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Opinion: How Biden can show he’s serious about democracy

Protesters shout slogans during a protest the military coup in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Feb. 28. (AP)

It’s official: The world has become less democratic every year for the past 15 years. That grim milestone, chronicled by Freedom House’s just-released “Freedom in the World” report, is no surprise. But it raises the obvious question: After four years with a would-be strongman in the White House, how can President Biden finally stop the march of global authoritarianism?

Biden has pledged to hold a “global democracy summit,” a positive signal that he cares about freedom and human rights. But the White House already whiffed on an opportunity to punish Saudi Arabia’s monarchy — and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular — for the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Khashoggi was willing to risk his life to stand up to a brutal regime, and paid the ultimate price. From Uganda to Myanmar, many others are taking the same risks. And currently, the United States doesn’t have their back. Until it does, the autocrats will keep winning.

I decided to get in touch with activists and politicians who are fighting for democracy across the globe. I asked them: What could the United States do to help? What would they ask Biden to do if they could meet him?

Bunkueanun “Francis” Paothong is a 21-year-old Thai student who could face 16 years to life in prison for attending a pro-democracy protest. He quotes Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, when explaining his dream of a democratic Thailand: “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered. … The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” He tells me that he “looks to the United States for inspiration and hope, and [hopes Biden] will soon take action.” He’s not asking for much: a strong statement condemning Thailand’s authoritarian government, a stronger commitment to backing freedom of assembly globally and more pressure to release Thai student activists from prison.

Francis isn’t naive. “I’m a student of international relations,” he tells me. If the United States pushes back against Thailand’s regime, “the Thai government would have more justification of allying itself to China, which is not beneficial to the American position in southeast Asia,” he says. It’s a test of how much Biden cares about democracy, beyond speeches and summits.

In Uganda, Winnie Kiiza is a teacher-turned-politician who served as leader of the opposition. She spoke out when Uganda’s long-standing despot, Yoweri Museveni, manipulated yet another election, used violence to retain power and arrested his opponent, in mid-January. “The Trump administration turned its back on democracy in Africa, consequently creating a governance vacuum, which has been exploited by powerful forces like China, North Korea and Russia,” Kiiza tells me. She wants the United States to put targeted sanctions on the regime’s leadership and henchmen. Her other request is even more straightforward: “I hope that the U.S. will stop funding regimes that don’t share her values.” America gave Uganda $533 million in foreign aid in fiscal year 2020.

In Myanmar, where the military just took power in a coup d’etat, pro-democracy activist Thinzar Shunlei Yei is still protesting despite a bloody crackdown. She appreciates the “bold” response Biden took right after the coup. But Thinzar wants more countries to sanction economic activity linked to Myanmar’s military and hopes the White House will press Beijing to help push the generals back into the barracks. Her dream is something we take for granted: living in “a federal democratic nation, not a proxy state or a buffer region for more powerful countries.”

Other pro-democracy movements are fighting hard in Belarus, Hong Kong, Haiti and Algeria. When they looked to America under Trump, they didn’t see a shining beacon of democracy. Biden should make it a priority to restore that light — both by repairing democracy at home and doing more to support democracy abroad.

First, he should draw far more attention to these brave protesters. A decade ago, as protests during the Arab Spring were televised live worldwide, dictators in Egypt and Tunisia knew using brute force would create an enormous international backlash. Today, few Americans even know about protests in Myanmar or Thailand or Uganda. Biden can help steer the spotlight back to those standing up against the dark forces of dictatorship.

Second, for regimes that care about U.S. support (such as Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Thailand), Biden should phase-in binding democracy and human rights benchmarks that will determine future foreign aid allocations and weapons sales. American ambiguity helps dictators, who test the limits of what they can get away with. Biden should announce clear red lines — and punish regimes that cross them. In the short-term, that could drive America’s authoritarian allies to seek a closer relationship with our adversaries. But a more democratic world serves U.S. long-term interests. Building that world is worth the risk.

For regimes that don’t care as much about U.S. support (such as Myanmar or Belarus), Biden can lean on allies who have closer relationships with those countries to create more effective pressure. It won’t topple dictators. But it will give protesters a fighting chance.

Today’s pro-democracy movements are sophisticated and savvy. They don’t want Washington to hijack their agenda or be their savior. Instead, many just want a little help to even the odds against the iron fist of despotism. Biden should seize the opportunity to show he’s serious about global democracy by giving them that help.

This article was published by The Washington Post.


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