Burma also faces economic challenges. Burmese know that, while other Asian countries have been advancing, their country has been left behind, the victim of years of isolation and military rule. During my visit, I heard repeated requests for foreign investment. Yet, most Burmese want economic development and democracy-building to advance simultaneously.
The political thaw in Burma demonstrates that the Obama administration’s decision to lift U.S. sanctions was correct. But U.S. engagement in Burma has to be sustained, with full buy-in from our allies, international institutions and human rights organizations. We have to be prepared for both progress and setbacks. One area of great concern is the emergence of Buddhist extremists targeting Burma’s Muslim minority.
U.S. policy must also take into account the experiences of countries, including Egypt and Turkey, where democratic transitions have gone off the rails. We should urge Burmese leaders to adopt the federalist constitutional model they are considering and to allow provincial governments to exercise considerable political and economic autonomy. Equally important is the creation of strong civil society institutions that foster tolerance and an independent judiciary and that are capable of stepping in if democratically elected leaders exceed their constitutional authority.
There are good reasons to be optimistic. U.S. Ambassador Derek J. Mitchell is well respected by all major Burmese constituencies. Organizations such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and Freedom House are working to bolster the institutional capacity of political parties and civil society, fostering dialogue among ethnic groups and political parties and bringing youth and women into these policy exchanges.
Burma today represents a fundamental truth: No oppression can forever deny to people the realization of their core human aspirations. Ultimately, the dreams of the Burmese people will be realized. We should do our best to help them along the way.