Burmese NGO Pushes for Reparations for Political Prisoners

Posted on Tuesday, May 31, 2016 by Project2049Institute


Source: AAPP

By: Julia Bowie

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) has released the first comprehensive study of Burma’s political prisoners, revealing judicial abuse, systematic torture, and enormous barriers to reintegration. AAPP surveyed 2,000 ex-political prisoners (ex-PPs) for its report, which makes a case for reparations for ex-PPs. AAPP’s research project was made possible by the Project 2049 Institute and the Department of State’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Since the beginning of military rule in 1962, Burma has jailed an estimated 7,000-10,000 political prisoners. The number of political prisoners surged after student-led protests in 1988 ended in a government crackdown and a brutal suppression of opposition. Numbers peaked between 2009 and 2010 when an estimated 2,000 political prisoners were behind bars.

After Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011, initial optimism over the release of hundreds of political prisoners came to a halt as reforms stalled. The government adopted new tactics to ensure that political dissidents remained imprisoned—either by delaying trials or imposing consecutive, seemingly lenient sentences to ensure longer prison times.

In 2016, the NLD-led government came to power with a promise to release all political prisoners, declaring there should be no political prisoners in a democratic Burma. Since then, the government has dropped its charges against 199 students and activists, and 83 convicted political prisoners have been released. While this is an encouraging step, there are still 121 political prisoners left in Burma, according to AAPP data, most of whom are either awaiting trial or for the government to drop its charges.

Since AAPP was founded in 1999, it has become the leading Burmese institution addressing the country’s political prisoner situation, achieving both local and international recognition for their work. The AAPP describes the importance of delivering justice to Burma's political prisoners in the following statement: “As long as political prisoners exist inside Burma, Burma will not be free. They represent the struggle for democracy, human rights, equality and freedom for the people of Burma. This makes the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners an integral part of Burma’s drive for national reconciliation.”

Project 2049 Senior Fellow Kelley Currie said she expects legal reform to take five to ten years. “There are laws still on the books, such as those against unlawful assembly, that criminalize political activity,” Currie said. “These will take time to reform.”

AAPP is currently working with parliaments at both the national and regional levels to amend laws pertaining to political activity and human rights.

“The main challenge is to transform the judiciary into a rights-protecting institution rather than a tool solely for security enforcement,” Currie said.

AAPP’s study provides previously-unknown information on exactly how Burma’s authorities abused the judicial system to silence political opposition, including which legislation was used to justify imprisonment and how trials were unfairly adjudicated. Most respondents revealed they were arrested under the Emergency Provisions Act (1950) or other “security” legislation such as the Unlawful Associations Act (1908), selectively used to restrict freedom of expression, assembly and association. Most trials took place in military or prison courts, where defendants were denied the right to counsel, and trials were shrouded in secrecy. Many respondents said their trials lasted between five and fifteen minutes, just long enough for the judge to come and read their sentence off a sheet of paper.

The study also reveals the systematic use of torture, either to elicit information or confessions, or to punish and humiliate political prisoners. 72 percent of respondents were subjected to physical torture and 75 percent reported psychological torture. Methods of psychological torture included blindfolding, hooding, sleep deprivation, threats, or being taunted with poisonous animals. Respondents described a wide array of physical torture techniques, such as waterboarding, electric shocks, and genital mutilation.

Once political prisoners are released, they face significant barriers to reintegration. Under both military rule and Thein Sein’s government, many were subject to continued monitoring and harassment, and those released under amnesty lived in constant fear of re-arrest. The government did nothing to assist their rehabilitation and in fact limited their travel, employment, and educational opportunities. Many ex-PPs live in exile outside Burma, either self-imposed due to fear of the authorities, or because they fled to Thailand after being blacklisted by the government.

The study also revealed that ex-PPs suffer lasting physical and mental health problems. Eleven percent of respondents suffer from chronic aches and pains, and three percent are fully or partially paralyzed. Ex-PPs exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety common in those afflicted with PTSD.

After describing the full extent of the struggles of ex-PPs, the report calls for reparations, saying that addressing the significant human rights violations under previous governments is crucial for democratic transition and national reconciliation. It concludes with recommendations for restitution, rehabilitation, compensation, and guarantees of non-repetition, and advocates that civil society groups in Burma and the international community pressure Burma’s government to adopt AAPP's recommendations. AAPP contends that reparations are a critical step toward restoring the trust of the Burmese people in their government.

“Under the Ne Win administration, Burma provided financial compensation to people who were unjustly imprisoned, so reparations are not unprecedented,” Currie said. “And under the NLD-led government it is even more likely that some form of restorative justice for former political prisoners will happen. The most hopeful thing is that this administration is interested in helping this community and ensuring that they are recognized for their contributions to human rights and democracy in Burma.”

Taiwan's Transition is a Strategic Opportunity for the United States

Posted on Monday, May 23, 2016 by Project2049Institute

(Source: Reuters)
By: Ian Easton

Taiwan will inaugurate a new president this week who China hates but America should love.

On May 20 Taiwan’s newly elected president, Tsai Ing-wen, will come into office amidst a storm of  controversy and scandal. She will then begin a long hard slog through a cross-Strait political minefield, alienated from the world and increasingly unpopular at home.

That is, if China’s communist government has its way.

In recent weeks the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has raised tensions across the Taiwan Strait ahead of Taipei’s change of government, using a vast array of messaging channels to blame the incoming Tsai for the troubles.

Nothing could be farther from the truth―Tsai has a moderate and low-key approach to politics. But that’s beside the point. In the foreign policy world perceptions matter far more than reality. China’s playbook will be to brand Tsai as a problem and drive a wedge between her and the international community.

The actual problem is that the PRC wants to subvert Taiwan’s government and annex the island. China euphemistically calls this “reunification,” and has not given up the use of force to achieve it. The Communist Party is deeply insecure and views Taiwan as a threat to its legitimacy. Taiwan is a prosperous, vibrant democracy whose continued success undermines Beijing’s revanchist desire to secure absolute control over its maritime periphery.

The outgoing president, Ma Ying-jeou, embraced the “One China” principle and paved the way for a flood of cross-Strait exchanges in his eight years in office. He is an expert on maritime and legal issues, but nonetheless sometimes acted in ways that complimented the PRC narrative in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Ma’s policies were not intended to serve Beijing’s interests. He is an anti-communist and a strong advocate for the Republic of China (ROC), the official title of Taiwan’s government. Ma even went so far as to suggest Taiwan has the right to claim all of mainland China’s territory because the PRC is an illegitimate government.

Ma’s well-intentioned “One China” ideology enabled cross-Strait dialogues which produced over 20 trade agreements. These deals enjoyed the support of the majority of Taiwanese people, especially early on.

Yet his approach eventually fell out of step with the surging tide of Taiwanese identity in his country. Approximately 84 percent of people in Taiwan now self-identify as Taiwanese (instead of  Chinese) and view cross-Strait ties as relations between two separate countries. Increased Taiwanese familiarity with China since 2008 has only bred contempt.

Nor did China return Ma’s gestures of goodwill. The buildup of ballistic missiles and other offensive weapons aimed at Taiwan continued apace throughout his administration. Taiwan’s ability to participate in the international community has been further restricted. And unfettered trade with China, instead of strengthening Taiwan’s economy, only made it more vulnerable.

The newly-minted President Tsai will take a different tack. She has no interest in putting her political capital into an account that yields no interest and allows for no withdrawals. Recent history demonstrates that investing in China instead of other more profitable relationships would be a costly mistake.

While cross-Strait relations will continue to be important, Tsai is likely to focus her foremost energies on economic and military reforms at home, while strengthening partnerships with the United States, Japan, Australia, India, and other democracies abroad.

From the U.S. perspective, her presidency could not have come at a better time.

The United States and China are now firmly entrenched in a competition for dominance over the Pacific Rim, and Taiwan is a center of gravity. The island is located in the world’s busiest maritime and air routes, and it serves as a defensive barrier for keeping Chinese naval power in check.

The United States does not covet Taiwan as a base for its military, but it does require that the island remain in the hands of a friendly government. If Taiwan were lost, other Asian allies could be held at risk by the threat of Chinese blockades. As such, any PRC attempt to gain control of Taiwan would most likely be regarded as an attack on the vital interests of the United States, and repelled by any means necessary, including military force.

Taiwan is critical to the United States not only for its location, but also for its shared values and its position as a key trading partner. Taiwan is currently the United States’ ninth largest trading partner, ahead of Saudi Arabia, India, and Brazil. Experience has shown senior U.S.  policymakers that nations that share democratic values are the best partners and worth defending. Common values generate common interests, which are the basis for making a common cause in addressing global challenges.

Unfortunately some American ‘China Hands’ have been advocating peace in the Taiwan Strait at any price and seeing crisis where they should be seeing opportunity. They have been urging Tsai to come up with a new “One China” formula to appease China. That would be a mistake. Better to have the old  flashpoint return than to see Taiwan fall into China’s orbit.

Going forward, Taiwan deserves the full-throated support of the U.S. government and all the material help the United States can give a fellow democracy in peril. If Washington stays complacent in the weeks and months ahead it will telegraph complicit agreement with China’s false assertions that Tsai is a troublemaker. Bowing to Chinese coercion would forsake the democratically represented will of Taiwan’s citizenry.

Tsai is a cool and calculating centrist. The greatest risk she presents is not that she will be a ‘pro-independence’ firebrand, but rather that she will be too cautious and slow to embrace strategies and initiatives needed for helping compete with China.

Now more than ever, the United States needs strong friends in the Pacific who know how to play hardball. If Washington can convince Tsai that America has the backbone to stand up to China, Taiwan will be right at our side with an immense ability to contribute more to the common good.

The coming political transition in Taipei is a strategic opportunity, not a crisis. It should be treated as such by all but Beijing.

This article first appeared in the Diplomat. Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. 

The Case of US Ship Visits to Taiwan

Posted on Monday, May 9, 2016 by Project2049Institute

The Case for US Ship Visits to Taiwan
The USS John C. Stennis
Source: U.S. Navy Photo

By: Randall Schriver

After the People’s Republic of China denied permission for the USS John Stennis to make a call to Hong Kong, Representative Randy Forbes said the following: “As Beijing’s direct control of Hong Kong intensifies, the U.S. Navy should strongly consider shifting its carrier port calls to more stable and welcoming locations…including Taiwan.”
The statement was too easily brushed off by some foreign policy elites in Washington who know we have not conducted U.S. Navy ship visits to Taiwan since the break in diplomatic relations in 1979. While we should resist the temptation to make major policy changes simply out a fit of pique, Representative Forbes is a serious man and his suggestion is worthy of our consideration.
There are at least five reasons why the U.S. Navy conducts ship visit to foreign ports. One reason is for morale and welfare of the sailors and marines afloat. Breaking up long deployments at sea with visits to quality ports of call helps our men and women recharge and thus more effectively perform their duties on ship. Such calls also help the Navy with recruitment and retention (it’s not an empty cliché that men and women join the naval services to “see the world”).
A second reason for port calls is for replenishment and minor maintenance and repair for our ships. The tyranny of time and distance created by the world’s great oceans necessitates that our ships receive such support outside the United States.
On these issues, Hong Kong gets excellent marks. Our men and women love visiting Hong Kong, and shore-based services are well-positioned to assist our ships. But Taiwan would excel in these areas as well.  Kaohsiung is an outstanding destination for sailors and marines (just ask our many service members who enjoyed liberty there during the Vietnam War), and it boasts world class capabilities for servicing maritime vessels.
Third, port calls contribute to specific political and diplomatic goals of our government. A U.S. aircraft carrier pulling into a port is a powerful symbol – and our sailors and marines ashore can be excellent ambassadors of our good will.
Fourth, ship visits to foreign ports may also serve specific military and security goals. Port familiarization in peacetime will greatly assist our fighting forces during a contingency involving a friend or ally. We may seek to enhance deterrence in support of a particular friend or ally.  And we may use the port of call for strengthening Navy-Navy ties through tailored activities and discussions.
And finally, foreign ports can also provide safe harbor when ships are in distress (e.g. severe mechanical, weather or other issues that may impact safety of the crew). While such cases may be rare, it is nonetheless a tradition as old as time for coastal communities to serve as places of temporary refuge for mariners in need.
How does Hong Kong stack-up in these latter three areas?  Here is where it gets increasingly questionable. First, let’s look at the question of political goals.  The United States has held the view since Hong Kong’s reversion in 1997 that our ship visits are a way to support Hong Kong’s “genuine autonomy” as promised in the 1984 Joint Declaration, Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and our own Hong Kong Policy Act. Yet with Beijing’s increasing heavy hand on matters related to Hong Kong, our continued port calls have become a symbol of our acceptance of Beijing’s efforts to rein in Hong Kong, not symbols of support for its autonomy. When Beijing made the unfortunate announcement that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would not be freely elected in 2017 as promised, we did nothing to alter our ship visit program. Hong Kong is an important financial center with heavy American investment. But when citizens are kidnapped off the streets of Hong Kong by central governing authorities in Beijing while our ships sit idly by in port, our government appears impotent and we lose the reassurance our presence is supposed to provide.
Hong Kong contributes very little to our military and security goals. Clearly in any known contingency in the South China Sea or Taiwan Strait, the port would be unavailable to our ships.  Moreover, Hong Kong has failed to serve as an important vehicle for military-to-military engagement between the U.S. military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).  In fact, the PLA has been relatively low-key in Hong Kong – at least so far – and the rare multilateral search and rescue exercises which have featured both U.S. and Chinese forces could certainly be conducted elsewhere.
Most regrettably, Hong Kong even falls short when it comes to the basic duty of providing reliable safe harbor for ships in distress. In 2007, the Chinese central government denied a request from two U.S. minesweepers to escape an approaching storm and receive fuel. This was an egregious violation of an unwritten though time-honored rule of international maritime states to assist ships in distress. Had the roles been reversed, it is unimaginable that we would have turned away a Chinese vessel in need.
Taiwan, in contrast to Hong Kong, would meet the aforementioned criteria. U.S. ship visits to Taiwan would help support the goals of the Taiwan Relations Act, and would send reassurance to the people of Taiwan at a time when Beijing is increasing pressure on our democratic friend.  We could enhance our operational readiness in meaningful ways related to a known contingency for which our own law obligates us to prepare. Unlike PRC-controlled Hong Kong, Taiwan would always be there if we were in distress – as they were when two U.S. F/A-18s were forced to make an emergency landing at Tainan Air Base in Taiwan in April 2015. The outstanding reception those pilots received stands in stark contrast to how the aircrew of the EP-3 was treated in Hainan Island after an emergency landing in April 2001.
This begs the question – why not make U.S. Navy port calls in Taiwan?  One must conclude our government is overly cautious and afraid of the unknown. The bureaucratic reflex is always to default against setting new precedence if there is any perceived risk. While it is true that U.S. ship visits were suspended with the break in relations in 1979, it also true that they have never been explicitly prohibited by official guidance or any standing policy. In fact, senior members of the Carter Administration who supported cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1978 also supported the continuation of U.S. Navy port calls after the change of diplomatic relations. It’s an accident of history rather than policy that such a precedent became locked-in. We failed to make a port call immediately after January 1, 1979, and bureaucratic inertia took over from there. Fast forward more than three decades and our community of government China-hands relegate the notion of U.S. Navy ship visits to Taiwan as “something we just don’t do.”
The political and security environment has changed a great deal since 1979. Taiwan is a full-fledged democracy and willing security partner to the United States. China’s assertiveness threatens peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. And China’s ballistic and cruise missile deployments which hold our forward deployed forces at risk demands that we identify more diverse range of options for access in the Pacific Theater before an actual contingency. Would the PRC object to a U.S. ship visit to Taiwan?  Of course they would. But the cost-benefit ledger seems to be titling more in favor of accepting the risk.
In the mid-1990s, I served as one of the Department of Defense (DoD) representatives on the U.S. negotiating team for the discussions with China related to the pending reversion of Hong Kong sovereignty to the PRC. DoD’s position on continuing ship visits to Hong Kong was that it was desirable, but not critical. We had other options. I believe that remains true today. While we should continue to request port calls to Hong Kong for the foreseeable future, Chinese leaders themselves have created the conditions that compel us to look elsewhere for more reliable, welcoming ports of call. Taiwan should be included in our annual ship visit program as an outstanding port of call that will serve U.S. strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific.
This article first appeared in the Diplomat. Randall Schriver is the President and CEO of the Project 2049 Institute. He formerly served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. 

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