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.

Altaf Qadri/AP/File
Myanmar's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is silhouetted by the setting sun as she arrives at an election campaign rally near Yangon, Myanmar, Feb. 26. Op-ed contributor William F. Schulz says 'If such leaders [as Aung San Suu Kyi] match their moral credibility with organizing power, the government [of Myanmar, also known as Burma] will be hard-pressed to roll back its new [democratic] initiatives.'

I recently returned from Burma, known officially as Myanmar. When I was executive director of Amnesty International USA (1994-2006), I would not have been granted a visa to enter Myanmar because of Amnesty’s criticism of the government. This time I received a visa upon arrival at the airport in Yangon.

Similarly, Aung San Suu Kyi, the revered leader of the country’s democracy movement, had chosen not to leave the country since 1989 for fear she would not be allowed back in. This time, having recently been elected to Parliament and assured of her right to return, she was in Thailand on her first travel outside the country in more than twenty-four years. I could finally get in at the same time she finally got out.

These are but two of the ways Myanmar has changed since March 2011, when general turned “civilian,” Thein Sein, became president. Whether these and other relaxations of authoritarianism will last is naturally the first question on the mind of every Myanmar citizen. Is all this change simply a reflection of one man’s (or one faction’s) strategic predilections, or does it signal a genuine opening?

What is pretty clear is that the sanctions, economic and diplomatic, that the West and some of Myanmar’s neighbors had brought to bear against the country had some effect. That’s not because the government cared about the impact of those sanctions on the welfare of the people. It’s because those who had made themselves rich with the government’s help (Transparency International rates Myanmar one of the most corrupt nations on earth) realized that, with the West closed off to them, they had few places to invest their ill-gotten gains.

Whatever the motivation of the powerful, the people are ever so cautiously beginning to exercise their newfound freedom. Transitional democracies are notoriously unstable – see Egypt – in part because no one knows exactly what the new rules are or who the ultimate decision-makers will be. The press is flexing its poorly toned muscles by covering some of the controversies like it never has before.

On the one hand, this means there is more civic space for organized dissent, at least at the local level. One village, for example, in Myanmar had been beleaguered for years by the military appropriating sand for its own uses that the villagers needed for theirs. With the new melody of “people power” playing in their ears, the villagers sent an anonymous protest letter to the military, which, astonishingly, stopped stealing the sand. This was not, of course, because the military had suddenly become enlightened. It was because it couldn’t know for sure that higher-ups might not heed the villagers’ wishes and punish the military’s excesses.

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.

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.

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