Tag Archives: Myanmar

Burma Transition Pressures Mount as Presidents Meet in U.S. Visit

20 May
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T-shirt I bought from a sidewalk stall in Yangon in March. The shirt commemorates President Obama’s visit to Burma last year.

I am cross posting a news feature discussing Burma’s President Thein Sein’s visit with President Obama today that appeared on the United States Institute of Peace website.  See: http://www.usip.org/publications/burma-transition-pressures-mount-presidents-meet-in-us-visit

Burma Transition Pressures Mount as Presidents Meet in U.S. Visit

By Viola Gienger

May 20, 2013

Burma’s President Thein Sein is visiting Washington this week to meet President Barack Obama as the U.S. continues its push to support progress toward democracy in the once-closed Southeast Asian nation. The efforts include USIP work with partners on the ground who want to adopt rule-of-law standards and are searching for ways to defuse religious and ethnic tensions.

The state visit marks the first in more than four decades by a leader of Myanmar, which the State Department refers to as Burma, its name before the military junta changed the name of the country and its capital in 1989. In November, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma. He was accompanied by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had first visited in 2011 and then in September 2012 welcomed Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to Washington, where she gave her first public address at USIP.

Burma “is seeking to rejoin the world community after so many years of isolation and authoritarian rule,” said Colette Rausch, director of USIP’s rule of law program, who conducted training with colleagues in Burma in February and March.

Thein Sein’s Washington visit “signifies the U.S. interest in helping Burma along its transition,” Rausch said. “The challenges that Burma is facing are going to continue.”

Religious tensions have developed during the transition in western and central Burma between certain communities of the nation’s majority Buddhist religion and minority Muslims. The strains have erupted into clashes that have heightened fears the violence could spread.

Dealing with that will require not only encouraging public tolerance of other beliefs, but also exerting legitimate legal authority against those who commit violence to hold them accountable, Rausch said. Burma has the advantage of existing inter-faith networks that can be supported for maximum effect in maintaining peace.

“In any sort of change, you’re affecting power structures,” Rausch said. Thein Sein “is going to have to navigate that and deal with the root causes of the issues,” such as political and economic factors that play into the tensions and affect the country as a whole.

Rausch noted that one of the Thein Sein’s first stops on his U.S. tour was the home of the first American president, George Washington. Thein Sein “would have learned of the many challenges, setbacks and breakthroughs that accompanied the U.S.’s own long transition to democratic governance and that it did not happen overnight,” she said. “It is an ongoing, never-ending process.”

Asked about the visit in advance of Thein Sein’s arrival, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki praised Burma’s reforms thus far and urged its leaders to continue such efforts. The government released about 20 political prisoners before Thein Sein’s trip. While that brings the number freed to more than 850, according to Psaki, human rights groups say many more political prisoners remain in detention.

“We can’t underestimate the fact that Burma has made great progress in the last couple of years,” Psaki told reporters at the State Department on May 17. “Yes, there’s still more work to do, but the progress they’ve made has been significant and they’ve put in place an ambitious reform agenda, and we encourage them to keep doing more.”

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

 

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Burmese Officials, Civic Leaders Examine Challenges of Transition

30 Apr
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Leanne, me and Susie in front of a chart that an amazing group of youth created on their own initiative during one of the working sessions. We had a mind map in English of all the components of a justice and security system. The innovative group recreated the chart and translated it into Burmese. We carried the chart all over Burma to use at other workshops.

Here is a piece that a colleague and I wrote on Burma’s transition and my recent trip to the country to meet with officials and civil society to discuss the rule of law issues.  It was an inspiring trip and despite the challenges faced in the present and future, there were so many people who hold a positive vision for the country that transcends Burma’s past. (I am cross-posting this piece as it first appeared on the website of the United States Institute of Peace at http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/burmese-officials-civic-leaders-examine-challenges-transition)

Burmese Officials, Civic Leaders Examine Challenges of Transition

By Colette Rausch and Viola Gienger

April 22, 2013

A recent two-day U.S. Institute of Peace workshop in the southern Burmese capital of Mon State, Mawlamyaing, was intended to be a discussion of the rule-of-law and mechanisms to promote it amid the country’s rapid transition. But the occasion also illustrated some of the very fundamental questions that bewilder national, state and local officials and civil society leaders in environments of such rapid political and economic change.

USIP began to engage with counterparts in Burma more than a year ago, following the U.S. Government’s move to renew direct engagement with the country after decades of isolation and sanctions that followed the military regime’s 1988 crackdown on the democratic opposition. USIP’s engagement started with unofficial discussions to strengthen relations between the two countries. This track 2 dialogue was in partnership with the Asia Society and Blue Moon Fund. Government legal advisers from the capital Naypyitaw also have come to Washington D.C. to discuss the way forward for their country, and civil society as well as government representatives have attended courses at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding. USIP’s Burma Team also works with civil society, particularly the religious and media sectors.  The February/March visit to the country this year also included two one-day workshops in Shan state, the Mawlamyaing workshop, as well as other meetings and discussions with government and nongovernment actors.

In the two-day workshop, the presenters were Colette Rausch, director of the Institute’s Rule of Law Center of Innovation; Susan Hayward, a senior program officer in USIP’s Center of Innovation for Religion and Peacemaking; and Leanne McKay, an independent consultant in rule of law.

More than 60 participants flooded to the February 16-17 course from Mon and Karen States, twice the number planned, but with so much interest, USIP felt it had to meet the need. The participants included a range of actors: state parliamentarians, police, judges, lawyers, academics, youth, journalists, and civil society activists. The participants’ active engagement in the group work and discussion similarly demonstrated the intense and genuine level of interest across all sectors on issues regarding the rule of law.

The aims of the workshop were to define rule of law as a concept and a practical end-state; describe how it relates to other concepts of justice, security, human rights, conflict and peacebuilding; help the participants identify both institutional and community-driven responses to rule-of-law issues in their context; and design strategic responses that would promote rule of law in Burma.

But as so often happens in cases of transition, discussions veer from those specific points to the broader context and underlying functioning of a whole society.

During breaks and over dinner in particular, the questions came tumbling out:

What happens when you feel national security is threatened and you need to take action that some might see as violating rights?

How do you balance law and order with rights and citizens’ concerns?

What do you do when some people in a country think they are above the law?

How did Kosovo deal with these issues? What are people in Libya doing about them now?

The thoughtful questions dug deep for answers. Participants were particularly eager to hear about the experience of establishing and strengthening democracy within the United States. They asked about the dilemmas and debates between national security and civil liberties the U.S. experienced in the years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, that also included the crash of another hijacked flight in a field in Pennsylvania. Debates that, to some extent, continue even today.

The participants also worried about the accountability of big companies in their country as economic sanctions are lifted and more transnational businesses enter the scene.  They asked how the U.S. handles such situations. They didn’t pull punches on sensitive questions – they’d heard of the Ku Klux Klan and asked if it was still active. They asked about corruption and greed in our country, and what Americans do about it.

They were the kinds of questions that are impossible to duck, especially when the credibility of a training in rule-of-law rests on openness and transparency. Their willingness to probe deeply seemed to reflect a level of trust and a feeling that this was a safe space where they could express their concerns.

They seemed to understand our explanation that democracy is a dance — an ongoing process that constantly reinvents itself, hopefully improves itself, around fundamental principles. That in the U.S., the democratic system is not perfect, but reflects the human beings who constitute it, with all their prejudices, weaknesses, aspirations, and convictions. And for this reason, establishing the rule of law begins with each person recognizing and fulfilling their own rights and responsibilities.

The discussions provided a reminder that such a workshop is often simply a vehicle for looking at the broader context of a transition. It’s easy to jump right into a discussion of systems, when a more effective approach for the creation of sustainable peace is to reflect first on the root causes and drivers of the conflict.

The good news, as one of the participants pointed out, is that two years ago, they couldn’t even have had that discussion. Now, another said, it is time to begin the dialogue in order to understand one another and together build a peaceful future.

Peace on Earth

24 Dec

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On this Christmas Eve, as I reflect back over the past year, a whirlwind of images and feelings come up.  It has been an intense year of travel to countries dealing with violent conflict or war, political instability, and economic disparity. Then in my own country, we witnessed a divisive election year, a politically polarized society, ugly rhetoric against people of different races or religious beliefs, and a series of mass shootings including at an elementary school, movie theater, shopping mall and place of worship.

We are a world at conflict on the individual, community and nation state levels.  We see actors on the world stage who use fear to control people and foster hate and division, pitting one against another.  Religion, ethnicity, race, gender, country of origin, are all inflammatory fodder for stirring up emotions of fear and in turn — hate.  It’s been far too common to find individuals and leaders using violence for their own agenda and pushing the fear-mongering and hate-mongering buttons to manipulate and coax people into doing their bidding.

A survey of the headlines over the past year is enough to make even the most optimistic, despair.  We barely have time to acknowledge one tragedy, when another one is on its heels, followed by another after that.

But if you look beyond the headlines and politics, struggles for power and control, you still can find those who relentlessly hold tight to the vision of peace and justice and work tirelessly for a better world.  It is through their sheer determination and effort that there is ample reason for hope.

Misurata

Don’t complicate the transition (in arabic). Graffiti I came across while driving around in Misurata, Libya. May 2012

During my travels in Libya, I met people in Benghazi, Misurata, Tripoli and Zawia who took my colleagues and me into their lives and homes.  They shared their hopes and dreams for a new, peaceful Libya, free of dictatorship, violence and extremism. I received numerous messages of sincere regret and sorrow immediately after US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues were killed in a terrorist attack in Benghazi. They wanted America to know that these horrible acts were not representative of the vast majority of Libyans. They took to the streets by the tens of thousands to demonstrate as much.

Yemen

Choosing our fish to take to a restaurant for grilling in Taiz, Yemen, June 2012

While in Yemen, I traveled to Sana’a and Taiz, meeting amazing young women and men who, despite guns being trained on them as they marched, took to the streets to demand a positive government responsive to the people.  “The youth are Yemen’s hope and future as we have just created a mess,” was a sentiment I heard twice, once from a retired army general and then again from a retired political leader — both frustrated with the slow pace of change and battles for power raging across Yemen and fueling violence and instability.

While in Burma/Myanmar and reiterated during subsequent visits to the US by representatives from Burma/Myanmar, I was surprised by the openness of those I met in the government, who, despite having been isolated for many years under the former repressive military regime, were anxious to get caught up on developments related to good governance, rule of law and conflict resolution.  Each meeting turned into an invigorating and open discussion of ideas, as we discussed what other countries in transition experience and the challenges they face.

Aung San Suu Kyi with me and Suzanne Di Maggio at USIP event,  Washington, DC, September 2012 (Photo Credit:    )

Aung San Suu Kyi with me and Suzanne Di Maggio at USIP event, Washington, DC, September 2012 (Photo Credit: Asia Society/Joshua Roberts )

In Iraq, I had the honor to meet with dedicated civil society representatives who were earnestly organizing dialogues with police to find ways to solve justice and security challenges facing their communities.  In the absence of effective central governance, the citizens and police decided to keep things local and seek common ground and work together.

Buddhist monk in Boudhanath.  Kathmandu, Nepal. October 2012.

Buddhist monk in Boudhanath. Kathmandu, Nepal. October 2012.

While in Nepal, I surveyed the past six years from when I first arrived at the tail end of popular protests that resulted in the King stepping down and re-instating the political process.  Despite a very rough period of political instability and violence after the King’s ouster, and the all too familiar charade of political actors stirring violence for their own ends, Nepal managed to end its ten-year civil war, quell ethnic, religious and communal violence and move tentatively forward.

Then in my own country, despite the politics of division, the elections resulted in the re-election of the president.  The issue of economic inequality has come to the mainstream and is being openly discussed.  The horrific epidemic of gun violence has stirred up a movement demanding action to address its root causes.

So as this year draws to an a close, I want to focus on the people and their determined actions that have resulted in cultivating peace against seemingly insurmountable forces and odds, rather than giving way to the divisions and violence so many attempt to sew.

If there is one universal lesson my travels have revealed, it’s that when each of us owns our own power and makes a determined stand on principles of fairness, equality and justice, then even the most powerful who employ the formidable levers of division, intimidation, violence and coercion — become powerless. Further, while fomenting divisions can sow violence, building unity and understanding can be powerful steps toward creating a lasting and resilient peace. 

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Meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

26 Sep

(Me and Suzanne DiMaggio co-moderating the Q and A session. Photo Courtesy of Asia Society/Joshua Roberts)

It was such an honor to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi last week and co-moderate the question and answer session that followed her remarks at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). She is an inspirational woman who epitomizes the strength of peace, tolerance and dignity.  I was most struck by her comment that it is when we seek to help others, that we have the chance to help ourselves.  In essence, she was saying that when we endeavor to help others, it gives us the opportunity to shine a mirror and reflect upon ourselves, and where we can strive to improve ourselves, in the process.

I am cross-posting below an article from the USIP website on the event and our work in Burma/Myanmar.  The full link is: http://www.usip.org/publications/burmamyanmar-democracy-activist-daw-aung-san-suu-kyi-calls-us-support-easing-sanctions-

Burma/Myanmar Democracy Activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Calls for U.S. Support, Easing of Sanctions at USIP

September 2012 | News Feature by Thomas Omestad

September 18, 2012

(From left to right: Me, Suzanne Di Maggio, Jim Marshall, Aung San Suu Kyi, Hillary Clinton, Henrietta Fore & Tom Freston)

Longtime democracy champion Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, appearing at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) on September 18 at the beginning of a 17-day visit to the United States, called for continuing U.S. support on behalf of the Southeast Asian nation’s transition to democracy and for a further easing of the U.S. economic sanctions that remain in place following decades of military dictatorship.

“I do not think that we need to cling on to sanctions unnecessarily, because I want our people to be responsible for their own destiny and not to depend too much on external props,” she told an audience in USIP’s Carlucci Auditorium and watching on the web. Burma, also known as Myanmar, will need external support from its friends, she said, but “in the end, we have to build our own democracy for ourselves.”

Suu Kyi, who is now a member of Burma’s parliament and chair of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), thanked Americans, “who have stood by us through our hard years of struggle for democracy,” and sketched out the challenges remaining to “rebuild our nation in a democratic mold.” She cited as reform priorities establishing the rule of law across Burma’s executive, legislative and judicial branches; ending the country’s ethnic conflicts with a commitment to mutual respect and human rights; and instituting amendments to Burma’s constitution.

The event was jointly sponsored by USIP and the Asia Society, the lead partner in USIP’s initial efforts to assist Burma in its political transition. The Institute is working with the Asia Society and the Blue Moon Fund to share information and experiences on issues identified by Burmese related to the rule of law, religion and peacemaking, democratic governance, conflict resolution and the capacity of Burma’s media to promote conflict-sensitive approaches.

Suu Kyi was welcomed by USIP’s new president, Jim Marshall, and by Henrietta Fore, the Asia Society’s co-chair. She also accepted the 2011 Global Vision Award from the Asia Society after her address at USIP.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who met with Suu Kyi at the State Department earlier in the day, called the event “an extraordinary, auspicious occasion” and introduced Suu Kyi as “someone who has represented the struggle for freedom and democracy, for human rights and opportunity, not only in her own country but seen as such around the world.” Suu Kyi spent most of the past two decades—until late 2010—under house arrest as the leader of Burma’s leading democratic opposition party. “Suu Kyi’s courage and moral leadership never wavered,” Clinton said.

The secretary of state noted that Burma’s government under President Thein Sein has released hundreds of prisoners of conscience (including some this week), legalized opposition parties, reduced restrictions on the press and on freedom of assembly, expanded workers’ rights and negotiated ceasefires in some of the country’s ethnic conflicts. The United States has already begun easing sanctions and allowed American companies to invest in Burma. However, she also noted that political prisoners remain, ethnic violence continues and “some military contacts with North Korea persist.” The reforms are “still a work in progress,” she cautioned, while describing ongoing consultations with the Burmese government and others allowing the United States to “provide the help and support that is necessary and appropriate.”

Suu Kyi acknowledged the difficulties that remain. “We are not yet at the end of our struggle but we are getting there,” she said.

A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Suu Kyi reviewed decades of Burmese-U.S. relations that eroded dramatically after Burma’s military established dictatorial rule in 1962. Her NLD was allowed to vie for seats in parliamentary by-elections in April, and the party won 43 of the 45 seats that were up for election. She credited Thein with prompting the country’s political changes: “I believe that he is keen on democratic reforms, but how the executive goes about implementing these reforms is what we have to watch” she said. Burma and the United States need to continue working “to establish a strong, healthy relationship,” she said, adding, “Now, it is time for you to be friends with our whole country…to be able to help us realize our aspirations.”

Suu Kyi made reference to the dissatisfaction some opposition activists felt with her decision to lead the NLD into parliament and ty to work within the existing political system. “We’re finding our way,” she said. “We are beginning to learn the art of compromise, give and take, the achievement of consensus.”

She focused particular attention on Burma’s need to establish the rule of law and to peacefully address the ethnic conflicts that have seized parts of the country for years. “Without rule of law, you cannot have the kind of economic reforms that will lift our people out of poverty,” she said. On the longstanding communal tensions in such areas as the states of Rakhine and Kachin, Suu Kyi said the opposition did not seek to capitalize politically but urged that respect for human rights and rule of law were essential to “build up ethnic harmony in our country.”

USIP this year has hosted Track II-style dialogue sessions on Burma’s political transition out of authoritarianism with representatives of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute (MDRI), senior advisers to Burmese President Thein and U.S. experts. Institute specialists in the areas of rule of law, inter-religious coexistence and media development have also met in Burma with Burmese in and out of government to assess where USIP might provide democratic transition assistance, and its Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding has started training Burmese specialists participating in courses on governance, building institutional capacity, economic reconstruction and addressing societal trauma from conflicts.

Suu Kyi’s trip will include meetings with other U.S. officials and lawmakers, journalists, university audiences and Burmese American communities. In addition to Washington, D.C., she is scheduled to visit New York, Kentucky, Indiana and California. On September 19 at the U.S. Capitol, she will receive the Congressional Gold Medal. It was awarded to her in absentia in 2008.

Explore Further

Here is the event announcement:

(Link: http://www.usip.org/events/burmamyanmar-in-transition-conversation-aung-san-suu-kyi)

Burma/Myanmar in Transition: A Discussion with Aung San Suu Kyi

After decades of stagnation under military rule, Burma/Myanmar finds itself in a particularly fluid and fragile transition. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been at the fore of her country’s transition, helping reshape its political development path.

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Burma/Myanmar from Britain in 1988 to care for her mother. Shortly after, she became leader of the largest uprising in Burma/Myanmar’s history. In 1990, Suu Kyi’s party, National League for Democracy (NLD), won Burma/Myanmar’s first free elections in 30 years by a landslide. The country’s military junta refused to cede power, and Suu Kyi was forced into house arrest for nearly 15 years. During this time, she remained the Chairperson and General Secretary of the NLD and continued to push for justice and sound rule of law. She was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In 2011, a new, quasi-civilian government took power and boldly began to implement democratic reforms, which continue today. This April, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected into Burma/Myanmar’s parliament and continues her work to transform her country into a just and democratic state.

In her first visit to the United States in more than 20 years and her first public event, the United States Institute of Peace and the Asia Society were honored to host Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for an engaging discussion on the democratic transition in Burma/Myanmar, the challenges that lie ahead, and the potential for a promising future.

Speakers:

  • Aung San Suu Kyifeatured speaker
    Member of Parliament, Burma
    Chairperson and General Secretary, National League for Democracy
  • Hillary Rodham Clintonintroductory remarks
    Secretary of State
    United States Department of State
  • Jim Marshallopening remarks
    President
    United States Institute of Peace
  • Henrietta Foreopening remarks
    Co-chair
    Asia Society
  • Tom Frestonpresenter of Asia Society Global Vision Award
    Trustee
    Asia Society
  • Suzanne DiMaggioco-moderator
    Vice President, Global Policy Programs
    Asia Society
  • Colette Rauschco-moderator
    Director, Rule of Law Center
    United States Institute of Peace

Explore Further

Start Date:

September 18, 2012 – 12:30pm

End Date:

September 18, 2012 – 1:30pm

Location

United States Institute of Peace
2301 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20037

Continuing Burma’s Transition to Democracy

26 Apr

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.

On the Road to the Rule of Law in Burma

3 Feb

Here is a piece I wrote from my trip to Burma in January. It was posted last week on the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) website.  I am just now cross-posting on my blog as I have been in Libya and the internet connection was too slow to be able to upload photos into blog.  Now I sit in Frankfurt en route to Washington, DC with fast internet so here it is!

http://www.usip.org/publications/the-road-the-rule-law-in-burma

On the Road to the Rule of Law in Burma

January 2012 | News Feature by Colette Rausch

January 25, 2012  

Washington, D.C. – Over my career, I’ve worked in any number of countries emerging from war or conflict, struggling to trade a totalitarian existence for democratic processes and international standards of the rule of law. Most recently, I traveled to Burma, just as the U.S. announced that it was opening a door to a new era of diplomatic relations with Rangoon. At the same time, the Karen rebels agreed to a ceasefire, ending years of fighting. This is how I think about what lies ahead for the Asian nation.

After a few days of consultations in the bustling port city of Yangon, Burma’s former capital, we departed for Burma’s sparkling new capital city, Naypyidaw. During the six hour drive, I counted down the oddly-shaped kilometer markers lining the country’s modern highways until we reached Naypyidaw, a city essentially built from scratch about five years ago.

12 lanes of roadway in front of the Parliament Building, Naypyidaw, Burma

It was here that the parallels to the transformation the country is now undergoing as it flirts with democracy were impossible to ignore. The next day, as we drove from ministry building to ministry building, I noticed a massive, 12-lane roadway encircling one of the buildings. In fact, this improbably large road, seemingly built with a much bigger vision in mind, was virtually empty, save for our own vehicle, alone, in a vast sea of pavement. As we drove along, it struck me that, clearly, this country had high aspirations for its future. The buildings and infrastructure were immaculate —yet nearly empty. Now it is a ghost town of modernity, as if awaiting the dawning of a new day.

After 30 years of isolation following the military takeover of its civilian government, the country has expressed an eagerness to rejoin the world community through democratic reform and promotion of individual freedoms. And the large road is just one lens through which we can see this expansive vision. As they venture down this promising but uncharted road, a few thoughts on some of the avenues — and roadblocks — that could lay ahead:

The need to build trust and deliver reforms. After years of suppression of political opponents and dissent, as well as armed conflict between the Burmese army and its varied ethnic groups, the new government will need to gain the trust of the Burmese people as a whole. Trust-building through concrete positive actions will be crucial since, as one person said of past promises of reform: “Our hopes have been dashed in the past, and at times, brutally.” By incrementally delivering reform, instilling confidence with each tentative step forward, the steady progress they make will help build stability within a country of people striving to strengthen their trust in the new government.

Vegetable seller in Yangon, Burma

Engaging in an inclusive, transparent and strategic reform process is essential. It is critical to take an inclusive approach, including all stakeholders, in all communities, to making decisions along the road to reform. This approach, together with the development of a clear and concise reform plan, will help build a solid foundation of good governance and encourage constructive, well thought-out reforms.

Infusing new institutions like the police, judiciary and other organizations with the values of the Burmese people will take time. The road to true reform in any country in which authoritarianism has been the rule is seldom a quick one. Change in Burma will take many years. However, it is crucial that broad decisions outlining legal reform and governance issues be made in the near term. In that way, the new government can begin simultaneously reforming for the long term as it also builds confidence among the Burmese in the short term.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Burma

Legal reform, traditional values and the role of the state: all about balance. Legal reform does not happen in a vacuum and is not merely a technical exercise of drafting laws. Accordingly, it will be important for the new government to balance its political, economic and legal reform initiatives in a way that reflects Burma’s historical values and considers its past attempts at reform. This will be of particular concern when it begins to address governance and the relationship between the state and various regions and communities.

I am well aware of the challenges and pitfalls that lie in wait along the road to democracy. But I left Burma with buoyed hopes. Paraphrasing the words of a youth activist I met while there, I get a feel for the cautious optimism I experienced across the country: “I am optimistic, but I am also a realist.” If Burma continues its efforts to forge a middle ground, building upon the positive steps that have been so clearly evident over the past few weeks, it can be a model of reform and political transformation. And a welcome member of the international community.

As Demand for Reform Grows in Burma, the U.S. Opens a Door

18 Jan

I returned from Burma a few days ago.  It was an amazing trip.  The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) posted my write up on the trip.

http://www.usip.org/in-the-field/demand-reform-grows-in-burma-the-us-opens-door

As Demand for Reform Grows in Burma, the U.S. Opens a Door

(NYT PHOTO)
January 14, 2012

USIP’s  Colette Rausch, director of the Institute’s Rule of Law program, is in Burma at a historic time. The U.S. on January 13 announced it would send an ambassador to Burma after the military-led government agreed to free political prisoners and implement other reforms just the day before. This effectively ends the U.S. isolation of the Burmese government. Around the same time, the Karen rebels agreed to a ceasefire, potentially ending decades of fighting. Just prior before these major developments, Rausch filed the dispatch below from Yangon, the former capital of Burma.

Yangon, Burma

This past year, Burma saw significant changes designed to transform it from a country in total isolation and under complete military rule to a budding democracy. Since his election in 2010, President Thein Sein has introduced positive, yet incremental reforms on the political, social and economic fronts. With these reforms, public skepticism is slowly diminishing and in its place is cautious optimism. Contributing to this optimism is Aung San Suu Kyi’s willingness to join the still imperfect political system in support of President Sein’s efforts to reform. She will be running for a vacant seat in the parliament in the April 1 elections. Though there is a long road ahead to democracy, and the potential for reversal remains, many are beginning to believe that the positive change underway must be nourished and reinforced by institution-building in order to make it more difficult to turn back. The key challenge is how to carry the transition safely over the hurdles presented by Burma’s decades-long isolation and totalitarian history.

I have been in Burma for the past week as part of a delegation led by the Asia Society to engage in Track II discussions with representatives from a newly created, independent research institute that provides policy advice to Burma’s president. The goal of the dialogue is to establish an ongoing channel of communication and explore opportunities for cooperation to advance relations between the U.S. and Burma. Discussions focused on issues related to environmental sustainability and economic development, rule of law, democracy building and people-to-people exchanges. During our meetings in Yangon and Burma’s capital Naypyitaw, we also met with government officials, representatives of the business community and civil society.

The years Burma spent in isolation has left it without the tools for managing modern political and economic life. There is an urgent need for exposure, awareness and capacity building to develop the systems and structures needed to foster an emerging democracy. During our trip to Burma this month, a common refrain from those we met was: “we lack awareness, knowledge and capacity. Without these, we cannot build our democracy.” As one person declared, “We have been hibernating for so long. We are starved for information and capacity building. Only a small handful in the country have capacity and that is not enough.” Accordingly, training is needed in all sectors: public, private, government and civil society. There is recognition that their lack of capacity is debilitating and they welcome assistance. “We need everything. You name it, we need to reform it,” one person said.

Further, Burmese business, government and civil society representatives with whom we met were very humble and welcoming of assistance, specifically from the U.S. The new government’s reform element believes in an urgent need to move reforms forward and to do it properly, inclusively and in line with democratic principles. Those we met with:

  • Seek to stimulate economic growth but with sustainability and environmental factors integrated
  • Recognize the need for the government to show timely and concrete deliverables to the Burmese people
  • Understand that the country is stymied by economic sanctions compounded by a lack of human and institutional capacity to deliver on needed reforms

With the desire for change growing, the government faces the precarious task of balancing the need for immediate changes with the need to make good reform decisions and to maintain stability. Despite the incremental nature of the actual changes on the ground so far, it is certain that the new government contains a strong reform element that is giving the Burmese people new hope and even respect for the government, especially the president. But it will be critical to deliver tangible positive outcomes for the people soon.

Our delegation included Suzanne DiMaggio, Asia Society’s vice president of Global Policy Programs; Priscilla Clapp, former U.S. chargé d’affaires in Burma; Dr. Ji-Qiang Zhang, vice president of Programs for the Blue Moon Fund (an environmental foundation based in Charlottesville, VA); Debra Eisenman, assistant director of Global Policy Programs at the Asia Society; and Billy McCarthy, program assistant for Blue Moon.

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