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Egypt in transition

President-elect Mohammed Morsi, shakes hands with an Egyptian police general in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, June 26, 2012. Photo: AP Photo/Middle East News Agency, HO

This past Sunday, Egyptian election officials declared Mohammed Morsi Egypt’s first freely elected president in the country’s history. Although it is unclear what authority he will have, his win is considered a huge victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. The 84-year-old Islamist group was outlawed under Hosni Mubarak but formed its own political party after his fall last year. They captured 47 percent of the parliament late last year. However, days before the presidential run-off election, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved the parliament and reinstated their authority to operate unchallenged.
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During Clinton’s historic visit to Burma, ‘flickers of progress’ pave the way for an end to isolation

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi have dinner at the US Chief of Mission Residence in Rangoon, Myanmar, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool

Burma, the long-ignored pariah state of Southeast Asia, seems to be in the beginning stages of turning over a new leaf. After four decades of sanctions and terse diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a historic visit to the Burma this week and announced that the U.S. would be loosening its blockade on aid to the country.

Before the visit, President Obama declared that Burma was showing “flickers of progress” in recent months, indicating the potential to “forge a new relationship” with the state. Clinton’s arrival marks the first U.S. visit from high-level official to the country since the 1950s, before Burma underwent a military takeover followed by decades of authoritarianism, repression and frequent skirmishes between the military and various ethnic minority groups on the nation’s border. Clinton’s agenda included a meeting with President Thein Sein, formerly the leader of the nation’s military junta, as well as a meeting with famed democratic leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Clinton’s visit to Burma is one part of President Obama’s recently announced shift in foreign policy to focus on the Asian-Pacific, which analysts have noted is an effort to engage seriously with China, the region’s rising powerhouse. Although Burma’s decades of human rights and economic repression have earned its general status as an outcast in the Southeast Asian region, it retains crucial access to valuable resources and has retained strong ties with China. This warm relationship has allowed Burma to stay somewhat economically afloat despite sanctions from Western nations — although the dearth in foreign investments has rendered a high poverty rate in the country and prevented Burma from adopting many modern technologies, evoking a “time warp” effect for its few visitors.

During Clinton’s visit with Thein Sein, she reviewed many of the concerns the United States has with Burma’s policies: Burma’s long list of political prisoners, its heavy atmosphere of censorship on speech and the press, and its inability to curb unrest among ethnic minority groups, many of which have separatist goals.

But indeed, it seems that “flickers of progress” have been evident in the pariah state. After four decades of iron-fisted rule by the country’s military junta, the nation passed a military-drafted constitution and officially transitioned to a civilian-led government in 2010, although election observers criticized the process for being rife with corruption and fraud. However, Burma’s president, Thein Sein, is widely credited as reformist that is open to engaging with Aung San Suu Kyi. The democracy leader herself has stated that she trusts him, although that same trust might not necessarily be extended to the rest of the government.  Moreover, the new civilian government has permitted Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party to run for office in the next national election, years after Aung San Suu Kyi’s 1990 landslide electoral win was voided by the military junta in power.

GlobalPost’s three-part series on Burma’s internal changes also points out that although censorship and government intimidation remain significant threats, the Orwellian atmosphere has thawed in recent months. Whereas the long-ruling military junta often responded to signs of dissent with aggressive crackdowns and heavy surveillance, some previously taboo topics are now allowed to be discussed more openly, and the government has engaged with dissidents through negotiation rather than physical attacks.

Other countries within Southeast Asia have taken note of Burma’s progress as well. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed this year to allow Burma to chair its 2014 summit. In 2006, the last time Burma was handed the summit chairmanship, the country decided to forego  it in part due to the impending boycott of the meeting by Western nations.

Clinton expressed recognition of all these small reforms during her visit with Thein Sein, and indicated that if the country continues on the course, further engagement with and aid from the United States would be possible. The announced changes to aid are fairly modest; the United States will still refrain from loaning money to the country directly, but it will allow the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program to issue loans and financial aid. Still, Clinton’s visit heralds the potential for the historically icy relationship between the two countries to begin thawing, which may mark a crucial turning point that finally lifts Burma out of its long period of isolation.

As the military clings to power, can democracy thrive in Egypt?

Egyptian Army soldiers stand guard as voters wait outside a polling station on the first day of parliamentary elections in Luxor, Egypt. (AP Photo)

Egyptians went to the polls in surprisingly large numbers Monday for the country’s first parliamentary vote since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. The long lines and wide participation offered fresh glimpses of hope amid an otherwise turbulent post-revolution period, as Egypt’s powerful military clings to power.

The question of whether Egypt’s military would eventually cede power to a civilian government loomed over the vote, following weeks of renewed clashes in which peaceful protests have been dispersed, bloggers and journalists have been arrested and dozens of civilians killed. Even as the elections offered new cause for optimism, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the military of using many of the same iron-fisted tactics as the Mubarak government to stifle freedom of speech and assembly.

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Obama stresses Asia-Pacific’s importance as he announces increased military presence in Australia

President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard during a visit to Royal Australian Air Force Base in Darwin, Australia, Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

As the U.S. reduces its military presence in the Middle East, it is sharpening its focus on the Asia-Pacific – a major shift that will shape the U.S.’s foreign policy agenda in the coming years. President Obama made this much clear during his visit to Australia this week with his announcement that the U.S. would deploy 2,500 troops to the country by 2016 – which has put China in an uncomfortable position.

“With most of the world’s nuclear powers and some half of humanity, Asia will largely define whether the century ahead will be marked by conflict or cooperation, needless suffering or human progress,” Obama said in a speech to Canberra’s Parliament Thursday in Australia.

While the President affirmed a continuation of the U.S.’s strong alliance with Australia, he offered careful words over the future of the U.S.-Sino relationship, indicating that while the U.S. welcomes “the rise of a peaceful and prosperous China,” it would keep a watchful eye on China as the region’s dominant power.

 “We’ll seek more opportunities for cooperation with Beijing, including greater communication between our militaries to promote understanding and avoid miscalculation,” President Obama said. “We will do this, even as continue to speak candidly with Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.”

Plans to strengthen American military presence in the region have perturbed China, whose increasing strength has already been reshaping the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. U.S. troops remain stationed at military bases in Japan –a highly contentious subject for many Japanese citizens – and South Korea, and an added military presence in Australia has already evoked fears of “encirclement” in Beijing.

Although the Chinese government has not expressed a strong reaction to Obama’s decision publicly, there are several indications of dismay.  An editorial in the Global Times, a Beijing-based newspaper owned by the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, declared, “The U.S. is carrying out smart power diplomacy that takes China as its target in Asia. Stopping it is not realistic, but it is equally unrealistic to expect China to stand idly by and indulge Asian countries as they join the U.S. alliance to guard against China one by one.”

China’s economic and military prowess has made it a formidable player in regional politics, notably in the currently brewing territorial disputes over access to the South China Sea. China has laid to claim to vast areas of the resource-rich South China Sea, but several others – Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – have also made sovereignty claims. The region’s inability to resolve this question of sovereignty has resulted in naval flare-ups in recent months, despite the U.S. urging all parties to seek a peaceful resolution.  

In his speech, President Obama also emphasized that the current debate over cutting the Pentagon’s budget would not have an effect on the U.S.’s plans to expand its presence in the region. “Reductions in U.S. defense spending will not – I repeat, will not – come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

International community ratchets up pressure on Syria. Is intervention the next step?

Pro-regime demonstrators gathered in Damascus on Sunday to protest the Arab League's vote to suspend Syria over its bloody crackdown on the country's eight-month-old uprising. Photo: AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi

In one of the most surprising developments of Syria’s 8-month-old uprising, King Abdullah of Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, became the first Arab leader Monday to publicly call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Jordan has itself experienced murmurs of political discontent in recent months, and King Abdullah’s remarks, in an interview with the BBC, were perhaps the strongest indication yet that the protests roiling the Arab world have shaken the region’s leaders.

King Abdullah’s remarks come just days after the notoriously fractious Arab League came together in a rare, nearly unanimous vote over the weekend to suspend Syria’s membership in the body, after the Assad regime was found to have blatantly violated an October ceasefire agreement. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, released a report documenting systematic attacks on civilians and suggesting that the Assad regime should be investigated for crimes against humanity.

The developments have ratcheted up the international pressure on the Syrian government, which has killed more than 3,500 people in a bloody, protracted crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. The Arab League said it planned to impose political and economic sanctions on the Syrian government in its harshest rebuke yet, joining Western nations such as the United States and United Kingdom in calling for the violence to stop.

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What to do about Syria? The brutality continues, even as the world spotlight fades

Cel phone photo of Syrian anti-regime protesters at a rally in al-Assy square in Hama last July. Photo: AP/Shaam News Network

Remember Syria?

Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have all had their turns in the international spotlight, and their leaders are now moving forward, however precariously, with plans to build democratic institutions and establish the rule of law. But in Syria, even as the spiral of violence has worsened, the crimes of the Assad regime have faded from the headlines, and from the dossiers of Western officials.

Maria McFarland of Human Rights Watch wrote in testimony submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that more than 3,500 people have been killed in the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on protests in cities like Homs and Hama. Snipers have targeted civilians from rooftops, soldiers have sprayed bullets indiscriminately into funeral processions, and tens of thousands of civilians have been jailed, tortured or simply vanished.

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Iran may be much closer to nuclear weapons than we thought. What happens next?

Iran has begun its own production of carbon fiber, a material under U.N. embargo because of its potential use in the country's nuclear program. Photo: AP Photo/ISNA, Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh

Is Iran closer to nuclear weapons than we think?

That’s the gist of a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to news reports. The Guardian, a British newspaper, wrote last week that the report from the international nuclear watchdog was expected to reveal new evidence that the Iranian nuclear weapons program was further along than previously thought. And this week, The Washington Post has added new details to those reports, alleging that Iran received assistance from foreign scientists and may have been hiding the money behind its rogue uranium enrichment program in civilian institutions.

Much remains unknown about the intelligence contained in the IAEA’s assessment, but the report is almost certain to add to the crisis atmosphere surrounding the issue of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, especially as it relates to Israel. Israelis, already unnerved by the political upheaval roiling the Arab world, have been furiously debating the possibility of a missile strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli public remains sharply divided over the wisdom of such an attack. But most Israelis seem to agree that a strike on Iran would plunge Israel into war with Hamas in Gaza and possibly Hezbollah in Lebanon, adding a lit match to the tinderbox that is the Middle East.

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U.S. support against the LRA spotlights group’s brutal history

In a seemingly surprise move last week, President Obama announced that he would be sending 100 U.S. combat forces to Uganda and parts of Central Africa. The mission: to assist in the fight against the Lord’s Resistance Army and the takedown of its leader, Joseph Kony.

A member of the Sudan’s People Liberation Army. Photo: AP Photo/Glenna Gordon

Not unexpectedly, the announcement elicited criticism from some wary of expanding America’s involvement with foreign conflicts, drawing on the nation’s long sense of war fatigue. Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann said that engaging American troops in a fourth simultaneous conflict was “historic” (though Politifact notes that having troops engaged in four simultaneous conflicts has actually been the norm since 1993). Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh also made headlines last week when he accused Obama of “attacking Christians.” Senator John McCain cautioned: “I worry about with the best of intentions we somehow get engaged in a commitment that we can’t get out of, that’s happened before in our history.”

But by and large, human rights organizations have applauded the announcement, taking into consideration the relatively small number of troops dedicated to the mission and President Obama’s reassurance that that the U.S. forces “will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self defense.” Human Rights Watch declared that “arresting Kony and other senior LRA leaders would reaffirm that those who commit mass atrocities will face justice. It will also help end the scourge of one of the most brutal rebel groups in Africa.”

In the meantime, the move puts a renewed spotlight on the Lord’s Resistance Army, the decades-long war that has targeted African civilians and the brutal tactics of the group’s leader, Joseph Kony.

The LRA, a fanatical rebel group created in 1987, has been fighting the Ugandan government to establish a theocracy based on the biblical Ten Commandments. In the long conflict that has pervaded central Africa, the LRA has notoriously engaged in a range of human rights abuses, including kidnappings, mutilations, rape, killing and the use of child soldiers. An estimated 30,000 people have died at the hands of the LRA. Kony has proclaimed himself to be a “spokesperson of God,” and in 2005 was indicted with an official warrant for arrest by the International Criminal Court. In recent years, the LRA has diminished in size, though it has spread its operations outside of Uganda, occupying the nebulous border region between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

The LRA’s practice of kidnapping children and forcing them to kill others has been widely documented. The 2003 documentary film “Invisible Children” focuses heavily on the LRA’s recruitment of child soldiers and has hosted screenings at churches and college campuses nationwide for the past several years. A 2010 report by Human Rights Watch documents several testimonies of former LRA child soldiers. One 11-year-old boy who escaped the LRA after having been kidnapped described his experience:

After they captured me, they told me they wanted me to be a soldier. When I protested and told them that I was too young, they stabbed me under my eyes with a bayonet. Then they took me to their camp. While I was there, they gave military training to all the children. We were in teams, and each team had to come in at certain times for training, and to kill people. They treated their victims like animals and told us, “When you kill someone, it’s like killing an animal.

Combating the LRA has been a priority for many members of the federal government, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who have both made public remarks about the LRA. In February 2010, Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, saying, “I have been following the Lord’s Resistance Army for more than 15 years. I just don’t understand why we cannot end this scourge.”

The U.S. provided support to the Ugandan, Congolese and southern Sudanese armies to launch Operation Lightning Thunder, a ground offensive against the LRA. However, the mission failed to bring down Kony, and the LRA intensified its campaign of violence against civilians.

Last year, the Senate unanimously passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, which affirmed the U.S.’s commitment to help remove Kony from power and eliminate the threat of the LRA in the region. President Obama signed the Act in March 2010.

Dramatic video claims to show Moammar Gadhafi in final moments before death in Libya

Moammar Gadhafi, the quixotic Libyan dictator who for four decades wielded an iron grip over an oil-rich country largely sealed off from the rest of the world, was said to have been killed Thursday by leaders of the rebel movement. Gadhafi was found hiding in a storm drain in his hometown of Surt, which had in recent weeks become one of the last remaining strongholds of the pro-Gadhafi forces, a bloody postscript to a protracted battle for control of the country.

Or, as Iyad El-Baghadadi, a Dubai-based blogger who has been chronicling the Libyan campaign, wrote in a Twitter post after word of Gadhafi’s death spread, “Gadhafi called his people rats and he ended up captured in a sewer.”

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