Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Missing Pieces: Reform in Burma, the Ibrahim Prize, and More

by Isobel Coleman
October 14, 2011

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar's democratic opposition, smiles to supporters after the opening ceremony of the Aungsan Jar-mon Library at Thanatpin township near Bago, Myanmar (Burma), August 14, 2011 (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters).

Charles Landow highlights developments in Africa, Asia, and Europe in this week’s edition of Missing Pieces. Enjoy!

  • Reform in Burma? Is Burma, a bottom-dweller in such measures as Freedom in the World, the Economist Democracy Index, and the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, finally opening up? That is the question after a series of moves by the Burmese regime. These include the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest last year, followed by her meeting with President Thein Sein in August; the suspension of a dam project jointly developed with China, stunning Beijing; and the release of some 200 political prisoners this week. CFR’s Elliott Abrams is upbeat on his blog. CFR’s Josh Kurlantzick, on the Asia Unbound blog, says it might be time to reevaluate his normally skeptical view of Burma’s reforms. And most encouraging of all, Suu Kyi called herself “cautiously optimistic” in a video appearance at last month’s Clinton Global Initiative. The recording of the session is well worth watching.
  • The Ibrahim Announcements: The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, launched by the Sudanese-born telecoms billionaire in 2006, announced this week that it would award its Ibrahim Prize to Pedro Verona Pires, the recently retired president of Cape Verde. The prize, worth more than $5 million, can go to African leaders who govern effectively and step down in accordance with their country’s constitution. The prize committee had not found a suitable laureate since 2008. The foundation also released its 2011 Ibrahim Index, which assesses African countries on their governance. Mauritius took the top spot, with Somalia coming in last. CFR’s John Campbell offers his perspective on the Ibrahim prize and index on his blog. And for more on the man behind these initiatives, see an illuminating profile of Ibrahim from the New Yorker last March.
  • China’s Economic Model: David Barboza has an engrossing piece in last Sunday’s New York Times on the human consequences of China’s state capitalist model, “an economic system that favors state-run banks and companies over wage earners.” He profiles a couple from Jilin who save much of their income in state banks. The interest rates are lower than inflation, but average Chinese have few other places to park their cash. Banks use such savings to give low-interest loans to favored corporations, propelling vast investments in real estate, export industries, and the like. This might seem good. But it saps consumers’ spending power, hindering China’s necessary transition to an economy based on domestic demand as well as exports. A blog post from CFR’s Evan Feigenbaum highlights a report from the Eurasia Group on this issue–what it calls “China’s Great Rebalancing Act.”
  • Ukraine’s Controversial Prosecution: A court in Kiev on Tuesday sentenced Yulia Tymoshenko, a former Ukrainian prime minister, to seven years in prison. She was charged with exceeding her authority in negotiating a natural gas deal with Russia in 2009. Many foreign observers view the conviction as a rollback of Ukraine’s young democracy and “an attempt by President Viktor Yanukovich to sideline his biggest political foe,” as the Financial Times reports. European officials suggested the case could derail Ukraine’s integration with the EU. Ukraine’s parliament could vacate Tymoshenko’s conviction as soon as next week by decriminalizing the relevant law, which would ostensibly salvage Ukraine’s ties with the West. Questions about democracy and the rule of law, however, would surely linger.
  • Liberia’s Election: A storyline is emerging from Liberia’s presidential election last Tuesday. An incumbent with a sterling international reputation faces discontent at home, forcing her into a runoff in which her fortunes could depend on a notorious former warlord. The incumbent is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a winner of last week’s Nobel Peace Prize (see Isobel Coleman’s take on the award here and here). As these reports from al Jazeera and the Los Angeles Times explain, Sirleaf’s re-election is no cinch because of intense poverty, unemployment, and corruption, as well as her long-ago ties to former president Charles Taylor. In partial results released yesterday, Sirleaf holds 44.5 percent against 26.5 percent for her main rival, longtime government and UN official Winston Tubman. But if neither gains a majority, they will move to a runoff in which the third-place candidate, warlord-turned-senator Prince Johnson, will be well-placed to influence the outcome.

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