By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, former CALD Chair

Of the proceedings of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Conference on

Synthesis – Managing Burma’s Political Transitions: The Challenges Ahead

Producing a synthesis of the various interesting and instructive papers we heard today is not an easy task. Understandably, almost all speakers looked at the issue under discussion through the prism of their own experiences, but unfortunately very few made any clear connection between the problems they discussed and those of Burma, which is supposed to be our primary concern.

Nevertheless the issues they raised suggest what I hope will be productive lines of thought. I will look at these in terms of a formula suggested by a former President of Sri Lanka who had to deal with the aftermath, in the early nineties, of not only the ethnic conflict and the settlement brokered by India, but also a Sinhalese youth insurrection that used dissatisfaction with that settlement as a focus to rouse armed opposition to government. His argument was that we must have consultation, compromise and consensus, and I was reminded of this when Cambodia raised the question of the possibility of talking with the devil, and Hong Kong talked about dancing with wolves.

The answer to what might be a conundrum was outlined in the very first presentation we had on Burma, which fleshed out the position put to us by Aung San Suu Kyi when I was privileged to lead the CALD delegation that met her way back in January 2011. Earlier we had been to the NLD headquarters where some of the party elders seemed to suggest that no compromise was possible. But her position was clear, that she was prepared to talk and to aim for consensus, but she would not compromise on basic principles. Compromise I believe is generally a good thing, when it is based on sensitivity to the positions of other individuals. It should not involve abandoning principles, but one should be prepared to be flexible with regard to other people in trying to reach a common understanding.

Dr Aung this morning, in a moving description of the approach taken by his party now, mentioned that they engaged in talks with all parties based on mutual respect. Their aim was long lasting peace and reconciliation, and this clearly required understanding of what the different parties wanted, what they needed, and what they stood for.

In the discussion after that session, following on the description of the gradual increase in people participation in government in Hong Kong, some very significant points were made. One was the fact that, in developing a pact between competing forces, we need also to take into account competition within one or other party to the principal conflict. This is particularly true where ethnic groups are concerned, whether in Burma or Sri Lanka or the Philippines, where extreme views have evolved, whereas there are usually also more moderate forces.

It is understandable that minorities which feel they have been tricked and abused – and this applies to political groups too – feel they cannot trust those who have oppressed them. But experience shows us that even apparently intransigent regimes change, sometimes because of external pressures, sometimes because of changes of personnel. South Africa and Burma are obvious examples that come to mind, but of the eight countries in CALD that had obvioiusly authoritarian regimes but experienced transitions to democracy, we can see some sort of softening in four others of the original oppressive government when new personalities emerged. In Taiwan and Indonesia and Mongolia and Pakistan a hardline leader presided over elections that led to a change of government, and I see no reason why the same thing should not happen in Burma. Indeed it could be argued that the same thing happened in Thailand, when General Prem was succeeded by Prime Minister Chatichai.

Prem, now revered it seems by Democrats in Thailand, is an example of the seminal power exercised by individuals. He was a general who became Prime Minister without being elected, but he understood the need to move towards democracy. And while I appreciate the view presented by the DDP, that the changes in Taiwan were triggered by bottom up opposition, I do not think we can ignore the opening up, after the total domination by General Chiang Kai Shek, by his son, who was President for a brief period. That again seems to be the model Burma is following, and I hope the other conditions that allowed peaceful transition in Taiwan obtain there.

Amongst these is the need to ensure confidence. The fact that President Chen appointed a military man as his first Prime Minister was a vital factor in ensuring that animosities did not develop. Animosities, we should remember, often arise from fear, and I believe the point made by the chair of the second session, about the confidence the Burmese military have because of the 2008 constitution, should be kept in view. Certainly that constitution must be changed, but this should be done in a manner that does not threaten. I myself believe that the hardliners in 1989 were able to get their way because of threats made by individuals after the NLD won that election, and that is why the very positive approach that was described today, involving mutual respect, is vital. We should never forget that respect should be as much for the weaknesses of competing forces as for their strengths – or perhaps even more so.

It is such an approach that I believe will be most fruitful with regard to relations with China, which were referred to frequently, though often obliquely except in the case of Hong Kong, where they are obviously of immediate significance. When we think of the support China has given to authoritarian regimes, we should not forget the policies of the United States until very recently – to give them the benefit of the doubt, despite the graphic descriptions of say the former British ambassador to Uzbekhistan about support for torture and secret renditions fairly recently.

The fact is, all countries look after their own interests, and morality will not stand in the way of this, as the people of South America found to their cost for well over a century and a half after the promulgation of the Monroe doctrine. I would like to think that the United States has now realized that its own interests are better served by promoting democracy and human rights than by supporting authoritarian regimes, but we would be naïve to think that democracy and human rights are an end in themselves for any country with regard to any other.

It is the people of a country who provide the best defence of their own rights, and that is why we must not only promote democracy, but also institutional mechanisms that preserve and protect rights. Cambodia, having experienced the hollowness of what passes for democracy because of regular voting, noted the vital importance of the police, the Courts and the Election Commission being independent institutions. Let me add that Singapore too, if not so obviously, would also fail this test of a fully functioning democracy, that such institutions should be independent of the government in power.

To that Hong Kong added the need for an independent institution to prevent corruption, and I should note that that element in Hong Kong is some compensation for its lack of democracy in other respects. But I think we also need to stress the importance of the media, while also realizing that an independent media is impossible. All media, we must recognize, will fall in line with the predilections of those who fund it, but diversity in the media is vital, and we need a situation in which different political perspectives should have outlets that represent their views. I am delighted that the Democrat Party of Thailand has taken positive steps in this regard, and am only surprised, given what outsiders knew about the influence exercised by the media opposed to them, that remedial measures have come so late.

This point about the media, or rather about the need for a free flow of information, is relevant to the last paper we had today, which discussed environmental problems. The theme of the speaker was the need for synergy between political parties and those concerned with environmental protection, and the failure in this regard of the DPP in Taiwan after it took power was highlighted. This sort of criticism, encouraged by the party itself, is heartening, for it suggests understanding of one of the cardinal principles of democracy, namely that it requires constant consultation of the people, for otherwise they would not be empowered.

In this regard I was deeply impressed by the point made by the speaker, that the path to democracy is made up of challenges to authority. Even the most idealistic political parties can forget this when they assume power, for they begin to think that those in charge know best, and they privilege elites, whether they be political or administrative or financial elites. But we must not forget that the authority such elites exercise only has legitimacy in terms of benefits to the people amongst whom they function.

At the first session this morning, in talking primarily about the economic crisis and its implications for democracy, the Thai speaker noted three areas with which government should be concerned. The first was job creation, which is of course something that political parties of all persuasions pursue. The second point he mentioned was social concern, and this is something Liberals should stress. Unfortunately there is a strand in liberal thinking which concentrates on free markets, and believes that market forces will solve all problems. But the great tradition of liberalism, that which distinguishes it from right wing parties that believe capitalism is a panacea for everything, and left wing parties which believe state controls are essential, emphasizes the importance of equity. Therefore, while accepting the central position in economic policy of market forces, liberals believe in welfare measures that will increase opportunities for all, and thereby promote the level playing field on which alone market forces can operate to the benefit of all. Thus, as Count Otto von Lambsdorff so graphically put it once, while Liberals believe in a small state, they also believe in a strong state, and this was the message that came through clearly even yesterday, when our Secretary General introduced the Seminar on Climate Change.

Nowhere perhaps in the modern world is the need for state intervention to regulate market forces greater than with regard to the environment. I recall that, twenty years ago, when I used to conduct workshops for the FNS, the obvious areas in which even Liberals recognized the need for state authority were defence and law and financial security. In those days the environment did not figure high on the list. But with every year that has passed since then, we realize how important it is for the state to provide security for its people with regard also to nature and its resources.

We must then make sure that there is concerted attention to environmental needs, and this requires constant consultation of local communities. As countries move towards greater democracy, we must also make sure that the people who should exercise power are aware of issues that could affect them adversely. Information that is relevant must be collated and disseminated, so that decisions are made on the basis of full awareness of possible consequences. For this purpose media involvement is essential, but given the predilections and priorities of most media outlets, we need also to promote new concepts of media and information dissemination.

Democracy after all is not about governments, it is rather about the governed. Political parties therefore must, in promoting transitions to greater and greater democracy, also enhance the power of individuals to make decisions. Better understanding of the needs of others is vital, as we discussed in the session on forging ethnic harmony, but so too is awareness of the consequences of the decisions we make.