Democracy in Burma…and Poland

The remarkable political evolution of Burma in recent weeks has interesting parallels with events in Poland in 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and has been elected to parliament along with members of her party, the National League for Democracy. The NLD scored a stunning victory in the April 1 by-elections, winning 43 of the 45 contested seats in the national parliament and regional assemblies. Party candidates polled well even at military bases and in districts near the capital with large populations of civil servants. Some members of the democracy movement had cautioned against joining elections in which so few seats would be openly contested. Suu Kyi took a leap of faith in deciding to participate, and so far her decision has paid off. The NLD has gained significant national prestige and influence.

This calls to mind Solidarity’s unexpected ascent to power in Poland in 1989. When the beleaguered communist regime finally yielded to Solidarity’s demand for free elections in June of that year, they restricted the number of contested seats to just one third of the parliament. Some activists wanted to reject the deal, but Solidarity wisely decided to take advantage of the narrow opening, hoping to widen the movement’s clout and political legitimacy. Solidarity won 160 of the 161 parliamentary seats that were openly contested, defeating even top communist officials in their home districts. The regime unexpectedly capitulated and Solidarity took responsibility for governing.

What both of these stories have in common is their genesis in nonviolence. Nonviolent movements inspire public participation and dialogue and are far more likely than armed struggle to generate successful democratic transitions.

The drama in Burma is still in its early days, but already we have seen surprising progress. Let’s hope more will come in the months ahead as the democracy movement navigates the torturous path of persuading the military to go back to the barracks.

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