Burma at the Turning Point
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
I must say, though, that it’s a bit hard to come to the NED on the heels of the Secretary of State’s speech at the NDI annual dinner in December what I consider to be one of her finest speeches, on the future of democracy. If any of you missed that speech, I commend it to you.
I also want to thank the NED team that has played a leading role in promoting democracy and civil society in Burma for more than 20 years.
And I’d like to recognize the many other friends and colleagues here who have stood with the Burmese people for decades, both through their programs to promote democracy and their humanitarian work — the folks from the Open Society Institute, the Norwegian Burma Committee, DANIDA, the International Rescue Committee, and in fact every group here at the Burma Donor’s Forum and many, many more. I salute you all for your continued dedication to this important work.
Most of all, I want to honor the Burmese activists who have sacrificed so much to bring about the changes that we are here today to discuss.
Hindsight being 20-20, we can look back over the year 2011 and see that governments around the world have made choices that have profound effects on their people.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak could not stand in the way of the winds of change that swept through Tahir Square, and the transition to democracy continues to move forward. And although we must expect many difficulties and even setbacks in every democratic transition, the Egyptian people are now charting their own future and seeking to build the kind of durable, inclusive democracy they deserve.
In Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his government made a different choice, attempting to cling to power. Since that decision more than 5,400 people, mostly peaceful demonstrators, have been killed by government security forces. This week we are continuing to work with the Arab League to shape an appropriate and effective international response at the UN Security Council, part of our effort to end this tragic chapter in Syrian history.
The news out of Burma has been much more hopeful, as the government has taken a series of actions to change course after years of isolation and human rights abuses. When I travelled there in December with Secretary Clinton, we saw the possibility of real democratic change that could eventually lead to a much brighter future for Burma.
The statements from Nawpidaw are certainly encouraging. At a dinner in Singapore on Monday night, President Thein Sein said, according to press reports, quote: "We want our people to take part in the democratic reform process and we want democracy to thrive in Myanmar. I wish to assure you that I shall endeavor to establish a healthy democracy in Myanmar."
If the leaders continue on this path of democracy and openness, they will free all remaining political prisoners. They will hold fair elections on April 1, allow their people a genuine say in how they are to be governed, end restrictions on the media and the Internet, end the divisive ethnic conflicts, and begin to build a more integrated and peaceful society.
If they continue to pursue this path, they will end their international economic and political isolation, attract aid and investment, and be in a position to build a strong and inclusive economy that shares prosperity widely. Of course that won’t transform Burma overnight. But it will begin to build the kind of government Burma’s people deserve.
I come to speak with you today with great humility, because I am not a Burma expert, and I know that many of you have worked on Burma for years or decades.
I had not visited the country until last fall, when I went first with Special Envoy Derek Mitchell in November, and then again with Secretary Clinton in December. What I do bring to this discussion is experience with countries that are beginning down the long hard road towards democracy. And based on that experience I feel it is a rare privilege to be able to offer help to a country at such an important time.
But our engagement starts from a clear-eyed assessment of where there has been progress and what remains to be done. Let’s start with the progress. We have seen movement on at least three important fronts. First is the release of political prisoners. Since October, the government has released more than 500 political prisoners. That includes most of the highest-profile prisoners. Some of these people had spent decades in jail for nonviolent expression of their political views.
Min Ko Naing, for example, was an 88 Generation student leader who spent most of the last 15 years in jail. He was re-arrested for organizing peaceful walking demonstrations in Rangoon in 2007 and sentenced to 65 years. Sixty-five years. Last week he and four other freed 88 Generation leaders held a press conference in and promised to “support those who want to build justice, freedom and equality” in Myanmar.
There is U Kyaw Min, a Rohingya rights activist who was elected as a Minister of Parliament in 1990 but then sentenced to 47 years in 2005 after he met with an international delegation investigating forced labor in Burma. His wife, two daughters and son were also rounded up and sentenced to 17 years simply for being his family members. Today he is free. His wife and two daughters were also freed with him. His son, however, remains in jail.
And there is Hla Hla Win, a young journalist arrested while interviewing monks and community leaders on video. She was first charged with having an illegally imported motorcycle, then when she was discovered to be a journalist she was sentenced to an additional 20 years for violating the Electronics Act, which prohibits uploading or downloading data deemed damaging to security. She also was released last month.
President Obama applauded the releases of prisoners of conscience as “a crucial step in Burma’s democratic transformation and national reconciliation process.” These released prisoners—lawyers, journalists, bloggers, activists, ethnic and religious leaders—will be key in building Burma’s future.
A second area where the actions of the Burmese government are significant is the opening to greater debate and discussion of political issues. In the last year the government has engaged Aung San Suu Kyi in a substantive dialogue. It has amended electoral laws, allowing the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties to register as political parties and begin preparing for the April by-elections. It has begun to ease some restrictions on media and civil society, and is beginning to allow humanitarian access for the United Nations and NGOs to conflict areas.
A third, related area where the government has undertaken reforms is in building a stronger democratic foundation. Last year the government passed a new labor law that expands the rights of workers and will allow unions to become legal again for the first time since the 1970s. In December, the Parliament passed new legislation protecting the right of assembly.
We have heard reports that work on a revised press freedoms law is underway. And the government established a new Human Rights Commission.
But much remains to be done. Hundreds of political prisoners are still being held, and a number of the laws used to arrest and detain them remain on the books. Censorship has been relaxed—but the censorship board remains in place. NGOs are allowed to operate—but many have not been allowed to legally register.
Probably the most important and most difficult remaining challenge is the need to end violence in ethnic minority areas and to advance an inclusive, meaningful dialogue leading towards genuine national reconciliation.
The government has struck preliminary ceasefire agreements with the Shan State army and with the Karen National Union, which has been involved in one of the longest-running civil wars anywhere in the world. At the same time violence in Kachin State has worsened, with reports of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.
Ultimately the ethnic violence is rooted in political causes, and it will require negotiated political solutions on both sides to address the underlying grievances.
In the coming months and years we must steel ourselves for challenges that will inevitably come with this transition. Over the years, it’s my observation that when ossified societies begin to loosen up, the process is neither smooth nor linear.
That is why this Administration is committed to a long-term engagement, one that both continues to push for reform and change, while at the same time offering encouragement and support.
As Secretary Clinton said, “The United States will meet action with action.” In response to the January 13 prisoner release, Secretary Clinton announced that we will exchange ambassadors. In a step-by-step fashion, we hope to build a relationship based on mutual respect and tangible progress on the issues that matter most to improving the daily lives of people.
Where Burma goes from here will depend on the political will of its leaders and the willingness of the government’s opponents to engage. And this political will needs to flow from two directions – from the top down, and from the bottom up.
The President and his advisors have created a kind of top-down reform process that has pushed through initiatives at a rapid pace. And this is to their credit. These changes have opened political space. But opening the political space doesn’t bring meaningful change unless people move into that space and start to use it.
It’s like an empty house. If the house is in bad shape, you may have to shore up the roof and hang some drywall before you can even move in. Then you need to bring in some furniture, move in, hang pictures that express your vision of what a home should look like, and invite a bunch of friends over for dinner, or plant a garden. Then that empty house starts to become a home.
To make Burma a home for all of its people requires broad, grassroots engagement by the widest possible range of politically active citizens. Ethnic leaders and bloggers. Lawyers defending clients. Lawmakers writing new media freedom laws. Factory workers forming unions and negotiating for better conditions and higher pay. Human rights advocates working with local powerbrokers to stop forced labor. NGOs working to bring child soldiers home.
All of these groups will need to push for structural changes from the bottom up, at the same time as the political leadership works to push reform from the top down.
I don’t know where those two forces meet. It’s not for us to say. It’s up to the Burmese to find the place where the two sides meet, to build trust on both sides, and to negotiate a space where they can coexist peacefully. That process is how durable, systemic change begins.
So the project of reforming the system from within is immense. It will require both political will from the top down and dynamism from the bottom up. Those who have profited from power in every country are often resistant to sharing it, and thus a backlash is always possible.
I’ve been accused of irrational optimism. But I do believe there is reason to be optimistic. That doesn’t mean that we assume everything is going to work or that we rush our engagement faster than reforms warrant. But it does mean that we reconsider long held assumptions; recognize the dynamic change that is occurring, and seize the opportunities to support the people, and especially politically active civil society, to pursue real, sustainable reforms from within.
And frankly there is another reason why my optimism isn’t irrational. Her name is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Her country is fortunate to have a leader of her principles and her caliber to inspire and guide it through these tumultuous times.
On my last visit, I was struck by the warmth and the welcome given the Secretary.
The crowds who lined the streets for miles to welcome her.
The beautiful hug she got from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The man who took an American official’s hands at the airport and said with tears in his eyes, “Thank you for coming to our country.”
The desire, expressed to us by so many Burmese, to rejoin the world – and not just the international banking system, but the international community.
Change is never guaranteed, but there is an appetite for change. And I know that all of you continue to work extremely hard to be part of it.
So I will stop here and am happy to answer your questions. Thank you.