Kenneth Wollack

Kenneth Wollack is the President of the National Democratic Institute. Previously, he was co-editor the Middle East Policy Survey.


What has been happening in Burma in the past fifty years?

It’s a country that has been independent for the past sixty-five years, but fifty of those years have been under military rule. So there hasn’t been much economic development. It’s a country that’s rich in natural resources and it was anticipated to be an Asian economic tiger. It has lagged far behind the human development index of its neighbors. It has been a country that has repressed its citizens and a country that’s unique in that a democratic election in 1990 resulted in the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy as the winner of the elections, but the military junta didn’t allow her to take power despite her overwhelming victory. She spent the subsequent years under house arrest and very little progress was made. Suddenly about a year ago, after she was released from house arrest, the government started a series of political and economic reforms in the country. I think there have been agreements, even though these changes came suddenly and surprisingly. There has been agreement that these reforms are quite significant the softening of censorship, the legalization of labor unions, the release of many – not all – of political prisoners, cease fire agreements in the ethnic areas of the country, the legalization of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party allowing her to run for office, and the holding of elections of which her party won forty-three of the forty-four races, all these things happening in a very short amount of time.

What has led the military regime to allow all the reforms to happen? Is there a catalyst?

This is an opaque system, so no one really knows what the motivation is. Some people believe it’s the fear of growing Chinese influence and the need to balance that. Also some leaders, the more reform elements within the military and within the government, saw that they were lagging in economic development to their neighbors. They saw their neighbors developing and they saw they were far behind; in some indexes on par with Laos in terms of development. So it was a desire to shed their isolation and grow economically, and a realization they had to enter the international community to do this. And while there is agreement that these changes have been quite significant, in that it provides a basis for further reforms, there is not agreement that this represents a clear path to a genuine democratic transition because under the current constitution the military maintains great influence over the political system of the country.

You mentioned Burma was considered a potential Asian economic Tiger. What exactly gives Burma that potential?

At one point, Burma had a strong educational system and vast resources in the country such as minerals, gems, and forests; so a tremendous wealth in terms of resources. If those resources could be harnessed in a way that could have benefitted the people of the country and tapped the talents of the people of Burma, there was a view this was going to be the economic engine in the region.

Why Burma and why now? Why is this ranking so high on the State Department’s agenda?

Burma today is the only country in the world where you can actually identify who represents the people. Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in 1990. It was over twenty years ago, but she won elections overwhelmingly. Not unlike South Africa; before the 1994 elections you knew Nelson Mandela was going to emerge as the leader of the country. But before the 1994 elections he had not been elected, even though he was the leader of the ANC and the presumptive leader of the country. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, was leader of the country following the 1990 election so she became an international democratic icon, a winner of the Nobel Peace prize, and she represented the aspirations of the people of the country. That captured the attention of the international community because of her popularity, what she stood for, and her election victory. So it was unique that Burma was the only country that wasn’t democratic but you could identify who was the legitimate representative of the people, and that was Aung San Suu Kyi and her national League for Democracy. I think a real test for Burma would be whether the reforms we have seen will lead to a genuine democratic transition. This is not at the point that it was in South Africa, where the ruling National Party and the opposition ANC were negotiating for a transition. It is not yet Eastern Europe and the Round Table negotiations, the National conferences that took place in Africa, or the snap elections in the Philippines in 1986 that brought Corazon Aquino in to power by defeating Ferdinand Marcos. So we are in midst of a different process in Burma, because the change of system hasn’t been agreed to yet. And so what we are seeing is a process of reform and liberalization, and we don’t know what the outcome will be. It is an ongoing test for reformers in the government to determine how much power they have, and for the democratic opposition that has been struggling for a peaceful political change in the country for the past several decades.

What is the mood there? Are the people on board with the reform movement and Aung San Suu Kyi?

She has a challenge of moving from a democratic icon to the position of a politician. She will be tested like any politician. The challenge for her is that her party only controls seven percent of seats in Parliament because these were bi elections; these were not seats for the entire Parliament. The Parliament will be elected again in 2015 and that will ultimately be the true test. There are expectations that because she virtually swept the bi elections; that she and her party will probably sweep the elections in 2015. There is a great deal of hope. She has developed a close relationship with the president of the country Thein Sein. That relationship is driving this reform process. People are hoping that relationship will produce genuine economic and political changes that will benefit the people of the country. At the same time there are ethnic tensions between the Muslims and the Buddhists in West Burma, and ethnic tensions in other parts of the country between the military and ethnic groups. That is not an untold story, but very important stories. As the political developments are taking place in the capital, ethnic conflicts are creating and complicating the political transition that is underway.

What are the challenges being imposed?

Much is focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, the election of her party in the bi elections, and the relationship between her and the president for further political reforms and ultimately a genuine democratic transition. However, this is taking place also in the context of growing ethnic tensions and violence in the country; tensions between the Buddhists and Muslims in West Burma and between the Burmese military and ethnic groups in other parts of the country. This is a volatile situation, both politically and militarily, and all these things are a challenge for both the democratic opposition and the government deal with.

Do the ethnic tensions pose a risk of derailing the democratic transition process?

These things are happening parallel, but they are going to be intersecting throughout this process. One cannot take into account one without considering the other; ceasefire agreements, how this will be resolved through constitutional reform, what type of system will you have to accommodate the demands of ethnic groups for autonomy, and what type of system can maintain peace and stability throughout the country. This will be part of the negotiating process over constitutional reforms. I think it’ s incumbent upon the international community to be engaged and stand behind the process; to support those reformers in government that want to progress on the economic and political front, and the democratic forces in the country who have been struggling for many years for fundamental democratic and political change.

What incentives and tools does the U.S. have that can help move this process forward?

We have economic resources – given our financial situation, not great economic resources – but there has been a sanction regime in place. Some of those sanctions have been relapsed; there are others that could be relapsed further, given the progress. I think the U.S. is weighing how to respond to the unfolding positive reforms that have taken place, but realizing we are at the beginning of the process not the end of the process. How the international community, the U.S., the Europeans, and regional powers react to these changes its going to be a balancing act. I think the notion of engagement and trying to support those who want to move the process forward is a sound policy, but it has to be done carefully and taking into account what the ultimate goal of the engagement is. I think the ultimate goal is a genuine democratic transition that reflects the desires, the hopes, and expectations of the people of Burma.

You mentioned China and the role they may have played in some of these changes coming about; how about the democratic countries? Is there a role for a country like Indonesia?

Absolutely, and Burma will be taking over ASEAN, the regional association, in the year 2014. That also perhaps influenced the decision that it was going to assume a leadership role in the region, which may have also had an impact on the leaders in the government. I think a country like Indonesia – its development, its influence in the region – can play a very important role. Thailand can play an important role, the Philippines can, South Korea can; and many of the Burmese are looking to the Indonesian transition as a model of developing civilian control over the military, because in the early stages of the Indonesian transition there was a formal role for the military that was ultimately avowed over time and that could be a very important model for the Burmese transition as well.