RANGOON – Across the Middle East, and now in Burma (Myanmar), one of the great questions of contemporary global politics has resurfaced: How can countries move from a failing authoritarianism to some form of self-sustaining pluralism? Foreign ministers everywhere, in turn, face crucial policy questions: When a country launches such a political transition, when should other countries help, and what is the best way to do so?
Happy transitions, to paraphrase Tolstoy, are all alike; but every unhappy transition is unhappy in its own way. The happy transitions across much of Central Europe following the end of the Cold War were made easier by the fact that the old communist order more or less died on its feet and surrendered power peacefully. This, along with generous support from Western Europe, the United States, and others, helped to create a mood conducive to reconciliation, allowing each country to tackle in a measured, non-vengeful way the many difficult moral issues arising from the recent dark past.
Above all, perhaps, these transitions took place amidst a wider network of legitimate institutions – the European Union, OSCE, NATO, and the Council of Europe – championing the rule of law. This supportive context provided a roadmap for national policymakers, helping them to build democratic institutions and marginalize extremists.
Elsewhere in the world, things are not so easy. Discredited regimes may cling all the more ruthlessly and ruinously to power, as in Syria. Or they may create all sorts of new problems on their way out of power, as in Libya. Or they may be struggling to introduce democratic accountability while maintaining stability, as in Egypt.
In Burma, we see another model – a bold attempt after decades of military rule to move in a controlled but purposeful way toward a new, inclusive form of government. Here there are striking similarities to what happened in Poland as communism ended. A military elite favors step-by-step reform, but wants to protect its position and is determined to avoid a descent into chaos. The opposition is led by a charismatic leader with huge popular support. And the ruling elite opens a number of parliamentary seats to a popular vote, only to be shocked by a landslide opposition win.
Moreover, as was true in Poland, Burma’s opposition leaders must strike a delicate balance: satisfy their impatient supporters (many of whom have suffered mightily under the old regime), while offering those still in power the prospect of a worthwhile future.
But there are key differences. Burma has a very different internal political dynamic, not least because of the complex relationships among its various ethnic and linguistic communities – social cleavages that were not an issue in largely homogeneous Poland’s transition.
Moreover, unlike Poland when communism collapsed, Burma already has powerful business tycoons flourishing under the existing system – and they mean to maintain and develop their privileges. Above all, there is no immediate international institutional context encouraging steady change and establishing standards and benchmarks: Burma must find its own path.
Earlier this month, I visited Burma, where I met President Thein Sein and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as former political prisoners and many other activists. I came away convinced that Burma is a country on the move – and moving firmly in a good direction.
All sides accept that this large and resource-rich country has under-performed for far too long. They also agree that a step-by-step approach, based on reconciliation, is better than an open struggle for power, which could quickly take on a calamitous ethnic dimension. That consensus will remain credible as long as political reform continues and economic growth accelerates. After such a long period of stagnation, people demand to see and feel changes for the better in their own lives.
The rest of us should be constructive and creative, not prescriptive and pernickety. Above all, we should be patient.
The EU’s suspension of sanctions and general readiness to engage constructively make sense. Burma’s leadership should respond by releasing all remaining political prisoners and opening up the entire political process. The EU also should ensure that its development assistance – and the process of delivering it – enhances pluralism and reconciliation by benefiting all of Burma’s communities fairly and transparently.
Poland is making its own direct contribution, above all by helping senior Burmese decision makers, opposition leaders, and business representatives to understand the “technology of transition” – that is, the sequencing of technical reforms, which has helped to make Poland one of Europe’s healthiest economies today. Our business representatives came with me to present large-scale investment projects.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of my visit to Burma was a willingness to open up and learn from other countries that have navigated the painful transition from dictatorship to democracy. One general asked me, off the record, “How did you manage to implement such dramatic political changes without bloodshed?” A young woman at our democracy workshop told the assembled journalists and lecturers, “We thought that Burma was a one-off example. Now we see that countries far away have had very similar experiences. We feel less lonely – it all worked out for you.”
Given that spirit – and appropriate foreign assistance – I am confident that it will all work out for Burma, too.