Burma’s women are paving the road to freedom
As someone who has worked on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, one of the questions I most often hear is "Why does the U.S. think it can ‘impose’ democracy on other countries?" My answer is always the same. We never impose democracy on other countries, we support the individuals and organizations ...
As someone who has worked on human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, one of the questions I most often hear is "Why does the U.S. think it can ‘impose’ democracy on other countries?" My answer is always the same. We never impose democracy on other countries, we support the individuals and organizations in any country that share our commitment to universal human rights and a desire for freedom for themselves and their nations. Courageous freedom fighters risk their lives to stand against oppression whether or not we stand with them, but America is at its best when we do. The Freedom Collection website, newly launched by the George W. Bush Institute, provides an influential platform for dissidents and human rights advocates to speak publicly about their dreams of freedom and the risks they take to pursue them. It is a compelling reminder that democratic aspirations are not American things we impose but, in fact, reside in the hearts and minds of women and men in every nation.
The case of Burma highlights how steadfast American support for dissidents and their democracy movements can eventually lead to change that is good for them and good for America. As a tentative reform process unfolds under President Thein Sein, the elections scheduled for Sunday, April 1, in which Aung San Suu Kyi is contesting a seat, already are flawed but offer the latest reason for hope that democracy may still take root in this beleaguered S.E. Asian country. The road remains difficult and tenuous, but a cautious optimism has seized the country.
For decades, the U.S. has been providing unwavering support for the Burmese democracy movement — rhetorically, financially and diplomatically. Every administration and members of the U.S. Congress on both sides of the aisle, have maintained a strong human rights policy on Burma. There has been a strong set of sanctions in place, but even more important has been the significant financial support we have given through the National Endowment for Democracy to the many small exile organizations along the Thai and Indian borders with Burma. With American support and protection, these activist organizations run by exiles have been tracking political prisoners inside the country, planning for a federalist system, documenting horrific human rights abuses of the military regime, convening diverse ethnic nationalities so that they may work together, and reporting or broadcasting news into the closed country.
For years, the influence of these groups was minimal, but it was for such a time as this that the preparations were made to take advantage of small openings and translate them into big change. Many, though not all, political prisoners have been freed and some exiles are returning. As dissidents and former exiles are allowed to participate in the political system, the preparations they have made will be essential for overcoming the serious challenges they will, no doubt, face.
The Freedom Collection highlights several of the most inspiring women’s voices from diverse ethnic groups in Burma, all of whom have received support for their work from the U.S. government. Along with Aung San Suu Kyi, Khin Ohmar, Charm Thong, Cheery Zahau, and Dr. Cynthia Maung are from the Burman, Shan, Chin and Karen ethnic groups respectively and have modeled a peaceful and democratic future for the country through their advocacy and collaboration across geography and ethnicity. Burma watchers all agree that one of the biggest challenges remaining, even if democracy returns to the country, is resolving historical conflicts between the various ethnic groups. The military has perpetrated some its worst abuses against minority groups, including widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese military. Women’s groups across the spectrum all have been advocating an end to these terrible crimes.
I was privileged to work directly with Charm Thong and others of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN) to raise awareness of this issue after they published their important report called Licence to Rape in 2002. Women’s groups of other ethnic nationalities have published similar reports and all ethnic minority women suffer under this pervasive threat. The encouraging story is that all of these women’s groups also work collaboratively together through the umbrella Women’s League of Burma that includes majority Burman women. Together they have shown that all the ethnic groups in Burma desire human rights and are able to work together to achieve them. I’m proud to call these women friends and proud that my country stood with them in their struggle. On the Freedom Collection site, Mrs. Laura Bush narrates an important video on the power of women to bring change in countries from Iran to Liberia to Burma. Though every road from tyranny to freedom is rough and winding, I believe in Burma it will be paved primarily by women.