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Matthew Wilson with Young Leaders and Liberty and Leadership Manager, Jieun Pyun (far right in green)

SMU's Matthew Wilson on Developing Young Burmese Leaders

April 6, 2016 5 minute Read by Christopher Walsh
The critical message that I hope the Young Leaders bring to Burma's democratic transition is that democracy means more than just having elections. For democracy to thrive and endure, an engaged civil society and political culture committed to democratic values have to be built, and this doesn't happen overnight.

Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Political Science at SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.  He recently traveled to Burma as an instructor for the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership Forum, teaching on federalism, pluralism, and managing diversity in a democracy. The Bush Institute interviewed Professor Wilson about his Burmese experiences.

GWBI: You recently traveled to Burma for the Liberty and Leadership Forum. What were your overall impressions of Burmese society and the changes occurring there?

MW: Burma is a fascinating country of stunning and dramatic contrasts.  The legacy of sometimes brutally authoritarian military rule exists alongside a people who are extraordinarily warm, gracious, and welcoming.  The endemic poverty visible everywhere rubs elbows with the gilded opulence of Shwedagon Pagoda and of the luxury condominiums and high-end shopping centers springing up in Yangon.  The obvious signs of modernity  (like the unending traffic jams and the prevalence of smart phones) are accompanied by very visible markers of tradition, like the continued prevalence of the longyi and other forms of distinctive cultural dress and the ubiquity of saffron-robed monks.  

Clearly, though, Burmese society is in transition.  They are rushing to open themselves more fully to the world, to catch up with the economic and social development that has happened in the rest of East Asia without losing their distinctive cultural soul.  Burma will, I think, be a different country ten years from now than it is today.  I am cautiously optimistic that the change will be, on the whole, for the good.

GWBI: How do you envision Young Leaders taking the lessons they’ve learned from this program and contributing to Burma’s democratic transition?

MW: The critical message that I hope the Young Leaders bring to Burma's democratic transition is that democracy means more than just having elections.  For democracy to thrive and endure, an engaged civil society and political culture committed to democratic values have to be built, and this doesn't happen overnight.  In the program, we have talked about things like federalism, accommodating ethnic and religious difference, nurturing civic culture, and the relationship between political and economic freedom.  These are ideas that the Young Leaders can bring to bear in the political discussions and debates currently taking place in Burma, and that they can in turn teach to people in their own communities and social networks.  

Just a few days ago, one of the Young Leaders asked me for the materials on federalism that I presented during our recent in-country session in Yangon, because he wants to use them to teach Burmese youth in Kachin State.  That's exactly the kind of "multiplier effect" that I would hope to see from our efforts in this program.

GWBI: Why is U.S. engagement with Burma important during its historic transition to democracy?

MW: The U.S. can and should play a critical role in helping Burma's transition to democracy.  Over and over again, Young Leaders in the program told me how inspiring it was to know that the world cared and was watching as they struggled against authoritarianism in their country.  For all the challenges that exist in our own political system, America has economic, intellectual, and moral resources to support democracy that exceed what any other nation can bring to bear.  Consistent U.S. engagement with Burma, in facilitating commerce, providing economic development assistance, encouraging cultural exchange, and using political influence to prevent "backsliding" away from democracy, will be a real boon to the newly-elected government.

GWBI: What has been your favorite moment from being with the Young Leaders since you started teaching them in Dallas last summer?

MW: I have enjoyed so many aspects of my interaction with the Young Leaders, but one moment in particular stands out.  Last summer, during the program in Dallas, I arrived at the Bush Institute one morning to find one of the Young Leaders sitting on the ground, with his back against the wall of the building, reading (in English) John Locke's Second Treatise of Government.  The hours of presentations and discussion that we had already had, and the hours to come, were not enough for him--something we talked about had spurred him to dig deeper, to seek out this source and discover even more about the philosophical underpinnings of liberal democracy.  This moment is, to me, emblematic of the real thirst for knowledge about democracy that these Young Leaders bring to the program.  It makes teaching them really inspiring and gratifying.

Learn more about the Liberty and Leadership Forum here.


Author

Christopher Walsh
Christopher Walsh

Christopher Walsh serves as a Manager for the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.  In this role, Christopher manages communications, evaluation, and public policy research projects that advance freedom and democracy in the world. He also develops and implements efforts to make the Bush Institute a welcoming place for today’s generation of dissidents and democracy advocates, overseeing visits for training, inspiration, and insight. 

Prior to joining the Bush Institute, Christopher worked with the International Republican Institute in Washington, D.C. As IRI’s program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, he coordinated political party building and civic advocacy programs in the Balkans and Turkey.

A native of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher is a graduate of American University with a B.A. in International Studies.  He currently lives in Dallas with his wife and three young children.

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