Burma's Young Leaders on Their Flawed Democracy

An Interview with Liberty and Leadership Forum Participants Ei Ei Phyu, Htet Htet Oo, Aung Kyaw Moe, Myo Myint Aung, and Sai One Leng Kham

After years of military rule, Burma is struggling to adopt new democratic principles. These young Burmese leaders comment on those struggles and the evolution of their democracy, including relentless challenges to religious freedom.

Graduates of the 2017 Liberty and Leadership Forum with President and Mrs. Bush (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

After seizing power in 1962, a military regime ruled Burma (or Myanmar) until free elections in 2015 granted the opposition a landslide victory. Power finally was ceded to a new civilian government, creating an historic change in the Asian power. Younger Burmese especially started to learn about the fruits of democracy, even though the military retains 25 percent of the seats in Parliament and Rohingya Muslims suffer brutal oppression.

In June, five participants in the George W. Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Fellowship program sat down with Catalyst Editor William McKenzie and Bush Institute Human Freedom Initiative Deputy Director Lindsay Lloyd to discuss the evolution of democracy in their country. Ei Ei Phyu, Htet Htet Oo, Aung Kyaw Moe, Myo Myint Aung, and Sai One Leng Kham provide their observations on the changes in their country, the remaining challenges to democracy, and the role of America in helping foster their nation’s freedoms.

What do democratic concepts like rule of law, free speech, and freedom of religion mean to you?

Htet Htet Oo: Rule of law is fundamental for a democratic country, and it’s really important for a country like Burma that is in transition to democracy. Our government, and every state in the country, needs to work on the rule of law and freedom of religion, which is another fundamental part of a democratic country. As the world knows, we have issues with religious freedom and we have to work on it to be a true democracy.

Myo Myint Aung: It is also important to highlight the need for freedom of speech in our country. We could not express our opinions under the previous government. We are quite vocal these days and try to share our opinions at every occasion.

A woman reads a newspaper in the park in Yangon, Myanmar on January 4, 2016

That’s important, and we need to listen to opinions of ethnic minorities and others living in rural areas who have not been heard from before. If we don't know what's going on with them, it’s not possible for us to meet their needs, including their education and health needs. Without that, we will not be able to develop a prosperous, productive, and peaceful society.

"We could not express our opinions under the previous government. We are quite vocal these days and try to share our opinions at every occasion."
--Myo Myint Aung

Sai One Leng Kham: Since we have been living in a dictatorship for a long time, accountability is very difficult. We have many problems. Citizens need to take responsibility themselves, too. We have to move forward together in this transition.

Myo Myint Aung:  The majority of people still don't want to pay taxes. We expect the government to build roads and fix potholes, but we are not paying taxes. How can we achieve a productive state if we are not holding ourselves accountable?

Aung Kyaw Moe: Democracy cannot stand without freedom of speech and freedom of religion. There still are a lot of obstacles to practice them in my country. Freedom of speech exists, but there are restrictions.

On the other hand, freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t mean you can swear at anyone freely. The margin is very thin, but we need to distinguish the margin.

"…freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t mean you can swear at anyone freely. The margin is very thin, but we need to distinguish the margin."
--Aung Kyaw Moe

What do you mean that you can’t say whatever you want?

Aung Kyaw Moe: In any fragile community, where there are conflicts going on with ethnic groups, people can get provoked easily. Things can turn into a catastrophe. We can differ in our opinions, but we should consider the impact that my speech may have on my community. It shouldn’t turn into hate speech.

Freedom of religion is also a fundamental for a democracy. This is another challenge that we have been facing. The Constitution says you are free to worship however you want, and it describes the religious practices that are not prohibited. But you can see that people are struggling to worship the way they want. 

Rohingya Muslims fleeing oppression in Burma get off a boat after crossing the Bangladesh-Burma border through sea borders on September 29, 2017. (Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Ei Ei Phyu: Democracy means citizens being able to express themselves in a way they want. But there’s a thin line between anarchy and democracy. In a democracy, you can have your opinions, religious ideas, beliefs, and practices, but you can share them in a way that shows respect to other people's opinions.

Rule of law is about checks and balances. If people are talking in a very un-respectful way, or practicing their religion in a chaotic way, the rule of law is there to not only protect their rights but to reinforce that they need to be accountable for their behavior and attitudes.

"Democracy means citizens being able to express themselves in a way that they want. But there’s a thin line between anarchy and democracy."
--Ei Ei Phyu

What does “practicing religion in a chaotic way” mean?

Myo Myint Aung: For example, a nationalist group uses Buddhism to advocate for its point of view. There are still hate speeches about Christianity and Islam. That type of thing needs to be controlled, especially in this era of transition. They divide people. We used to have friends in our high school whom we’d play soccer or football with regardless of whether they were Christians or Muslims.

We also need to make sure that dividing people by religion doesn’t cross from one religion to the other. That will be very important.

Htet Htet Oo: The government is supposed to protect minorities, especially since the majority of the population is Buddhist. Before 2011, there was not a lot of public discrimination between religions. Since 2011, the military-backed government has used religion as a tool to divide people or to hold power.

Freedom of religion and speech are the fundamentals of democracy and the government should include them in educating students. This is the only way people learn how to tolerate each other and appreciate diversity. The government should fix the education system to promote democracy.

"Before 2011, there was not a lot of public discrimination between religions. Since 2011, the military-backed government has used religion as a tool to divide people or to hold power."
--Htet Htet Oo

How would you describe the acceptance of these democratic values among people in your generation?

Aung Kyaw Moe: All of us believe that Buddhism promotes peace. But these radical organizations and individuals have been using this peaceful religion to gain politically and to divide people. This generation has critical thinking skills, so it may be able to distinguish what's wrong and what's right. But I am afraid that young generations in my country, which have seen a lot of discrimination and heard hate speech, may have a hard time removing those thoughts and practices. It may take decades to make them understand that diversity could be a strength rather than a weakness and that people are using diversity as a way to divide the nation. Divided people are easier to rule.

Myo Myint Aung: There is a changing perception among the younger generation. They understand a bit more about democracy. We have learned about civic engagement, democracy, liberalization, and other concepts through programs supported by the U.S. government and Western European governments. Those efforts help our younger generation understand about the principles and value of democracy.

At the same time, I am concerned that the older generation, such as baby boomers who grew up and lived in the era of the military government, shape our thoughts and behavior. Our parents still have a limited understanding about democracy. Those of us who are in our thirties do have some understanding because of these education programs.

I would like to emphasize how important it is to reshape our education system and do something for the generation younger than us. A quarter of our nation’s population is under age 25. If we cannot instill these concepts through formal and informal education systems, they will get stories from parents who really don't understand these concepts. I am quite concerned that their future will be poisoned by hate speech and the favoring of one creed or one ethnic group over another.

"[The younger generation] understands a bit more about democracy. We have learned about civic engagement, democracy, liberalization, and other concepts through programs supported by the U.S. government and Western European governments. Those efforts help our younger generation understand about the principles and value of democracy."
--Myo Myint Aung

Ei Ei Phyu: Freedom and democracy mean that you have a well-informed community in which you are able to choose what kind of education you want for your children and what kind of education you want for yourself. You also can choose what languages you want your children to learn and what kind of career you or your children want.

Sai One Leng Kham: Democracy needs to be implemented. If we cannot do so now, it might be poisoned for another generation to accept. We are so used to living in dictatorships. We have a big border with China. And Thailand has almost turned to military rule. Some may be worried for the young generation. If we cannot implement democracy well now, people may want to go back to the dictatorship. 

Anybody else have thoughts on that?

Aung Kyaw Moe: There is still a big gap in our country in fully practicing and implementing democracy. The challenge now is those who make the laws and those who implement the laws are the same people. For example, some of those implementing laws also are sitting in the Parliament. It’s a threat to democracy to have the military occupy 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. Those making the laws are supposed to have a check over those implementing them. There’s still a big room for improvement in implementing laws effectively and efficiently.

"It’s a threat to democracy to have the military occupy 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. Those making the laws are supposed to have a check over those implementing them. There’s still a big room for improvement in implementing laws effectively and efficiently."
-Aung Kyaw Moe

Htet Htet Oo: Investing in younger generations is really important for the future of our country. Younger students spend a lot of time studying, which their parents encourage. They want them to be at the top of their class, so students may not get involved in other activities, like learning about other cultures and customs. Education is more than becoming a graduate. It means you learn about other things and appreciate differences.

Sometimes living in Myanmar with your family is like being a frog in a small puddle. You don’t know what’s going on in the world. If you don’t know, you will never understand or appreciate other people and their values.

When I was young, my skin was dark so I was called names. This is not okay. Parents and teachers need to tell children that. That is one important way to make younger generations understand and appreciate the value of democracy.

Ei Ei Phyu: Younger people from urban areas mostly have access to a better education and economic resources. You may have a superficial feel for democracy, with things like different festivals, costumes, and ethnic foods and restaurants that are popular in places like Rangoon (Burma's largest city). But if you go out into rural areas, younger people are still more isolated. Younger people still communicate in their own society or ethnic groups.

This starts within the classroom. For example, my mom’s name is like an English name. People tease her in a bad way, like “Oh, you are Myanmar and why do you have this English name?” Those kinds of things separate people, and it can start in the classroom or in a government department. We need to appreciate differences and minimize the divisions. Then, we can start to see the pluralism of our country and the beauty of democracy.

The Bush Institute's Chris Walsh speaks with the Liberty and Leadership Forum participants in 2017 at the Bush Center. (Grant Miller / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

What role do you see the U.S. and the larger West playing in promoting these ideals and investing in them in your country?

Aung Kyaw Moe: The U.S. plays a very important role. There is a good relationship now between the governments, including technical support to promote democratic values. The U.S. also has been putting money in through civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and United Nations agencies. That’s another way of contributing to the development of these values that we share together. So are exchange programs, like the ones the George W. Bush Presidential Center and others have been doing. Help from the U.S. government and U.S.-based NGOs benefits the promotion of democracy, pluralism, and diversity in our country.

Sai One Leng Kham: Asking to play a role in the peace process in Myanmar would be one way to help. China is playing a big role.

Myo Myint Aung: I would like the U.S. government to continue providing international assistance through USAID, particularly focusing on democracy. This will help us achieve other sustainable development outcomes, such as economic growth, educational achievement, and access to health services for all people in the country.

I used to think that everything would go all right if I just focused on providing health care services to the vulnerable communities through public services and social sector programs. But I came to realize that without peace, without understanding each other, without resolving all of those conflicts around the region, without understanding about democracy, without fixing governance issues, and without fighting corruption, whatever education, health, and other services we provide would fall apart. We would fight each other and get into civil war again.

I would like the U.S. government to continue providing international assistance through USAID, particularly focusing on democracy. This will help us achieve other sustainable development outcomes, such as economic growth, educational achievement, and access to health services for all people in the country.
- Myo Myint Aung

We definitely don’t want that, so we want the U.S. to continue supporting us, especially around democracy and governance. I’d also like to advocate for continued funding for exchange programs like Fulbright fellowships and programs like the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative that the Obama administration initiated. Those type of programs help build the culture and strengthen ties between the United States and Myanmar. Understanding each other will help in the peace process and help us as we interact with other ethnic groups in the country.

Htet Htet Oo: The U.S. role is really important as we transition to democracy because many of us have many other things we have to think of before politics. People are struggling for their daily food, their children’s education and health care, so they shut off what's happening around the country.

Of course, politics is for everyone. Everyone needs to understand politics and get involved because it’s their right. To enable people to do that means meeting their basic needs. That’s why education and job opportunities are so important. U.S. support for more education programs, especially in the rural areas, and job opportunities for young generations will help our country have a smooth transition to democracy.

Ei Ei Phyu: I have a contrary idea. A lot of funds are going into peace programs, so I am almost allergic to hearing about peace programs in Burma. We need technical support and case studies about the different countries the U.S. has helped. For example, how did the reconciliation process work in some other country?

Peace is the destination, not an approach. Education, health programs, dialogues, and other mechanisms can bring people together to solve problems and create common goals.

Peace is the destination, not an approach. Education, health programs, dialogues, and other mechanisms can bring people together to solve problems and create common goals.

Ei Ei Phyu, Htet Htet Oo, Aung Kyaw Moe, Myo Myint Aung, and Sai One Leng Kham are 2017 graduates of the Bush Institute Liberty and Leadership Forum.