Thursday, April 9, 2009

Learning from Poland’s Example

The Irrawaddy News

Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa hasn’t been to Burma but he shares his full solidarity with its people.

Walesa, the feisty and articulate electrician from Gdansk, led the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) movement that finally liberated the Poles from communism. Poland was the icebreaker for the rest of Central Europe in the "velvet revolutions" of 1989. Walesa's contribution to the end of communism in Europe was highly acknowledged and he remains respected in Poland.

Sitting in his office and talking about Burma, the former president admitted that Burma was mentally and physically far away from Poland but he firmly expressed his solidarity with its people and political prisoners.

He was one of 112 former presidents and prime ministers—including former US presidents George H W Bush and Jimmy Carter, former British prime ministers Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi—who recently urged UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to return to Burma and pressure the military junta to free all political prisoners.

He then joked through a Polish interpreter:

“Don’t wait for me to come to fight (in Burma)—you have to start now!”
The former electrician, who once climbed over the guarded gates of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk to lead the Solidarnosc trade union movement in its pro-democracy struggle, wanted to know how Burma’s own pro-democracy movement is faring.

He was happy to share his experiences but he had no intention of delivering a lecture on how to topple the regime. His message was clear, however: be strategic and creative when fighting the repressive regime.

Walesa was convinced that there must be a way out to resist the regime in Burma, if not in the streets. He also said that people should have the courage to say: “No.”

Poland in the 1990s was surrounded by powerful communist neighbors—the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and other members of the Warsaw Pact—and Walesa and his colleagues sometimes thought it was impossible to bring down the communist regime in Warsaw. So his message was that although outside support was important, the movement would have to start from within. More importantly, he thought it was vital to keep open a line of communication with comrades-in-arms in the movement.

His message was: if you cannot lead the people onto the streets, a different strategy to counter the regime has to be found. And his message for the Burmese people was: don’t be downhearted, but be creative in challenging the regime.

He told the Burmese people to be prepared. All authoritarian regimes fall unexpectedly, he said.

It wasn’t a message that those Burmese military leaders who purchased 12 PZL Swindik W-3 Sokol multi-purpose helicopters and 18 Mil Mi-2 helicopters from Poland in the 1990s would like to hear.

Walesa, who became president in 1990 and led Poland through the early post-communist transition period until 1995, recalled that sometimes he felt no one was giving his freedom movement a chance and that victory might not come. When it did come, he was surprised by its unexpectedness.

An early political rival agreed for once with Walesa. Aleksander Kwasniewski, who succeeded Walesa as president in the 1995 election and served until 2005, wished Burma a peaceful transition to democracy.

Kwasniewski, a former communist government minister who led the left-wing Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland and then helped found the Democratic Left Alliance, said the people of Burma, including the opposition, should take any window of opportunity to seek peaceful change.

He warned that any window of opportunity would be rather short lived, so quick action had to be taken. The momentum had to be captured and not lost, he said.

“We didn’t expect that change would come so fast in Poland,” he admitted.

Reminded of the role of Buddhist monks and monasteries in Burma, Kwasniewski acknowledged the importance of the Catholic Church in events in Poland.

Transition, he warned, always involved risk, strife and violence, but the big question remained: what comes after? Changing the regime was easy compared to the difficulty posed by the aftermath, he said.

Poland’s experience in dismantling a rigidly authoritarian regime may indeed hold lessons for the Burmese people’s own struggle for freedom.

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