|Paula J. Dobriansky.|
Yet, ending the military’s dominance is just one challenge. The daunting task is constructing a durable democracy in a country with limited civil society traditions and a complex ethnic and religious mix. The difficulty is underscored by the experiences of other multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies that have struggled to build democratic institutions after overthrowing a military dictatorship, with democratically elected leaders disregarding the rule of law.
The authoritarian tendencies former Egyptian president Mohammad Mursi manifested in a remarkably short time show that having the pedigree of an opposition leader and being elected by the majority of voters do not ensure respect for the rule of law. Indeed, the absence of democratic governance in Egypt has become so acute that the coalition that recently ousted Mursi encompassed the military as well as secular and even some religious parties.
In Turkey, despite decades of reasonably democratic rule — albeit with a strong military influence in politics — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian conduct and overtly Islamist policies have prompted massive civil unrest.
|Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood PM Morsi.|
Fortunately, Suu Kyi, now a member of parliament and head of the major opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), understands these challenges. When we met recently in Yangon, she emphasised the importance of transparency and the rule of law, without which, she said, democracy will not become entrenched.
She also met with five party leaders from the United Nationalities Alliance, representing diverse ethnic constituencies. Their meeting focused on key governance issues — in particular, amending the constitution to incorporate the federal political architecture.
A lively debate has emerged that echoes the debates that animated the post-1948 period, when Myanmar gained independence and the Union of Burma was formed. Then, the central question was how to forge national unity while protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. That task was ardently pursued by Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, Myanmar’s national hero, before he was assassinated in 1947.
Suu Kyi is seeking to become president and is confronting the same issues that her father faced. One critical early manifestation is choosing the ground rules for scheduled 2015 elections — proportional representation vs “first past the post,” under which a plurality of the ballots cast will decide the winner. Myanmar’s leading political parties disagree, with the NLD supporting first-past-the-post and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party embracing proportional representation.
Myanmar also faces economic challenges. Myanmar citizens know that, while other Asian countries have been advancing, their country has been left behind — the victim of years of isolation and military rule. During my visit, I heard repeated requests for foreign investment. Yet, most Myanmar people want economic development and democracy-building to advance simultaneously.
The political thaw in Myanmar demonstrates that the Barack Obama administration’s decision to lift US sanctions was correct. But US engagement in Myanmar has to be sustained, with full buy-in from America’s allies, international institutions and human rights organisations. America has to be prepared for both, progress as well as setbacks. One area of great concern is the emergence of Buddhist extremists targeting Myanmar’s Muslim minority.
|Turky's Islamist Dictator Erdogan.|
There are good reasons to be optimistic. US Ambassador Derek Mitchell is well respected by all major constituencies in Myanmar. Organisations such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and Freedom House are working to bolster the institutional capacity of political parties and civil society, fostering dialogue among ethnic groups and political parties and bringing youth and women into these policy exchanges.
Myanmar today represents a fundamental truth: No oppression can forever deny to people the realisation of their core human aspirations. Ultimately, the dreams of the Myanmar people will be realised. We should do our best to help them along the way.
— Washington Post