My years with the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy coincided with the democratic opening taking place in Myanmar. It has been fascinating to follow developments, and in 2014 I had the opportunity to visit and meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, who won a landslide victory in the November 2015 elections. She is undoubtedly the key political personality of Myanmar, and much depends on her ability to lead the country and her people. The photo above shows members of the Election Commission.

This article titled how to support ‘the lady’? is one of many more in the book called “Engaging with democracy globally”, published in December 2016 when I retired from the institute. The book can be downloaded here: Engaging – 2016 – final


meeting naypyidaw

While the Arab Spring was unfolding in early 2011, attracting enthusiastic support from all corners of the world, an equally exciting transformation was taking place in Myanmar, also with huge support. Ruled for half a century by a crude, cruel and calculating military dictatorship, the country suddenly seemed to be on the road towards reforms that could ultimately result in a true democracy. Maybe the generals had understood that the spirit of the Arab Spring could also show up at their doorstep.

I had heard about Naypyidaw. I had seen a few pictures. I had speculated how this new political capital would compare with Dodoma in Tanzania or Brasilia in Brazil, two other examples of political capitals built from scratch.

Whatever I had stored in my brain did not prepare me for what I saw with my own eyes. Something more appropriate for an outer-space reality than a poor developing country, with buildings constructed for larger than life-size creatures, and six-lane roads better suited as runways for aircraft than for cars.

Unlike many of the international guests, who had been lucky to meet Aung San Suu Kyi, when she was in house arrest by the lake in Yangon, we had been asked to meet her in Naypyidaw, in the Parliament enclave. This was where she was now residing as the Chair of an important parliamentary committee, following her release from house arrest in 2010 and her election as Member of Parliament in the 2012 by-elections.

We were now nearing the end of 2014. The next big step in the gradual inch-by-inch journey towards a full-fledged democracy would be the parliamentary elections at the end of 2015. Like the rest of the world, we were curious to get the personal take of ‘the Lady’ on how the next scene of the play would unfold.

How did she see her own role? How would she cooperate with the military? How could we best support her country?

a brief political overview

This was my first visit to Myanmar. I had followed developments in the country for decades; I had read about the brutal behavior of the generals; I had followed the larger than life role of Aung San Suu Kyi and her family; I had supported the sanctions towards the regime by the international community.

The purpose of this article is not to analyze the details of developments, but to present the background for DIPD’s engagement. A few dots on the historical timeline marking key milestones might be helpful as a background.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, is considered to be the founder of Burma’s army. He was assassinated in 1947 by a political rival, when Suu is only a few years old. One year later, Burma gains independence from its colonizer, Britain.

General Ne Win seizes power in a bloodless coup d’état in 1962. International organizations and private companies are expelled. During the years before and after, Aung San Suu Kyi travels and lives abroad.

Student protests flare up against the military regime in 1988, but the military cracks down on the uprising with the usual brutality, killing more than 3.000 people. Aung San Suu Kyi returns to the country and emerges as the leader of the democracy movement. Her party is founded as the National League for Democracy (NLD). Millions of people join. The following year the party leaders are jailed and Suu is put under house arrest.

In 1990, Suu is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but she is not allowed to travel to Oslo to receive it. However, because of the prestigious nature of the Prize, the decision of the military puts the regime under more pressure from the international community.

The generals release her from house arrest in 1995, but they continue to limit her freedom to travel. Her husband living in England with their children dies in 1999, and she is not allowed to participate in his funeral. In the following years, the generals seem to be unsure of how to ‘manage’ her – placing her under house arrest, freeing her from house arrest, allowing her to speak, targeting her in what seems to be a planned assassination attempt, and then returning her to house arrest.

Almost ten years after the last major uprising against the regime, a new fire flares up in 2007. This time, hundreds of thousands of monks take to the streets in what becomes known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’. The spark igniting the people was cuts in fuel subsidies; but the cries in the streets were about democracy. Many monks are killed.

A year later, a cyclone hits the country, resulting in the death of more than 130.000 people, not least due to the indifference and ineptitude of the military. Only the capacity and willingness of local humanitarian organizations to reach out, and support from the international community, prevent even more people from dying.

The final and full release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010 comes more than 60 years after the assassination of her father, almost 50 years after the coup d’état, and more than 20 years after she became the leader of the democracy movement and was placed under house arrest for the first time.

why did they release her?

Few of us are destined to hold the wheels of political power and be trusted by the people to steer our country towards new and better horizons. Aung San Suu Kyi is by all accounts one of those few; just like Nelson Mandela was in the case of South Africa.

Today, we know a lot about what made the leaders of the white minority apartheid-regime in South Africa abandon restrictive and discriminatory legislation and brutal repression. International condemnation and sanctions played a role. Destabilization by insurgent military groups with camps in neighboring countries was part of the picture. The understanding of certain white leaders of the need to reform to survive might have been key.

We are still not equally well informed about what made the generals in Myanmar decide to initiate reforms, release the Lady and open up to the outside world. Most likely, just like in the case of South Africa, different forces have played a role.

Clearly, the generals felt that they were in command, when they started the reform process. Personally and institutionally, the military controlled the economy. Politically, the constitution would guarantee a large presence of generals in civilian clothing in parliament, and certain sections of the constitution about marriage and citizenship of your children would make it impossible for Aung San Suu Kyi to attain the position of President.

After decades of relative isolation from the international community, and with very little success in making the economy grow and improve the livelihoods of poor people, at least some parts of the military establishment seemed to feel that the country needed to reconnect with the international community. They probably also recognized that major foreign investments would not pour in before the release of the Lady was a reality.

The generals therefore devised a closely controlled step-by-step reform process.

Another aspect probably also played a role. Despite the military power of the regime, it had not been able to end the numerous military conflicts involving insurgent ethnic groups along the borders with China, Laos and Thailand. Some of these conflicts had been very violent until recently, while others had been simmering for several decades. Even the generals recognized that a final solution was unlikely to be a reality until the country had again joined the international community of democracies.

Finally, despite the decision to open up, it was early on reasonably clear that there were divisions among the military leaders. Some were ready to play hardball with Aung San Suu Kyi, pushing her hard if she was unwilling to compromise. Others understood that their own long-term wealth and influence depended on the role given to Suu in the future power structure of the country.

Of course, many of them understood that she would undoubtedly be the most popular and influential politician in the country very soon.

meeting in copenhagen

Our first direct meeting with the reform process took place in 2012, when DIPD Chairman and Director were invited by the Speaker of the Danish Parliament to a meeting and a lunch, on the occasion of a visit by a delegation from the Parliament of Myanmar. The delegation was led by influential members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which is the party established by the military to rule from 2010. The delegation also included representatives from other political parties.

The mission to Denmark was one among many outreach missions initiated by the military, and it had at least two purposes. One was to convince the international community that the generals were genuine in their wish to return the country to democracy, and consequently to have the sanctions lifted; the other was to search for ideas that might be useful as inspiration for the future modalities of democracy in Myanmar.

When asked, members of the mission welcomed an initiative by DIPD to support multiparty dialogue and help political parties develop capacity to function effectively and democratically. They also made it clear that a presence in Myanmar would require close consultation and cooperation with the authorities, i.e. the military rulers.

You sometimes wonder if and how the approach of ‘inspiration’ actually works; if in fact it amounts to more than a shopping tour to Copenhagen?

History will have to judge, but in his book The Lady and the Generals. Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom, Peter Popham tells the fascinating story of the rise and fall of the former Speaker of Parliament’s Lower House, Thura Shwe Mann. He was one of the top generals who was close to becoming president in 2011, but lost out to Thein Sein.

Shwe Mann led the delegation to Copenhagen, and it could very well be then that he learned about the coalition culture of Danish politics. In a question and answer session in his constituency before the November 2015 elections, he was asked what he would do for democracy and human rights? In his reply, he refers to what he has learned travelling, and Peter Popham in his book quotes Shwe Mann saying:

“In Denmark, the winning party invites the losing parties to join it in a coalition government. I learned some very good lessons from these countries. I will collaborate with any party and any person for our country’s success. A good leader must work for the interests of the whole country.”

Assuming that this was a genuine statement by a military hardliner turned civilian politician, it is actually pretty dramatic stuff. Shwe Mann is stating that multi-party politics is the name of the game; that the strong parties must include those that have lost the election; that we are ready to work with Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.

Following this meeting with the new faces of Myanmar, we set out to prepare our contribution to the emerging contours of the new democracy, with a particular focus on the experience of multi-party dialogue, women and youth. This started operating in 2013, and since then it has grown in scope and depth and received support from the European Union as well.

meeting the old system

Standing in one of the oversized roundabouts in the capital of Naypyidaw, the scenery looked more like a military dictatorship than an emerging democracy. The same was to some extent true of the meeting with the members of the Union Election Commission, which took place before our meeting with the Lady.

The UEC members sat on one side of the room, seven men and one woman, all men dressed in exactly the same type of dress. The DIPD delegation was on the other side, three men and three women, in formal but different types of dresses.

In a sense, this was an image of the monolithic military dictatorship Myanmar was now in the process of moving away from, towards the more diverse and colorful system of governance called ‘democracy’. The very fact that we had been invited into this room, to listen to their understanding of the transition taking place, and allowing us the time to share our ideas and concerns, was a recognition of times changing.

The Chairman of the UEC presented a brief overview of the history leading up to present times. With independence in 1948; parliamentary democracy until 1962, when the military took power to keep the union united; from 1974 a constitution allowing only one party; a new constitution in 2008, new elections in 2010 leading to multi-party democracy, and now preparations for elections in 2015.

Yes, it is important with support for political parties, because most of them are new, and we welcome your ideas.

Yes, we have had one party democracy for 50 years, and we must learn to operate a multi-party democracy, where Denmark can offer a lot of experience.

Yes, the commission will ensure free and fair elections, and the parties have to comply with the law and put national interests before individual party interests.

Yes, we hope that many people will vote, and we expect people to vote with their heads, not their hearts.

Member of Parliament in Denmark, Eva Kjer Hansen, emphasized the importance of educating citizens to participate in the elections, and the importance of having access to information from free and independent media. Citizens must be involved in a democratic dialogue.

Former Minister for Development and EU Commissioner, Poul Nielson, highlighted the importance of accepting that parties are different, and that the political dialogue must accept and manage disagreement. Lack of trust is a challenge for the political system, and we need to stimulate more trust.

Much more was said during the civilized and tightly choreographed meeting. A useful introduction to the thinking of the military rulers before our meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi.

meeting with an icon

Sitting across from the Lady in a meeting room inside the Parliament enclave in Naypyidaw in November 2014 was a deeply emotional experience, similar to what I had felt when I met Nelson Mandela back in 1997.

Here she was – the democracy icon of Myanmar. We had followed her life through the media for more than two decades. First when she came out as the leader of the movement. Then when an attempt on her life fortunately failed. Again, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and not allowed to travel to Oslo to receive it. When her husband died and she was refused to be at his funeral in the UK together with their children. Finally, when she was released from house arrest a few years ago.

She looked tiny and fragile in physical terms, but she had a commanding presence, with eyes that communicated strength and decisiveness. She made it very clear that there was no time for diplomatic small talk, and cut straight to the core of the issues, after welcoming our delegation to her country.

We referred to the many reforms that had been implemented; she would question if progress had in fact taken place, and we should not be fooled by the military.

We mentioned that in our experience, an electoral system based on proportional representation would serve the country best; she would argue that people did not object to the ‘first past the post’ system, and there are many examples of proportional representation leading to conflict rather than reconciliation.

We explained that our expertise was in the area of multi-party democracy, and the importance of dialogue and inclusion of all parties; she would point to her own NLD party as the only party that could effectively challenge the military.

will she be able to deliver?

When I look at the photo taken with Aung San Suu Kyi standing with the Danish delegation, there is no doubt that she is the woman at the center of politics in Myanmar. The generals may succeed in denying her the presidency, but she is the leader the generals have to deal with.

Did we meet a leader, who would be able to deliver social and economic progress to the people? Would she be able to put an end to decades of violent conflict with ethnic groups in the border areas? How would she deal with Buddhist communities clashing with Muslim communities? Did she have the capacity to embrace and include the many new parties?

Was the Lady able to translate her iconic position both at home and abroad into the nation building and nation healing ‘Mother’ of Myanmar that Nelson Mandela had been able to as the ‘Father’ of democratic South Africa?

Difficult to say, and unfair to conclude after a short meeting. However, during the meeting, it struck me that she at times seemed quicker to judge and decide, and less inclined to listen and learn than I had seen Nelson Mandela being able to.

Time will show if I am right.

She won a more overwhelming victory in the November 2015 election than even the most optimistic supporters had expected. This is an important asset in her effort to be in control.

She also seems to have navigated the dangerous seas of the generals cleverly and decisively in the aftermath of the election. There will probably be groups within the military that have seen the writing on the wall and are ready to be flexible and cooperative.

Travelling the world to meet key political leaders, including those in China and the US, is a strong signal both to the world and to her own country that the reform process has now reached a point of no return.

Many dangers lie ahead. How to make the economy benefit the poor? How to curtail the privileges of the military? How to avoid Buddhist extremism setting the agenda? How to protect the rights of the ethnic minorities? How to put an end to violent conflict?

The challenges are of majestic proportions. We owe it to the people of Myanmar and to the Lady to support the transition as best we can, and this is what DIPD is in the process of doing.