by Sarah Mendelson, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance

We’re Together, Even When We Are Not

The Arab Spring has left many activists at the Community of Democracies hopeful—perhaps none more so than Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. She wasn’t physically in attendance but virtually and spiritually, her presence was felt. She appeared in a video message recorded from somewhere in authoritarian Burma that enabled her to join us during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meeting on Thursday afternoon with democratic and human rights activists from around the world and then again at the Ministerial Friday. “Suu,” as she is called by a Burmese activist, connected the dots linking the Baltic experience and the Arab Spring to the struggle in Burma. She was the embodiment of grace and patience as she declared from her room, far away, that she was “full of hope and full of anticipation for what the not too distant future will bring to us.” This was her second appearance at one of the Community of Democracies gatherings having sent a message under similar circumstances eleven years ago.

When the video played in the meeting with activists, it was as if she was one of them. When it played in the ministerial, following addresses by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other foreign ministers, it was as if she too were a minister.

Hope, Nerves, Progress

Like Aung San Suu Kyi, all the activists here in Vilnius want to be hopeful.  But they also seem wistful.  They watch democratic openings elsewhere as the political space around them narrows. We are together in Lithuania. But, when we return to our homes, the burden to push on that space is theirs alone.

I find that hope quickly gives way, however, in many conversations with activists. They are worried. In a series of panels on the role that women play enhancing democracy, panelists puzzle over a worrisome pattern: why do revolutions that often start with women in the frontlines so often not deliver for them? And now, will women lose out after the Arab Spring? How can we all make sure that does not happen?

In a conversation with the leader of of an Egyptian women’s organization, we talked about USAID’s renewed focus on and support of elevating the voices of women and girls in the new Egypt.  I say the words in good faith; I’ve had this conversation so many times with colleagues that I’m convinced we are committed to it. But I’m also conscious if I’m totally honest that not all of us are positive yet as to how best to do it.  All I know is that democracy in Egypt will not succeed if women and girls are not full partners in the process of transition, benefitting from the changes occurring.

I listen silently as men and women from Cambodia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe all tell me how worried they are about their next elections. They worry that if the Arab Spring is indeed a new, fourth wave of democracy, will it also wash over their country?  Here too, USAID can and does help.  The Zimbabwean activists are especially eager to thank USAID for the excellent work my colleagues are doing.  I write these words as I’m sitting next to the former US ambassador to Zimbabwe, James McGee who is in Vilnius to receive the Palmer award for “Courage in the Pursuit of Democracy” for his service there 2007 to 2009.

Saluting the Front Line Activists

It goes unsaid in all these conversations that we are aware that the struggle is ultimately in the hands of the brave activists who put their lives at stake. It’s not in the hands of the diplomats or the development professionals, however much we want to help. We stand in solidarity with them and they clearly seem energized by their time with Secretary Clinton. But we cannot be with them in a cell when they are imprisoned, even as we support the lawyer who works for their release. We are not with them when they are tortured although we support the clinics that will help heal the wounds.

As gains are made, backlash is almost a certainty. It is what everyone fears and it is on some level what we should expect as dictators get nervous and activists get more strategic and effective at demanding accountability, respect, dignity and prosperity.

USAID’s Continuing Commitment

At USAID, as we plan to stand up our new Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance, we are focused on this set of issues at this critical time. We are conscious that as social media connects citizens in closed spaces to one another, it can imperil the very same activists. We need to be working with activists and donors on how to improve the physical security of these people. We are focus on helping the new democracies deliver to their citizens.

At the Ministerial here at the Communities of Development, Secretary Clinton announced that USAID is committing an additional five million dollars to support the transition to democracy in Tunisia. These funds will help leverage the ten million we have already begun to turn into action. I’m proud to be here to hear the announcement I’ve worked hard on with other colleagues. But I’m reminded from my two decades of work on these issues in Russia and Central Europe, I can’t want the transition to be successful more than the Tunisians do.

2013 in Mongolia?

I’ve seen many people this year that I saw a year ago in Krakow at the last Community of Democracies. I ran into an Ethiopian man who can’t go home because his life is endanger. Today, his life hasn’t really changed. Then there is the Belarusian social media maven who is still floating around the freer parts of Central Europe. It’s always nice to see familiar faces. Two years from  now, as we gather in Mongolia at the next Community of Democracies meeting, maybe some of those faces, and in particular that of Aung San Suu Kyi, will be able to join us—this time in person.