Bush Institute Leaders Are Contributing to Burma's Democratic Transition

Since the launch of the Liberty and Leadership Program, the Bush Institute has engaged 79 men and women from Burma, including former political prisoners, civil society activists, members of parliament, journalists, educators, health practitioners, and other emerging leaders.

As citizens of a democratic society, we often take for granted the freedoms we enjoy. I was part of this camp until I had the opportunity to work with young leaders fighting for freedom and democracy in Burma. 

Burma was ruled by an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011, but before then, it was one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia. Under army rule, the country became one of the most isolated and poorest. 

The military’s isolationist policy and socialist economic agenda took a harsh toll on Burma. Many major enterprises were nationalized, a black-market economy took hold, and widespread corruption and food shortages were rampant. Education was restricted as the military considered academic freedom a threat to the regime. For decades, subjects like political philosophy and human rights were prohibited in schools. As a result, people in Burma missed an opportunity to learn and understand concepts like individual freedom, human rights, democracy, and principles of the free market. 

In an attempt to transition to a democracy, Burma drafted a controversial constitution in 2008 during military rule and held a free election in 2015. However, there is a substantial shortage of knowledge and leadership. 

This is why the George W. Bush Institute created the Liberty and Leadership Program which has been engaging changemakers from Burma since 2014. When countries begin the transition to freedom, equipping young leaders with practical leadership skills and the principles of democracy and the free market is crucial to their success. As such, our program prepares young leaders with the knowledge and skills to succeed during their country’s democratic transition. 

Since its launch, we have engaged 79 men and women from Burma, including former political prisoners, civil society activists, members of parliament, journalists, educators, health practitioners, and other emerging leaders. They represent the rich ethnic and religious diversity of the country. Despite difficulties, they view Burma’s diversity as a strength and show remarkable optimism and resilience that inspires others. 

Burma’s military is still very visible and powerful. The constitution drafted by the generals guarantees them a quarter of the parliamentary seats and they control the country’s security and police forces— including the home, defense, and border affairs ministries—making broader political change challenging. 

Furthermore, Burma’s rich ethnic and religious diversity is not tapped as an asset let alone celebrated. A country with more than 135 ethnic groups, ongoing ethnic conflicts including systematic discrimination and atrocities against the Rohingya – a Muslim ethnic minority group based in Burma’s Rakhine State – are creating obstacles to consolidating Burma’s democracy. 

More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from Rakhine to Bangladesh since August 2017 to escape persecution and attacks by the military. In 2018, the United Nations described the Rohingya situation as the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis and the military offensive in Rakhine as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” 

Things might not look good in Burma today, but there is hope. 

Our scholars are making great progress. Aung Kyaw Moe developed an organization providing support to the Rohingya, reaching over 90,000 people in Rakhine and in Bangladesh. Another scholar, Lum Zawng, was arrested last year for “defaming the military” during a peaceful protest. He was released earlier this year and fearlessly went back to his advocacy work for the Kachin—an ethnic minority in the north. 

There are many other examples of Liberty and Leadership scholars selflessly working toward a better Burma. They stand for a common vision of a free and prosperous Burma and strengthening the country’s fragile democracy. Our scholars have taught me that even when democracy takes root it demands perpetual nurturing to remain strong and reminded me that the freedom I enjoy today was earned at a price. 

I am optimistic about Burma’s future. Despite all the news highlighting the country’s backsliding democracy, the Bush Institute’s Liberty and Leadership scholars are moving the needle forward.