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DEMOCRACY
U.S. report: Myanmar's reforms are failing
by Staff Writers
Yangon, Myanmar (UPI) May 3, 2013


Venezuela opposition files court challenge to Maduro
Caracas, Venezuela (UPI) May 3, 2013 - Venezuela's emboldened opposition coalition filed a Supreme Court challenge to new President Nicolas Maduro in a hardening of the conflict between the late Hugo Chavez's protege and an alliance of everyone else aligned against the succession.

Last month Maduro won a slim majority to continue the Bolivarian revolution legacy of Chavez, a populist firebrand who died of cancer in March.

Critics questioned the election, characterized widely as a succession orchestrated by Chavez, but were thwarted when the caretaker government under Maduro secured constitutional sanction and overall approval of the transition.

The opposition is adamant the election is invalid and has gone on to accuse Maduro aides of resorting to bribery, fraud and violence to secure power. It wants a new election for a proper transition from Chavez to a new president.

The critics further point out that Maduro's 1.5 percent scrape-through majority indicates the government's various ploys didn't work and that Venezuelans want radical change after 14 years of rule by mercurial rule by Chavez.

Oil-rich Venezuela is riven by industrial dislocation, social unrest and one of the world's worst homicide records.

Leading opposition challenger Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez by 11 percentage points in last October's election and to Maduro by 1.5 percent in April, called Maduro's election a fraud and cited multiple irregularities in the way he was chosen.

Capriles argued in the court challenge that "Chavezism" committed "electoral corruption, abuse of power and violent acts," prior, during and after the presidential election, El Universal newspaper reported on its website.

Capriles said the National Electoral Council "failed to prevent such wrongdoings."

The challenge seeks annulment of the vote and calls for a new election to choose the successor of Chavez.

The opposition's court action isn't assured of victory. The Venezuelan judiciary, including the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, is dominated by Chavez loyalists who are gradually transferring their allegiance to Maduro.

Analysts said the Supreme Court legal battle would likely be noisier than opposition protests over the outcome of the April snap election.

The legal challenge would also be a test for Maduro, who has indicated he wants to be a pragmatist and an efficient administrator of the country, a veiled contrast with the haphazard style of Chavez.

Support for the Chavez legacy remains strong and widespread among Venezuela's native population, socialist-backed middle class that benefited from Chavez's rule and the privileged Bolivarian aristocracy and government elite.

Criticism of inefficiencies that caused economic dislocation and discontent under Chavez is also palpable but muted.

Chavez lost popular approval on several occasions since coming to power in 1999 due to economic and social chaos caused by electricity shortages and blackouts, a wave of poorly managed nationalizations and poor management of oil revenues.

Opposition sources said the court challenge was a necessary step before the dispute is taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an institution shunned by Chavez and held in low esteem by Caracas.

Venezuela under Maduro continues to be suspicious of organizations with U.S. links. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is an offshoot of the Organization of America States, which has headquarters in Washington.

Meanwhile, Maduro has indicated he has no intention of showing leniency toward detractors. Post-election protests and violence has already cost nine lives. Dozens more of protesters and police have been injured in riots since the April vote.

A U.S. government commission recommended that Myanmar remains on a U.S. State Department blacklist of 15 governments responsible for "systematic" violations of freedom of religion.

In its annual report, the Commission on International Religious Freedoms, a bipartisan advisory board appointed by the president and Congress, said the Myanmar government continues to persecute and discriminate Muslim groups.

The government's actions are despite its favorable moves toward establishing a more open and democratic society since the ending of more nearly 50 years of military rule with relatively free national elections in 2011.

"Ongoing and important political reforms in Burma (the former name of Myanmar) have yet to improve significantly the situation for freedom of religion and belief," the commission said.

The commission also questioned the official Myanmar government estimate of 192 people killed during sectarian violence in Arakan -- Rakhine -- state, saying the number was likely at least five times that.

In its 371-page report the commission said the secretary of State should "re-designate" eight countries as Countries of Particular Concern: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

The commission defines CPC states as "governments that have engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom."

Particularly severe means there is evidence of the government engaging in "systematic, ongoing and egregious" violations including torture, prolonged detention without charge, disappearances, or other denials of the right to life, liberty and personal security.

The U.S. government should maintain existing sanctions and consider re-imposing lifted sanctions against Myanmar until the government meets international benchmarks for religious freedom, the commission said.

Of special concern is the situation of Christian civilians during military interventions in Kachin state and Muslims in Rakhine, the commission said.

The 800,000 Muslim Rohingya living as a minority Rakhine have been targeted by mobs of local Buddhist ethnic Arakanese in the past year.

More than 100,000 Rohingya have been displaced to security camps to live in dire conditions. Also, more than 1,000 have been killed in violence against Royhinga, many more than the government's estimate of around 190.

"Rohingya Muslims, who are denied Myanmarese citizenship, experience widespread discrimination, strict controls over their religious activities and ceremonies and societal violence that is often incited by Buddhist monks and carried out with impunity by mobs and local militias, including police," the commission said.

The U.S. report comes as a Myanmar government commission investigating violence in Rakhine recommended increasing government security, a report by the independent online newspaper Irrawaddy said.

The Myanmar government commission has recommended upholding the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law that excludes Rohingya from citizenship, essentially making them stateless, the Irrawaddy report said.

The U.S. commission's report is another blow for the Myanmar government of former military dictator President Thein Sein as he seeks international aid, foreign investment and the lifting of economic sanctions.

Last month the BBC broadcast what it claimed was a video of communal violence shot by Myanmar police and in which Buddhists killed at least two people.

Police were greatly outnumbered and stood back as Buddhist mobs, including monks, smashed and ransacked shops apparently owned by Muslims, the video's voice-over said.

The violence and beatings took place March 20-21 in the central Myanmar town of Meiktila.

Writers press China on media freedom
New York (AFP) May 3, 2013 - Some 200 leading writers appealed Friday to China to respect freedom of expression and free jailed authors, describing the country's strict censorship as a stain on a vibrant culture.

In an open letter issued on International Press Freedom Day, the writers celebrated the growing recognition of China's artists, pointing to the Nobel Prize for Literature won last year by Mo Yan.

"We cannot, however, listen to China's great and emerging creative voices without hearing the silence of those whose voices are forcibly restrained," they wrote.

"We cannot appreciate the accomplishments of Chinese creators across disciplines without thinking of the works we are not able to enjoy because of censorship in the arts, in the press and on the Internet -- or of the many other works that cannot be imagined or created because of these constraints."

They appealed for China to release more than 40 writers or journalists from prison, including Liu Xiaobo, the author of a bold petition for democratic reform who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.

The 195 signatories included Nobel laureates J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, Tomas Transtromer and Mario Vargas Llosa. The letter was released by Pen International, a literary group that promotes freedom of expression.

In an accompanying report, Pen International urged China to end censorship of the Internet, lift travel bans and restrictions on writers with different views, and ensure linguistic rights of ethnic minorities.

"There is nothing shocking, there is nothing surprising, about them. We're talking about very basic things. These are fair and realistic recommendations," John Ralston Saul, president of Pen International, told a news conference.

Salman Rushdie, who spent a decade in hiding after Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini ordered his death for the novel "The Satanic Verses," said he heard an "unusually eloquent" phrase by an Iranian ayatollah on Internet censorship.

"He said that it was like removing a ladder to stop birds from sitting on the roof," Rushdie said.

The Pen International report said that as many as 50,000 people work for China's "Internet police" to trawl online and censor content deemed offensive.

"It increases in force; there are more and more people every year doing this," Rushdie said. "Even in that case, removing the ladder is not preventing birds from sitting on the roof."

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Budapest, Hungary (UPI) May 2, 2013
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