Landing in Naw Pyi Daw, Myanmar's (Burma's) capital, last month, I realized that I had tumbled down the rabbit hole into an altered reality, but one that, unlike Alice’s, carried little wonder.
Our delegation arrived at a huge gleaming new airport, but ours was the only airplane there. I saw massive new buildings, each with perfectly manicured lawns tended by a small army of groundskeepers, but I saw no residents or other workers. I drove on 12-lane highways where I saw only a handful of cars.
I saw several grand ministry buildings, parliament, and a gilded presidential palace, in a country where a third of the people live in poverty. And I met with a set of government leaders who each delivered the same set of talking points that have not progressed beyond this summer’s surprising initial reforms toward more freedom for the Burmese people. It was difficult to judge what was real and what was illusory.
I went to Burma in advance of a trip to the World Economic Forum in Bangkok May 30 - June 1, where I had been invited to speak on regional security in Southeast Asia. I went to meet with the country’s leadership, including the newly elected parliamentarian, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, to discover if Burma’s tentative moves toward democracy were genuine and lasting or self-interested and reversible. I wanted to find out what effect these changes would have on civil society and to assess whether the leaders would continue to pursue reforms.
What I found were Burmese generals, some now out of uniform, taking incremental steps toward reform and a society left to figure out for itself how to take advantage of the recent easing of repression.
In today’s US Senate, bipartisanship is increasingly rare. On America’s policy toward Burma, however, both the Obama administration and my own Republican party broadly agree. Both support democratic reforms and increased investment in human rights and economic development, but both believe that the relaxation of sanctions should be matched by demonstrable progress on the treatment of ethnic minorities, the release of more political prisoners, and the expansion of traditional democratic rights.
That demand for real action is justified, because the limited reforms made on the ground thus far, while real, are not occurring out of a desire by all for democratic progress. Rather, the reforms must be divorced from a Western perspective that believes in the idea of selfless action and placed in the context of the environment in which they are occurring.
Burma’s “reformist” generals, including the President Thein Sein, who has taken the tentative first steps toward reform, have systematically controlled the economy and access to Burma’s wealth of natural resources for a generation. They have used the political process to enhance their control at the expense of their own people, especially certain ethnic minorities who are not even considered to be citizens.
Their rule has seen, if not permitted, an illicit trade in poppies and other goods, including human trafficking, across a porous border populated by disenfranchised minorities.
When I met with him, Burma’s president, Mr. Thein Sein, avoided any real dialogue about the myriad of these issues facing his devastatingly poor nation. Instead, he calmly delivered a monologue on the threats he faces. To the president’s credit, he did initiate the reforms, which took courage.
But in part, sanctions also forced his hand, and failure to move toward reform would have resulted in such a degree of diplomatic and economic isolation that Burma would either have collapsed under its own weight or become a paralyzed pariah, much like North Korea. Ironically, in order for the ruling class to preserve and extend its privileges of power, Burma had to change.
Yet whatever the motivations of the generals, the tide of democracy is growing. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of committed Burmese citizens that want change and are willing to risk, quite literally, their lives for the prospect of reform.
Later in my trip, while in Bangkok at the World Economic Forum, I sat down with the most famous of the Burmese activists, Aung San Suu Kyi, or “Mother,” as she is endearingly called by those that follow her. Her participation in the Forum was her first journey abroad after 15 years of house arrest and 24 years where she felt she would be prohibited from returning if she left the country. Literally closing the door to exclude her hundreds of admirers, we discussed her country’s future.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who seems genuinely surprised at the attention given to her, expressed a deep wariness of those still in power. But she also expressed an equal determination to use the reforms, regardless of the reasons behind them, to benefit her country. Later, in front of an open forum, she cautioned those that would invest in her country, stating quite bluntly that the rule of law does not yet exist and that many of the protections to commerce and economic activity which exist in a modern democracy are simply still absent in Burma.
In other words, Burma is a bit like the Wild West, and companies may very well be on their own, a situation mirrored in civil society.
In the old capitol of Rangoon, I sat down with a group of women involved in on-the-ground reform efforts affecting all Burmese. Among others, I spoke with the founder of a small start-up company employing those living with HIV who make bed nets to help prevent malaria. And I met with Zin Mar Aung, the winner of the International Women of Courage Award, who has founded four different civil society groups. These young women are the future of a Burma that will truly make lives better – if they are given a chance.
Is this how a Burmese revolution happens? Not with the flash of guns or mass demonstrations in the streets, but rather with a group of activists committed to incremental change? It doesn’t grab the international spotlight, but ultimately, it may be more effective and, I hope, less violent.
When the seeds of democracy grow in Burma, it benefits the United States. In order for those seeds to continue growing, we must continue to support the nascent reforms and assist those working to improve human rights, the rule of law, and civil society, even as we carefully watch the motivations of the generals and their next actions.
The recent riots and ethnic violence in western Burma clearly demonstrate the fragility of progress and the very real possibility that the generals could return to the repression of the last decades. President Thein Sein’s statements, in particular, underscore the necessity of using every tool at our disposal, including financial aid, sanctions, and US influence in the region, to keep pressure on the regime so that, like Alice, we do not end up in Wonderland again and again.
Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.