Friday, June 03, 2005

Pushing for Reforms in Burma/Myanmar: Lessons from Our Own Past

Quote of the Day:

... it is much easier to make a revolution than it is to transform a failed state into awell-performing democracy.

- Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Georgia, In 'Five core principles for the world's reformers', May 26, 2005

A Short Essay for Fellow Dissidents Pushing for Reforms in Burma/Myanmar
Free Burma Coalition

May 26, 2005: Today marks the independence of Georgia, the country of Joseph Stalin and Edward Shevanadze, her two most famous - or infamous in the case of "Uncle Joe"- sons. As we rejoice in the successes of other peoples' revolutions some of which are romantically labelled 'Rose, Velvet, Tulip,' and so on, we, Burmese, might wish to pause for a moment and think why ours has as yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It is indeed much easier "to make arevolution than transform a failed polity into a functional one", as the author of the essay below points out.

We the citizens of Burma/Myanmar should know better. For we have been trying to make not just one, but waves of them since March 29,1948, starting with the armed Beijing-supported Communist revolt, followed by the Karen National Union's impressive, but eventually failed attempt to take over the reign of the civilian government of PM U Nu. And the list goes on.

Here an example might help. Imagine ourselves as visiters invited to observe a mouse in an experiment designed to understand animal behavior by once fashional behavioral scientists. And we have a view from above - the mouse and the cheese differently located in the maze. We will have noticed if the mouse smells cheese and keeps taking the wrong turns, then it will have gotten frustrated, smelling the cheese and yet never reaching it. But if it is intelligent, it will search for alternative paths or makes alternative turns or may perhaps pause or try new things. One of those tries will lead the mouse to cheese, and BINGO!

Most certainly, this metaphor is rather simplistic having only three elements, namely the mouse, the cheese and the maze. To belabor the obvious, society and attempts to change it are incomparably more complex, difficult and intergenerational, as it were. The Burmese are known for their strength and ingenuity. (Perhaps this applies to all peoples in need, with equal force).

For no society sandwiched between two of the most influential civilizations in history, namely China and India, could have survived - and at times even thrived without having had some considerable internal strength as a people. It was no small feat that we remain a sovereign country without being swallowed by one orthe other.

Nor was it possible for the Burmese to have been able to develop their distinctly Burmeseness, being influenced by both civilizations, without some degree of ingenuity and creativity.

Five decades of radical power-grabbing attempts by different groups in our country have not produced desired outcome. That's an under-statement. In fact, all have been spectactular failures!

We keep on pointing fingers at the 'colonialist' or 'neo-colonialist' Capitalist West, Communist China, or "opportunistic" Thailand or some other outsiders for our own failures. Or we can keep playing the domestic blame game at which we all have become expert at. At the end of the day, fingers, however, are pointing at all of us, within and without Burma.

It's about time we should look around and reflect, in a brutally honest fashion, why others succeeded where we have failed spectacularly. Putting on hold, momentarily, feelings of all-round inadequacies and bruises, mutual animosities and prejudices, and unarguably failed revolutionary attempts of the past 50 years, it might be worth our while to examine a diverse sample ofsocieties that have moved on to finer and better things such as post-conflict reconstruction or successful transformation of internal conflicts.

What worked under Gandhi's "spiritual revoluton" in India five decades ago may not work - and has not worked - in contemporary Burma/Myanmar. What was crucial for the successes of the Czec playright Havel's Velvet Revolution, ANC military leaderMandela anti-apartheid, Aquino's "people's power", Walesa's Solidarity may not be that pertinent or strategically applicable in our case. For each social change process has its own specific circumstances and dimensions.
Each generation stands on the shoulders of previous generations.

And it's about time we look around for ideas and explore new paradigms for change, if we are to avoid "the frustrated mouse" syndrome. No one wants to root for - or side with a loosing team or loosers. The priceof loosing in revolutionary affairs is no trivial matter. Successful revolutions - Rose, Velvet, Tulip and what have you - usher in a new era of change and bring the winners to power.

Failed revolutions keep our colleagues behind bars for ever and ever, or so it seems, while they invite more waves of repression. There's got to be better ways to 'make revolutions'. And we still have a longway to go, if we think about the task to "transform a failed state into awell-performing democracy." As a multi-ethnic country, we Burmese of all stripes and colors would do well if we remember the words of someone who succeeded in where we fail:"A free democratic state is about far more than elections or personalities."


Five core principles for the world's reformers

By Mikheil Saakashvili,

The Financial TimesPublished: May 26 2005 03:00 Last updated: May 26 2005 03:00

Dramatic changes are sweeping across the area that was once the Soviet Union. It is clear that, after the revolutionary changes in Tbilisi, Kiev and Bishkek, the old status quo is gone forever. Kleptocratic ways of governing are obsolete, autocratic rulers cannot ignore popular moods and people are uniting to demand freedom.

Today marks Georgia's Independence Day and 18 months after the Rose Revolution we have learnt some important truths: first and foremost that it is much easier to make a revolution than it is to transform a failed state into awell-performing democracy. We inherited a dysfunctional state administration.

An immediate donation ofseveral million dollars by the United Nations Development Programme made a critical difference. We dramatically increased the salaries of 200 tax collectors and a select group of anti-corruption investigators, leading tosignificantly increased tax collection. We quadrupled our budget and now pay every civil servant a decent salary.

Having despaired after many months of attempts at reforming our thoroughly corrupt police, we decided to fire all 15,000 officers and recruit an entirely new force. We equipped the reformed service like any other modern European police force and increased salaries 10-fold. This surgery resulted in a quick and complete recovery of Georgia's law enforcement capacity.

The new police force has a 95 per cent approval rating and Georgians now see the police as protectors rather than predators.

We undertook significant reforms in other sectors. We are currently in the process of abolishing most licence and permit requirements to empower investors and entrepreneurs. We defied International Monetary Fund advice and dramatically lowered our tax rates. But we achieved our goal: overall taxrevenues increased.

My fellow reformers and I learnt from our own mistakes when we tried to reform the failed government of Eduard Shevardnadze from the inside.

We also learnt from the mistakes and successes of eastern European reformers - from Poland to Estonia to Serbia. Economic "shock therapy" works and is indeed the only way to move from acriminal economy to a market economy.

Dwelling on the injustices of Soviet brutality is not a substitute for membership of Nato and the European Union. Tragically, the greatest threat to a young democracy comes not from external enemies but from the crime and corruption that flourished under decades ofcommunist occupation.

There are core principles that all reformers - present and aspiring - should heed.

First, the window of opportunity for democratic reform is very narrow andwill not stay open indefinitely. Every reformer should know that the race for the future is won by the swift. Something that was easily possible immediately after a revolution becomes much harder after just a few months, even with a legislative majority and broad popular support.

Second, reform has to be comprehensive. One cannot reform parts of the statestructure and retain the old order in others. Reforming the economy without addressing law enforcement will result in failure. Reform must be a continuous process uninterrupted by pauses. This approach needs a vision of a country'sdestination and a systematic plan to get there.

Third, the people are the best ally of the reformers. In principle, there should not be such a thing as unpopular reform; rather there are reformers who often fail to explain their programmes and to link them to the long-term publicinterest. Reformers will have little chance to succeed if they alienate keyconstituencies. Public debate over reforms is thus central to their success. The more open a society and the more transparent a government, the greater thechances for ultimate success.

Fourth, reformers must build free institutions that will endure long beyond their term in office. A free democratic state is about far more than electionsor personalities. It is about building the institutional foundations that preserve individual and economic freedom, sustain the rule of law and protectall elements of society.

Finally, reformers should not count on keeping society permanently happy. They should accept that, sooner or later, their constituents will be disappointed with them and they will be voted out of office. Reformers must seek long-term change, not short-term political gratification. It is not the eternal gratitude of society to which we aspire but lasting results. The ultimate prize for every reformer is the transformed society they leave behind.

The writer is president of Georgia