On the Way to Mandalay…

April 1, 2012

One of the more ridiculous conversations I had while in Cairo was the hatching of a mad-cap plan to visit Myanmar, nee Burma, while it was still a closed, authoritarian system untouched by tourist hands.  My co-conspirator (she of the DRC juice reference) and I were so caught up in the grandiosity of the thing that it’s laughable in retrospect how little we even tried to foresee the almost predictable outcome. This was in December 2007, during the so-called Saffron Revolution, which was ultimately crushed by the ruling junta like the pods of the saffron plant.

I reflect on that conversation now as reports come in that the new elections in this more authentically open Burma, the one visited by Secretary of State Clinton, have brought the National League for Democracy and its leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi into the country’s parliament.    The elections themselves have obviously brought more foreign journalists and observers into the country to see the first chance in 20 years for the NLD to stand before the voters.

I’m thinking too of the ethnic minorities of Burma/Myanmar: the Karen, the Kachin, the Rohingya.  The NLD has been vague — as it can and should be in suppressed opposition — but going forward they will need to take a position on what is essentially the biggest issue facing the country’s sovereignty.

Burma’s on the path — the former junta leader has committed to working with Suu Kyi.  Considering how many examples there are of countries stuck in neutral or headed in the wrong direction, some optimism in the face of Burma’s progress today doesn’t seem grandiose at all.


Birds in Hand vs in the Bush

March 7, 2012

Both Russia and Chima held important elections this past week. Russia’s presidential balloting returned Putin to the presidency–a Back to the Future style machination the USSR may not have been capable of.

Meanwhile, the Chinese village of Wukan has elected the leaders of serious anti-land grab protests as its mayor and deputy mayor. The local CCP authorities apparently didn’t wish to reignite discontent by interfering. And preliminary reports are that the villagers are satisfied with the democratic process. They seem to strongly feel that democratic reform will be positive for their economic development, in an interesting potential portend for the CCP.

Russian voters, on the other hand, were on the whole much less inclined to rock the boat. Stability, preserving what they still had economically, was the theme from voters and Putin both. The young protestors in Moscow chamting “Russia without Putin!” are obviously a minority in this country which still vividly recalls the economic and political upheaval of the early 1990s. Putin’s siren song of stability was overwhelmingly attractive in the face of that memory.

In that dichotomy the youthful protesters of Russia have something in common with the U.S. Occupy movement: inability to fully engage what we Americans have called “the 99 percent”.

The contrasting example of the PRC, with its 20+ years of explosive growth, may allow us to tease out from local context the hypothesis that economic growth coupled with repression that threatens it is a more potent recipe for productive protest than repression in a land of fitful, resource-driven growth and/or growth insufficiently grounded to orient people towards future prospects.

These elections offered lessons to the United States’ policymakers, both foreign and domestic.