The Diplomat: Myanmar Grapples With Unifying Its Core and Periphery

(The Diplomat 27/7/2016) The challenges of forging federalism in Myanmar will be evident at upcoming talks in August.

Myanmar’s punctuated economic development since gaining independence in 1948 has often been framed through the shackles of ethnic conflict, authoritarianism, and neglectful governance. But as global human rights icon, and now State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi takes control of the country’s democratic transformation, she will find that the nation’s struggles are far more deep-rooted. Peace will remain elusive unless Myanmar can bridge its divisive geography.

The national story is defined by a chasm between core and periphery. The low-lying and fertile Irrawaddy River valley region includes the urban economic centers of Yangon, Mandalay, and the capital, Naypyidaw, and is largely populated by the majority Bamar ethnic group.

Meanwhile, awkward terrain on Myanmar’s fringes has encased minorities from neighboring states within the nation’s modern-day boundaries. A mountain chain to its west, rugged jungles to its northeastern border with China, and the Shan Hills on its eastern side have isolated distinct cultures and manifested separatist sentiments.

As such, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is a mosaic of 135 officially recognized ethnicities (excluding the marginalized Rohingya in Rakhine state), all grouped into seven dominant minority border states, with the Bamar predominating in the seven central regions. Nation building has, as a result, been a cumbersome venture.

In 1947, Suu Kyi’s father and then de facto prime minister, General Aung San, penned an agreement granting greater autonomy to the Shan, Kachin, and Chin ethnic minorities at the Panglong Conference, but his assassination months later meant it never came to fruition. Since then, successive state leaders have failed to forge a delicate balance between political decentralization and the military, border, and resource control requirements of state building.

As disenfranchised ethnic groups took up arms in the world’s longest-running civil war, the most promising attempt to broker peace came in October, when former president Thein Sein signed a ceasefire with eight armed-groups—though seven major insurgencies were absent.

But at a meeting tabled for August dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”—between the ruling National League for Democracy party, the military and, it is hoped, representatives from all armed ethnic groups, Suu Kyi is expected to revive her father’s vision of a unified, yet devolved, nation.

“Through peace conferences, we’ll continue to be able to build up a genuine, federal democratic union aspired to by all our countrymen,” she said during a nationwide address on Myanmar’s New Year holiday in April. “That’s why we need a constitutional amendment.”

The nation’s frontier states want more control over their economic and political affairs. And federalism may be the key to de-escalating tension with ethnic groups who feel underrepresented by the Bamar-dominant parliament and aggrieved by Naypyidaw’s central rule and military meddling.

But that may be easier said than done. Suu Kyi will require cooperation from the still powerful military, who are constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of parliamentary seats. But military leaders are likely to be reticent in ceding control over peripheral states, in order to protect their monopoly on the extraction and trade of jade, teak, and other materials in the resource-rich borderlands.

And then there is the risk that decentralization will help crystalize secessionism. The China-backed United Wa State army in the northeast, for example, already has significant military footing, and greater political powers may catalyze a push for separation. It’s an outcome Suu Kyi will be conscious of, with vocal Buddhist nationalists poised to stir discontent over state-weakening territorial losses.

Avoiding an all out disintegration of a devolved Myanmar would also require signaling considerable commitment to connect peripheral regions to the economic core and spread the nation’s now burgeoning foreign direct investment outward.

According to the UN Development Program, poverty levels are at around 26 percent of the total population, but that rate doubles in the rural areas where 70 percent of the population reside, with remote border areas significantly deprived. Constitutional adaptations may not be sufficient to overcome economic grievances unless ethnic states have a fairer share of resource extraction profits, access to social services, financing opportunities, and clear land rights.

The nation’s rickety roads and colonial era rail network will also require considerable work to radiate into the tougher terrain of the isolated border states. “[O]nly 38.9 percent of the total road network is paved, with the secondary and local road network in generally poor condition,” according to a 2014 Asian Development Bank report entitled “Myanmar: Unlocking the Potential.” Inland waterways and air transport facilities also need attention.

A unified core and periphery promises many national dividends—from enhancing the democratic process and connecting markets, labor, and industries, to stabilizing restive borders for trade. But while Suu Kyi has made peace the NLD’s “first responsibility,” the federalist model will need to be closely and rapidly synchronized with plans to spread economic opportunities if the ethnic frontier is to have a vested interest in an integrated Myanmar.

And so, as Suu Kyi and President Htin Kyaw get to work, just like leaders before them, they must face the nation’s age-old conundrum—how to create autonomy, whilst also achieving unity.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist, and received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.


The Huffington Post: Is Social Media Polarizing Political Debate?

(The Huffington Post 15/6/2016) The tragic events in Orlando, once again, exposed just how dichotomized our political discourse has become. One group called for gun-control, while the other felt the right to bear arms, for self-defense, was vindicated. And religious motivations were blamed entirely, or considered irrelevant.

But proponents of these opposing views aren’t talking with each other—they’re talking at each other. And though social media facilitates news, opinion and idea flow, it may, paradoxically, be complicit in stifling progressive political conversations.

Facebook, Twitter and online news platforms allow us to share, discuss and access live data at our fingertips. It meets our demand for timely, concise and simple information, to accommodate the demands of our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles.

But the very streamline nature of social media may just be amplifying the noise of extreme—and simplistic—viewpoints, and sidelining the depth, nuance and complexity that truly comprise political issues. The center ground cannot compete for pace and plainness in a society that seeks trigger words, click-bait headlines, platitudes and 140 characters to make quick judgments, explanations and associations.

Research published by The Economist in November illustrated how far left and right parties in Europe were broadly more popular than their centrist counterparts on social networks, in terms of Facebook “likes,” Twitter followers and shared Tweets. Although acknowledging the more “prolific” use of Twitter by the strongly left- and right-wing parties, it added that their popularity may also be because “[s]ocial media reward starkness, not subtlety….Politicians on the fringes can react to news faster than their moderate counterparts, whose statements are carefully scrutinized before publication.”

And, though there is enhanced access to information online, we can also be more selective about it. We can filter what we want to see and who we want to interact with, enabling our ‘newsfeeds’ to become self-reinforcing echo chambers. The use of recommendation algorithms have also been criticized for only linking users to issues that ‘agree’ with them.

Social science studies have already demonstrated the human bias toward like-minded individuals, and self-fulfilling information. A 2014 study by U.S. think tank the Pew Research Center which mapped U.S. Twitter discussions found that political topics formed distinct polarized groups—often liberal and conservative camps—which largely interacted independently of each other. In other words opposing groups aren’t challenging each other, but talking amongst themselves.

With this enhanced online opinion binary, each side feels victimized by the other as the subtleties that connect and soften their viewpoints are lost. The end result is often a paralysis of debate, comprised of black and white rhetoric, defensiveness and ultimately a spat between restrictive political correctness and fear mongering.

Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of U.K. counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, warned of the risks emanating from the intensified left-right dichotomy—particularly on what he termed the “global islamist insurgency”—in aCNN interview in November. “[L]et’s remain levelheaded and avoid being…blinded by our left eye or popping a blood vessel in our right eye,” said Nawaz. “Because both of those conclusions would render us blind.”

The social media response to recent events illustrate just how levelheadness is being squeezed out, and progressive debate is being lost. The European ‘migrant’ crisis became an issue of “open doors or building walls,” while “more or less immigration” has become the crux of debate in the U.K. referendum on the European Union. And, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels were expectedly met with the same “blame religion or foreign policy” schism.

With some 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide, according to social insight consultancy We Are Social—and, set to grow as new consumers gain internet access—online opinions will become an increasingly important battleground for global, as well as national, politics.

Populists, like U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump, are already wielding it for their gain, and traditional news cycles are devoting more air-time to noisy Twitterati discussions. But if the online discourse continues in this diluted and filtered manner, the risk is that, in reflecting the electorate, politics will increasingly stagnate into a debate over polarized narratives rather than actual issues and policies.

Social media, and the internet revolution, is widely seen as an opportunity to level the information playing field. But, though it can be an instrument for education, it can also be a tool for the production of mass ignorance. It just depends how we use it.

As with any progressive debate, overcoming personal narratives, considering alternate viewpoints and scrutinizing information (and ideas) is vital, but it is even more essential when social media also has the power to entrench, narrow and simplify the world around us.

 Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. His work is archived at:

The Huffington Post: Did The Death Of A Pakistani Humanitarian Icon Get Fair Coverage?

(The Huffington Post 21/7/2016) Why did the death of a Pakistani philanthropist—once touted as the world’s greatest humanitarian—garner such little focus in western media?

It’s a poignant question in an age when vitriolic bearded faces dominate our primetime news feeds. From the hook-handed Abu Hamza, AK 47-wielding Osama Bin Laden to the black-cloaked Islamic State group executioners—death, destruction and division have become synonymous with the muslim world.

Yet, Abdul Sattar Edhi, 88, who passed away on July 8, devoted his life to an entirely different message. The Edhi Foundation, which he founded in Karachi in 1951, has trumped the Pakistani government to become nation’s most reliable social safety net, providing ambulances, nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, women’s shelters and rehabilitation centers, free-of-charge, across the country.

According to Radio Pakistan the foundation—which runs the world’s largest ambulance service—”has rescued over 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and has trained over 40,000 nurses.” The organization’s reach has also become global—including the provision of $100,000 in aid to the U.S. following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

And for a man who lived by the motto “no race, no religion, just humanity,” a desire to indiscriminately service Christians and Hindus brought enmity from islamic zealots, and with that came numerous death threats. But his fortitude was recognized by international awards, and many, including Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, have recommended him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Edhi represented a vision of the Islamic world so far unseen by many western eyes. But his death, an opportunity to celebrate his legacy, failed to pique significant interest among news editors beyond relegated obituary pieces—and was largely ignored by broadcast media.

Instead, there seems to be an obsession with mainstream media to paint the muslim world with the brush of fanaticism, dysfunction and terrorism. And this has played a key role in fine-tuning the rise of islamophobia in the west. Polls conducted by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland showed that in June 62 percent of Americans harbored unfavorable views of muslim people, while acidic sentiments are only on the rise in Europe with growing anti-Islam rhetoric.

As our window to the world, the media plays a critical role in shaping our perceptions. But with the palpable fear of Islam at fever pitch, we must question whether we are seeing that world through a filtered lens, and judging some 1.6 billion people by their most incriminating facets.

The death of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star, at the hands of her ashamed brother—just a week after Edhi’s passing—for example, has certainly done more rounds emphasizing the struggles of the nation’s patriarchal society.

Sure, we must not denigrate the genuine ills of terrorism, instability and human rights abuses that plague some parts of the developing world, but rather call for a careful balance in our reporting. After all, with a cursory glance at the west today, xenophobic movements, police brutality, economic inequality and political turmoil would not paint the brightest of pictures, particularly when we know there are other more ennobling societal strands to highlight.

Strife, security and destitution are in the public interest and deserve media attention: in order to right wrongs, we must be informed about the problems first. But unfortunately, spiraling negative coverage has become the sole means to peddle news in a saturated market that seeks fingertip information for likewise judgements.

And this not only marginalizes muslim diaspora who carry that burden of such prejudices on their shoulders, but it also fails to empower the very people who can act to bring positive change to the darker corners of our world. Simply put, peace cannot prevail if it isn’t given a voice, and selling fear will only enhance our differences.

It seems apt that while Edhi’s body was being laid to rest in a state funeral, eye surgeons in Karachi were busy transplanting the corneas he donated to two blind patients—for it is now the responsibility of our media to make the world see clearly again.

Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. He Tweets @tejparikh90

The Huffington Post: Brexit: An Inconvenient Truth for Liberals

(The Huffington Post 5/7/2016) Globalists can no longer parade under the banner of international unity while ignoring imbalance at home.

Large majorities who considered multiculturalism, globalization and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the European Union; while those who felt they were ills voted by greater majorities to leave, according a poll of over 12,000 voters.


If you’re connected to the U.K.’s professed liberal social media network, there’s a strong chance you’ve read a cacophony of Tweets and Facebook status monologues condemning the outcome of the U.K. referendum.

For many in the Remain camp—hailing from London, its suburban corridors and university towns—the June 23 vote to leave the European Union was an apparent victory for “the racists, the ignorant and the uneducated.”

But in their blind outrage many have revealed their very own insularity. There is a failure to understand how different economic, political and social narratives can precipitate alternate belief systems—ones that feel fearful of immigration, subordinated by multiculturalism and disadvantaged by international trade.

If Britain’s avowed progressives are to truly challenge the salience of xenophobic, nationalist and anti-expert rhetoric, they need to first digest that globalism is not a value everyone can afford to espouse, nor is it just unique to Remain voters.

The snapshot analysis of the 17.4 million who voted Leave—the elderly, lesser educated and lower income individuals—offered scapegoats for a result truly cast by the entirety of British society, and borne in the nation’s disparate economic and cultural experiences of globalization.

Inequality and Inequity

Over the past decades, Britain has undergone one of the largest de-industrializations of any major nation. Manufacturing output shrank from over 30 percent of economic output in the 1970s, to nearer 10 percent today, as shifting global trade patterns and technological productivity transformed the nation into a service-orientated society.

Industrial, coastal and agricultural Britain languished in obsolescence, as financial, commerce, research and cultural hubs blossomed into wealthy, tolerant and cosmopolitan havens. And by the late 2000s, income inequality among Britain’s working-age population had risen faster than in any other high-income nation since 1975, according an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 2011.

Riding high on Britain’s deregulated globalized capitalist system a professional, political and media elite captured the zeitgeist of individualism and a largely feckless working class, caricatured as the “Chav”—a British pejorative used to describe the young lower class.

And, with the post-financial crisis age of austerity, influx of eastern European migrants and the images of last year’s ‘migrant’ crisis on the continent, which disproportionately threatened the less affluent, animosities grew in a largely unequal and upwardly immobile society.

“Many people have grown tired of waiting for the benefits of a vastly interconnected world to trickle down,” wrote Reva Goujon, a global strategic analyst at the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor, in a company report. “As the world whizzes by them, their wages remain flat and jobs become scarcer.”

It is little surprise then that large majorities who considered multiculturalism, globalization and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the European Union; while those who felt they were ills voted by greater majorities to leave, according the Lord Ashcroft Poll of over 12,000 voters—globalism dichotomized the nation.

The inconvenient truth for many Remainers is that they benefited most from the post-industrial status-quo, and therefore had the most reason to protect it. While Leavers voted symbolically against a system that did not work for them—and not to frivolously spite liberal principles, as social media feeds may suggest.

Promises to “take back control” from foreign interests and reduce immigration were bound to foment eurosceptic appeal among the disenfranchised and economically excluded millions. And it’s a damning harbinger for the U.S., with an equally torn narrative over trade and immigration.

Illiberal Liberalism

Unless British society can overcome its vogue for mindless virtue signaling, ridiculing and vilifying those who do not effuse liberal values, nuance—like the logic of experts—will forever fall on deaf ears. And, its exclusionary impact will continue to strengthen the appeal of simplistic xenophobic explanations.

Because calling someone a racist, or stupid, is not a policy prescription. It does nothing to tackle the roots of racism, fascism or nationalism, or offer a path for inclusive prosperity. And too many feel its is enough to make a spectacle of globalism and liberal values without actually acting to ensure they can be universally adopted.

A truly progressive form of liberalism in Britain must rather decentralize economic power, devolve politics, fight inequality and elitism, bridge the North-South divide and raise British expenditure on investment.

It must also pragmatically engage with alternate narratives, to avoid a continueddestabilizing polarity in British politics—in which the far left and right amplify in reaction to one another—and to regain the middle ground. That challenge is clearly harder now that some see Brexit as a vindication for racism.

The Remain camp must see its own culpability in failing to convince swathes of moderates. In fact, some now emerging, liberal, Leave voters, justify their vote by saying greater constitutional autonomy is paramount in addressing Britain’s long ignored socio-economic fissures.

And so, among the multiple introspective questions Brexit should impel upon militant Remainers, its greatest may be to the in-denial leaders in Brussels themselves. How can an effective political, monetary, and eventually, fiscal, supra-national union of over 500 million people be achieved when nation states are not only disparate to each other, but also, within themselves?

It is this fallacy—carried by a somewhat privileged ignorance—that we all have the same agency and all stand to benefit equally from globalism, that has led to Brexit and an unravelling of the European project. We cannot continue to parade under the banner of international unity, without addressing imbalance at home.

The Huffington Post: After Brexit, a Divided Nation Must Face Reality

(The Huffington Post 24/6/2016) Britain wakes up divided. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; millennials against older generations; and university students against school leavers.

Divisions are inevitable. Geography, age and education define our narratives, our political identities—and how we vote. Progress, however, is not inevitable, it requires strong dialogue, introspection and compromise.

Yet trends in global politics—across the Atlantic, and the English Channel—and the increasingly dichotomized nature of our discourse, presage only a further descent into the left and right, the black and white, and the Leave and Remain.

And so while Britain may have missed the chance to symbolically abrogate rising political disunity worldwide by voting out of the European Union, it now has the opportunity to demonstrate true progressivism—advancing, despite division.

If the Remain campaign is to avoid its economic fears from becoming self-reinforcing, now is the time to act in unison with opponents, and not to engage in defeatism. If the Leave campaign is to lead Britain into a brighter future, now is the time to begin meeting expectations, and not for rejoice.

“The politicians who will lead the U.K. out of the E.U. must guard against allowing a yawning gap to emerge between their political rhetoric and the realities facing Britain outside,” wrote Robin Niblett, director at U.K. think tank Chatham House.

Amid a fragmented society and political elite, Britain must withstand a barrage of challenges in the coming months, as it negotiates its path out of the E.U. and beyond. If it seeks prosperity, it must wake up to the post-Brexit world—together.

The pound’s decline in value has broken records, shares have plummeted and the risk of recession is firmly tied to support for market confidence. The nation’s two largest political parties seek structure, with British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his forthcoming resignation, and a vote of no confidence overshadowing his co-Remain campaigner and opposition Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Beyond the City and Westminster, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon says a second referendum on Scotland’s independence is “highly likely,” after the country overwhelmingly voted to stay in the E.U., adding variables to the crowded planning matrix.

And in Europe, Eurosceptics have newfound ammo. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, is calling for a similar referendum, Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders wants a “Nexit” and Mateo Salvini leader of Italy’s Northern League party says “now it’s our turn.”

This ‘domino effect’ threatens to unwind the European project altogether, with critical national elections in France and Germany on the horizon. In the meanwhile, the U.K remains deeply connected to the continent by trade, finance and labor, and will need to weather the uncertainty and contagion, in addition to the direct challenges at home.

Between the U.K. and E.U., trade deals and business terms need to be renegotiated, laws, rules and regulations need to be clarified and the British government will need to overhaul its diplomatic infrastructure with Europe.

Economic precariousness and political shuffling are the face of Britain’s new short term reality. And reforming the nation in this climate will be a doomed Sisyphean venture if it cannot first overcome the toxic duels that have masqueraded as democratic debates in the past weeks. Negotiations, bureaucratic restructuring and economic adjustment will otherwise suffocate.

Egoistic, insular and “I told you so” rhetoric will need to disappear if Britain is to progress beyond the divisive, fear mongering and post-truth politics that colored the referendum. While denial, bitterness and demonization must also subside in order to unpack and reverse a growing polarity in British politics.

Britain may be split by a binary question, but it must now reopen dialogue, understand rising nationalist, anti-expert and anti-immigrant sentiments, and address class, geographic and generational cleavages, if it is to truly “take back control” of its democracy, or it faces a stasis.

When Cameron finished negotiating the U.K.’s ‘special status’ with the E.U. in February he proclaimed that the referendum was a “once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of our country.” The referendum has passed, but a prosperous destiny remains firmly in the hands of the British people.

 Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. His work is archived at: He tweet @tejparikh90

The Diplomat: Will Genocide Be the True Cost of State Building in Myanmar?

(The Diplomat 2/6/2016) “If we mix religion and politics then we offend the spirit of religion itself,” said Myanmar’s independence hero Aung San, addressing his Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League party in 1946.

Seventy years on, for his daughter and globally revered human rights icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, the doctrine has changed.

Deeply entrenched nationalism has blurred the line between religion and politics as Myanmar seeks to build a viable state. And it’s pitting the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s pragmatism against her principles—with the lives of the nation’s Rohingya minority at the center.

“[Aung San]…wanted the Buddhist Sanghas [associations] to retain their traditional roles and abstain from politics,” writes author Nilanjana Sengupta in her book A Gentleman’s Word.  “Their contribution to nation building could be in spreading the message of brotherhood and freedom from fear but not in inflammatory communal politics.”

But since Aung San’s assassination in 1947 and independence the year after, xenophobia has been stoked by the successive nationalist agendas of Myanmar’s leaders. With the dominant Buddhist and ethnic Bamar population—estimated at 89 percent and 68 percent respectively today—minorities were considered a hindrance to nation building.

Attempts by the state to homogenize language, culture, and religion gained impetus among the nation’s monkhood, an institution with gargantuan civilian sway.

Nationalist Buddhist groups like the 969 Movement, championed by Ashin Wirathu (dubbed the “Buddhist bin Laden” by some) amassed a stronger platform for their xenophobic rhetoric under former-President Thein Sein’s censorship-loosening reforms since 2011.

The nation’s Muslims, four percent of the population, have been their top target. Rakhine state’s Rohingyas are subject to violence, discrimination, and economic exclusion. Numerous attempts to flee have seen hundreds drown at sea and thousands displaced in refugee camps, and the government afford humanitarians limited access. They are “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities,” says the UN.

And early last month, Suu Kyi’s government—once a glimmer of hope for the minority— requested the very term “Rohingya” be renounced, failing to recognize the community’s rights as part of Myanmar’s 135 official list of ethnic groups.

Suu Kyi’s stance is not new. Since violent riots broke out between ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya in 2012, she has remained passive, neutralizing questions by pointing out aggressions against Buddhists and downplaying the concern of international bodies.

For some, Suu Kyi was just straddling the political line, cautious not to alienate an electorate largely sold to an entrenched islamophobic narrative. In the lead up to the National League for Democracy’s landslide election victory in November, an Al-Jazeera source reported that she deliberately purged the party of its Muslim candidates.

For an election that received plaudits from U.S. President Barack Obama, the Rohingyas were ineligible to vote, and currently there is not a single Muslim parliamentary representative.

Suu Kyi not only had to pander to the electorate, but also to the military which traditionally bands around nationalism and is constitutionally entitled to 25 percent of seats. But it was assumed her humanitarian streak would return once in power, more willing to tackle electorally sensitive issues years before the next election. However, Suu Kyi’s latest constraint may be the pressures of state building.

After 27 years of playing the pro-democracy activist opposition, the NLD are in uncharted territory. In November, U Win Htein, a party spokesman, said the Rohingya would not be the party’s priority.

Suu Kyi inherits an inefficient, unskilled, and corrupt bureaucracy, alongside a promise to deliver economic development. Elevating the strife of an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million minority may pale in comparison, particularly when factoring in a likely lengthy reconciliation process, financial resources, and potential for social instability.

Suu Kyi is aware of the sacrifice, diplomacy, and compromise that comes with taking office. “I’ve been a politician all along. I started in politics not as a human rights defender or a humanitarian worker,” she said in a 2013 CNN interview. She will have to negotiate shrewd deals with international suitors and make controversial decisions on large construction projects. Not all parties can be satisfied.

Bound by the realism of statecraft, Suu Kyi may be playing a long game. Forging peace between Buddhist and minority communities is likely to be more delicate, iterative, and convoluted than external observers can appreciate.

During U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Myanmar last month, Suu Kyi asked for “enough space” to address the “emotive” Rohingya issue. On May 31, it was announced she would lead a new Central Committee for Implementation of Peace and Development in Rakhine State, though the details remain sketchy.

The global community is growing impatient with a woman who has come to embody revolution and democratic values. Some have suggested her Nobel Prize be revoked for failing to act definitively on her sermons, while others fear Suu Kyi sees reason in the nationalist logic of Myanmar’s past.

The fact that she may be carefully treading the line between religion and politics is a bitter pill to swallow for her followers who feel short-sold, particularly when the Rohingya “face the final stages of genocide,” according to an 18-month study by the U.K.-based International State Crime Initiative, published last year. “The marked escalation in State-sponsored stigmatization, discrimination, violence and segregation, and the systematic weakening of the community, make precarious the very existence of the Rohingya,” it adds.

The clock is ticking on Suu Kyi, with her legacy deeply intertwined with the fate of Myanmar’s long-persecuted minority.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist and recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, the Guardian and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

The Diplomat: In Myanmar, Suu Kyi’s Brand Is a Double-Edged Sword

(The Diplomat 14/5/2016) Myanmar is being overwhelmed by foreign investments before its new government has built up the capacity to receive them.

While Aung San Suu Kyi’s inauguration as Myanmar’s state counsellor early last month was largely academic, it certainly wasn’t short on significance. With the globally revered democracy icon vowing to be “above the president” anyway, the international community is now queuing up to engage with the once pariah state.

But though Suu Kyi’s ‘brand’ has the power to attract rapid change for the nation, it could also quickly become Myanmar’s Achilles heel.

U.S. business delegations are expected to arrive in the country shortly to assess investment opportunities, says Scot Marciel, the new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, also known as Burma. And on May 3, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met with Suu Kyi as he reportedly weighs a development assistance offering worth $910 million. These visits follow the early-bird brigades of China, Italy, Germany, and Canada, which have already held talks with the new government since it came to office on March 30, according to The Myanmar Times.

Whether for business gains or foreign policy leverage, Myanmar—sandwiched between the Indian and Chinese economic powerhouses—is prime real estate.

But in a country severely lacking in institutional capacity, “the tsunami of aid” may actually hinder Myanmar’s transition says Lex Rieffel, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think-tank. Foreign donors absorb precious ministerial time in coordination visits; they also hire the most qualified local citizens and drive up property prices in Yangon, the country’s largest city, says Rieffel.

Untamed foreign direct investment can be equally insidious by competing with domestic industries through unethical business practices or by feeding corrupt hands, particularly in the nation’s elite-tied gas, jade, and timber resource extraction industries.

Meanwhile, a rapid influx of aid also goes against the new government’s vision. National League for Democracy leader Suu Kyi (also the foreign minister) and proxy president cum long-time friend, Htin Kyaw, do not seek “abrupt changes” and have outlined, though vaguely, phases for Myanmar’s economic transition.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner wishes to lay out her own unique economic vision. During a 2013 visit to Singapore Suu Kyi stopped short of suggesting Myanmar should follow in the footsteps of free-market capitalism’s model student. “Perhaps Singapore could learn from us a more relaxed way of life,” she said at the time.

And the NLD’s 2015 election manifesto is also littered with ‘Suu Kyi-isms.’ It seeks to lift FDI but only with the “highest international standards” that can bring “sustainable long term mutual benefits.” The five economic pillars—fiscal prudence, efficient bureaucracy, agriculture, monetary and fiscal stability, and infrastructure—are considered necessary groundwork before global financial flows accelerate the nation’s growth.

The party, which won 80 percent of available seats in the November elections, wants to achieve a “controlled opening,”avoiding the asset bubbles, income inequality, corruption, and international risk exposures befalling some of its Asian neighbors.

For some, that ship has already sailed. Unanchored by the reforms under former president Thein Sein, which led to a tapering in international sanctions, Myanmar’s economy is expected to grow at a breakneck 8.4 percent this year, according to the Asian Development Bank’s latest outlook report—the highest in Asia. Meanwhile, FDI rose to a record $9.4 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year.

And according to the local Daily Eleven newspaper, the country projects a cumulative $140 billion in FDI through 2030, assuming the United States restores the generalized system of preferences and lifts remaining sanctions.

But Suu Kyi needs time to assemble an able bureaucracy to implement the laws and regulations to manage incoming funds. Otherwise, the new funds may be destined to circulate among the corrupt—bypassing the 26 percent of the population below the poverty line.

She also faces the small tasks of negotiating governance terms with the military, forging peace deals with warring ethnic groups, and weighing controversial large-scale construction projects like the currently shelved $3.6 billion China-led Myitsone dam.

Myanmar’s economic sustainability is already at stake, before it has even taken off. As one poetic Yangon resident put it, “The foundations needs to be laid, and the cement needs to dry first before Myanmar can dream of building further.”

Tej Parikh recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict, and fragile states. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Cambodia Daily, The Diplomat andGlobal Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90.

Beyond Violence: The Nation State: Bounded Humanitarianism

(Beyond Violence 10/6/2016) National sovereignty is weakly aligned to global altruism. Accountable to its own constituents, foreign policy, fundamentally a tool to serve and protect national interests, can act like a cap on humanitarianism.

When national interests are at stake, international policy suffers from myopia, self-interest and double-standards. And it lies at the very heart of our collective failures in peace, human rights and economic prosperity.

Security is one such national priority that doesn’t necessarily aggregate globally. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of the ultraconservative Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, an ideology said to inspire al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic State group, is a longtime western ally, for example. A swing nation in global price of oil, military, trade and investment partner, and a strategic Sunni counterweight to Shiite Iran: Saudi Arabia is crucial in the west’s attempts to shelter itself from a geopolitically unstable region.

This is despite the Saudi’s atrocious human rights record, beyond dubious executions, including poor women’s rights, freedom of expression and treatment of migrant labor. And, despite, the nation being ”… a critical financial support base for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other terrorist groups,” according to a leaked December 2009 memo signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Likewise, economic stability also requires expediency. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s red carpet welcome to Britain in October, the lavish banquets and processions, were a segue to a multi-billion dollar business deal for Chinese investment, as Britain navigates its waning global influence and tetchy ties with the European Union.

For some a shrewd deal, for others a hypocrisy. Activists protested British pandering and silence over a country with a track record for curtailing the freedom of speech and abusing the rights of theTibetan and Uighur minority ethnic groups.

And money doesn’t have to be the only motive to turn a blind eye to human rights. In December,Reuters reported that the U.S. State Department disregarded its own staff’s damning findings of Oman’s forced labor and human trafficking record, by inflating its score in a mandated “Trafficking in Persons” report. This, apparently, was a move to support international relations with the Gulf ally, which played a key role in helping to broker last year’s Iran nuclear deal.

Foreign interventionism has also been self-serving. The toppling of dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, and attempted disposal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, had a core purpose in shoring up the west’s security interests. But after military intervention, insufficient attention has been given to state-building and post-conflict development in these countries, which instead fester in a power vacuum, and have given rise to greater security threats, including I.S.

And electoral accountability can constrain foreign policy more directly. It may explain why the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama dithered, and acted softly in Syria, with the failures and cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions fresh in voters’ minds. Some 60,000 civilian deaths after the conflict started, the U.S. began sending aid to rebels. And, over a year after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed Obama’s chemical-usage threshold, the U.S. began bombing in Syria, targeting I.S.

Multilateral organisations were once thought to be the solution, to speak out, coordinate and neutralize national and transnational tragedies where a conflict of interest prevails. But humanitarian institutions themselves face diplomacy and politics, accountable to their boards and donors, and not directly to the people they seek to serve.

And are they powerful enough, when four out of five Yemenis are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, and Saudi Arabia seems to be blocking U.N. food donations? Are they politically neutral enough, or merely an aggregation of individual foreign policy? When Russia and China vetoed a 2011 U.N. Security Council vote for a crackdown on al-Assad, it would suggest the latter, as would the Saudi endeavor to block a U.N-led war crime inquiry into the Yemen intervention.

A globalised system of trade, migration and money flow, promised to bring capitalist economics, peace and ultimately, interests together. And while it has overseen a worldwide reduction in poverty, and the near obsolescence of inter-state war, it’s still a system that relies on the whim of the powerful to help the indigent.

Though the nation state is the established, and proven, model of governance and prosperity, and while globalisation has challenged the notion of tribalism, our interests and accountability remain fundamentally aligned to the geographies we govern.

The point is not to reconstruct the nation state, but to rethink the international architecture in which it operates.

The 21st Century must now harbor global identities and perspectives by embracing new interconnections and technologies, and design truly independent and accountable worldwide institutions and laws, if we are to see beyond our borders and let humanitarianism prevail.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist and received his master’s degree from Yale University last year, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily and Global Politics Magazine. He tweets at @tejparikh90

The Diplomat: Myanmar’s Democracy Paradox

(The Diplomat 26/2/2016) The lengthy talks over the exact shape of Myanmar’s government, and the identity of its new president, are just the first signs that the country’s path to democracy may not be orthodox.

On November 11, democracy icon, Aung San Suu Kyi, received a congratulatory phone call from U.S. President Barack Obama, after her National League for Democracy party romped to victory in Myanmar’s national election.

But while Western powers rejoice, and though Suu Kyi’s has sewn the seeds for democracy in Myanmar, the ground remains infertile.

“The distinguishing mark of a universal value is not that it already enjoys universal acceptance,” said development economist Amartya Sen. “But, that people everywhere have reason to see it as valuable.”

Unfortunately the nation that the NLD inherits is far from adopting universal values, with interests Balkanized along economic, ethnic and political lines.

The country lacks the cross-cutting cleavages to allow democratic change to take off, such that democracy today may paradoxically destabilize Myanmar, by giving power to entrenched, divided and unequal interests.

Suu Kyi does not seek “abrupt changes,” and hopes to bring about a steady transition of rule from decades of military dominance.

On the economic front the NLD is likely to continue pushing the country along its path to greater liberalization.

Foreign direct investment rose to over $8 billion in the 2014/15 fiscal year, but much of the money remains concentrated in the country’s jade, oil and gas industries – tied to former generals.

Urban “elites” and large corporations under armed force control are most likely to benefit from increased liquidity as the country opens up further – while poverty is expected to remain high in the country’s largely rural and ethnically segregated provinces.

“[The number of ultra-high-net worth] individuals in Myanmar could grow by more than seven times in the next decade – the fastest such pace of growth anywhere,” said Wealth-X, a wealth intelligence consultancy.

If the rural and unlanded are unable to tap into the country’s economic fortunes – fenced out by rising elites – vast chasms in wealth will remain an obstacle to building the broad-based citizen coalitions necessary for an efficient democracy.

Though democracy may be a banner for freedom in the west, true freedom will not be possible in Myanmar unless people have the power to make economic choices.

Beyond economic division, rife ethnic and religious conflict is likely to inhibit the creation of a society with cross-cutting interests, especially as recent peace talks continue in the absence of representation from the most active ethnic rebel groups.

Anti-Islamic sentiment has been mercilessly stirred-up among the near 70 percent Bamar population – carried in part by radical Buddhist monk Wirathu’s 969 movement, a nationalistic organization.

The majority Bamar thus forms an overriding part of the electorate with little tying them to the ethnic groups in Myanmar’s border states – where mountainous geography to its north and west has facilitated the preservation of distinct ethnicities, and the more traversable Shan plateau terrain on its Thai border has facilitated restiveness.

For all the promise of a more democratic Myanmar, even politically it is shaping up to be a pseudo-authoritarian state – lacking the natural forces to be truly representative at all levels.

Facing weak opposition and an winning an overwhelming 80 percent of available seats, the NLD take power with Suu Kyi vowing to “make all the decisions,” despite being barred from taking presidential post by the same constitution that retains 25 percent of seats for the military.

But, with question marks over how the military exercises its power, the political environment that Suu Kyi inherits may ironically be just the stage necessary to develop the nation.

Without a somewhat dictating hand, the liberties that unrestrained democracy brings may translate into the freedom to subjugate, hate and divide. But, with Suu Kyi’s aura, she can attempt to carve out a unifying long-term vision for the country.

She must tame military influence, manage inefficient ministries and act as a mediator across all ethnic parties.

A centrally planned development with employment projects, infrastructure investments and social welfare enhancement may create an economy that truly binds the vested interest of its people, rich to poor, Bamar to non-Bamar. Only when these divides are bridged will true democracy take root.

Suu Kyi’s task may echo that of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father.

A small ethnically divided nation, Lee championed nationalism and prepared Singapore for the global free market in his role as a visionary authoritarian. Suu Kyi, with her own maternalistic style, now has the opportunity to guide Myanmar – to forge a national identity and to create inclusive and broad-based development as the country opens.

There is a balancing act in Myanmar, fighting for the short-term phantom of democracy today may just inhibit its long-term evolution.

And so, while Aung San Suu Kyi embodies “the spirit of democracy” – in reality, it may be her role as a benevolent single-handed ruler that guides Myanmar forward.

Tej Parikh is an international affairs journalist currently based in Southeast Asia. He recently received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic conflict and fragile states. He tweets at @tejparikh90. He has written for the Guardian, Reuters, The Cambodia Daily and Global Politics Magazine.

Global Politics Magazine: Should We Empathize With Extremists?

(Global Politics Magazine 17/2/2016) When U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a recent Security Council speech that an Israeli drive to build settlements beyond its territory partly fueled Palestinian extremism, it drew ire from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no justification for terror,” responded Netanyahu. “The comments of the U.N. Secretary-General encourage terror.”

In the epochal ‘war on terror,’ the Netanyahu ‘them versus us rhetoric’ has dominated—from ground zero in New York to the bloodstained cafes of Paris.

Amid these ruins, anger and vengeance fester. But could this very human reaction to affliction exacerbate our struggle with violent fundamentalism?

Throughout history, humans have reacted to perceived grievances, oppression and struggle with violence. While ends do not justify the means—understanding injustices, rather than suppressing them, are the key to peace building.

Mr. Ban’s explanation for the Palestinian violence—occupation, settlement encroachment and a paralyzed peace process—was not offered by way of justification for violence. But he was seeking to bridge divides and perhaps connect Palestinian and Israeli narratives through a call for introspection.

For a victim of violent extremism it would be more gratifying to respond with commensurate force. But in order to break cycles of violence, targeting motivations are essential to de-fueling the fire.

Of course, grievances can be distorted and amplified, but no dialogue and divisive policy toward those associated with radical thoughts does little to halt or reverse the radicalization process. In fact, it solidifies it—by entrenching the view that ‘terrorists will be terrorists.’

In a recent study, the Quilliam foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, noted that “[Governments] must…ensure that the grievances that are exploited by extremists are not unwittingly exacerbated and that counter-narrative approaches are not derailed.”

Radicalization, defined as the process by which an individual or group comes to adopt extreme political, social or religious ideals, is not unique to any region or religion. It happened in 1930s Nazi Germany—and is occurring today in Burma, led by radical Buddhist monks opposed to Islam.

Though highly idiosyncratic, radicalization appears to find energy from a nexus of state building failures—be it ethnic conflict, economic inequality or social injustice, perceived or otherwise.

A greater awareness of the environments in which extremist ideologies, religious or otherwise, could permeate has led to a growing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) movement.

The Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence firm, analogized CVE to inoculating against disease as opposed to costly and ineffective approaches of treating it after an ‘infection.’

For example, the UK’s Prevent CVE initiative broadly aims to support those vulnerable to extremism, address grievances and challenge ideologies.

But, many CVE programs have under-performed for lack of a clear vision and funding for essential community and NGO-level participation say experts.

Fashioning coherent, coordinated and well-resourced CVE programs on a domestic level is key to long-term security—alongside measured military action, intelligence gathering, law enforcement and state building assistance.

As events in Paris showed last year, nations remain exposed to homegrown extremism, which thrives in the dense, destitute and segregated districts of our capitals.

Molenbeek neighborhood, on the edge of Brussels—where several arrests were made in connection with the November Paris attacks—had a reputation for unemployment, crime and drugs. But, it largely fell under the radar amid Belgium’s bureaucratic and decentralized governance systems.

Such vulnerable environments will become ever more volatile as the estimated 27,000-30,100 battle-hardened Jihadi fighters who are currently in Iraq and Syria start filtering back to their home countries.

Yet for the past 15 years we have let anger drive our counter-terrorism policy, with quick-fire military reprisals to satisfy the short-term illusion of security. As things stand now, efforts aimed at de-radicalization, together with counter-narrative and general community development policies closer to home have barely gathered steam.

The desire to vilify those who commit and associate themselves with terrorist acts is understandable.

But we must not let such emotions cloud our awareness of the very rational processes and environments that lead people—at home and abroad—toward extremism in the first place.