After decades of domination by colonial powers and military regimes, Burma now has an opportunity to create a nation that capitalizes on the talent, diligence and dedication of its diverse population. To do so, the country needs to develop a shared vision of the nature of governance, stable institutions that foster competent management and fair distribution of resources, and skills and exposure to negotiate effectively with external partners, whether from the business, political, social or development sectors.
While Burma has spent more than 60 years in relative isolation, much of the world has amassed significant experience in post-war reconstruction and development, both as agents and recipients of assistance. There is a great opportunity to apply lessons from the successes and failures of those approaches to propel Burma on a trajectory of self-determination, prosperity and successful engagement with the global community.
I had a chance to visit Burma in December 2011. It was an indescribably moving experience. Even as I recalled the cries for democracy that I heard in 1988, and the sound of gunshots fired at peaceful protesters, and long days and nights spent providing surgical and medical services to the victims of the military's brutal crackdown, I couldn’t help but feel a palpable excitement in the streets for the country's future.
However, the current atmosphere of excitement and change is not without uncertainty and concern for how far this current progress can go under the watchful eyes of military hardliners and their powerful supporters such as China and Russia. Many in Burma expressed their concerns openly but also emphasized that they would need to move forward under any circumstances or challenges.
I had the privilege of meeting Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (Daw Suu) during my visit. She is as determined and inspiring as ever, if not more so. She has been working tirelessly to move Burma forward effectively as a democratic, peaceful and prosperous country. She welcomes support that will help Burma help itself to become a contributing member of the global community.
How do we, as members of the global community, support Daw Suu and the people of Burma in their efforts to move Burma forward under such exciting and challenging circumstances? The support should lead to an inclusive and effective nation-building process in Burma led by Daw Suu, leaders of ethnic groups, reform-minded military leaders, and others such as business and civil society leaders.
As a global citizen who has worked in the health and development sector in a good number of countries and organizations, I would like to suggest that the global community prioritize the following three areas of support in the nation-building process of Burma.
First, foster the development of a shared vision for the direction of the country among different ethnic, religious and political groups. Establish information-gathering and confidence-building programs across Burma with participation from diverse groups, including community leaders from ethnic, religious and youth groups; teachers, business people and civil servants; the National League for Democracy and other political parties; and the military. Encourage and support experience-sharing and facilitation from emerging countries that have gone through transitions from dictatorship to more democratic governments (e.g., South Africa, Chile and Indonesia) in the above-mentioned programs. Development of a shared vision for the direction of the country will be a long and hard process, but it needs to happen with good and steady facilitation and support.
Second, invest in community and institution building in Burma. Focus on capacity-building in different areas such as small business, trade, finance and banking, the legal system, news and communications media, transportation, energy, environmental protection, civilian-military relations, international relations and social and health services. Provide capacity building directly to people at different skill and performance levels, based on needs and gaps. Embrace and promote leadership of women in capacity building and employment opportunities. Incorporate the knowledge, experience and goals of workers in Burma, together with community inputs and participation, as an integral part of any nation-building plan. Provide training and employment opportunities for local/national workers to allow them to assume major responsibilities and leadership. International experts with skills and experience in implementing development, health and social programs successfully in developing countries would be helpful in that process.