People in Myanmar (Burma) must learn to 'think freedom'
Whatever the military's motivation for allowing reforms in Burma (Myanmar), the people – led by Aung San Suu Kyi – are cautiously beginning to exercise their newfound freedom. But transitional democracies are notoriously unstable. People must learn how to think and act democratically.
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Of course, the usefulness of such uncertainty cannot last forever. The reason democracies are run by the rule of law is so that the people – and the military – know what the rules are and who will enforce them. Eventually the government will clarify the rules (written or unwritten), and at that point everyone will know whether the newfound intimations of democracy are fraudulent or serious.Skip to next paragraph
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In the meantime, the people must learn how to act democratically. I remember one Eastern European dissident saying to me after the 1989 upheavals that overthrew one communist government after another in that part of the world, “In the past, you could get fifteen years in prison for criticizing the government; ten years in prison for thinking about criticizing the government, and five years in prison for doing nothing at all. The biggest problem for me with freedom is not learning to speak freely; it is learning how to think like a free person.”
Among other things, that “thinking like a free person” means recognizing that people are all in this struggle together.
Such a new mind-set cannot come too quickly, as witness the recent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The new ceasefires in Shan State and elsewhere are still fragile, and fighting continues in Kachin State. As Aung San Suu Kyi said at her long-delayed acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, all factions are responsible for violence, and all factions will need to work together to stop it. The same is true of building a new democracy.
Fortunately, Burma has great moral leadership not just in Ms. Suu Kyi but in the thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns who have already sacrificed enormously for the cause of freedom. If such leaders match their moral credibility with organizing power, the government will be hard-pressed to roll back its new initiatives. Stay tuned.
William F. Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, is president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization.