‘The Genie is Out of the Bottle’

By Aung Zaw 27 December 2013

YANGON — For decades, there was no love lost between the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and Myanmar’s military regime. As an organization funded by the US Congress and tasked with promoting democracy across the globe, the NED earned the junta’s ire by funding exiled Myanmar dissidents and ethnic minority causes opposed to the former ruling generals’ authoritarian rule.

Now, after more than two-and-a-half years of democratic reforms under President U Thein Sein, the once icy relationship appears to be thawing. In October, an NED delegation led by its president, Carl Gershman, visited the country to meet with civil society leaders and government officials in Naypyitaw and Yangon. The Irrawaddy’s founder Aung Zaw sat down with Mr. Gershman at the tail end of that trip to talk about the ongoing reform process, the challenges of democratic transition, and his meetings with men who once considered him the enemy.

Question: This was your first trip to Myanmar. What were your impressions?

Answer: I think a process has been started that’s going to be very difficult to turn back. I met a lot of people in both civil society and independent media, as well as in the government, and everybody wants to at least show that they’re committed to this process. Everybody says they’re for democracy. Admittedly, it’s the beginning of what will be a long and difficult process, but there are many things I saw that give me hope.

I had a meeting with about 40 young people, mostly women, mostly from minority groups. They’re hungry to understand democracy. There’s more hunger to understand and work for democracy here than in the United States today, where we tend to take it for granted. Among the government officials, they want someone like me to endorse what they’re trying to do, and as long as they stay on the right path, that’s fine with me.

I know transition is very difficult, but I remain hopeful because one of the things that has happened here is that the system has opened up and people like The Irrawaddy are back here. You’re opening up political space and when you open up political space, people get educated, people’s expectations grow.

As we say often, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t put it back in. That’s the nature of democracy.

Q: How do you see the Myanmar-America relationship evolving?

A: One of the leaders I met with complained about the past and felt that the sanctions the United States imposed on Burma were a terrible mistake—that a policy of engagement would have been much better. I explained that it’s very difficult for the United States to have a friendly relationship with a dictatorship. I remember when Chile was under the rule of [Augusto] Pinochet, the relations were extremely difficult and unfriendly. Once Chile had a democratic election, it was night and day. Relations changed and we had a friendly relationship.

I could see that relations could be very difficult if the process moves backward. That could really complicate things.

Q: Some critics say power and wealth in Myanmar are still controlled by the same people who have governed—brutally and undemocratically—for decades. What do you say to those who feel that justice has not yet been served?

A: Certain things are easier to achieve than others. It’s very easy to have an opening, maybe negotiate an agreement on constitutional or electoral reform. Those things can happen quickly. But just as in 1989 when communist governments fell, going from there to changing a system that grew up over decades is very difficult.

You’ve raised the issue of transitional justice. It’s something you’re going to have to work out. That’s not going away. In some countries, like Russia, they’ve done nothing on that. And the crimes under Stalin were, frankly, much worse. And I don’t think Russia can become a democracy unless they deal with what happened in the gulag, where millions of people were killed. You cannot forget that.

In South Africa and Chile, they dealt with it through a truth and reconciliation process, without being punitive. Other countries deal with it differently.

Q: Have you gotten a sense that there’s a political will to discuss this?

A: It may be too early. I don’t know. The people who are really committed to human rights, they want justice now. But that means you’re going to have problems with some of the people that were responsible for the crimes of the past. It’s not going to be easy, but you can look at other national experiences as to how that can be done in a way that makes a distinction between those who were part of the system and people who really were responsible for crimes.

Q: Is it a good thing that the West is engaging with the military?

A: I think if it’s the right kind of training, yes. For them to understand what the proper, modern relationship is between a military and society, where the military doesn’t rule over the society but protects the nation, and what makes a professional military. To have programs on that, I think that’s all positive.

Q: Given its track record, do you really think Myanmar’s military can be taught to respect human rights and democracy?

A: They’ve now committed themselves to that. Do I think they’ll actually do it? I don’t know, but I do believe that having them commit to that is important, because then you have a standard that you can hold them to.

When our country was founded, we had in the Declaration [of Independence], “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Well, that wasn’t true. We had slavery and fought a civil war over that. Then we had 100 years of inequality and Martin Luther King, Jr. said those words were a promissory note—that this is what’s owed to the people, and that’s what the whole civil rights movement was based on. Having a commitment to these things, getting those words into the Constitution, into law, gives the people a legal legitimacy and a basis on which to carry out a struggle.

One of the leaders that I met was concerned about the gap between expectations and reality. Yes, there is a gap, and that gap is going to continue to exist. And if they don’t measure up to those expectations, there are going to be continued protests.

Q: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said Myanmar’s Constitution is one of the world’s most difficult to amend. Are you optimistic that it can be done?

A: I’ve looked at the complexities of it and how difficult it will be to make changes to the Constitution. At the same time, it’s perfectly clear that this is not a democratic Constitution. And it’s a Constitution that is going to have to change. And you have people in the government that are on different sides of this issue. That’s a good sign. Divisions within the ruling group are always helpful to democratic progress.

Q: There has also been some criticism of the opposition since the reforms began. Daw Aung Suu Kyi, for example, has come under fire for her silence on the Rohingya issue and for being overly accommodating to business interests at the expense of landholders in the case of the Letpadaung copper mine.

A: Just as the government will be divided, the opposition, too, will be divided. There is an inevitable tension between human rights and democratic transition. Ultimately, they have to go together. And I think it could be a creative tension. Hopefully, the people who are raising the issues of political prisoners, ethnic rights, religious extremism, and so forth, will help make the process of negotiation and compromise more accountable to the people.

I agree with you that the process underway can neutralize some of the voices for ethnic rights, for human rights, and so forth, because [the government and the opposition] are trying to agree right now, and that makes it very difficult to raise sensitive issues. But clearly, there are going to be people who raise these sensitive and difficult issues and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is going to have to speak about these things.

Disclosure: The Irrawaddy is funded in part via a grant from the National Endowment for Democracy.

This story first appeared in the December 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.