Human Rights

From Berlin to Burma, Democracy’s Uneven March

By Myint Zin 18 September 2014

The 8-8-88 uprising occurred in Burma (as it was then known) more than 26 years ago, but it was only 25 years later, in August 2013, that the people of Myanmar (as it is now called) were officially allowed to commemorate it. Today marks another significant anniversary in the country’s long struggle for democracy: Sept. 18, the day 26 years ago that a military coup brought about the violent suppression of the 1988 uprising.

A little over a month ago, the anniversary of another blow for global democracy transpired. Aug. 13 marked the 53rd anniversary of the start of construction on the Berlin Wall, which was subsequently “torn down” on Nov. 9, 1989. Whereas the Berlin Wall lasted “only” 28 years, communism in East Germany lasted about 41 years, from 1949 until 1990. But unlike the Berlin Wall, the edifice of authoritarianism first constructed by the late Gen. Ne Win’s military coup in 1962—only a few months after the Berlin Wall’s construction began—lingers on.

In the early 1980s, I recall watching on television as the late US President Ronald Reagan confidently reply in the affirmative when asked whether Berlin would one day be one city again. And as in almost all of his extraordinarily lucky life, “The Gipper” was again fortunate to see his prediction come to fruition when, on Oct. 3, 1990, Berlin was reunited.

In the lead up to that historic moment, Reagan on June 12, 1987, delivered a famous speech in which he demanded, “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall,” in front of the Brandenburg Gate, a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall dividing East and West Germany. Less than 30 months later, the Berlin Wall was literally “torn down,” with jubilant East and West Germans using sledgehammers and the like to pulverize the partition. Yet “one more” for the Gipper.

But I do not want to see this note serve as a paean for the Gipper, who was also known as “The Great Communicator.” Bucking conventional wisdom, I argue that it was NOT Reagan and the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s policies (at least not solely, or even significantly) that led to communism’s downfall in most—but not all—of Cold War communist countries.

It was, to borrow a communist term itself, the “inner contradictions” of communism that largely led to its downfall. The father of communism Karl Marx said capitalism would eventually “fall” due to its inner contradictions. Instead, internal instability, injustices within communist regimes, and general economic mismanagement were mainly responsible for communism’s supposed downfall in many countries. Reagan and Thatcher just happened to be in power at the time.

Even 25 years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, at least five countries can be said to remain communist, at least in terms of a political orientation by which only a single communist party is allowed to exist. They are North Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. With China alone, more than one-sixth of the world’s population can be said to be governed by political communism. Has communism really fallen?

Though democrats are keen to trumpet their Cold War “triumph,” the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s should not be considered the last word in a supposed global consensus on systems of governance.

Before China cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and the tide turned against the former Soviet Union, in another part of the world Burma for a few weeks in 1988 looked itself to be on the verge of a historic change. I think it was the US Congressmen Stephen Solarz who told BBC Radio at the height of the failed uprising in August 1988 that “the Burmese people will get democracy whether as a result of [further bloodshed] or not.”

Well, he was wrong, at least up to this point. There was further bloodshed, when the Burmese Army crushed the 1988 uprising beginning with the military coup of Sept. 18. And again yet more blood was spilled during the failed Saffron Revolution of 2007. In the quarter century since the 1988 uprising, only in the last few years have the Burmese gotten a taste of a few dollops of “trickle down democracy,” a concept which Reagan, at least economically, could appreciate. President Thein Sein apparently has said, in effect, that we should not “rush” to democracy so I surmise that democracy à la Thein Sein must “trickle down” to the people in a “disciplined manner.”

On Sept. 10, 1988, the one-party legislature (Pyithu Hluttaw in Burmese) adopted a resolution to hold “multiparty elections” within three months. The late Dr. Maung Maung, at the time the president of Burma, said it might take 20 to 25 years to determine whether a multiparty system would work for Burma.

More than 25 years after Maung Maung’s speech, the Burmese still do not have a genuine multiparty system. Instead, in my not-so-humble, unapologetic view, we have at best a quasi-civilian praetorian system in which the Army still dominates the so-called “disciplined democracy” that the generals themselves created.

So much for the predictions of Stephen Solarz about the Burmese people “getting” democracy. And also the observations of the late Dr. Maung Maung about the time that it would take to evaluate how a genuine multiparty system would work in practice. On this, the 26th anniversary of Burma’s most recent military coup, it’s worth noting how far we’ve yet to go.

Authoritarian praetorianism in Burma is proving to be a much tougher wall to climb—let alone tear down—than its Berlinian counterpart.