Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar work will continue, vows National Endowment for Democracy

The US-funded National Endowment for Democracy has played a key role in Myanmar's move towards freedom, but it says there is a long way to go

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 4:15am

One of the more discreet elements of Myanmar's transformation is the enduring role of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US taxpayer-funded body that for years has bankrolled and fostered human rights efforts, non-violent resistance movements and media activism inside the country.

The continuing work of the endowment traces a line from the fast-changing streets of Yangon back through the decades to the vision of then-US president Ronald Reagan, and further back to the intense US congressional debates of the 1970s to remove such work from the shadowy corridors of the Central Intelligence Agency. It can be seen as US "soft power" in action.

Reagan launched the endowment - mandated and funded through Congress via the State Department but officially a private, non-partisan and non-governmental body - in 1983. A week before Christmas he sent from the White House what he wanted to be a "message of hope" and a "noble vision" at the height of the cold war.

"We must work hard for democracy and freedom, and that means putting our resources - organisation, sweat and dollars - behind a long-term programme," he said.

The fruits of those sentiments have been on show during democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's 17-day visit to the US - her first since her release from long years of house arrest last year. The fact that President Thein Sein - a former junta general - praised Suu Kyi in his speech to the UN General Assembly last week showed just how deeply Myanmar's reforms are taking root.

While Suu Kyi's other Washington stops - the White House and the US Congress - garnered more attention, her trip to the endowment's office was nonetheless significant.

Suu Kyi urged unity for the rebuilding as the fledgling democracy in Myanmar - formerly known as Burma - emerges from dark decades of military rule.

"What has happened in the past taught us that if we want to succeed we have to work together and the whole future of Burma is before us," she said at an endowment event held to honour five Myanmese activists. She was flanked by leading US lawmakers, including former presidential candidate John McCain and former House speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Such messages resonate beyond Myanmar, of course. China and other authoritarian states have long monitored the work of the endowment and the operations it supports, fearing its influence and past links to the "colour revolutions" of eastern Europe.

While it promotes a range of civil-society, human-rights and underground-media work in China - particularly in the restive areas of Tibet and Xinjiang - as well as in Vietnam and North Korea, Myanmar has long represented a special case for the endowment. Other Western governments run similar programmes but, coming from Washington, the endowment's work inevitably carries more baggage, analysts believe.

Lacking the organisation and bottom-up control of a communist state, Myanmar has long had activist opposition and ethnic minority groups, exile movements and an independently owned - if censored - press.

Since 1990, when the generals ignored the results of a national election won by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, the endowment has been active, with its funding growing to about US$4 million a year spread across dozens of projects.

"We have always been able to get involved with things in Burma in a way we couldn't dream of doing elsewhere," one veteran endowment official said privately.

The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma broadcaster and the prominent Thailand-based Irrawaddy news website are among the institutions that have benefited, along with many smaller operations inside the country. It has sponsored extensive projects to document human rights abuses and train Buddhist monks and other groups in the up-to-date tactics and techniques of non-violent protest, something seen in the widespread protests - later smashed with force - of late 2007.

If Myanmar's transitional politics are raising all manner of questions, at least some of them involve the endowment: does it consider its work a success and will that work continue? What role does it believe it has played in the events of the last year? And have any lessons been learned that could be applied elsewhere?

"We're not celebrating but we have been pleasantly surprised at the pace of change," said Brian Joseph, the endowment's senior director for Asia and global programmes. He added that there was a great awareness among Myanmese activists and across the endowment that the "struggle was just beginning".

The changes would, however, present shifting opportunities for engagement. Should present trends continue, the balance between spending on exile movements and work inside the country would naturally shift, but the overall spending levels would remain about the same.

"What has happened has just been spectacular but there is still a long, long way to go … it should be remembered that this country remains, constitutionally, a military dictatorship," Joseph said.

He said US$4 million per year for a country of more than 50 million people was "simply not enough to effect political change". A similar amount is spent on China projects.

"What we have done has been to provide an important piece of a broad movement towards significant political change … but it is just one piece in a jigsaw. It must always be remembered that we weren't the cause of that change and we weren't the straw that broke the camel's back. At every level, it is the people of Burma that have to take any credit, and it is the people of Burma that have to figure out the next steps."

In that regard, endowment officials are quick to distance themselves from policy choices or specific moves on the ground, saying they are involved with efforts to expand and support "democratic space" - activists and institutions - rather than actual decisions about action. They also deny links to US intelligence operations, or a specific "regime change" agenda, saying that regime change doesn't always mean the rise of democracy.

One specific piece of on-the-ground action that alarmed some Chinese diplomats and analysts was the protest movement against the giant Myitsone dam in northeastern Myanmar. The US$3 billion project involved Chinese funding and would have flooded an area of the Irrawaddy River Valley the size of Singapore.

A decision by President Thein Sein in September last year to freeze construction of the dam was seen as a key early sign that the new, nominally civilian government was determined to heed the concerns of the people. It also pointed to a longer-term strategic shift away from a growing reliance on links to China.

Some Chinese envoys have privately speculated that endowment-led operations were being used to serve Washington's interests, while the Chinese online community has also pounced on conspiracy theories.

Joseph denied any direct endowment involvement in mobilising activists in Myanmar to take action against the dam or other specific projects, but confirmed it had funded projects to examine the "broader issues" of infrastructure development plans, impacts and ownership.

More broadly, Joseph said that if there were general lessons to be learned, "I would say one of the key ones is that one never knows the political trajectory in authoritarian countries.

"Who really saw the extent of this change coming? We certainly didn't - and you don't have to go back very far before finding that some people were talking up the fundamental strength of the military regime and questioning the relevance of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the democracy movement, to a younger generation.

"You should never overestimate the strength of authoritarian regimes."

Joseph also spoke of the importance of long-term investments in "creative people and creative institutions".

"It really is a long-term effort - in the case of Burma we are talking about 10 to 15 years and even further back, but the key for things to take root and survive is creative and persistent people who are adaptable," he said.

He pointed to the endowment's long-term funding of the Irrawaddy website, which has built an international reputation. "They were constantly creative and adapted," he said, adding that the site was now a "key part of the landscape".

For the people on the ground - the activists and journalists now enjoying the first taste of relative freedom - there is a sense that the support of the endowment, and the many Western governments running similar programmes, has been important, but it is far from the whole story.

"We are grateful and the support has been wonderful," said one elderly journalist, who has been jailed in the past for his efforts. "But the outside world must always remember this is our struggle, that we are not some bloody foreign creation or tools in a global power struggle. All the way through this we are the ones taking the risks, making the decisions about what to do, when to do it and what to say."