Democracy Lab

No Joke

Burma's famous comedian-cum-activist explains why he can forgive but refuses to forget.

A few months ago the Burmese government decided to let a prominent dissident out of jail. One of the first things he did when he got out was to demand freedom for one of his jailers.

I met yesterday with Maung Thura, better known by his pseudonym of "Zarganar." Zarganar is often described as a comedian, but he's much more than that. Over the years his combined role as a satirist, movie star, and social activist has made him the most famous opposition figure in Burma after Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate who is now campaigning for a seat in Burma's parliament. (For the record, his business card describes him as an "Art-Flavored Politician." The photo above shows him on October 12, the day of  his release.)

Now 50, he has spent 11 of those years in jail (five of them in solitary confinement). He was imprisoned for the first time in 1988, when the ruling military junta shot thousands of people in its effort to disperse pro-democracy demonstrators. One of the people behind the crackdown was General Khin Nyunt, head of the military intelligence agency. Khin Nyunt eventually rose to the position of prime minister, making him the number three figure in the regime.

"When he was a very powerful man, he sent me to jail two times," Zarganar says. He declines to discuss details, but according to some accounts he spent part of his stint in Insein Prison locked up in a dog kennel. Human rights organizations documented countless examples of abuse in Burmese jails during the period. Among the people who gave the torturers their orders was Khin Nyunt.

Like his high-ranking colleagues, Khin Nyunt amassed vast personal wealth through his privileged access to the country's vast natural resources. And, again like his colleagues, he bore direct responsibility for the myriad brutalities perpetrated by the government against its own population.

He was responsible for the conduct of savage wars conducted against ethnic minority groups. He was responsible for the ruinous policies that helped to reduce Burma from one of Asia's richest countries to one of its poorest. And he was responsible for the vicious suppression of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the non-violent opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, after its overwhelming victory in a 1990 election called by the generals to mollify popular discontent.

In 2004, Khin Nyunt lost an internal power struggle. His rivals in the military leadership threw him into jail, then moved him to the purgatory of house arrest.

In 2010, after an election deemed by most observers to be rigged, one of Khin Nyunt's former comrades, a general by the name of Thein Sein, laid down his uniform, installed himself at the head of a new civilian government, and declared his intention to lead the country toward democracy. Last October, striving to underline its eagerness for reform, the government released hundreds of political prisoners -- including Zarganar, who was serving a 35-year-sentence imposed in 2008 for the heinous crime of organizing private aid to the victims of a cyclone that had taken 140,000 lives.

As soon as Zarganar emerged he began publicly calling upon the government to show its good faith by releasing the rest of the political prisoners in its custody. But, much more controversially, he also demanded freedom for Khin Nyunt. On January 13, another batch of prisoners was let out -- and so was the general.

"When he was released the general asked to thank me," Zarganar says. Burmese culture prizes respect for one's elders, so it was the younger Zarganar who was expected to come to the general, his senior by 20 years. "So I visited his house and accepted his thank-you."

The house turned out to be a mansion, lavishly furnished. A wall of the room in which the two men met was occupied by a huge flat-screen TV. Zarganar noticed a late-model iPad lying on a table, and counted the boxes from more than a dozen mobile phones stacked in a corner. These luxuries attested to the wealth that Burma's rulers have accumulated from their years of control over the economy. "Whenever his followers entered the room," Zarganar says, "he gave each of them 10 U.S. dollars" -- a nice gift by the standards of the impoverished Burmese. So much for sanctions.

Even if the government moves ahead with its opening of the political system, the generals are likely to keep their hold over many of the economy's choice assets. When I ask Zarganar if the opposition is willing to accept such trade-offs for progress towards democracy, he smiles ruefully. "This is a very critical time," he says. "We have to move forward with negotiations. We cannot make demands like that. This is the time of trust-building. The government is more powerful than us."

 

He's right, of course. Even if Aung San Suu Kyi wins her bid for a seat in parliament, she and her fellow NLD members will still be vastly outnumbered by other lawmakers who were elected under rules drawn up by the generals. But at least the opposition will finally have a voice. That counts for something.

The meeting between Zarganar and Khin Nyunt lasted 15 minutes. The general offered no refreshments to his guest. "He didn't offer me coffee, or water, or beer," Zarganar says, laughing. The general did, however, thank the comedian for lobbying on his behalf.

But did Khin Nyunt offer any apologies for putting him in jail all those years ago? Zarganar sidesteps the question. Discussions of that kind should remain private, he says. If the general wants to apologize to the Burmese people, that is something that should be done in public.

So far Khin Nyunt has opted to hold his tongue (perhaps under pressure from his former military colleagues). But it could yet come to that. Zarganar says that there will be no way to avoid some sort of reckoning with the past. Putting officials on trial might not be the right approach, he says. There are better ways: "I like and support truth and reconciliation. The people who did criminal things must admit their misdeeds. They must admit their misdeeds and apologize to the people."

His post-prison travels include a stop in Cambodia to examine how that country has dealt with the traumas of its own recent history. He declares himself particular impressed by the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which serves as a national repository for information about the 1970s genocide there.

And on the day we spoke, here in Washington, Zarganar had just visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It's all part of a private quest to understand how to help his own country to cope with the traumas of so many years of authoritarian rule. "We can forgive, but we cannot forget."

Memory, indeed, has many uses: "Democracy is not strange for our people. Before 1962 we had many experiences with democracy and democratic government. So we are ready. But we have to make it" -- he searches for the right word -- "sustainable."

That's precisely the challenge. Burma's rulers -- most of them, at least -- understand that the cost of maintaining absolute power can only be extremely high. "They can control the military, they can control the parliament, but they cannot control the public," says Zarganar. But that's not the whole story.

The leaders are also aware of the desire for revenge harbored by many of their own citizens, and that fear compels them to tread cautiously. For all the progress that Burma has made within the past few months, many of the most repressive laws of the old regime remain on the books. "They let me out of prison but my sentence remains in effect," Zarganar says. "I still have 31 years and four months to go. If I'm arrested again, I'll have to serve the rest." Under current law, you can still receive decades of jail time for reading or writing an email deemed to be subversive by the government.

Zarganar prefers to look forward. He wants to see a Burma that respects both the economic interests and cultural identities of the ethnic minorities. He wants to see a country that allows its own people to prepare themselves for active participation in the global community. And though he declines to join a political party for the moment, he does not rule out the possibility of one day running for political office. If all goes well, he says, Burma could achieve the status of a full-fledged democracy by the year 2020.

That seems optimistic. But if this man can summon up optimism, surely the rest of us can.

Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

The Georgian Paradox

As Georgia's recent experience demonstrates, fighting corruption and building democracy are two different things.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a happy man. Yesterday U.S. President Barack Obama bestowed upon him the privilege of a high-profile visit to the Oval Office. The Obama Administration was rewarding Georgia for its support in Iraq and Afghanistan. Georgia also won points for a recent gesture that has helped to defuse tensions with Russia. (Which perhaps explains why Obama confused the two at one point.)

Today Saakhashvili made an appearance at the World Bank's Washington headquarters. The Bank used the occasion to issue a highly complimentary report on Georgia's anti-corruption campaign. When I caught up with President Saakashvili there, he boasted that Obama had singled out Georgia for its recent efforts to improve governance. "He also was talking about Georgia as a role model for reforms for the whole region," Saakhashvili said.

There's something to that. Anyone who wants tips on tackling sleaze should take a look at the World Bank study. Georgia has made some impressive progress.

Soon after coming to power after the Rose Revolution of 2003, Saakashvili's government decided to demonstrate its commitment to fighting bribery through a dramatic gesture. One of the peskiest forms of corruption plaguing ordinary Georgians at the time involved the notoriously rapacious traffic police, who made a habit of topping up their meager salaries through a variety of petty shakedowns. Overnight Saakashvili fired the whole force of 16,000, replacing it with a much smaller group of carefully vetted, better-paid police. The reform was backed up by spot checks and other measures to ensure that new recruits stuck by the rule of law. Fines were no longer collected at the scene of the misdemeanor but paid at commercial banks. A 24-hour hotline was set up for citizen complaints about law enforcement.

The measures dried up graft in the police force and smoothed the way for a drastic decline in overall crime. The police reform included measures for cutting the red tape involved in issuing driver's licenses and car registrations. The government set up a series of one-stop shops to streamline applications and prevent artificial delays. Among its other positive effects, that move had the unexpected side-effect of transforming Georgia into a regional hub for the lucrative trade in used cars.

The government didn't stop there. It also embarked on a radical simplification of the tax code that dramatically improved collection while broadening the tax base. Electronic filing options for businesses boosted the transparency and efficiency of the whole process. Similar reforms were applied to the customs service, to university entrance exams, and the municipal bureaucracy.

One of the most dramatic reforms involved the energy sector. By 2000, power generation in Georgia had fallen to half of its 1990 levels. Georgians had become accustomed to rolling power cuts - a result of years of financial mismanagement and ubiquitous corruption. Utility companies and the public officials associated with them charged bribes in exchange for providing reliable electricity.

The new government made state utility employees responsible for cash collections. Thousands of electricity meters were installed to track usage and promote transparency. (Since there weren't enough meters to go around, collective meters were sometimes installed for apartment blocks or groups of houses. It wasn't perfect, but still a vast improvement over the old way of doing things.) Electronic billing systems were introduced. The government demonstrated its seriousness by turning off the power to prominent companies that didn't pay their bills. Safety nets were set up for vulnerable groups who couldn't pay the new rates. The government sold off state utilities, but made provisions to ensure the viability of the overall sector.

The World Bank notes that other countries can extract a lot of useful lessons from Georgia's experience. Georgia, and Saakashvili, clearly have a lot to be proud of. "The place is just astronomically better now than it was 10 years ago, and anyone who doesn't admit that isn't being honest," says Mark Mullen, the Georgia director for the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. He points out that Georgia is doing far better on almost every measure than regional rivals Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Yet buried in the World Bank study is also an intriguing cautionary note. As the preface rather cryptically observes, Georgia still faces an "unfinished agenda of institutional reforms, which will be needed to ensure the sustainability of Georgia's anti-corruption results by putting in place a robust system of checks and balances."

Wait a minute. So what's not to like?

It turns out that the anti-sleaze campaign is not the only thing that has been happening in Georgia over the past few years. Corruption has shrunk, but the power of the central government has increased. "Georgia's human-rights record is poor," no less than The Economist wrote last year, on the occasion of another Saakashvili visit to Washington.

The media are no longer as free as they used to be. Saakashvili's ruling party, the United National Movement, has steadily chipped away at the independence of the press. The national TV channels are firmly under state control, and their news coverage shows it. A few small outlets are still allowed to report more or less freely in the capital, but most provincial newspapers and broadcast stations are firmly under the government's thumb. In the most recent Reporters without Borders survey of global press freedom, Georgia scored 104 out of a possible 179. That ranking put it below Chad, Northern Cyprus, and Gabon. Sure, that's still better than Ukraine (116) or Russia (142). Not exactly a model, though.

Saakashvili's party controls all of the major executive positions in the country and dominates both parliament and the judiciary. As British Georgia-watcher S. Neil MacFarlane noted in a thorough study last year, Georgian courts have an acquittal rate of less than 1 percent. Freedom House, in its last "Nations in Transit" study, gave Georgia an overall score of 4.86 - putting it roughly in the middle of the chart for the formerly communist countries of East and Central Europe.

In our conversation today, President Saakashvili touched upon recent reforms to the electoral system that shift power from the presidency to parliament. Skeptics say that Saakashvili might well "do a Putin" by taking the job of prime minister when his presidential term expires two years from now. When asked about this, he was coy: "The last thing I want to do is to turn myself into a lame duck by speculating about my own future."

And when I asked whether he was worried about the state of Georgian democracy, the president sidestepped again. Instead he chose to riff on the opposition, which he accused of attempting to "undermine the whole political process, either through shortcuts or radical acts or indeed lots of money poured in." He was clearly referring to his prime challenger, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom he accuses of fronting for his archenemies in the Kremlin. But it wasn't Ivanishvili I was asking about. He's not the man with the power in Georgia. So the real question went unanswered.

"If you bury the democratic shortcomings with the narrative of better governance, you're missing the bigger story," says Columbia University's Lincoln Mitchell, author of Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution. After the 2003 revolution, he says, Saakashvili and his entourage revised the constitution to tilt the electoral playing field in their favor. The result is a classic example of a system that has all the trappings of a liberal democracy but little in the way of genuine political competition. "The elections are as good as they can be without giving the opposition a chance to win," says Mitchell. He credits Georgia's progress against corruption. But good governance, he points out, is not necessarily the same thing as vibrant democracy. In some cases, indeed, the two may be at odds. "Georgia's elite are modernizers, not democrats," writes Tom de Waal, a leading Georgia-watcher with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Transparency International's Mullen concurs. The problem, he says, is that Georgia's dynamic young rulers "think they know what needs to be done, and the population doesn't." Saakashvili and his team "talk about the need to transform Georgia into a modern country - even if people are kicking and screaming along the way." For the time being Saakashvili's emphasis on good governance has served to keep his approval ratings high among most Georgians even as he has undermined democratic institutions. Yet Mullen wonders how long a patronized citizenry, and an increasingly marginalized opposition, will settle for the trade-off.

It's a good question.

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