After five decades of brutal military rule, hopeful signs have emerged in Burma. The military has partially opened up the political system and released Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of the country’s democracy movement, after 15 years of house arrest. Since September 2011, cease-fire agreements have been signed with 11 ethnic groups, contributing to national political reconciliation.
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 multiethnic 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 Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi 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 Morsi 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.
In some respects, the challenges to democracy-building in Burma are greater than those in Egypt and Turkey. Burma has 135 officially recognized ethnic groups and multiple religions. The 2008 constitution, enacted under military rule, limits the degree of autonomy for Burma’s constituent states and reflects the government’s long-standing aversion to a federal structure. It also guarantees the military 25 percent of the seats in parliament.
Fortunately, Aung San 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 Rangoon, she emphasized 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 Burma gained its 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 Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, Burma’s national hero, before he was assassinated in 1947.
Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking to become president and is confronting the same issues as 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. Burma’s leading political parties disagree, with the NLD supporting first-past-the-post and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party embracing proportional representation.
Burma also faces economic challenges. Burmese 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 Burmese want economic development and democracy-building to advance simultaneously.
The political thaw in Burma demonstrates that the Obama administration’s decision to lift U.S. sanctions was correct. But U.S. engagement in Burma has to be sustained, with full buy-in from our allies, international institutions and human rights organizations. We have to be prepared for both progress and setbacks. One area of great concern is the emergence of Buddhist extremists targeting Burma’s Muslim minority.
U.S. policy must also take into account the experiences of countries, including Egypt and Turkey, where democratic transitions have gone off the rails. We should urge Burmese leaders to adopt the federalist constitutional model they are considering and to allow provincial governments to exercise considerable political and economic autonomy. Equally important is the creation of strong civil society institutions that foster tolerance and an independent judiciary and that are capable of stepping in if democratically elected leaders exceed their constitutional authority.
There are good reasons to be optimistic. U.S. Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell is well respected by all major Burmese constituencies. Organizations 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.
Burma today represents a fundamental truth: No oppression can forever deny to people the realization of their core human aspirations. Ultimately, the dreams of the Burmese people will be realized. We should do our best to help them along the way.
Paula J. Dobriansky, an undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs in the George W. Bush administration, recently traveled to Burma with the nonpartisan International Republican Institute.