5 minute read
Ishaan Tharoor; Cleo Brock-Abraham

The President Sets a Precedent


In May 2008, as Burma reeled from Cyclone Nargis, which claimed more than 130,000 lives, a rumor floated through the darkened, wreckage-strewn streets of Rangoon, the country’s largest city. Would the Americans stage a humanitarian intervention to aid storm victims who were being ignored by the country’s military junta?

On Nov. 19, 2012, a U.S. government plane touched down in Rangoon. It was not there as part of an invasion once predicted by Burma’s paranoid army rulers. Instead, Air Force One rolled past a thicket of tropical foliage to make Barack Obama the first U.S. President to visit this strategic nation wedged between India and China. Outside the airport, children waved American flags. “I love Mr. Obama,” said 14-year-old Min Myat No Khin. “I love America. I love democracy.”

Just a few years ago, each of those three sentiments, even if expressed by a pigtailed student, might have been an imprisonable offense. But in a Burma ruled since March 2011 by a hybrid military-civilian government, the culture of fear that smothered the country for nearly half a century has largely evaporated. Helmed by President Thein Sein, a retired general, the country officially known as Myanmar is attempting a rare feat: a democratic transition spurred not by the footfall of protesting citizens but by the rulers themselves.

For a U.S. leader who calls himself the country’s “first Pacific President” and has pivoted U.S. foreign policy toward Asia in an effort to hedge against China, the good news from Burma–freed political prisoners, loosened media censorship, cease-fires with ethnic militias–couldn’t have come at a better time. “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,” Obama said in Rangoon, where he stayed for a mere six hours. “So today I’ve come to keep my promise and extend the hand of friendship.”

Much still ails in Burma. Corruption and sectarian violence fester; the country remains desperately poor. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who met with Obama, warned, “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight.” True enough. But Myo Yan Naung Thein, a fellow former political prisoner, was in a celebratory mood. “We appreciate Mr. Obama coming to Burma,” he said. “There is a lot more to do, but today is a day of happiness.”

Bribery in Britain



The hacking scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. intensified on Nov. 20 when prosecutors announced that two former executives would be charged with bribery. Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of News International, and Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, allegedly paid bribes of up to $160,000 to public officials for inside information. That’s also bad news for British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is close to both.

Death of a Demagogue


Bal Thackeray, a rabble-rousing orator whose far-right Hindu-nationalist party Shiv Sena dominated Mumbai for decades, died Nov. 17 at the age of 86. Hundreds of thousands attended his funeral procession through the city streets, but he leaves a legacy of toxic gangster-style politics.

Thackeray’s targets


The West

He agitated to change the name of colonial Bombay to Mumbai; his supporters wage war on supposedly vulgar Western holidays like Valentine’s Day


Mobs of Thackeray’s supporters have long attacked those who are not local ethnic Marathas, despite the fact that Mumbai draws Indians from every corner of the country



Thackeray’s Hindu-nationalist rhetoric fanned the flames of religious riots that led to hundreds of deaths in 1992

Gay Marriage: Too Progressive for the French?


In Lyon, protesters rally against a newly proposed law that would legalize gay marriage. France’s Socialist-dominated government, led by President Franois Hollande, adopted a draft law of the bill Nov. 7, and it is expected to be approved by France’s legislature in the coming months. But it has faced fierce opposition from right-wing parties as well as a rare alliance of Catholic, Muslim and Jewish groups.


‘It will inevitably doom the party.’

XI JINPING, China’s new leader, warning in his first speech to the Politburo Standing Committee of the dangers of corruption after a year of high-profile political scandals that rocked China’s rulers



U.K. troops in Afghanistan who were treated to a surprise visit from Daniel Craig; the Skyfall star toured the camp, drove a Foxhound and fired machine guns

Things Fall Apart in Central Africa


Rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war-torn, mineral-rich east reportedly seized the city of Goma, overrunning government forces loyal to President Joseph Kabila and bypassing U.N. peacekeeping troops. The rebellion, waged by a faction known as the M23, has displaced tens of thousands, with aid agencies warning of a growing humanitarian crisis. Here are three reasons Congo’s chaos and violence are so intractable:

1 Lawlessness

The government in Kinshasa exercises little to no control over the country’s east, where a jumble of ethnic and factional militias run roughshod over a beleaguered U.N. force. Poor governance and ill-disciplined armies have led to years of abuses against civilians.

2 Foreign agendas

Though it publicly denies it, neighboring Rwanda is thought to be backing and arming the M23 rebels, many of whom are ethnic Rwandese and hold long-standing grievances against Kabila’s government.

3 Wealth of resources

The region is rich in metals and minerals, including gold and diamonds. That natural wealth has fueled numerous insurgencies and is coveted by governments in neighboring countries.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at