The Lessons of the 'Burmese Spring'

Han Sung-joo Han Sung-joo

President Lee Myung-bak visited Burma on Monday, the first South Korean leader to do so in 29 years. In a meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein, Lee pledged to support democratization and market opening. Lee also urged the Burmese leader to cease arms deals with North Korea. He also met democracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in a show of support for democratization in Burma.

Led by a military junta since 1962, Burma still has a long way to go. But Suu Kyi's parliamentary election win has raised hopes that the country has at least taken the first steps toward democracy, and countries around the world support them. The European Union has lifted economic sanctions that had been in place since 1996, and the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations and decided to appoint an ambassador to Burma. Japan is writing off US$3.5 billion in debt.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Burma following the country's by-elections and offered to extend the world body's assistance in achieving democracy there.

Just five years ago, the Burmese military junta brutally crushed a pro-democracy protest by Buddhist monks and held rigged elections while keeping Suu Kyi under house arrest. But now it is allowing partially free elections that gave the opposition led by Suu Kyi a landslide victory. What has led to these changes?

The most prominent reason is Suu Kyi herself, who fought indomitably for freedom. The Nobel-prize winner suffered two decades of house arrest and oppression but kept alive the flames of hope for democracy among the Burmese people. When the junta proposed partial concessions, such as allowing opposition party candidates to participate in by-elections, Suu Kyi pragmatically accepted gradual change rather than stubbornly insisting on full democratization immediately.

The second reason is President Thein Sein, who came to office 13 months ago. Although he has a military background, he is relatively untainted by corruption and neither as decadent nor as authoritarian as previous Burmese dictators. He is believed to be willing to communicate with Suu Kyi and other opposition figures and acknowledges the need for democratization in order to promote economic development. It is lucky that Burma has a president like him at this time.

Former president Than Shwe, a hardliner, and his military junta handed over power to Thein Sein, a moderate and reformist who is considered a kind of Burmese Gorbachev. The handover of power is seen as positive not just for Burmese democracy but also for the safety of the former junta officials. Dictatorships generally become corrupt, and corruption ends up prolonging dictatorships. Burma is no exception. It is quite an achievement for Thein Sein to convince military hardliners to accept democratization.

The efforts of the international community were also vital in setting Burma on the road to democracy. The carrot and stick approach paid off. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. and Europe began dealing with the Burmese junta through economic sanctions. Twenty years later, Burma is one of the few cases around the world where such measures proved to be effective. At the same time, ASEAN has pursued a policy of "constructive engagement" since 1980 and admitted Burma as a member in 1997. It even allowed Burma to take the rotating chair in 2014. Thus, ASEAN has given Burma a chance to participate in regional affairs, paving the way for the country to take steps toward democracy.

The most important lesson from the "Burmese Spring" is that dictatorships do not last forever. In order for reforms to take place peacefully, a country's leader must undertake pragmatic and progressive measures, while the international community must use a flexible carrot and stick approach.

By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo

englishnews@chosun.com / May 18, 2012 13:16 KST