RANGOON — The head of a US-funded pro-democracy group says Burma is unlikely to revert to its authoritarian past, but that setbacks to the country’s democratization are inevitable as it shakes off 50 years of military rule.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy following meetings with government leaders, activists and civil society groups in Rangoon and Naypyidaw last week, Carl Gershman of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) said the country’s political trajectory was “important for global democracy, not just important for democracy in Burma.”
“This is not a good time for democracy in the world. There’s a lot of pushback by regimes in Russia, in Latin America, China’s being very tough, Vietnam. It’s very tough,” said the NED president during his first visit to the formerly isolated Southeast Asian nation. “There are other transitions that are under way, like in Tunisia, but this is really the most interesting and arguably the most important process that is now under way. And I believe that if it can work here, it will give encouragement to people around the world. So it’s terribly important.”
Gershman, whose Washington-based organization is funded largely by the US Congress, said he was optimistic that a Burmese government that once considered the NED an “external destructive element” was moving irrevocably toward democracy.
“I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to turn back,” he said. “I met people, a lot of people in both civil society, independent media as well as in the government, and everybody wants to at least show that they’re committed to this process, and everybody says they’re for democracy.
“As we say often, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t put it back in. That’s the nature of democracy.”
But citing the political turmoil in Egypt as a cautionary tale, Gershman acknowledged that Burma faces “great challenges ahead,” including grappling with the inter-communal violence that has accompanied reforms over the last two years and amending a Constitution widely regarded as undemocratic.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “There will be reversals. There’s no doubt that there will be. There have been reversals in every transitional situation. There will be disillusionment, but it’s very hard to turn something like this back.”
Regarding ongoing efforts by the government and leaders of Burma’s many ethnic armed rebel groups to reach a “nationwide ceasefire agreement” this month as a precursor to the more complicated process of national reconciliation, Gershman said the issue was closely linked to achieving a freer and more democratic Burma.
“We’ve made the point repeatedly while we’ve been here, that this is the critical issue for democracy. There are many issues that are critical—development issues, building civil society, having free and fair elections and so forth—but there’s nothing that’s more important than the ethnic issue,” he said.
Over the weekend, most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups agreed to support a nationwide ceasefire on the condition that nine points, including a demand that Burma’s military reduce its political role in the country, were met.
Another major condition requires that the government agree to initiate a political dialogue early next year, when ethnic groups will push an agenda that is expected to include emphasis on the creation of a federal state granting greater autonomy to ethnic minority regions.
Many of Burma’s ethnic minority groups have for decades been at war with the central government, fighting for a range of issues including greater control over natural resources.
The NED, an organization that distributes grants to pro-democracy causes including The Irrawaddy, has for much of its 30-year history directed funds toward democracy promotion in Burma. Last year the NED bestowed its annual Democracy Award on five Burmese activists, including the prominent former student leader Min Ko Naing.
Burma is one of four countries in Asia where the NED currently focuses its advocacy, along with democracy-bereft China and North Korea, and military-dominated Pakistan.
Speaking at the inaugural assembly of the Asia Democracy Network (ADN) in Seoul on Oct. 22, Gershman said Burma would continue to be a priority of the ADN, which brings together more than 100 civil society groups from across the continent.
“One of the historic tasks facing the new Asia Democracy Network will be aiding the transition in Burma by promoting the reform of official state institutions; advising on how others have reached agreement on fair rules and inclusive processes, especially regarding minority rights; and helping to strengthen independent civil society and free media,” he said.