That is the one word of advice that Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi offered today for activists striving for freedom in an age witnessing what a former US president calls “the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism.”
“Persevere,” she said. “You’ll get there in the end, knowing that many, many people support you in mind and spirit.”
The U.S. has a duty to support the world’s democratic movements, said former president George W. Bush, while warning that transitions are neither easy nor one-directional.
“Freedom is a powerful force, but it does not advance on the wheels of historical inevitability,” he told a Washington forum organized by his Presidential Center to honor dissidents and democracy advocates.
“In the Arab Spring, we have seen the broadest challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism,” he said. “Great change has come to a region where many thought it impossible. The idea that Arab people are somehow content with oppression has been discredited forever.”
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to advancing democracy, but tactical innovation need not entail political relativism, Bush said, in remarks that drew comparisons with his landmark speech on the 20th anniversary of the bipartisan National Endowment for Democracy.
“In promoting freedom, our methods must be flexible. Change comes at different paces in different places. Liberty often arrives not in leaps, but in steps,” he noted. “Yet flexibility does not mean ambiguity. The same principles must apply to all countries.”
While Burma’s reform process is encouraging, it may not lead to a democratic transition, the National League for Democracy leader cautioned. Rumors that several hardline cabinet members were due to resign may be encouraging but could not be confirmed, she said.
External support for democratic struggles was important, she said, singling out the US Congress which “did everything it could to support democracy in Burma.” But democracy is ultimately the work of indigenous actors and, as in other struggles for freedom, “we Burmese have to do it for ourselves,” she said.
We are living in “extraordinary times in the history of freedom,” former president Bush told the meeting.
But he echoed Suu Kyi’s warning about potential backlash from powerful countervailing forces.
“Yet we have also seen instability, uncertainty, and the revenge of brutal rulers,” Bush noted. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle.”
The event marked the unveiling of a new Freedom Collection – “a living repository” of inspirational stories, documents and artifacts from the world’s leading movements for freedom in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Papers from dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel were among the contribution to the Freedom Collections, presented by Martin Palous, former Czech envoy to the US and now head of the Prague-based Havel Library.
“Words can change the world,” said Havel, a phrase that continues to inspire Normando Hernandez (left), a Cuban journalist and former prisoner of conscience. When he was jailed as a member of the Group of 75 in Cuba’s Black Spring crackdown, his possession of a copy of Havel’s Power of the Powerless was cited in the evidence against him.
Havel explained his support for the island’s democrats by saying that “of all the remaining totalitarian regimes, the one in Cuba is probably closest to my own experience,” said Hernandez, currently a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the NED, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
The Freedom Collection is designed “to provide both moral support and practical knowledge” for what Thomas Jefferson called the “contagion of liberty,” said former president Bush.
“We want a young activist in Venezuela to hear Bob Fu talk of his struggle with despair. We want a Syrian dissident to learn Havel’s art of the impossible.”
Bush was introduced to the forum by exiled Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, founder of the Tharwa Foundation. The presidential center’s collection of interviews with dissidents describing their personal struggles and motivations will help “break the barrier of fear” for activists, he said.
“The collection shows freedom advocates we are not alone.”