It seems a morality tale not unlike the one that got us mired in Iraq. An evil dictator oppresses and starves his people, crushing hopes for freedom and progress. A brave and beautiful pro-democracy leader sacrifices her comfortable life in Britain, her marriage and her children for her people. Such is the gripping drama that is now under way in Burma. Even First Lady Laura Bush stepped into the picture this week, warning that if Burmese ruler Gen. Than Shwe doesn't move toward democracy "within the next couple of days," her hubby George will slap more sanctions on him. But the story of Burma's junta and the country's inspiring heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, isn't quite that simple. And in that more complex story lies a larger tale of how democracy is rarely the panacea it's touted to be in the rhetoric we hear out of Washington.
I remember traveling to Burma in 1992 on a rare journalist's visa. It was then, as it is now, a tragic place. Burma was once a country so full of resources and promise that in the late 1950s the World Bank concluded that it would outpace Singapore, a mosquito-ridden backwater at the time. Things did not work out that way. In 1962 a junta took over led by the bizarre Ne Win, a half-mad general who governed by numerology; once he wiped out the savings of millions of Burmese when he decreed that the number nine was lucky and redenominated the kyat. Ne Win completely closed the country off and declared that he would follow "the Burmese way to socialism." By 1987 the country had sunk miserably into "least developed country" status. When I visited, the corridor between the major cities of Rangoon and Mandalay was so underdeveloped that the only buildings of substance were crumbling stone hulks left by the British 50 years before. One dictator followed another: Ne Win was ousted in 1988 and ultimately replaced by Than Shwe, who did no better. He crushed the democracy movement led by Suu Kyi, nullifying the elections that she won, to his surprise, in 1990.
But Suu Kyi tried to take power in a country that, somewhat like Iraq, was utterly broken and demoralized. The millions of students and hopeful Burmese who supported her election had no wealth or economic leverage, much less sophisticated knowledge of how democracy works. The military was the only organized entity in the country. Suu Kyi is still deservedly revered in Burma, but even some of her most avid supporters told me back in 1992 that she had tried to do too much too fast, demanding that the military step aside right away. "I was caught by her charisma at first," one young activist said. "But when you see things with a cooler head … I think she did overdo things. Her ideas of democracy and freedom were too abstract and out of touch with the real Burmese situation."
Sound a little familiar? I wouldn't dream of equating Aung San Suu Kyi with, say, Paul Wolfowitz (much less Laura Bush). Suu Kyi put her life on the line and sacrificed everything while Wolfowitz, the former dean of Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies, was merely brave with other people's courage: the young men and women he fecklessly sent to war. But both were driven by an abstract, ill-thought-out notion of democracy, and that doesn't get you very far in backward countries. Conditions have to be right—economic, social, and legal. And they weren't right in Burma in 1988 for the sort of instant transformation that Suu Kyi tried to foment, just as they weren't right in 2003 for Wolfowitz's grandiose notions of a new Middle East.
One of the many mysteries of Wolfowitz's disastrous misunderstanding of Iraq and the Arab world was that he loved to tell people about the lessons he had taken from East Asia. "They will say it can't be done; Arabs just don't do democracy," he told a Rand conference in 2004. "But I remember a time some 20 years ago when I worked for President Reagan as his assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, and then as his ambassador to Indonesia ... I remember hearing people, experts and distinguished academics saying Koreans and Chinese really don't care that much about freedom, indeed that their Confucian heritage predisposes them to accept tyranny, or that they were incapable of democracy because they had no historical experience of it." Wolfowitz would then point out that South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and other East Asian nations had since become democracies.
Here is an academic flying so high in the empyrean of abstraction that he doesn't stop to pay attention to the details on the ground. The details were these: the East Asian governments (the Philippines excluded, but that is another story) followed a three-generation plan for prosperity that gradually laid down conditions for democracy. In the decades after World War II these countries focused purely on development, creating an economic middle class. That in turn engendered a broad-based hunger for democracy, the wealth and economic power to sustain it, and the judicial structures to enforce democratic freedoms. As Suu Kyi said poignantly in 2000, in a videotaped message at the first Community of Democracies conference in Warsaw (she was still under house arrest), democracy also means "freedom after speech and freedom after elections."
Democracy is very, very hard. It can't be imposed from without. (The two examples the Bush administration loves to cite—postwar Germany and Japan—both featured highly developed countries that had had considerable experience with democracy before the U.S. occupation.) It is evolutionary, not revolutionary. And it is certainly not a panacea. (Two of the biggest East Asian economic success stories, China and Singapore, have prospered under enlightened autocrats, not democracy.) One hopes that the long-suffering Burmese will soon have a taste of freedom, and that Suu Kyi will too after 18 years of standing up for principle. But for them that will only be the beginning.