Societies in Transition

17th Forum 2000 Conference

5 Big Ideas at the 17th Forum 2000 Conference


The ideas represent some of the key focal points around which discussion took place at the 17th Annual Forum 2000 Conference, held this year under the theme of “Societies in Transition,” inspired by the legacy of co-founder Václav Havel, the late Czech president and stalwart champion of human rights and freedoms.
 
By no means do these ideas encompass all of the thinking and debate of the event, but they did arise frequently, across various fora, due to their timeliness or in some cases timelessness. In this regard, they shed light on the topics and range of thought that emerged organically among the varied thinkers, activists, diplomats, politicians and dissidents who participated in the conference.

Burma in Transition

For years, an empty chair was left at the Forum 2000 Conference for Burmese pro-democracy campaigner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest. This year, the conference could finally receive Ms. Suu Kyi, now an MP and opposition party NLD chair, who plans to run for the presidency in 2015, when the Election Commission is “guaranteeing” free and fair elections. Although she stresses that Burma is still far from becoming democratic, she has faith in the power of citizens to bring about an end to authoritarian rule. “Good governance is like a ship – the direction of the vessel, in the end, is not given just by the steersman but also by the crew who is sailing it,” she said.
 
Aung San Suu Kyi has appealed to friends of Burma to watch carefully the constitution reform process: “We have not yet made the transition to democracy and that the path is very difficult and very delicate. Very few people outside the country understand the intricacies of the situation. At the moment we have to go step-by-step and the next big step that we need to take is, at the same time, very simple and extremely difficult. We need to amend the present Constitution in order that we may truly become a democratic country. We need to be conscious of the urgency to amend the Constitution because it is now under consideration in the legislature. The ethnic problem will not be solved by this present Constitution, which does not meet the aspirations of the ethnic nationalities. The democracy problem will not be solved by this Constitution. The Parliamentary Committee for the Re-assessment of the Constitution will be filing its report by the end of this year. We would like all of you who would like to see our country as a fully democratic society to join your voices to ours, and to call for amendments of the Constitution by the end of this year.”

Igor Blaževič, who works for the Burma Center for Transitional Studies project in Yangon, warns external actors are misguidedly helping political and economic elites created under the previous military dictatorship to consolidate their dominant role for the future. “We, as Western players, are supporting the strong side (...) rather than engaging the government to level the playing field,” he said. “We are making a profound mistake politically.”
 
According to Šimon Pánek, Executive Director of People in Need, civil conflict in Burma along ethnic and religious lines continues and the window to secure the peace is small. Violence against the Muslim minority in Burma by radicalized Buddhist groups and creeping aggression against the Karen ethnic nationality by the Burman dominated Army continues, noted CEU Professor Robert Templer, and high levels of inequality and youth unemployment do not bode well for a stable transition. Kachin Peace Network founder Khon Ja said civil conflict is worst in areas with rich natural resources, like Kachin state, which has many refugees and IDPs, and the inclusion of civil society in the peace process is minimal.
 
Sectarian clashes in the western state of Rakhine last year left 200 dead, mostly Rohingya Muslims who are denied citizenship, and another 140,000 homeless. His Holiness the Dalai Lama (who met privately with Ms. Suu Kyi on the conference sidelines) called for an end to the religious violence in Burma, urging the country’s monks to act according to their principles: “When they develop some kind of anger towards Muslim brothers and sisters, please, remember the Buddhist faith,” he said.

The Role of External Actors

In Burma, some see the influx of foreign aid as already having had negative side-effects, exacerbating internal displacement, corruption and conflict. It was agreed that how the transition will play out is unclear – but the international community, both governmental organizations and NGOs, must play a significant role in Burma, supporting, facilitating and financing democratic transitions. Mr. Pánek and Zuzana Hlavičková, Director, Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed the need for rigorous studies before any aid is given – in Burma and anywhere a transition is taking place.
 
Around the world, external actors must not impose models of governance the people in those countries do not want, the conference heard, though a liberal democracy remains the model the West would like to see. The Soviet Union’s collapse produced successful open democratic societies but also other models, including family-dominated autocratic regimes. When Communism collapsed in the CEE region 24 years ago, democracy seemed the inevitable model for transitioning societies, but currently “there are people who find the China model attractive and we cannot dismiss it,” said Christopher Walker, Executive Director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies.
 
A recurring theme at the conference was that external actors from countries that transitioned to democracy have lessons to share of particular importance. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary (the Visegrad Four), for example, have stepped up joint aid channeled through the International Visegrad Fund. But governments and NGOs are not the only external actors: some companies enjoy doing business with dictatorships, warned First Deputy Minister at the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jiří Schneider“[Some] enjoy this Byzantine way of doing business in this country. This is fantastic for them; there is no competition,” he said.
 
Azerbaijan could be seen as a case in point where human rights have taken a back seat to trade, said journalist Khadija Ismayilova, noting there are now around 100 political prisoners in her homeland. Following a screening of the film “Amazing Azerbaijan!,” she praised Karel Schwarzenberg, the former Czech Foreign Affairs Minister, for describing the country as a “dictatorship of one family” but lamented that other EU leaders are reluctant to criticize, so as not to harm trade relations (especially oil imports). “[I would] expect the Czech Republic and other countries which came through what we [Azerbaijan] came through, to have more respect to human rights and dignity.”
 
It is important to note that with the European Union and the U.S. less inclined now to help aid transitions due to the economic downturn, others will fill the leadership void, cautioned Christopher Walker. “Sitting it out is not the best answer [for the democratic countries]. Many other players with money are not sitting it out,” he said, citing Saudi Arabia as an example.

The Importance of Institutions

Poland’s Krzysztof Stanowski, Executive Director of Solidarity Fund, setting the stage for discussion on the role of aid to transitional democracies – especially its potential institutional and cultural impact on the recipient country – summed up the prevailing view at the conference: “We do not believe in development without democracy,” he said. Frederik Willem de Klerk, the former President of South Africa, said there are 6,000 cultural communities in the world’s 200 countries and the greatest menace to peace is “the growing threat of conflict within” them and their governments’ “inability to manage diversity” when tensions erupt along ethnic, religious or cultural lines.
 
Transition to democracy is not just about holding elections – implementing mechanisms for the inclusion of marginalized groups, an independent judiciary and other checks and balances on power, is also essential. In terms of strategies for both accelerating transitions, and giving them firm, sustainable foundations, it was often noted that the critical ingredient is effective institutions – especially those designed to advance the rule of law, and the absolute necessity for a powerful, independent judiciary. As Mr. de Klerk said, also minorities “should have their special concerns listened to in a caring way” for a transition to be successful and enduring, and creating formal mechanisms and institutions for ensuring their voices are heard is crucial.
 
But as noted in the Closing Session by Gareth Evans, former Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, “Building institutions is not a matter of cookie-cutter designs, and well-meaning outsiders can sometimes make very bad judgment calls – parliamentary systems will make more sense in some contexts, presidential ones in others; similarly with federal systems as compared with unitary ones.”
 
Ultimately, only the people themselves can choose which system is right for them. But as Russian economist and former presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky stressed in the context of his country’s Constitution, institutional structures and processes must mean something real in practice, not just look good on paper.

The Importance of Leadership

Who will head the transitions? Another recurring theme in conference discussions was the crucial importance of leadership to push through necessary changes in governance, peacefully, and in sustaining that transition over what might be a protracted period. “Transition never stops,” said Mr. de Klerk. “Leadership is very important, but you can wait without success for the right leader to come,” he said. “I think civil society is extremely important – we cannot leave politics only to the politicians.”
 
The world knows how totally crucial was the quality of leadership provided by Václav Havel, by Nelson Mandela and Mr. de Klerk, and now in Burma by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and how important it has been, and will continue to be, in meeting the aspirations of the people of Tibet to have both the inspiration and wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, said Gareth Evans.
 
“The problem that the conference did not quite get around to answering, and will need to spend more time discussing, is what do we do when that leadership is missing from the start, or goes missing? Is it just the luck of the draw that some countries find themselves at the critical time with a de Klerk and Mandela, and others with a Milošević, or Mugabe? Are good leaders just born, or can they be made?”, said Mr. Evans. “Can we at least put in place more effective structures and processes to get rid of bad leaders, when they look like undermining rather than reinforcing a democratic transition process?”

The Importance of Values and Ideas

Demands for change manifested in “The Arab Spring” have taken many forms, but share a common factor – cries for greater representation and accountability from those in power. “This is a consensus expectation,” said Egyptian analyst Tarek Osman, but adopting Western liberal democracy is not a universal goal.
 
The economic rise of China, the Gulf states, Singapore and others seems to offer other viable paths to prosperity and acceptable social order; in this context, references to “cultural specificities” and the non-universality of human rights and democratic values are often made. However, as Michael Novak, the US theologian and political scientist, said, “The leaders of China today seem to think that their turn to capitalism, with great success in raising up scores of millions of its poor, can continue on its current path, without a free political system. My judgment is that this is a false hope. Once a large enough sector of economic entrepreneurs has come to see its own talent and success ... they will soon enough demand various institutions of self-government.”
 
But what models will be followed? The remaining big conference theme is the importance – the power – of ideas and values in stimulating and consolidating transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. “With common values we can find common language; and with common language we can push any problem in the world in the right direction,” said Russian economist Grigory Yavlinsky here. It is of critical importance to find a common language to articulate, promote and implement shared values.
 
“What are the crucial ideas? Our common humanity? Accommodating diversity? Freedom and dignity? Some of those particularly associated with Václav Havel himself and mentioned in the Opening Session, including by His Holiness the Dalai Lama – compassion, altruism, generosity?” Mr. Evans said in the Closing Session. “What are the ideas and values that matter most in this context? What the ones that can find most resonance as a new common language? What are the ones that most readily translate into actionable, operational language? What are the ones that can produce action?”

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