February 7, 2013

Is it an omen that one of Secretary of State John Kerry’s first photo ops was with four women activists from Burma? I hope so — hope that it is a sign he will be a consistent champion of democracy, civil society and female empowerment.

The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi (Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg)
The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi (Seong Joon Cho/Bloomberg)

The four courageous women, whom Kathleen Parker wrote about Wednesday, dropped by The Post after their Wednesday morning session with Kerry. They are among thousands of Burmese who have been at least partly liberated by that nation’s recent transition from stultifying dictatorship to something between autocracy and freedom. Liberated in many cases literally, from prison, and liberated to form associations and encourage grass-roots democracy in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago.

They had words of both optimism and caution for U.S. policy makers. All four said they can operate in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), without fear. But they also said the military and ex-military who ran the country before still run the country — and it’s not clear they intend to give up power.

“If The Lady’s party gets a landslide victory in 2015, will power be handed over?” asked Khin Lay. “We’re not quite sure.” “The Lady” is Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, who has transitioned from house arrest to a seat in parliament.

As a result of the uncertainty, the activists urged the United States government to “approach carefully,” as Zin Mar Aung said. “We welcome ‘wait and see.’” U.S. officials and development agencies should take care to interact not just with the government, they agreed — and not just with the leading opposition party — but with fledgling civil organizations across the country.

Good advice for the new secretary.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Post. He writes editorials for the newspaper and a biweekly column that appears on Mondays. He also contributes to the PostPartisan blog.