Good news from Burma (also known as Myanmar). The military regime is opening up political space for democratic reforms. The regime has opened the door although the door is not yet open.

In November 2010, the military finally lifted the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese leader and 1991 Nobel Peace Price winner, who overwhelmingly won the last democratic elections in 1988 with her party the National Leagu for Democracy (NLD). After long dark years of dictatorship, her release was the first sign of impending change. Since her release further steps towards a transition are following each other rapidly. The release of many political prisoners last week, the official registration of the NLD as political party allowing it to compete in the forthcoming parliamentary by-elections, and – very importantly – the signing of a truce with the Karen National Union, who have been fighting for autonomy during the past 60 years. With signing the truce, the Karen National Union expressed their belief that “the political differences must be settled by political means, starting with an earnest dialogue’’.

A range of foreign diplomats have flown into Burma, starting with Hilary Clinton early December 2011. They want to assess for themselves the encouraging opening in the political developments, to encourage the Burmese military leaders to release all political prisoners and to engage in continued dialogue with the democratic opposition, and finally, to
express their support to the emerging transition process. Western sanctions against the military regime have not been lifted yet, but a gradual lifting is expected to be a matter of time with reference to the concrete openings taking place.

The solid commitment and moral leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi and many imprisoned veterans of the 1988 democratic movement and other uprisings since, often in the face of much personal human sacrifice, kept the aspirations for democracy alive in Burma for the past 25 years. Pressure from the regional ASEAN group of countries to end the military dictatorship and to initiate a transition process may well have yielded the current dynamic. Within ASEAN, countries such as Indonesia are strong advocates for the argument that economic and democratic reforms are mutually reinforcing.

For Burma to develop economically, the path to democratic reform had to be opened. Yet, the number of national and international organizations, starting with the UN to hundreds of solidarity groups the world over, have provided many forms of assistance to see a return to democracy happen. An impressive gallery of eminent world leaders always kept support for Aung San Suu Kyi alive and the need for democratic governance in Burma in the world media. It is only natural that now the first steps to a transition are being taken, somewhat similar as was the case in South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela after his 27-year imprisonment, the world is readying to assist the process. But what lesson can be learned from the transition to democracy in South Africa, for example?

This question needs to be qualified by noting that blueprints for transitions do no exist. Each transitional process differs due to its own historical context, history and national characteristics. A Burmese transition is no exception. However, some principles apply across the board, although their application will differ.

The most important principle is that transitions need to be locally owned and driven. For South Africans this was sacrosanct and correctly so. It meant that all outside assistance in the period before a legitimate democratic government was elected in 1994, was carefully vetted by legitimized South African platforms. The liberation movements had their own
sources of funding, but all funding and technical support for local communities, legal assistance, women organizations, education, rural development and environmental support, to mention only a few categories of assistance, was vetted and often channeled by a platform of agencies representing the broad democratic movement and platforms of the Protestant and Catholic churches. The three platformsinteracted closely among each other.

Foreign assistance can prove to be divisive, however well intended. In fragile political transition processes, the flow of not well managed international assistance can become a burden rather than a relief. The reception infra-structure is often weak, specifically in societies in which civil society has been oppressed for so long and had little change to develop their own capacity. In addition, civil society groups are formed in oppositional politics which is different from what is required in transitional politics. The switch from opposition mode into transition mode is crucial. International donors, not always understand what this implies.

A national platform of Burmese leaders legitimized by the democratic movement working on a non-partisan basis, could be a helpful instrument to vet international assistance. It can stipulate the criteria under which international assistance is welcome. Criteria focused on areas of investment, such as in capacity building for institutions of democracy, civil society, free media, investment in national and local leadership, in women participation in public offices, and in transitional justice.

Another set of criteria should focus on how assistance is delivered, stipulating the need to advance the transition process, the fair distribution across the country, the strict avoidance of any support for violent political activity, and the full transparency about and accountability for assistance delivered.

The democratic movement in Burma should be well advised to consider ways of managing – which is not the same as controlling! – the assistance which is starting to flood into Burma. International partners keen to provide assistance, should in the absence of sufficient reception capacity and frail social capital in Burma, recognize the downside of uncoordinated assistance. Hence, international partners would need to consider themselves to enter into a voluntary code that regulates and monitors their assistance on the basis of an agreement with the Burmese leadership. Initiatives to establish a national Burmese platform and/or an international voluntary code for assistance delivery are urgently needed to facilitate the emerging transition.

Another important principle is the need to invest in restoring trust within the politically and ethnically divided Burmese society. Dialogue is the key method to drive a peaceful transition. It has to be applied not only at the national level, which is often the focus of attention, but at all geographic and sector levels within society. Through dialogue about immediate concerns within the Burmese society – the alternative and democratic method as opposed to the oppressive and confrontational methods of the military regime – new agendas for political and economic development can be drafted while increased levels of invaluable trust are restored in the process.

With reference to South Africa again, the first years of the transitional process in that country a forum democracy flourished; inclusive dialogue platforms were established not only at regional and local governance levels, but also within the economic, education and health sectors, for example. It successfully helped to find substantial consensus about the new policy directions and institutional infra-structure for the new democratic South Africa. In this context, the reconciliation of past injustices will also have to be addressed at an appropriate time to ensure that the transition process itself becomes sustainable and will not fall-back in new conflicts and confrontations.

Historically, it is somewhat rare that a military government pursues a transition to democracy. Caution remains warranted. Nevertheless, the momentum for change to democratic governance has picked up significantly during the past weeks. It deserves a constructive and well-informed response from the international community.