state government have no relationship to population or communities of interest. Yet, our election of representatives to Congress (especially the Senate) and the President via the Electoral College are based upon boundaries that don’t necessarily make any sense and certainly do not reflect the numbers or the interests of Americans.

Matthew Yglesias sees it this way:
I think the reality is that America’s strong version of federalism—some kind of administrative decentralization is necessary in such a large country—has always been problematic. The whole point of writing the Constitution in the first place was to weaken the super-strong federalism of the Articles of Confederation. And even with a stronger central government in place, the main role of federalism was to make it more difficult to wipe out large-scale chattel slavery. The fiscal aspects of federalism prevented fiscal policy from being effective during the Great Depression. With slavery vanquished, federalism once again reared its head as a staunch defender of Jim Crow. Federalism is the genesis of the incredibly pernicious United States Senate, about which I’ve already said plenty.

Strong federalism is even the enemy of sensible decentralization. Since the states are “sovereign” and represented as such in the Congress, there’s no way to reorganize America’s administrative subdivisions no matter how anachronistic they’ve become. Thus some states, like California and Texas, have grown to immense proportions while other states (Wyoming, e.g.) are tiny and shrinking. And we can’t set up sensible administrative units that might reflect how people’s lives are actually lived. Hoboken and Manhattan are in totally different jurisdictions even while New York City can have its local transportation ideas foiled by state legislators from Rochester. Some parts of the DC suburbs are involved in the governance of Norfolk and other parts of the DC suburbs are involved in the governance of Annapolis, but there’s no level of government at which DC and its suburbs can collaborate on common issues.
The United States has made do with this awkward structure of government for most of its history but the 20th and 21st Centuries have presented the nation with challenges that are truly national, and in some cases global, in which state governments are wholly inadequate to address and, in fact, can be a drag on efforts by the national government. For example, state governments still rule most of our educational and transportation systems unlike most advanced nations in the world and the inefficiency and waste of fifty different systems costly to Americans competing in a global economy.

And speaking of the economy, we are burdened with a system of governance that allows the states (California is only the most egregious example) to undermine the efforts of the national government to revive a moribund economy. James Suroweicki explains:
If you came up with a list of obstacles to economic recovery in this country, it would include all the usual suspects—our still weak banking system, falling house prices, overindebted consumers, cautious companies. But here are fifty culprits you might not have thought of: the states. Federalism, often described as one of the great strengths of the American system, has become a serious impediment to reversing the downturn.

It’s easy enough, of course, to mock state governments nowadays, what with California issuing I.O.U.s to pay its bills and New York’s statehouse becoming the site of palace coups and senatorial sit-ins. But the real problem isn’t the fecklessness of local politicians. It’s the ordinary way in which state governments go about their business. Think about the $787-billion federal stimulus package. It’s built on the idea that during serious economic downturns the government can use spending increases and tax cuts to counteract the effects of consumers who are cutting back on spending and businesses that are cutting back on investment. So fiscal policy at the national level is countercyclical: as the economy shrinks, government expands. At the state level, though, the opposite is happening. Nearly every state government is required to balance its budget. When times are bad, jobs vanish, sales plummet, investment declines, and tax revenues fall precipitously—in New York, for instance, state revenues in April and May were down thirty-six per cent from a year earlier. So states have to raise taxes or cut spending, or both, and that’s precisely what they’re doing: states from New Jersey to Oregon have raised taxes in the past year, while significant budget cuts have become routine and are likely to get only deeper in the year ahead. The states’ fiscal policy, then, is procyclical: it’s amplifying the effects of the downturn, instead of mitigating them. Even as the federal government is pouring money into the economy, state governments are effectively taking it out. It’s a push-me, pull-you approach to fighting the recession.

The tension between state and national interests isn’t new: it dates back to clashes in the early Republic over programs for “internal improvements.” Of course, the federal government is far bigger than it once was, and yet in the past two decades we’ve delegated more authority, not less, to the states. The logic of this was clear: people who are closer to a problem often know better how to deal with it. But matters of a truly interstate nature, like the power grid, can’t be dealt with on a state-by-state basis. And fiscal policy is undermined if the federal government is doing one thing and the states are doing another. It’s a global economy. It would be helpful to have a genuinely national government.
You can read the entire pieces by Matthew Yglesias here and James Suroweicki here.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Civil rights for some but not all

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is seeking to remove the president of its Los Angeles chapter, the Rev. Eric Lee, in response to his oppositions to Proposition 8 in California banning same sex marriage. This from Saturday’s New York Times:
During the battle last fall over Proposition 8, an amendment to the State Constitution that banned same-sex marriage, the chapter’s president, the Rev. Eric P. Lee, was more than a tangential figure for the opposition. He was front and center at an opposition group’s large rally at City Hall and marched in the blazing sun for 15 miles in Fresno. Many other local African-American pastors prepared mailings featuring church leaders in support of the proposition and linking their views to Barack Obama, then the Democratic nominee for president.

Mr. Lee “was very helpful to us,” said Rick Jacobs, head of the Courage Campaign, a left-leaning political action group in Los Angeles that fought the initiative.

While the Mormon Church raised a great deal of the money in support of the proposition, the role of African-American churches, and their voting parishioners, was not insignificant. The Edison/Mitofsky exit poll in California found that 70 percent of black voters backed the ban, which passed with 52 percent of the vote.

Mr. Lee said that his opposition to Proposition 8 had “created tension in my life I had never experienced with black clergy.”

“But it was clear to me,” he added, “that any time you deny one group of people the same right that other groups have, that is a clear violation of civil rights and I have to speak up on that.”
In April, Mr. Lee attended a board meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Kansas City, Mo., and found himself once again in the minority position among his colleagues on the issue of same-sex marriage, but he was told, he said, by the group’s interim president, Byron Clay, that the organization publicly had a neutral position on the issue.

So a month later, Mr. Lee said, he was surprised to receive a call from the National Board of Directors summoning him immediately to Atlanta to explain why he had taken a position on same-sex marriage without the authority of the national board.

Explaining that he was unable to come to Atlanta on such short notice, Mr. Lee then received two letters from the organization’s lawyer, Dexter M. Wimbish, threatening him with suspension or removal as president of the Los Angeles chapter if he did not come soon to explain himself.
You can read the entire article here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Does Chinese propaganda obscure what sparked this week’s riots?

Rebiya Kadeer, winner of the 2004 Rafto Prize for human rights and president of the World Uyghur Congress, explains what sparked the riots in western China:
When the Chinese government, with the comfort of hindsight, looks back on its handling of the unrest in Urumqi and East Turkestan this week, it will most likely tell the world with great satisfaction that it acted in the interests of maintaining stability. What officials in Beijing and Urumqi will most likely forget to tell the world is the reason why thousands of Uighurs risked everything to speak out against injustice, and the fact that hundreds of Uighurs are now dead for exercising their right to protest.

On Sunday, students organized a protest in the Döng Körük (Erdaoqiao) area of Urumqi. They wished to express discontent with the Chinese authorities' inaction on the mob killing and beating of Uighurs at a toy factory in Shaoguan in China's southern Guangdong province and to express sympathy with the families of those killed and injured. What started as a peaceful assembly of Uighurs turned violent as some elements of the crowd reacted to heavy-handed policing. I unequivocally condemn the use of violence by Uighurs during the demonstration as much as I do China's use of excessive force against protestors.

While the incident in Shaoguan upset Uighurs, it was the Chinese government's inaction over the racially motivated killings that compelled Uighurs to show their dissatisfaction on the streets of Urumqi. Wang Lequan, the Party Secretary of the "Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region" has blamed me for the unrest; however, years of Chinese repression of Uighurs topped by a confirmation that Chinese officials have no interest in observing the rule of law when Uighurs are concerned is the cause of the current Uighur discontent.

China's heavy-handed reaction to Sunday's protest will only reinforce these views. Uighur sources within East Turkestan say that 400 Uighurs in Urumqi have died as a result of police shootings and beatings. There is no accurate figure for the number of injured. A curfew has been imposed, telephone lines are down and the city remains tense. Uighurs have contacted me to report that the Chinese authorities are in the process of conducting a house-to-house search of Uighur homes and are arresting male Uighurs. They say that Uighurs are afraid to walk the streets in the capital of their homeland.

The unrest is spreading. The cities of Kashgar, Yarkand, Aksu, Khotan and Karamay may have also seen unrest, though it's hard to tell, given China's state-run propanganda. Kashgar has been the worst effected of these cities and unconfirmed reports state that over 100 Uighurs have been killed there. Troops have entered Kashgar, and sources in the city say that two Chinese soldiers have been posted to each Uighur house.

The nature of recent Uighur repression has taken on a racial tone. The Chinese government is well-known for encouraging a nationalistic streak among Han Chinese as it seeks to replace the bankrupt communist ideology it used to promote. This nationalism was clearly in evidence as the Han Chinese mob attacked Uighur workers in Shaoguan, and it seems that the Chinese government is now content to let some of its citizens carry out its repression of Uighurs on its behalf.

This encouragement of a reactionary nationalism among Han Chinese makes the path forward very difficult. The World Uighur Congress that I head, much like the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan movement, advocates for the peaceful establishment of self-determination with genuine respect for human rights and democracy. To achieve this objective, there needs to be a path for Han Chinese and Uighur to achieve a dialogue based on trust, mutual respect and equality. Under present Chinese government policies encouraging unchecked nationalism, this is not possible.

To rectify the deteriorating situation in East Turkestan, the Chinese government must first properly investigate the Shaoguan killings and bring those responsible for the killing of Uighurs to justice. An independent and open inquiry into the Urumqi unrest also needs to be conducted so that Han Chinese and Uighurs can understand the reasons for Sunday's events and seek ways to establish the mutual understanding so conspicuously absent in the current climate.

The United States has a key role to play in this process. Given the Chinese government's track record of egregious human-rights abuses against Uighurs, it seems unlikely Beijing will drop its rhetoric and invite Uighurs to discuss concerns. The U.S. has always spoken out on behalf of the oppressed; this is why they have been the leaders in presenting the Uighur case to the Chinese government. The U.S., at this critical juncture in the East Turkestan issue, must unequivocally show its concern by first condemning the violence in Urumqi, and second, by establishing a consulate in Urumqi to not only act as a beacon of freedom in an environment of fierce repression but also to monitor the daily human-rights abuses perpetrated against the Uighurs.

As I write this piece, reports are reaching our office in Washington that on Monday, 4,000 Han Chinese took to the streets in Urumqi seeking revenge by carrying out acts of violence against Uighurs. On Tuesday, more Han Chinese took to the streets. As the violence escalates, so does the pain I feel for the loss of all innocent lives. I fear the Chinese government will not experience this pain as it reports on its version of events in Urumqi, and it is this lack of self-examination that further divides Han Chinese and Uighurs.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Uyghur struggle in China and the American “war on terror”

Riots have broken out in western China leaving 140 dead and over 800 injured. The conflict pits Uyghurs, a Muslin population in China who primarily live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, and the Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in the country. Activists for the Uyghurs say their peaceful demonstrations turned ugly after provocations and attacks by Chinese authorities while the Chinese government claim terrorist involvement.

The Uyghur (also spelled Uighur) people are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia including parts of China. Many Uyghurs feel they are discriminated against by the government and their culture is being destroyed by the influx of Han Chinese into their traditional homelands. According to the L.A. Times:
"Uighurs have suffered for years under racial profiling and unjust government policies that have painted the entire Uighur population as criminals and terrorists," U.S.-based Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer said in a statement released last week.

The Uighurs say that an influx of ethnic Han Chinese into their traditional homeland has diluted the Uighur culture and led to high unemployment. China considers Uighur activists to be criminals and terrorists for their opposition to Beijing's rule over Xinjiang.
The situation is reminiscent of the situation in Tibet. However, the Uygur situation has an added twist that they are predominantly Muslim. The Chinese government has used this to paint activist groups as part of a larger Muslin terrorist network and used this fear-mongering to justify their suppression. Until recently, the U.S. “war on terror” bought into this rationalization and prisoners at Guantanamo include Uyghurs. Glenn Greenwald speculates that if Christians rather than Muslims fighting they tyranny of Beijing, then the American might have been different.
According to The New York Times this morning, violent clashes between Chinese government forces and Muslim Uighurs -- that country's long-oppressed minority -- have left at least 140 people dead and close to 1,000 injured. This incident in Western China highlights an important fact about America's "War on Terror."
Just imagine if the Uighurs were a Christian -- rather than Muslim -- minority, battling against the tyrannical Communist regime in Beijing, resisting various types of persecution, and demanding religious freedom. They would be lionized by America's Right, as similar Christian minorities, oppressed by tyrannical regimes, automatically are. Episodes like these -- where a declared Tyranny like China violently acts against citizens with whom we empathize -- are ones about which, in general, the American political class loves to sermonize.

But the Uighurs are Muslim, not Christian, and hostility towards them thus easily outweighs the opportunity they present to undermine the Chinese Government. Rather than support and venerate them, we instead spent this decade declaring them to be "enemy combatants" and locking them up in Guantanamo -- despite the fact that they have never evinced any interest in doing anything other than resisting Chinese persecution, and have certainly never taken actions against the U.S. (as even the Bush administration ultimately admitted). Yet even now, both Congress and the administration actively block release into the U.S. even of those Uighurs we wrongfully imprisoned for years, while the Right screams with outrage -- and fear -- over the administration's commendable efforts to find a home for them elsewhere.

For all the Serious analysis about the War on Terror, so much of it has been driven by nothing more complex or noble than sheer hostility towards Muslims. Muslims generally -- not just Al Qaeda -- replaced Communists as our New Enemy and became the new enabling force for our endless state of War and never-ending expansions of executive power. Rather obviously, the Uighurs were swept into the Enemy category solely by virtue of their status as Muslims. What more compelling evidence of that could be imagined than the fact that we imprisoned -- and continue to imprison -- people at Guantanamo whose only political interest is in resisting oppression by the Chinese government?