THE TRANSITION from military rule and dictatorship to democracy is treacherous. In the past generation, not every nation that has embarked on that journey has arrived at its hoped-for destination, nor has every revolutionary leader delivered on the promise. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a champion of human rights and democracy in Burma who has taken most of the reins of power, no doubt has studied lessons from Lech Walesa, Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela. In the weeks since her government assumed control, ending decades of military rule during which she was held under house arrest, she has moved gingerly and cautiously.
Beyond doubt, she realizes the enormity of the obstacles facing her and threatening Burma’s transition, but at the same time she sees that popular expectations are running high. She has freed political prisoners and set a new tone. Thin Yu Mon, a human rights activist in Rangoon who was recently in Washington, marveled at the atmosphere she encountered in a public festival. “Now we are really free,” she said.
But Burma’s democratic trajectory is not assured. The Obama administration properly recognized this Tuesday with a calibrated easing of sanctions on Burma, also called Myanmar, that left some in place, signaling a continuing concern over human rights abuses, ethnic conflict and the continuing influence of the military, which is trying to preserve undemocratic power through a constitution it wrote before allowing free elections.
One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s most daunting challenges, therefore, is to deal with these powerful and unelected generals, who control a quarter of the seats in parliament not subject to election and thus can block constitutional reform; who hold the key Defense, Home Affairs and Border Affairs ministries; and who have grown accustomed to profiting handsomely from the nation’s bounty. In the latest action, the United States has retained an arms ban, as well as sanctions on individuals and entities that are obstructing political reform, committing human rights abuses or engaging in illicit military trade with North Korea.
At the same time, Aung San Suu Kyi faces a cauldron of ethnic tension and conflict. Among the most severe is the plight of the 1 million Rohingya, a Muslim minority who have been subject to persecution and misery, denied citizenship and crowded into squalid camps. Some 100,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes in 2012 in a wave of violence. Subsequently, many fled and lost their lives on rickety ships at sea. Nationalist Buddhists have insisted the Rohingya are not Burmese and call them “Bengalis,” as did the former military government. Shockingly, after the U.S. Embassy expressed condolences recently for the loss of at least 20 people whose boat capsized on April 19, Aung San Suu Kyi suggested to the new U.S. ambassador that the United States should not use the word “Rohingya.” Ever careful, she may have been catering to Buddhist nationalists, but if so, it was an egregious error.
She must find a way to correct the mistakes of the past, not repeat them.