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How do you build a free society?

Article by Amanda Schnetzer July 3, 2014 //   4 minute read

Last week, the Bush Institute welcomed the inaugural class of young leaders in its new Liberty and Leadership Forum.  Eighteen men and women from the southeast Asian country of Burma (also known as Myanmar) arrived in Dallas for an education program designed to help prepare democracy advocates for leadership under new conditions of freedom. 

For more than three years, Burma has been on a path of liberalization that has included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the curbing of censorship in the media, and the widening of space for free expression.  A nominally civilian-led government has controlled the process, which may or may not lead to genuine democracy. 

While Burma’s story is complex, the building blocks of freedom the country requires are not unique. Scholar Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution began exploring these components during the young leaders’ first week of study. He started with this:  a free society requires a set of principles, or standards, to which it aspires. 

It was the 17th century English philosopher John Locke who articulated the standard of freedom this way:  people are by nature “all free, equal, and independent, no one can be…subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.”  While Locke’s words have come to define the Western democratic tradition, the principle itself is certainly not confined to the West.  Advocates of freedom and democracy around the world have appealed to this universal idea. 

As the late South African president Nelson Mandela sat in a prison cell in 1969, he wrote that “all of us, without exception, were convicted and sentenced for political activities which we embarked upon as part and parcel of our struggle to win for our people the right of self-determination, acknowledged throughout the civilized world as the inalienable birthright of all human beings.” 

Likewise, as Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi wrote during her years of house arrest, “The quest for democracy in Burma is the struggle of a people to live whole, meaningful lives as free and equal members of the world community.  It is part of the unceasing human endeavor to prove that the spirit of man can transcend the flaws of his own nature.” 

Freedom requires other essential building blocks like democratic institutions to secure fundamental rights and limits on what government can do to its own people.  Expanding freedom also requires an engaged citizenry and civil society.  The 18 young leaders in the Bush Institute’s inaugural Liberty and Leadership Forum hail from different parts of Burma and reflect the religious and ethnic diversity of their country.  Yet they share a common vision for a society rooted in liberty.  The continued involvement of civil society leaders like these in Burma’s political reform process is essential to the transition’s success.

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