Patience as a virtue in restarting a democracy

Myanmar’s first civilian president in half a century pleads for patience, a virtue that many leaders find useful when coupled with moral strength.

AP Photo
Aung San Suu Kyi, center in blue, and Htin Kyaw, next to her, newly elected president of Myanmar, stand during a ceremony to take oaths in parliament in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 30. Suu Kyi’s aide Htin Kyaw took oath on Friday as a new civilian government takes over Myanmar, after 54 years of rule by the junta or its proxy.

When the new leader of a country assumes office, rarely does that person speak of patience. Usually the words at a swearing-in are those of hope and promise. Yet on Wednesday, Htin Kyaw, a democracy activist who became Myanmar’s first civilian president in more than half a century, took his oath and then, in a televised address, pleaded with the people for patience, mainly to achieve full democracy.

If any people are receptive to the idea of having patience, it is the people of Myanmar (Burma). They have lived under military rule since 1962. And despite an election last fall that allowed civilians to take over much of parliament, the military retains a strong role for itself – under a constitution it wrote.

For Mr. Htin Kyaw and the winning National League for Democracy, patience, coupled with wisdom and perseverance, is still needed for a final transition to civilian rule. The party, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has learned from past mistakes not to confront the Army with angry urgency for change. During her long years under house arrest, admits Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, she had to deal with her own anxiety to achieve quick results. She had to learn a kind of patience that is tied to inner moral strength. This virtue enabled her to eventually hold persuasive negotiations with the military’s commander in chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing.

Other national leaders have cited the power of patience in politics and diplomacy. In his National Security Strategy last year, for example, President Obama stated that the United States must rely on “strategic patience and persistence.” This policy has guided his recent openings to Cuba and Iran, or steadfastness toward North Korea.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has often cited the need for patience in dealing with a migrant crisis and Russian aggression. Like Aung San Suu Kyi, she lived under harsh rule for decades, seeing firsthand the autocratic rule of East Germany. In her dealings with Russia, she has mentioned the decades of patience needed before the cold war ended. “I am surprised at how faint-hearted we are, and how quickly we lose courage,” she said last year.

Patience is not merely waiting or code for inaction. It builds on and appreciates each step of progress. In a 2014 research paper titled “Gratitude: A Tool for Reducing Economic Impatience,” a group of American scholars studied the incentives needed for people to be patient. They found that those feeling grateful showed significantly more patience to reach a goal. Effort alone was not enough. “We all recognize the fact that willpower can and does fail at times,” the study concluded.

If Myanmar’s new leaders can navigate a difficult transition away from power sharing with the military, it may come in part from the gratitude for their achievements so far. It has taken a quarter century for democracy advocates to get to this point. A plea for patience by the new president is easily understood.

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