Monday, July 15, 2013

The tortuous road to democracy

Any nation transitioning from authoritarian to democratic system would hope that the process be relatively peaceful and orderly as in the case of Burma instead of violent and treacherous as in Egypt. But whether that is realizable or not, or what could be prepared in advance in order to avoid the kind of turmoil that upheaves the society and misdirects the revolution – the question is never too early to ask even though there is no definitive answer.

All totalitarian regimes want to prevent other political parties from participating in the government of the state. Therefore a large vacuum is created when the ruling clique is overthrown since the opposition lacks the organizational and administrative skills to run an election or to rule the nation. By contrast in a democratic country - for example in the United States - whether the Democrats or Republicans occupy the White House and Congress the other party still retains a minority role and contributes to the direction of the nation. Therefore any new leadership would bring along a new staff with practical experiences to make the transition more or less smoother.

Despite the military background President Thein Sein of Myanmar realized very early the need to democratize the country. He began the process by releasing the main opposition figure Aun San Suu Kyi, then allowed her party to participate in the parliamentary election. That gave the NLD (National League for Democracy) the opportunity to have a role in governing the country. If Aun Sang Suu Kyi is elected president in 2015 she would be supported by a staff with practical experiences. Democracy means compromise and the NLD by then would have three or four years navigating amongst the aspirations of the population, the interests of the powerful military clique, pressures from China and the religious rift between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority.

By contrast in Egypt President Mubarak was overthrown abruptly by a spontaneous mass movement. The opposition did not have time to be organized and were not ready to rule the country. Although the population generally approved democracy as a goal but they did not give support to any specific political party since none stood out during the uprising. That vacuum brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power since they were better organized and had the backing of the clergymen. This party then pushed for a religious agenda that met fierce resistance from a large segment of the population who demanded a secular and democratic state. The mass protest in July that led to the overthrow of President Morsi carried the risk of a civil war and is a step backward from democracy.

Burma has one additional advantage thanks to the international reputation of Aun San Suu Kyi. The democratic movement received a wide range of support from the West and Japan ranging from diplomatic pressure to the relaxation of economic blockade, and mentoring programs to institute the banking system and investment laws. By contrast even though billions of dollars were poured into Egypt that amount was mostly directed to the military since the U.S. and Europe did not find strong democratic allies to back up.

This article does not examine the social and historical factors that heavily influence the direction of any revolution – this would require elaborated research work. The main point is to urge any authoritarian regime to have courage and open the door immediately for democratic reforms. Otherwise it is unavoidable that a spontaneous mass movement would erupt someday to overthrow the ruling class, but then the transition would be very messy and the whole nation could pay a terrible price to regain stability and prosperity.

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