The depraved slaughter of civilians in Syria, which began with sniper fire on peaceful demonstrators and later degenerated into bombings of residential areas and execution-style killings of women and children, masks a darker truth. While the violence of the current crackdown distinguishes Syria today, it emerges from decades of brutal dictatorship, and equally brutal dictatorships are alive and well across the globe. They tend to get noticed only when particularly gross abuses take place or they escape attention almost entirely. For close to one-fourth of the world’s population, intense repression has become routine.
During our recent trip to Burma, most of the prodemocracy and human rights activists with whom we met expressed their appreciation for the role that sanctions by the United States and other democratic powers had played in bringing about the modest but potentially significant reforms we are now seeing in the country. They acknowledged that while trade restrictions may have made life harder for ordinary people, particularly those working in the garment and manufacturing sectors, the leverage gained as a result of the sanctions was absolutely vital in catalyzing political will among military leaders to initiate reforms.
Burma’s parliamentary by-elections on Sunday were seen as a make or break moment for the reform process that has taken place over the last two years. The country, long ruled by one of the world most repressive authoritarian regimes, inaugurated a new parliament and a nominally civilian government in early 2011, though both are still dominated by the military and its allies. The authorities have since taken a series of other steps, such as the release of some political prisoners that were designed to improve relations with democratic powers including the United States. The international community in turn has sought to engage the new leadership and encourage further reforms.
Freedom House congratulates Freedom Award winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD) for winning 43 of 44 parliamentary seats in Burma’s historic April 1 election. The contest marks a key moment in the government’s recent moves towards liberalization.
Lauren Galacia manages the Asia program. Prior to joining Freedom House, she oversaw the development and implementation of citizen engagement programs throughout Asia and Eurasia, with a focus on Thailand and Burma.
A majority of Americans see democracy in the U.S. as weak and getting weaker, according to a national survey released by The Democracy Project, a joint initiative of Freedom House, the George W. Bush Institute, and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
Sudan, North Korea and Uzbekistan are prominent among the most repressive regimes in the world, according to a report released by Freedom House. The study, “The Worst of the Worst: The World's Most Repressive Societies 2007,” named seventeen countries with the worst records for political rights and civil liberties, and pointed to thirteen countries which have been on the list for five years or more.