Burma’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi will need to engage in some “hard bargaining” over constitutional reform if the current reform process is to produce a genuinely democratic transition, says a prominent analyst.
“Both peace and democracy require broad negotiations with the country’s ethnic minority groups to establish a federal system in which different groups will have real political autonomy while surrendering any right to secede,” Stanford University’s Larry Diamond writes for Atlantic.com.
“If federalism and self-government for all people of Burma are to be viable, the country needs to construct effective structures of local government,” he contends. “This will require massive training and institution building, a task that Suu Kyi regards as a priority for international assistance.”
Such assistance has been a vital but little-appreciated factor in Burma’s reform process, says a leading observer.
“One of the more discreet elements of Myanmar’s transformation is the enduring role of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US taxpayer-funded body that for years has bankrolled and fostered human rights efforts, non-violent resistance movements and media activism inside the country,” writes Greg Torode, South-east Asia correspondent for the South China Morning Post (subscription):
The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma broadcaster and the prominent Thailand-based Irrawaddy news website are among the institutions that have benefited, along with many smaller operations inside the country. It has sponsored extensive projects to document human rights abuses and train Buddhist monks and other groups in the up-to-date tactics and techniques of non-violent protest, something seen in the widespread protests – later smashed with force – of late 2007.
If Myanmar’s transitional politics are raising all manner of questions, at least some of them involve the endowment: does it consider its work a success and will that work continue? What role does it believe it has played in the events of the last year? And have any lessons been learned that could be applied elsewhere?
“It really is a long-term effort, but the key for things to take root and survive is creative and persistent people who are adaptable,” said Brian Joseph, the endowment’s senior director for Asia and global programs.
“What we have done has been to provide an important piece of a broad movement towards significant political change… but it is just one piece in a jigsaw. It must always be remembered that we weren’t the cause of that change and we weren’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. At every level, it is the people of Burma that have to take any credit, and it is the people of Burma that have to figure out the next steps.”
He pointed to the endowment’s long-term funding of the Irrawaddy website, which has built an international reputation. “They were constantly creative and adapted,” he said, adding that the site was now a “key part of the landscape”.
In that regard, endowment officials are quick to distance themselves from policy choices or specific moves on the ground, saying they are involved with efforts to expand and support “democratic space” – activists and institutions – rather than actual decisions about action. They also deny links to US intelligence operations, or a specific “regime change” agenda, saying that regime change doesn’t always mean the rise of democracy.
For the people on the ground – the activists and journalists now enjoying the first taste of relative freedom – there is a sense that the support of the endowment, and the many Western governments running similar programs, has been important, but it is far from the whole story.
“We are grateful and the support has been wonderful,” said an elderly journalist and former political prisoner. “But the outside world must always remember this is our struggle, that we are not some bloody foreign creation or tools in a global power struggle. All the way through this we are the ones taking the risks, making the decisions about what to do, when to do it and what to say.”
The reform process initiated by President Thein Sein has led to the release of political prisoners, economic liberalization, the formation of independent labor unions and an end to media censorship.
“One of the most ambitious media reform plans is to change the nature of the state-run broadcasting service into a public broadcasting entity,” writes Kavi Chongkittavorn, a prominent commentator on Southeast Asian affairs:
Within the Asean context, what Myanmar has done is considered a milestone under the Asean Charter and the Asean Political and Security Community. After the charter was approved, Asean countries have shown different levels of commitment to compliance with the numerous rules. However, in the past 18 months, Myanmar has swiftly and broadly instituted sensitive reforms shunned by other Asean countries.
“If it succeeds, it could become a new template for other developing countries, which emerge from totalitarian systems,” says Chongkittavorn, a member of the World Movement for Democracy’s steering committee.