Myanmar and the whirlwind of change

If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less…

— Unknown American politician

Earlier this year I had the great pleasure to visit Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). I served as a member of an American delegation, and we met with a group of senior retired Myanmar military officers and government officials. Our discussions focused on Myanmar’s ongoing transition from more than fifty years of military rule to democracy and the implications for U.S.-Myanmar relations.

I came away from this visit with several overarching impressions. First, Myanmar is a beautiful country and its people are some of the most delightful and hospitable that I have met in all my travels. Second, due in part to its isolation from the international community the nation suffers from a host of problems. These include poverty, several distinct ethnic insurgencies in various parts of the country, human trafficking, illegal gun smuggling, counterfeiting, illicit narcotic production, unlawful fishing, and crime syndicates robbing the country of both precious metals and timber. Finally, it became clear that the elections planned for November of this year were critical if Myanmar wanted to continue on its democratic journey or revert back to military rule.

There was also no question that Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was going to be a key figure in this transition and the elections. She had been imprisoned for many years by the military junta and is widely considered the most popular person in the country. Most experts predicted that her National League for Democracy (NLD) would win in the November 8 elections, but most were very surprised by the landslide victory. The NLD won two-thirds of the seats they needed to control both houses of parliament and choose the next president. The military-backed party won only 40 seats.

In the days and weeks ahead the political developments in this lovely country of over fifty million people will be interesting to follow, and Aung San Suu Kyi has already been outspoken that she will lead in its change. But this also serves as a clear illustration for any leader of key techniques for the change process. He or she must:

  • Be fully involved in the change process from the onset. This cannot be delegated.

  • Decide upon, buy-in, and formalize a vision for the organization.

  • Communicate the vision. Aung San Suu Kyi must address the cultural concerns that have divided the country along ethnic lines, and any leader must also carefully consider issues of organizational culture that must be addressed during the change process.

  • Establish a sense of urgency and tie this to a credible reality and achievable goals that demonstrate progress.

  • Identify change agents and form coalitions with key stakeholders.

  • Select, educate, delegate, and empower others to effect change.

  • Seek short-term successes in order to gain momentum.

  • Finally, institutionalize new approaches. The leader must employ a “systems perspective” to insure planning is comprehensive.

Change for Myanmar will be difficult and like any organization there will be setbacks along the way. Furthermore, like any leader confronted by change, Aung San Suu Kyi’s determination and resilience will be sorely tested. But the people of Myanmar clearly want it to work. The world is watching and hoping that this process will result in a more democratic and prosperous Myanmar. I hope to go back in late spring 2016 and look forward to seeing how the country’s continues to develop.