The world has perished in the zombie apocalypse except for Donald Trump and 10 Burmese dictators. Together they conspire to build an extravagant South East Asian paradise with lavish hotels and 20 lane highways for just the 11 of them: the end result is Burma’s capital, Naypyidaw.
As an intern at the Canadian Embassy in Yangon, I was lucky enough to get to visit some of Naypyidaw’s key parliamentarians a few weeks ago during the calm before the storm brought on by the election of Burma’s first civilian President in 54 years. After that fateful day, I vowed to never go back (for unofficial purposes at least), as it was the eeriest, most deserted place I have ever been. Built by the dictatorship in 2005 (for no evident reason), Naypyidaw’s immaculate roads, perfectly geometrical houses, and meticulously spaced out palm trees all project a pristine image of order that only the foolhardy would challenge.
However, just a couple weeks later, that vow seems unfounded: Naypyidaw is abuzz with excitement as the city has been catapulted into the international spotlight with the election of President U Htin Kyaw, Nobel Prize Winner and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s close confidante. Canada also cashed in on the hype: I returned to Naypyidaw with Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, during his visit a few days ago to pledge Canada’s support for the new government and strengthen Canada-Burma relations. To get to see essentially the birth and growth of a new democracy has been an immense privilege. Each meeting was profoundly eye-opening as I got to hear from the new government the myriad of challenges that lie ahead in practically transitioning from decades of dictatorship. The most valuable thing I have gained thus far as an intern in Burma is perspective.
My interest in Burma that originated in the coddled yet critical-thinking classroom of my Peace, Conflict and Justice Studies lectures, brought me to the country a year later as the Embassy’s Political Intern. I was a little third year with a modest collection of experiences including being a Research Assistant at the Munk School and being a blogger for a critical media organization called AfricaFiles. I found out about the opportunity a day after the deadline from a friend in a Master’s program. One all-nighter later after having perfected my application in the hopes it would still be considered, I sent it off with few expectations. To my sheer and utter surprise, taking the chance paid off.
While I wouldn’t say that my naïve idealism and utopian values were entirely shattered by a crude awakening to the reality on the ground, I have come to realize that an absolutist insistence on principles can be incredibly harmful where pragmatic compromises are what truly build up the foundations for change.
On the 40 minute plane ride from Yangon to Naypyidaw, I was reading the Manifesto of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party that now faces the gargantuan task of bringing genuine democracy to Burma after their historic victory in the November elections. I have read university Model United Nations resolutions that are more coherent, substantive, and action oriented than the NLD’s Manifesto, which begs the question, how do we really DO democracy? Canada is a country boasting almost 150 years of democratic experience: how did we get started? How does a society and a government like Burma’s shed a dictatorial psyche? After 50 stifling years of repression, how does a country institute a system that it essentially has never known?
What has become glaringly obvious is how divorced the classroom can often be from the physical reality of a complicated context. In classroom discussions, I was part of the derision and criticism of what we deemed to be Burma’s farcical transition, focusing on the continued influence of the military which still retains 25% of the seats in Parliament. However, getting to see the events unfolding on the ground, it has been a glass half full sort of perspective change where I have been able to appreciate that Burma making it this far in spite of the odds being stacked against it, is a tremendous victory in and of itself.
Since being here and through sitting in on discussions with the Speakers of the Upper and Lower House, the Chairmen of the Upper and Lower House International Relations Committees, and other parliamentarians I have observed and learned three key things:
- In the West there seems to be an assumption that after decades of dictatorship, the new government will somehow magically know how to institute an effective, responsible, and accountable democracy. You make it to the election, you get elected, and you are now in power. There is no precedent. How do you proceed? What we take for granted as common knowledge may not be all that common with respect to the cultivation of democracy.
The Burmese government has professed on numerous occasions that what it desires is a “peaceful, democratic and federal union.” Given this repeated public statement, we were surprised to hear one of the high level officials say, “we’ve heard about federalism, but we don’t really know what it is.” Another high level official asked us a question on how Canada negotiates its bilingualism. Burma has at least 64 different linguistic groups, and the seemingly small issue of what languages to use in parliament and how to reconcile the lack of proficiency by many ethnic minority MPs in the Burmese language, is a priority. In starting from scratch, both macro and micro level details are still issues the government is learning in setting up its institutions.
Parliament is truly in its infancy, yet what was inspiring to see was the genuine desire from every single parliamentarian to learn from their international partners and benefit from the expertise of advanced democracies.
- The military isn’t going anywhere just yet, especially with the election of a former Lieutenant General as one of the new Vice Presidents. However, that is no cause for fatalistic condemnation. The transition from democracy to dictatorship takes time, strategic planning, close coordination, compromise, and plenty of patience. The transition period from authoritarian to democratic governance is known to be the most turbulent period in a country’s evolution, whereas full dictatorships and full democracies are a lot more stable. With the military’s power deeply entrenched in the government through its control of the defense, home affairs and border affairs ministries, essential to the country’s security, it is impractical to contemplate the military’s exit from political life just yet.
The sobering reality of Burma’s transition is that it wasn’t international pressure, condemnation or sanctions that brought about change: the military decided it was ready to concede a measure of control and only with its blessing and permission has the country been able to progress this far. For the foreseeable future, the military will hold substantial political influence. While the road to a full democracy will be long and fraught with tedious negotiations, we must take solace in the knowledge that slow and steady wins the race.
- The most exciting thing about that fateful day in Naypyidaw was probably just getting to SEE diplomacy in action; I have come to the realization that diplomacy is just like making new friends. The incredible perk of being the Ambassador’s side kick is getting to learn from the way he engages with his Burmese counterparts. We sit in class and we read about the importance of forging links and building relationships with our international partners, but how does this happen in practice? It goes a little something like this: “Hello, Canada here, you are? We quite enjoy democracy, human rights and respecting the different cultures and languages that make up our wonderfully diverse country. What’s that you say? You like that too? Wonderful. Let’s become friends and discuss how we can work together to advance our common interests.”
Of course it’s never that simple- but it’s always the first step. My first observation of diplomacy in its most traditional sense- the building of relationships between the representatives of the State, was quite grand. During the last meeting, we were all seated on big, gold, embroidered, cushioned sofas in a massive room with incredibly high ceilings, and a large gold emblem in the shape of Myanmar on the wall. The go-to shpiel of the Ambassador looked a little like this: he introduced Canada to the new parliamentarians, traced our historic relationship with Myanmar, and talked about areas ranging from parliamentary training, to indigenous rights, to climate change, all areas of common concern for both of our countries. After this, he asked what the priorities for the new government are, and how Canada could be of assistance in seeing those priorities through. The very beginning phases of establishing a relationship after decades of estrangement seemed to be as simple as reaching out, demonstrating genuine interest, and pledging our support to work together.
There is warmth, passion and inspiring resolve to be found in the inner chambers of Naypyidaw’s cold and imposing architecture. As an intern, getting to see where the country has been and where the country is headed has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life. If Burma has taught me anything, it is that patience is a virtue just as much as persistence: for decades, this country has toiled relentlessly in its pursuit of change, and it will continue to do so until reaching its professed goal of a “peaceful, democratic, federal union.’”