Shadow Government

The Lady of Burma comes to Washington -- at last

Yesterday in Washington, Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi stood in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda to accept the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. The award had been waiting for Suu Kyi since 2008, when House and Senate leaders initiated legislation "in recognition of her courageous and unwavering commitment to peace, nonviolence, human rights, and democracy in Burma" and President George W. Bush signed it into law.

Still under house arrest in 2008, Suu Kyi chose not to accept the award in absentia. Instead, thinking optimistically, she decided to look forward to the day when she could receive it in person. And indeed she finally did.

A notable roster of well wishers -- including House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senator John McCain, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush and others -- went to the podium to pay tribute to Suu Kyi's courage and commitment to a free and democratic Burma. It was a welcome and increasingly rare display in Washington of bipartisan foreign policy consensus, something that has waned significantly since the end of the Cold War.

For the program's invocation, the Reverend Patrick Conroy, S.J., Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, thanked God for Suu Kyi, calling her a "heroic witness to the dignity of all people." Amen.

Senator McCain, verging on tears, recalled first meeting Suu Kyi 15 years ago and being amazed that this "picture of gentleness and serenity" could be the same "implacable lady" who had so befuddled the men of Burma's military-backed regime.

Mrs. Bush hailed Suu Kyi as "the mother of her country" and recognized her moral clarity and strength. "One of the most repressive governments on earth attempted to isolate and silence one woman," she said. "It must have seemed an easy task. Instead, the regime encountered an immovable object -- and its legitimacy broke against her character."

Secretary Clinton turned to Suu Kyi with a big smile and marveled: "We knew at some point that change would have to come...It's almost too delicious to believe, my friend, that you are in the Rotunda of our Capitol, the centerpiece of our democracy, as an elected member of parliament." Applause ensued.

Suu Kyi graciously accepted the honor and then implored: "Please use your liberty to promote ours." She also issued a call to support not just the people of Burma but people "everywhere else in the world where freedom is still a dream." 

In that moment, it was almost impossible not to think about the late Vaclav Havel, the former dissident turned head of state who helped lead Czechoslovakia from tyranny into freedom. Not satisfied with the fruits of his labors at home, President Havel made it his mission to support those who were still seeking freedom from oppression, including Aung San Suu Kyi. And now we see this remarkable woman using her nascent freedoms to pay it forward, just as Havel did, and raising up the plight of freedom seekers beyond her country's borders.

Against this momentous backdrop, it is important to acknowledge the progress Burma has made in such a short time. It is equally important to recognize the enormous task that lies ahead.

In The Case for Democracy, former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky is unambiguous about the meaning of freedom. For him, the test is simple:

Can a person walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm? If he can, then that person is living in a free society. If not, it's a fear society.

In Burma, a corrupt and brutal military regime failed the "town square test" with impunity for nearly 50 years. Today, it's too soon to say the people of Burma are free, but we're cautiously optimistic about the future. 

Since Suu Ky's release from house arrest in 2010 and the emergence of a civilian-led government in 2011, Burma has experienced important openings. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released. Media censorship has been curbed. 2,000 individuals have been removed from the government's notorious political blacklist. Labor unions have been legalized. And Aung San Suu Kyi and her fellow National League for Democracy members have stood for parliamentary elections, openly campaigning across the country and sweeping 43 of the 44 seats they contested earlier this year.

Nevertheless, hundreds of political prisoners still sit in Burma's jails. The media now submit copies of their work to government censors after publication, rather than before. Ethnic conflict continues to claim lives. The executive has yet to submit to democratic elections. And constitutional reform is sorely needed.

While confident that her country can overcome these and other obstacles to a free society, Aung San Suu Kyi recognizes that "until the army comes out clearly and consistently in support of the democratic process, we cannot say that it's irreversible." Let us hope that day comes sooner than anyone expects, just as Suu Kyi's historic visit to America came this week.

James K. Glassman is former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas. Amanda Schnetzer is the Bush Institute's Director of Human Freedom.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Pacific Rim is smoldering

No doubt the Obama administration has its hands full with a full-blown crisis in the Middle East, but we rightly expect presidents to have enough hands to deal with more than one crisis at a time. So far, there is little evidence that the administration is engaging with the trouble in the Pacific over a handful of disputed islands in ways that attend to U.S. national interests. Our interests are clear: aggression is not acceptable, and certainly neither is a war between China and Japan over disputed islands, no matter whose claim is ultimately justified. The United States should make this clear not only in public pronouncements but with serious behind the scenes diplomacy. Our goal should be to encourage all in the region that keeping a close relationship with the United States is paramount, and those who want our influence in the region should be favored. Showing weakness or inattentiveness over this dispute is just as dangerous as showing it in the Middle East with regard to the safety of our embassy personnel and with what should be our non-negotiable stance on free speech despite protesting mobs.

At this point, China is escalating its aggressive posture in both word and deed toward Japan (and the much weaker Philippines regarding another disputed set of islands). It also bullies other countries such as Norway for its role in giving the Nobel prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and is distancing itself from the United States with its recent ill-treatment of Secretary Clinton and its refusal to engage in talks. All this escalation continues as Secretary Panetta visits the region and is being vocal about the dangers. In short, China has been for months strategically engaging in coercive diplomacy with any country that disputes its claims or offends its sensibilities regarding its human rights record. Unusually, not even the impending installation of a new premier has put this policy on pause.

But the role that China is playing is not the whole story. Japanese politics might be turning more decisively nationalist even as it reacts to Chinese pressure, and that could spell serious trouble for us as Joshua Keating points out at FP's Passport blog. It could also be devastating for the global economy if a trade and investment war breaks out. And we should not forget that in a region where we'd like to see democracy strengthened rather than derailed or weakened, this does not bode well, as Christian Caryl points out at FP's Democracy Lab blog.

Already Japan is matching Chinese diplomatic and economic actions with its own. It is now tit for tat. Each side is becoming locked in a downward spiral of slowing or stopping investment and trade, large demonstrations are manifesting in each country, and there are very loud and public calls for divestment and boycotts. Looming on the horizon is the increasing strength of more nationalist politicians in Japan who have chosen in this crisis with China to flex Japanese muscles. Cooler heads who in the past have defused tensions and maintained the huge mutually beneficial and complex economic engine of the Pacific Rim appear not to have the tiller in hand, nor can they afford to appear weak in an increasingly nationalist country. Understandably, more and more Japanese each year chafe at playing the role of dependent on U.S. might and diplomacy, or at least being perceived to do that. But whether anyone in the highest circles in Japan -- and China for that matter -- have been thinking about the grave risks they are running, even if they stop short of war, is anyone's guess. If emotion is overtaking reason, if leaders are more focused on righting the wrongs of history than in securing a stable and prosperous future, if they desire more to cut a figure before their publics (whether they get to vote for them or not) and on the world stage than to be statesmen, then we are all in serious trouble. Right now, it looks like that is what is happening.

It is the job of the United States to do all it can to prevent any kind of war, whether it be a trade war or an actual military conflict. This is our problem because the consequences of this conflict will impact us greatly, but also because we are party to the myriad territorial settlements and vague understandings of the disposition of the islands in the region after WWII. Given what has happened in the Middle East in the last two weeks regarding the Obama administration's record of being prepared, thinking ahead, and acting and speaking firmly in behalf of our interests, I am not encouraged.

SAEED KHAN/AFP/GettyImages