Together with our partner the Asia Society, USIP hosted representatives of the Myanmar Development Resources Institute (MDRI) and legal advisers to Burma’s president to Washington, DC. Their visit was part of an informal dialogue process between experts from the U.S. and Burma to explore opportunities to advance relations between the two countries.
In addition to learning about issues related to the rule of law, the Burmese delegation was keen to understand the hallmarks of our democratic system of governance, forged over 200 years. As part of that exploration, the delegation visited the U.S. Congress.
As we walked the Capitol’s hallowed halls, I found myself reflecting on our history and the principles that our country was founded on. As director of the Rule of Law program at USIP, I have always held closely the principle that we are a "nation of laws, not of men." As I stood in the rotunda surveying the paintings depicting different stages of our nation’s development, I found myself in awe of our system and reflecting on the foresight and vision of our founders.
During our visit, we met with a group of congressional staffers from both sides of the aisle who answered questions our Burmese delegation posed to them. They were just as eager to learn first-hand about developments in Burma as the Burmese were to learn from them.
I had wondered how the current example of our country’s partisan divide would be perceived by our Burmese guests. As if reading my mind, one of the congressional staffers pointed out the fact that ours is a system where tension and differences between ideas is nothing new, and, in fact, built into our democracy to ensure fairness, thoughtful debate and cautious deliberation.
One staffer told us how it took him some time to adjust to the duality of cooperating with a colleague across the aisle on one measure and then having to oppose him or her on another – in the same day.
And to prevent tyranny, our government has been divided into three equal bodies, none supreme over the other – their shared goal to not create a perfect union, but a "more perfect union." The Burmese delegation was particularly interested in how the balance of power worked in practice between our three branches of government.
As part of their visit to Congress, the delegation was invited to sit in the first row of the confirmation hearing of Derek Mitchell, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Burma. Here, the Burmese were able to witness first hand our bi-partisan congress in action, as senators expressed common wishes for the success of Burma's embrace of democracy, and the varying and occasionally opposing perspectives from which each party viewed Burma's democratic transition.
I was grateful for the opportunity to experience our democracy through the eyes of the Burmese legal advisers as they set out to create a new system of governance based in part upon the lessons from their visit.
If there was one lesson the Burmese came away with that day – that we’d be wise to never lose sight of ourselves – it is that democracy is a process and a journey, and not a single culminating event.
Colette Rausch is the director of USIP’s Rule of Law program.