Karel Schwarzenberg is deputy prime minister and foreign minister of the Czech Republic. He was president of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights from 1984 to 1991 and was chief of staff to Václav Havel from 1990 to 1992.
Václav Havel’s understanding of the trials of a democratic transition provided a lesson for the Czech Republic — and highlights a fundamental truth for Burma’s path forward.
Writing on this page seven years ago, the former Czech president expressed his ardent desire for reform in Burma that would make it possible for him to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was under house arrest. “I wish for her that those changes will happen as soon as possible, and that my silly idea — to hand her a rose — becomes a simple and easy thing to do,” he wrote. His health did not allow him to travel to Burma after she was released, but they did speak by phone in December 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi warmly thanked Havel for his long-standing activism on behalf of democracy and human rights in Burma. After Havel died last December, his friends collected roses from his coffin and gave them to artists who had volunteered to produce a work preserving the flowers, making it possible to fulfill Havel’s wish posthumously.
In recent months, substantial changes have been made in Burma. During my trip to Naypyidaw this month, President Thein Sein and other leaders explained the government’s plans. I was surprised by how open and frank they were and how interested they were in the Czech transition process. The Burmese government has concluded cease-fire agreements with most of the country’s ethnic nationalities and has taken steps to end the 60-year war with the Karen people. The fighting with the Kachin, however, continues, and violence has erupted in Rakhine state. There are many violations of the cease-fires, and there are still hundreds of prisoners of conscience in Burmese prisons.
It’s important to realize that while the president and his cabinet are willing to start a peace process, it is difficult to change a decades-old military mind-set.
I remember when I returned to my homeland after 40 years of exile and traveled throughout the Czech country. I was appalled by the dilapidated buildings and devastated towns. Even the forests had been destroyed by acid rain. Havel, then our president, asked for a report from my trip. Upon listening to my findings, he told me: “You have been away for a long time. The buildings will be restored when their owners get them back. The forests will rejuvenate again when we get the cleaning filters for the power plants installed. The towns will rebound soon. But it will take a very long time to repair the damage to the souls of our people.”
Similarly, it will take time before the idea of freedom, the rule of law and democracy trickle down to the last commander in the most remote district of Burma. In this process, we can offer material help, but it is perhaps more important that we share the experience from our own peaceful transition to democracy, the rule of law and the market economy.
While in Burma, I met with the leaders of ethnic minorities and civil society representatives. I also met with the National League for Democracy party and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. I was able to fulfill Havel’s wish by presenting the glass-encased rose. I wanted to honor the relationship between the two great champions of democracy, but doing so was also a symbol of the Czech Republic’s commitment to accompanying Burma on its path to democracy and peace.
During our meeting, Aung San Suu Kyi encouraged our delegation to continue the programs our country has arranged in Burma — translations of selected books by Havel and a handbook on the politics of transition, as well as training programs for media and community leaders.
“It is fascinating for us to read about the experiences of others who have struggled against authoritarian regimes,” she wrote in her essay “Czechs and us” in 1998. “I think perhaps some of them will be dissidents for life, their intellectual combativeness ever ready to question the ways of authority, whosoever that may be.”
Our experience makes us keenly aware of the treacherous path that Burmese democrats have to negotiate. The task requires weighing risks and opportunities, patience and compromise. There will be courageous decisions that they — and only they — can responsibly make. The outside world should be careful in mentoring Burma’s leadership. The international community must resist pressing for radical steps, which could set the whole process back years, or decades, nor be willing to accept cosmetic changes.
Burma needs genuine national reconciliation. It also urgently needs investment oriented not toward plundering the country’s natural riches but that creates possibilities for its young generation and respects the rights of farmers and ethnic minorities. No democracy can survive without offering opportunities and jobs that enable an acceptable standard of living. Together with the Burmese people, we can express our unequivocal belief that, in Aung San Suu Kyi’s words, “To talk about change is not enough. Change must happen.”