Democracy is a Process — and a Journey: Burmese delegation visits Capitol Hill

Yangon, Burma

Here is a blog I wrote that was posted on the USIP Olive Branch post so I am cross-posting it here.  Here is the link to the blog on the USIP website:

Democracy is a Process – and a Journey

Burmese delegation visits Capitol Hill

July 2012 | Olive Branch Post by Colette Rausch

Together with our partner the Asia Society, USIP hosted representatives of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute (MDRI) and legal advisers to Burma’s president to Washington, DC. Their visit was part of an informal dialogue process between experts from the U.S. and Burma to explore opportunities to advance relations between the two countries.

In addition to learning about issues related to the rule of law, the Burmese delegation was keen to understand the hallmarks of our democratic system of governance, forged over 200 years. As part of that exploration, the delegation visited the U.S. Congress.

As we walked the Capitol’s hallowed halls, I found myself reflecting on our history and the principles that our country was founded on. As director of the Rule of Law program at USIP, I have always held closely the principle that we are a “nation of laws, not of men.” As I stood in the rotunda surveying the paintings depicting different stages of our nation’s development, I found myself in awe of our system and reflecting on the foresight and vision of our founders.

During our visit, we met with a group of congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle who answered questions our Burmese delegation posed to them. They were just as eager to learn first-hand about developments in Burma as the Burmese were to learn from them.

I had wondered how the current example of our country’s partisan divide would be perceived by our Burmese guests. As if reading my mind, one of the congressional staffers pointed out the fact that ours is a system where tension and differences between ideas is nothing new, and, in fact, built into our democracy to ensure fairness, thoughtful debate and cautious deliberation.

One staffer told us how it took him some time to adjust to the duality of cooperating with a colleague across the aisle on one measure and then having to oppose him or her on another – in the same day.

And to prevent tyranny, our government has been divided into three equal bodies, none supreme over the other – their shared goal to not create a perfect union, but a “more perfect union.” The Burmese delegation was particularly interested in how the balance of power worked in practice between our three branches of government.

As part of their visit to Congress, the delegation was invited to sit in the first row of the confirmation hearing of Derek Mitchell, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Burma. Here, the Burmese were able to witness first hand our bi-partisan congress in action, as senators expressed common wishes for the success of Burma’s embrace of democracy, and the varying and occasionally opposing perspectives from which each party viewed Burma’s democratic transition.

I was grateful for the opportunity to experience our democracy through the eyes of the Burmese legal advisers as they set out to create a new system of governance based in part upon the lessons from their visit.

If there was one lesson the Burmese came away with that day – that we’d be wise to never lose sight of ourselves – it is that democracy is a process and a journey, and not a single culminating event.

Colette Rausch is the director of USIP’s Rule of Law department.

In the Capitol Rotunda (Photo courtesy of Debra Eisenman)


Continuing Burma’s Transition to Democracy

Here is a news article posted on the United States Institute of Peace website today on a roundtable we held this week on Burma and our Track II dialogue process:

April 2012 | News Feature

April 26, 2012

The Asia Society and the U.S. Institute of Peace on April 25 co-hosted an invitation-only roundtable that brought together representatives of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute (MDRI) and U.S. experts as well as policymakers to exchange views on the current situation in Burma. The meeting is part of an informal dialogue—an ongoing channel of communication—between experts from the United States and Burma to explore opportunities to advance U.S.–Burmese relations during a fragile period of transition in the Southeast Asian nation.

The meeting came on the same day that Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell testified before Congress on U.S. policy toward Burma.

Expectations for significant change in Burma—a country run for decades in autocratic fashion by military-dominated governments—were low after its November 2010 elections and the establishment of a new government in March 2011.

Yet, several months after taking office, President Thein Sein introduced a series of political and economic reforms, and the parliament began debating wide-ranging legislative reform—all of which has spawned cautious optimism in Burma and abroad.

“The country has expressed an eagerness to rejoin the world community through democratic reform and resolving its internal ethnic conflicts,” says Colette Rausch, director of USIP’s Rule of Law Center.

In January 2012, an Asia Society delegation visited Burma to engage in Track II dialogue with MDRI, a new and independent think tank based in Yangon whose advisers provide policy advice on political, economic and legal affairs to Burma’s president.

The delegation included Suzanne DiMaggio, Asia Society’s vice president of global policy programs; Priscilla Clapp, former U.S. chargé d’affaires in Burma; Rausch of USIP; Ji-Qiang Zhang, vice president of programs for the Blue Moon Fund (an environmental foundation based in Charlottesville, Va.); Debra Eisenman, assistant director of gobal policy programs at the Asia Society; and Billy McCarthy, program assistant for Blue Moon Fund.

In concert with lead partner Asia Society and the Blue Moon Fund, USIP plans to continue its involvement in the Track II dialogue with MDRI advisers with the aim of assessing and then assisting the needed reforms identified by the Burmese people, which may include rule of law, democracy building, environmentally sustainable development and people-to-people exchanges.