IU aids quest for democracy in Burma


Professor David Williams and Andrew Lian, of Indiana University's Center for Constitutional Democracy, during a visit to Thailand in support of the Burma Democracy Movement. Lian, a former resident of Indiana, returned to Burma to support government reform efforts. - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted photo
  • Professor David Williams and Andrew Lian, of Indiana University's Center for Constitutional Democracy, during a visit to Thailand in support of the Burma Democracy Movement. Lian, a former resident of Indiana, returned to Burma to support government reform efforts.


In the Feb. 20 issue of NUVO, we explore various expressions of Indiana's burgeoning Burmese community, which has grown from just a handful of refugees a decade ago to a population of nearly 10,000 today.

And as Indy's Burmese culture evolves, so does Burma itself — partially influenced by connections cultivated here in Indiana.

For decades, the U.S. government called Burma one of the world's most isolationist and oppressive countries. But last November, President Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit.

Obama referenced the trip in his State of Union address on Feb. 12: "I saw the power of hope last year in Rangoon, in Burma, when Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed an American President into the home where she had been imprisoned for years; when thousands of Burmese lined the streets, waving American flags, including a man who said, 'There is justice and law in the United States. I want our country to be like that.'"

The Center for Constitutional Democracy at Indiana University has been working on democratic reform in Burma for more than a decade. Professor David Williams, IU's John S. Hastings Professor of Law, is executive director at the CCD. He spoke with NUVO about the current reform efforts underway in Burma and how they might influence Indiana with respect to its Burmese communities.

NUVO: Please provide a synopsis about the work the Center for Constitutional Democracy has done with Burma.

Professor David Williams: Burmese people asked to become involved. In particular, some revolutionary soldiers thought we might help them find a way forward for constitutional reform. That's what we've been doing for 12 years now.

As we became involved with the people in Burma, especially the ethnic minorities, we also became involved with people in Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne and Bloomington, all of whom were here as refugees.

NUVO: How will recent political reforms influence our refugee communities here in Indiana?

Williams: The first thing that people need to realize: There has been an opening in Burma, censorship has gone down, there are fewer political prisoners, and so forth, but no real democracy as of yet. Nonetheless, there is more freedom and that really matters.

As a result, two things have happened.

The first: The refugee flows from Burma were mostly from ethnic minority areas in the hills. There is still fighting in some areas, but the fighting has been reduced in other areas. The result is I think that refugee flows will go down from those areas. I'm thinking particularly about Chin State where fighting is much less than it was — and there are big Chin communities in Indy and Ft. Wayne.

The other thing that has happened, to some extent, is that some people have, indeed, gone home ... Very well educated people, who have gotten their education here in the U.S. have been invited to go home by the Burmese government to help reconstruct the regime. And some of them have gone, including the person who used to be our assistant director at the CCD, he is now back in Burma working for the Myanmar Peace Center. His name is Andrew Lian. He was very central to the Chin community in Indianapolis.

He has made the judgment that the government has gone far enough along the path of reform that it might make sense for him to participate in that. I don't know whether that's the right judgment or not, but I respect the judgment. And it's actually helped us because now we are working with the Myanmar Peace Center to try and help make peace. He is fairly central to the government now, and the result is we are able to do things we would not otherwise be able to do to.

NUVO: How is that working?

Williams: Andrew is not naïve about this. He understands there are forces in the government that don't want real reform. The reform so far has been mostly window dressing. But the very fact that it is window dressing at all is itself significant because the old regime would do nothing that would look like a concession to democracy and the new regime wants to placate international opinion. That is, they want to buy off international opposition by making as few concessions as possible.

They know that their best people have fled the country to get educated, and they want to bring them back now. Part of that is because they want their help in making a better future, but part of it also is that they hope if the educated people come back the regime will look more legitimate. So, again, some of this is window dressing É but the long-term effect might be very good.

NUVO: Have you been to Burma to visit Andrew?

Williams: Before he permanently relocated, we used to go inside the war-torn areas because we were trying to help the ethnic minorities.

Andrew used to sleep across my bedroom lintel with an AK47 cradled in his arms because we were in these war-torn areas, and he was a soldier and I was not. So we were there all the time.

Most recently in November, since he's relocated to Rangoon for good, we were there with him for about three and half weeks.

NUVO: Does Aung San Suu Kyi have a position of real power now?

Williams: She is in the parliament and she is the head of the constitutional reform committee in the parliament, but the reality is that the military still controls everything.

So she is there, she's trying to negotiate and trying make something work, but it would be naïve to describe her as having real power ...

We see that people have more freedom to do more things, but government is not prepared to surrender power to a popularly elected party.

NUVO: Do you think it's appropriate to think that it could be dangerous to hand off power too quickly?

Williams: I don't. We do constitutional reform work around the world. There are places where the risk is chaos, and there are places where the risk is autocracy. In Burma, the risk is autocracy. The result is that one should always err on the side of dividing power more quickly and more in multiple directions.

The reality is I think that democracy will come to Burma from the periphery, not from the center. The people in the capital don't know how to do democracy. The people in the hills, they've been doing democracy for a long time in their own more indigenous way. And I think the more power can be devolved to them, the better Burma's future will look.

NUVO: During Aung San Suu Kyi's visit to Indiana last September, she referenced (at least, in the translation I read) a bit of tension among different ethnic groups here in the U.S. Do you see any of that?

Williams: Some, for sure. The reality is that back home in Burma, the Burman majority has, for a long time, persecuted the minorities. And the minorities are unhappy about that. And so they have difficulty here, sometimes, working together. Nonetheless, I think that's ebbing. That is, I think it was worse 10 years ago than it is now.

The reality is that the great bulk of Burma citizens, both Burman and minority, alike, they want democracy and they want federalism. They don't see everything eye to eye — and I'm not saying there are no more racial feelings, I think there are — but it's much, much better than it was.

NUVO: What else should we keep in mind as we watch these changes in Burma and consider the future of Indiana's Burmese communities?

Williams: The Burmese in this country have to make a decision, and it's a decision that all immigrants have to make: Are they here temporarily in preparation for going home? Which is fine: America is the great refuge of political dissidents everywhere - that's what we should be doing. If that's what they want to do, that's great. They have to now calculate their time for when they will go home.

But the other possibility is that they are immigrants to this country, the same as every other immigrants, and will be here forever, and they will make this country much stronger. Right now is a time when our Burmese friends here in Indiana have to make a decision about which course they will take.


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