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FrontLines Year in Review: Apps for Afghanistan

This is part of our FrontLines Year in Review series. This originally appeared in FrontLines September/October 2012 issue.

With a recent explosion in mobile phones, USAID engages Afghanistan’s best and brightest to grow mobile money.

Just a decade ago, Afghans had to travel to Pakistan to make international calls. The landline phone infrastructure had completely fallen into disarray during the civil war, and there were no mobile phone operators. The first American diplomats and U.N. workers to return to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban carried backpacks full of costly satellite phones for the new Afghan emergency government.

But smart, early regulatory decisions by Afghan lawmakers, based on technical assistance from USAID and other donors, engendered the rapid growth of a profitable and competitive sector, pushing down airtime prices well within reach of normal Afghans. Today, Afghanistan is awash in mobile phones, with more than 18 million active subscriptions in a country of 28 million.

This explosion of mobile users has created a network that bridges the country’s formidable urban-rural divide while transcending gaps in physical infrastructure, low literacy rates and pervasive insecurity.

An Afghan youth uses his mobile phone to take pictures in Musa Qala. Photo credit: Dmitry Kostyukov, AFP

The near-ubiquity of mobile phone coverage has allowed Afghanistan to join the vanguard of countries experimenting with innovative new uses for the mobile channel, using the networks to extend services and information cheaply to populations lacking access through other means. Among the most promising is mobile money—the ability to safely store and transfer “e-money” via SMS, avoiding the expense and danger associated with moving cash, while extending the reach of basic financial services from the 5 percent of the population with accounts in brick-and-mortar banks to the 65 percent of Afghans who use mobile phones.

Already, m-money trials facilitated by the U.S. Government, such as paying government salaries by mobile instead of cash, are demonstrating startling benefits: In Wardak province, police deployed in unbanked communities report “raises” of 30 percent when paid via mobile; cash payments of salaries in Afghanistan are exceedingly vulnerable to corruption. Equally promising applications to extend and repay micro loans and pay household electricity bills are beginning to roll out, delivering dramatic increases in efficiency.

As the mobile network operators increasingly focus on scaling their mobile money products and agent networks, USAID is working in partnership with the private sector to aggregate demand and provide consumer education to Afghans, most of whom are unfamiliar with or mistrustful of the formal banking system. In one novel approach, the Agency is working with the Association of Mobile Money Operators of Afghanistan to harness the creativity and energy of Afghanistan’s best and brightest to develop mobile money applications to address pressing problems faced daily by Afghans.

An Afghan Avalanche of Ideas

The overwhelming response to an app design competition this year among Afghan university students illustrated just how compelling up-and-coming young Afghans find mobile money—more than 5,000 students across the country submitted ideas, many of which focused on how mobile money on how mobile money could improve the Afghan Government’s ability to provide basic services transparently and efficiently.

Others put forward ways in which mobile money could help empower individuals by giving them tools to manage their own finances, a particular boon for women, who often rely on male relatives to conduct financial transactions on their behalf.

Such competitions can trigger a network effect, drawing students into the design process and drawing in new mobile money users—and expanding the mobile technology sector.

Afghan officials say the enthusiasm generated by the contest and subsequent avalanche of ideas bodes well for future uptake of mobile money in Afghanistan given the country’s demographics. With two-thirds of Afghans age 25 years or younger, Afghanistan is truly a land of potential early adopters…[continued]

Read the rest of the article in FrontLines.

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Pounds of Prevention – Focus on Bangladesh

In this next installment of the USAID Pounds of Prevention series (PDF), we travel to Bangladesh. Disaster risk reduction activities have saved countless lives in Bangladesh. Above, villagers discuss priorities for disaster preparedness, including reconstructing roads affected by previous cyclones, protecting fresh water sources and improving home foundations. Photo by Robert Friedman, USAID.

Ending Human Trafficking is Within Our Reach

Chris Milligan serves as mission director to USAID Burma. Photo Credit: USAID

This post originally appeared on the Free the Slaves blog.

Editor’s note: The historic anti-slavery concern last weekend in Myanmar, also known as Burma, was made possible by a coalition of organizations, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). We invited USAID to reflect on what the concert meant for the modern abolition movement. Chris Milligan is USAID’s Mission Director in Burma.

What a year of historic firsts.  In April, Secretary Clinton re-established USAID’s mission in Burma, our first in 24 years.  In November, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit the country, and he and Secretary Hillary Clinton officially dedicated USAID’s mission.  And this past Sunday (December 16), in Burma’s first city of Rangoon, the first major international live-event was held in over half a century.

The event was Live in Myanmar, MTV EXIT’s 31st concert to counter trafficking in persons.  Held in Rangoon’s People’s Square, at the base of the country’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, over 50,000 people gathered to hear multi Grammy Award-winning singer songwriter Jason Mraz perform.  He was joined by top artists from Burma and Thailand, including Phyu Phyu Kyaw Thein and R Zarni, Chan Chan, Sai Sai, Lynn Lynn, Phyo Gyi and Chit Htu Wai, and Slot Machine.  The commitment and work by these local and regional artists was particularly moving.  All performed for enthusiastic fans, and all came with a common purpose: to raise awareness about human trafficking.

The United Nations estimates that at any one point there are 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, more than half of these victims are in the Asia Pacific region.  As President Obama said, “The fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time.”  And we know that raising awareness is key to that fight.  Mixing live music and critical messages, the concert organizers and participants shared in-country contact numbers for counter-trafficking police and NGOs, excerpts from two MTV EXIT documentary videos developed in Burma, and personal stories of individual Burmese who were trafficked in Southeast Asia.

MTV Exit's anti-slavery concert in Myanmar attracted more than 50,000 people. Photo Credit: MTV Exit / U.S. State Dept.

U.S. Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell and U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Counter Trafficking Luis CdeBaca both spoke resolutely to the crowd about the U.S. Government’s commitment to combat trafficking in persons globally, and the need for youth to be alert and be educated about trafficking.  USAID has been a dedicated supporter of the MTV EXIT campaign for six years, leveraging the power of music and entertainment as invaluable tools to educate young people about human trafficking.

Most exciting was the Government of Burma’s support and involvement in this effort from start to finish.  Despite the staggering size of crowd, MTV EXIT’s largest to date, the government ensured a safe event without ever losing the celebratory atmosphere of the concert or the seriousness of the issue.  Government representatives spoke passionately and urgently to their youth about personal protection and community awareness, and signed a pledge to work towards the end of human slavery in this generation.  Their determination and commitment gave me hope.

I know that ending human trafficking can feel daunting or at times, even impossible, but on Sunday night, looking out at the crowd, I was inspired that it is within reach.  We know traffickers use technology, like cell phones, and social networking sites to ensnare victims and, yet, there we were, using MTV’s global platform, which reaches 600 million people with lifesaving messages about awareness, protection and support.  As USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah remarked, “As we’ve seen, knowledge can lead to freedom, giving us all the power to end modern slavery.”

Learn more about USAID’s Counter-Trafficking in Persons Policy and Challenge Slavery, a Counter-Trafficking in Persons Campus Challenge that calls on university students globally to develop creative technology solutions to prevent trafficking, enable victims to escape from traffickers, and help survivors recover.

Taking Risks & Developing Partnerships with Burma

Nisha Biswal is USAID's assistant administrator for Asia. Photo Credit: USAID.

Last week, over 180 representatives from universities, non-governmental organizations and private businesses joined us in Washington to discuss “Opportunities for Higher Education Partnerships in Burma.” Another 140 people joined us via live webcast. The event aimed to share information with prospective applicants to USAID’s recently announced Higher Education Partnerships.

The current reforms underway in Burma, and this new opportunity for partnership, generated a buzz in the packed room that was palpable. The speakers themselves projected this enthusiasm, among them were USAID’s Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah; His Excellency Than Swe, Myanmar Ambassador to the United States; and Joseph Y. Yun, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Administrator Shah announces Higher Education Partnerships in Burma. Photo Credit: Pat Adams, USAID.

What’s notably different and exciting about this call for proposals is that concept papers, due January 31, 2013, must not only include a U.S. university but also a Burmese higher education institution and a U.S. business as part of the partnership. Our past experience shows us that these kinds of strategic partnerships plant the seed for long-term results that endure even after our own assistance has ended.

And we are focused on the long game — we’d rather take the time to do it right, and do it well, than do it first. That’s why we are focused on strengthening institutions, building capacity and meeting the needs of the people in a way that is efficient and respectful of their own priorities. Our efforts in Burma reflect new approaches that USAID is bringing to development initiatives. As Dr. Shah remarked, “Today’s launch reflects the new emphasis across our entire agency on innovative high impact and local partnerships that bring new thinking and creative solutions to some of the most challenging development problems we face together.”

His Excellency Than Swe, Myanmar Ambassador to the United States, addresses Higher Education Partners. Photo Credit: Pat Adams, USAID.

The Higher Education Partnerships do just that, recognizing first and foremost the extraordinary resilience, determination and optimism of the Burmese people. As I saw during my trips to Burma in March and November, there is a great desire among the people of Burma to engage with the world, and among Burmese universities to collaborate with their counterparts here in the United States. As Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joe Yun stated during the event, “Now is the time to take risks and develop partnerships with Burma.”

The announcement of the Higher Education Partnerships APS came on the heels of President Obama’s historic visit to Burma on November 19, 2012, which elevated Burma as a key partner in Asia through the launch of the U.S.-Burma Partnership for Democracy, Peace and Prosperity, a joint U.S.-Burma framework to lay the groundwork for a peaceful and prosperous future for Burma.

The Partnerships are one of many ways that USAID—and U.S. development assistance more broadly—will support the path of development and reform that the people of Burma are undertaking. As President Obama stated during his visit, “The United States wants to be a partner in helping this country, which used to be the rice bowl of Asia, to reestablish its capacity to feed its people and to care for its sick, and educate its children, and build its democratic institutions as you continue down the path of reform.”

Information about the Partnerships and full application details for this funding opportunity are listed at USAID-BURMA-SOL-486-13-000012 on www.grants.gov (search for keyword “Burma” under “Grant Search”). For more information about USAID’s efforts in Burma, please visit our website. A video of the December 12 session is also available online.

Follow Nisha Biswal on Twitter.

No Mountain Too High: Saving the Snow Leopards, Ecosystems and Communities of High Asia

Today is Wildlife Conservation Day, and USAID’s missions around the world are raising awareness of the interconnectedness between human and wildlife welfare in developing countries.

Here in Kyrgyzstan, we announced on Saturday the launch of a new four-year project focused on preserving the ecosystems of Asia’s mountainous regions, benefiting its people and environment. Entitled “Conservation and Adaptation in Asia’s High Mountain Landscapes and Communities,” the project will be implemented in close partnership with our partners: the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Snow Leopard Trust. It will operate not only in Kyrgyzstan but also in Bhutan, India, Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan, and build alliances across all countries with snow leopards.

Officials from 12 countries attended a three-day conference on the snow leopard in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on December 1-3, 2012. Photo Credit: USAID

The snow leopard is a focus of this project for three major reasons. First, these endangered animals face significant threats to their habitats in the context of a changing climate and increased human activities. Second, animals like the snow leopard have great popular appeal, drawing attention to the challenge of conservation and providing a rallying point to benefit entire ecosystems, including the humans who depend on these ecosystems for their livelihoods. Finally, snow leopards are indicative of the health and vitality of entire ecosystems across their range. They are an integral part of the ecosystems in which they live, and the well-being of countless other species and human communities depends on the health of those ecosystems.

The primary goal of the new USAID project is to stimulate greater understanding and action on the environment, by helping conserve this iconic and endangered species, as well as by connecting snow leopard conservation to a broader set of environmental, economic and social issues with consequences for Asia’s future sustainability, including local livelihoods, water and food security, and climate change adaptation. In Kyrgyzstan, the project will include a snow leopard population survey considering recent and predicted changes in key habitats, support to anti-poaching teams, and engagement in species conservation activities through conservation education and training with local communities.

It was not a coincidence that the project was announced in Kyrgyzstan. The President of the Kyrgyz Republic, Almaz Atambayev, and other senior Kyrgyz officials have shown great initiative in bringing this important topic to the international level, as demonstrated by the three-day conference on the snow leopard which ended on December 3, attended by representatives from 12 countries and NGOs from across the world. We hope this is just the beginning of our joint work with local and international partners on this challenging task to bring positive impact on both wildlife and the mountain communities of Asia.

Photo of the Week: “President Obama becomes the first US President to dedicate a USAID Mission”

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pose for a photo with USAID staff at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, Nov. 19, 2012. Participants include: Nisha Biswal, USAID Assistant Administrator for Asia Bureau; Chris Milligan, USAID Burma Mission Director; and Greg Beck, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator. Official White House Photo: Pete Souza

During his visit to Burma, President Barack Obama announced a joint US-Burma partnership to advance democratic reform, and lay the groundwork for a peaceful and prosperous future for Burma. The President also announced $170 million dollars over the next two years to support this effort.

The Partnership aims to strengthen democracy, human rights and rule of law; promote transparent governance; advance peace and reconciliation; meet humanitarian needs; and provide economic development that can improve the health and livelihoods of the people of Burma.

In line with the Partnership, the U.S. and Burma will affirm a joint statement of principles in support of the democratic transition and develop a joint action plan prioritizing key areas. Additionally, the Government of Burma has indicated its commitment to join the Open Government Partnership, a global effort to make governments more transparent, effective, and accountable; and announced a Joint Plan on Trafficking in Persons.

The US-Burma Partnership

Nisha Biswal serves as the assistant administrator for USAID Asia.

This post originally appeared on CSIS’s Asia Policy Blog.

On November 19, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma.  It was a historic visit, not just because it was inaugural but because it underscored the truly remarkable journey on which Burma has embarked.

During the visit, the President announced a joint US-Burma partnership to advance democratic reform, and lay the groundwork for a peaceful and prosperous future for Burma for generations to come. President Obama also pledged $170 million dollars over the next two years to support this critical effort.

The partnership will deepen the engagement with the people of Burma, their government, and civil society by strengthening democracy and human rights, promoting transparent governance and rule of law, and advancing peace and reconciliation.  As the President remarked during his speech at the University of Yangon, the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen.

While we work to accelerate reforms, we also know that improved health and expanded economic opportunities are key to advancing stability and sustaining democratic reforms, which is why we’ll also address urgent humanitarian needs, strengthen health systems, and support broad-based economic growth through agriculture-led development and improved nutrition.

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech at the University of Yangon in Burma. During his historic visit, Obama announced a joint US-Burma partnership to advance democratic reform. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State

In the weeks and months to come, the U.S. and Burma will affirm a joint statement of principles in support of the democratic transition and develop a joint action plan prioritizing key areas.  In addition to honoring the joint action plan, the Government of Burma has announced its intention to join the Open Government Partnership, a global effort to make governments more transparent, effective, and accountable; and to advance a Joint Plan on to combat trafficking in persons.

It’s truly a remarkable milestone during an already historic transition.  I’m proud to say that USAID will play a substantive role in advancing the goals of the partnership during this important time in the evolving relationship between the United States and Burma.  We are building new communities while strengthening existing partnerships, bringing together the excellence and expertise of government agencies, private sector, NGO community, and university networks to achieve transformational results in democracy, human rights, governance,peace and reconciliationfood security, and health.

Still, transition must come from within.  We are supporting country ownership and local institutions to ensure that all Burmese people play a vital role in their country’s development and the expansion of equal opportunities for their families and communities.  Founded on mutual accountability, this partnership will ensure that U.S. assistance is met by commensurate Government of Burma actions.

During the President’s visit, he and Secretary Clinton also dedicated the re-opening of USAID’s mission in Burma, a first time in the Agency’s history though not surprising by a President who has truly elevated the role development in advancing peace and prosperity around the world.  The re-establishment of USAID’s mission reaffirms the U.S. commitment to the people of Burma.  That commitment was reinforced when President Obama said to a rapt audience at the University of Yangon, “Something is happening in this country that cannot be reversed, and you will have in the United States of America a partner on that long journey.”

Nisha Biswal is on Twitter, follow her @NishaBiswal

America Extends a Hand to Burma

Chris Milligan serves as mission director to USAID Burma Photo Credit: USAID

Yesterday, the streets of Rangoon were lined with huge crowds of enthusiastic well-wishers, holding signs welcoming President Obama as his motorcade sped to the last stop – Rangoon University – for a major speech.  The excitement, building here since the trip was announced, was now electric.

Even just a few months ago, this visit was likely unimaginable to the people of Burma.  In the President’s speech to a spellbound audience at the University’s historic Convocation Hall, he said, “When I took office as President, I sent a message to those governments who ruled by fear:  We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist… so today, I have come to keep my promise, and extend the hand of friendship.”

It was also unimaginable to me that I’d be standing by a U.S. President as he dedicated a USAID mission, a first time in the Agency’s history.  It’s been over 50 years since the inaugural U.S.-Burma Economic Cooperation Agreement was signed.  In the decades that followed, our two countries have shared a long and, at times, tumultuous history.  Yet, President Obama began a new chapter when he became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma, highlighting the country’s historic shift to democracy and the partnership of the United States in this effort.

Burma is in the process of a remarkable transition, moving from military, authoritarian rule to parliamentary democracy; negotiating ceasefires after decades-long conflicts; and shifting to a market-oriented economy.  And, as President Obama said, this remarkable journey has only just begun.

Yet, what an incredible start.  As a Foreign Service Officer for 23 years, I can tell you that helping countries chart a more prosperous future is not always easy. We know there is hard work ahead, but yesterday we got a huge lift. That momentum will only strengthen the optimism and resilience of the Burmese people.  I’ve never been prouder than when the President said to those listening all across Burma, “America is with you every step of the way.”

Thai Students Win Mobile App Contest

A group of five first-year Thai engineering students won the USAID Asia Students with Solutions 2012 Mobile App Contest last week. The contest challenged Thai university students to create mobile applications (“apps”) to help solve development issues.

The winning group, Team Optimo from King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), received a cash award of 50,000 Thai baht (equivalent to $1,625) and tablet computers. The team designed an app called “FloodFinder” that provides real-time data on water levels by using a smart phone’s built-in capability for high-quality photos, GPS and 3G connection, to be available on the market by next April. They were inspired to create the app by the historic flooding that occurred in Thailand in 2011 “to help save people’s lives and improve the quality of life,” said Nuntipat Narkthong, of Team Optimo.

U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie A. Kenney, USAID Regional Development Mission for Asia Director Michael Yates, and KMUTT Vice President Assistant Professor Bundit Thipakorn posed with the Students with Solutions 2012 winner, Team Optimo, and members of six finalist teams after the final presentations at Hitech Digital Live Studio, Digital Gateway, Siam Square. Photo credit: Jakkapong Mangmool

Team Vana, consisting of four computer engineering students from KMUTT, won the contest’s popular vote with more than 2,900 “likes” for its deforestation app called “A-Eye” on Facebook, which available on the market next year. The app is designed to capture details of illegal logging and report the information to park officials, and to provide helpful information to park tourists.

Organized by USAID Asia, the Students with Solutions 2012 Mobile App Design Contest launched in June and focused on encouraging university students to think of creative ways to address disaster resilience and response, deforestation and forest degradation, and human trafficking. Six teams were chosen from the original applicants for the final round of the contest. U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Kristie A. Kenney announced the top winning teams at the final event, based on a decision by an expert panel of judges.

“The Students with Solutions contest looks to Thailand’s brightest to develop answers to their country’s most pressing development challenges,” Kenney said at the event. “Realizing that mobile phones have transformed our lives, apps like these can provide easy ways to share information and create greater access to services.”

Read about the Students for Solutions 2012 Mobile App Design Contest from one of Thailand’s online newspapers.

The White House (Blog): Supporting Human Rights in Burma

This post originally appeared on The White House Blog.

Yesterday’s announcement that President Obama will become the first U.S. President to visit Burma marks an historic step in the United States’ engagement with Burma. In the past year, since President Obama first noted “flickers of progress” in Burma – and since Secretary Clinton became the most senior U.S. official to visit since 1955 – we have seen continued progress on the road to democracy. Several opposition political parties have been permitted to register legally for the first time and their members – including Aung San Suu Kyi – have been elected to parliament. Restrictions on the press have been eased. Legislation has been enacted to expand the rights of workers to form labor unions, and to outlaw forced labor. The government has signed an action plan aimed at ridding its army of child soldiers; it has pledged to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to help ensure that Burma’s natural wealth is not squandered to corruption, and it has announced fragile ceasefires in several longstanding ethnic conflicts.

Seeing these signs of progress, we have responded in kind, with specific steps to recognize the government’s efforts and encourage further reform. We have eased sanctions, appointed our first ambassador in 22 years, and opened a USAID Mission. At the same time, we have also updated sanctions authorities that allow us to target those who interfere with the peace process or the transition to democracy, and we created a ground-breaking framework for responsible investment from the United States that encourages transparency and oversight.

We are clear-eyed about the challenges that Burma faces. The peril faced by the stateless Rohingya population in Rakhine State is particularly urgent, and we have joined the international community in expressing deep concern about recent violence that has left hundreds dead, displaced over 110,000, and destroyed thousands of homes. There is much work to be done to foster peace and reconciliation in other ethnic conflicts, develop the justice sector, and cultivate the free press and robust civil society that are the checks and balances needed in any stable democracy. But we also see an historic opportunity both to help Burma lock in the progress that it has made so far — so that it becomes irreversible — and to meet the many challenges in front of it. In May 2011, as the Arab Spring took hold, the President noted that America’s interests are served when ordinary people are empowered to chart their own political and economic futures. And to governments, the President made a promise: if you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States.

Last month, as part of our effort to fulfill that promise, the Obama administration held the first-ever official bilateral dialogue on human rights with the Government of Burma. Led by Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor, the purpose was to initiate a new channel between our two countries to discuss challenges ahead – a high-level exchange on urgent and delicate issues that would have been unthinkable a year ago. Our delegation included not only Posner, Ambassador Derek Mitchell, and other State Department officials, but also senior officials from the White House, the Vice President’s office, USAID, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense, including both civilian officials and uniformed military. The delegation included experts on labor rights and economic development, rule of law and political reform, ethnic conflict and reconciliation, land-mine removal and criminal justice. Our hosts included senior advisors to President Thein Sein and ministers and senior officials from across the Burmese government and military. Aung San Suu Kyi attended in her capacity as a member of parliament and the chair of a new legislative committee on the rule of law.

Before the official dialogue began, the U.S. delegation spent three days in Rangoon meeting with former political prisoners, ethnic minority leaders, labor advocates, LGBT organizations (who said that this was the first time any government had ever invited them to meet together), and other members of Burma’s nascent civil society. When we sat down for our official dialogue in Naypyidaw, we were able to convey the concerns raised in these meetings to our counterparts, and also stress the importance of their building an inclusive reform dialogue that will seek input from Burmese civil society.

The U.S. government engages with many countries around the world in official dialogues on human rights. While these discussions are often a useful forum for diplomacy, it is fair to say that these conversations can sometimes be stilted, characterized by predictable presentations rather than a spontaneous back-and-forth in which uncertainty can be expressed. The U.S.-Burma dialogue was unusually high-energy and candid.

We both recognized the need to empower reformers in and out of government, protect against backsliding, and ensure the broader Burmese public feels the changes afoot. One of the most challenging aspects of reform is enlisting the country’s military, which governed the country through authoritarian rule for five decades. U.S. Army Lieutenant General Francis Wiercinski drew on his own experiences to make a powerful case to senior officials from the Burmese Defense Ministry that national security is helped rather than hindered by transparency and independent monitoring, and by compliance with international humanitarian law and human rights law. The discussions, which emphasized areas where commitments to reform are necessary – including on child soldiers, forced labor, and in conflict areas – underscored that the gradual process of normalizing our military-to-military relationship will hinge on progress on human rights.

Many of the issues that we discussed in detail will likely feature in the President’s upcoming trip to Burma. These included:

  • Prisoners of conscience. The release of more than 700 political prisoners in the last year has been unprecedented. But as Secretary Clinton has made clear, for the United States, even one prisoner of conscience is too many, and the State Department has passed along a list of those we are concerned remain imprisoned. In addition, as one ex-prisoner put it, “we have been released, but we are not free.” The released prisoners have a huge amount to offer a democratic Burma, but, as we noted, the government will need to lift outstanding travel and other restrictions in order for them to participate fully in society.
  • Political reforms. Reforms have begun to change the political landscape, particularly as parliament has become more inclusive, and as representatives are increasingly answerable to their constituents. But efforts to build civil society, make government ministries responsive to the public, and create a more inclusive political process have just begun. In particular, the central government needs to tackle the challenge of ensuring that any reforms that are made by the parliament and central government are felt at the local level and especially in Burma’s border areas where the majority of the country’s ethnic minorities reside.
  • Rule of law. The parliament and the executive branch have tackled part of an ambitious agenda for remaking Burma’s law and legal institutions. But the judicial branch remains the least developed of Burma’s political institutions. Judicial reform, repealing outdated and restrictive laws, educating citizens of their rights, creating a vibrant civil society to protect those rights, and remaking the legal system and the legal profession all are required to lay the foundation of rule of law in Burma, and all have a long way to go.
  • Peace and reconciliation. The challenge of ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence – including in Shan State, Kachin State, and Rakhine State – remains an area of deep and ongoing concern. If left unaddressed, it will undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability, and lasting peace. Serious human rights abuses against civilians in several regions continue, including against women and children. Humanitarian access to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons remains a serious challenge and on-going crisis. The government and the ethnic nationalities need to work together urgently to find a path to lasting peace that addresses minority rights, deals with differences through dialogue not violence, heals the wounds of the past, and carries reforms forward. The situation in Rakhine State and the recent violence against the Rohingya and other Muslims last week only underscores the critical urgency of ensuring the safety and security of all individuals in the area, investigating all reports of violence and bringing those responsible to justice, according citizenship and full rights to the Rohingya, and bringing about economic opportunity for all local populations.

Ultimately, Burma’s reforms will succeed or fail based on the efforts of the Burmese people themselves. President Obama’s policy approach has been to support reform and those championing it – an investment in Burma’s future that the President will personally reinforce later this month in Rangoon. Behind this investment is a commitment to helping the Burmese people see the promise that lasting reform holds for their country. As they take charge of their destiny, the American people stand ready to help.

Samantha Power is the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the National Security Council

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