DALLAS -- A distinctive group of 18 visitors at the George W. Bush Presidential Center this month were not the usual tourists in shorts and jogging shoes hoping to get their photo taken in the replica of the Oval Office.
More than a third of them had been in prison -- for protesting military control in their country. One had to leave her family behind in a war zone to go to school in safety.
One was a Muslim whose family had gone into hiding after anti-Muslim hate speech boiled into bloody riots this summer.
One was a Christian who was working to stop the destruction of rivers and teak forests. One was a Buddhist who wanted to encourage more women to run for office.
Whatever their differences, they had this in common: They were all democracy advocates from Burma, also known as Myanmar.
The 18 democracy supporters were selected from a highly-competitive group of applicants to become the first class of "Young Leaders" receiving specialized leadership training at the Bush Institute in Dallas. The idea is to give a new generation of leaders the kind of knowledge and skills they will need to take their country to a true democracy.
Although many people may think that Burma has completed a transition to democracy in recent years, the truth is that the military still controls all the top government positions and the Parliament. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has so far been thwarted by the military from seeking the presidency and the chance to make more reforms.
Although controls on the economy have indeed been loosened, attacks on ethnic areas have continued. Land confiscation has continued. Rapes by soldiers still go unpunished. And reporters are still being sent to prison -- some just for protesting the arrests of other journalists. In recent months, violence against Muslims has rocked the country. The much-persecuted Royhinga minority members have been herded into concentration camp-like holding areas, triggering global condemnation of a potential genocide.
Burma is at an inflection point as the country nears a general election in 2015. Shadowy powers are believed to be stoking the fires of religious nationalism -- "Burma for Buddhists" -- to preserve their privileged status. At the same time, foreign companies such as GE, MasterCard, Ford, Caterpillar, Hilton Hotels and yes, Starbucks, are rushing in looking for an exotic new market.
The contrasts as the country grapples with change are jarring: You can now rent a cell phone at the airport, get cash at an ATM, and get a fine French meal at a five-star hotel. But drug production of heroin and methamphetamines is skyrocketing. This month Burma was ranked one of the worst countries in the world for for money laundering and abusive treatment of minority populations.
The Young Leaders program couldn't come at a more needed time. Students are getting a crash course in practical leadership skills as well as the principles of liberal democracy and free markets. They're reading the foundational thoughts of John Locke and James Madison along with the economic theories of Adam Smith and the speeches of presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. They visited George Washington's historic home at Mount Vernon and watched the Fourth of July fireworks light the skies over America's mall (the one with the monument to Abraham Lincoln, not the one with sales). And for fun, they rode a mechanical bull at the Mesquite Rodeo.
The program was cheered on by former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, who are longtime supporters of democracy in Burma. The Bushes invited the Burmese to dinner and came by their classroom at the Bush Institute to provide encouragement before the former president left to undergo a knee replacement.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the Burmese by video conference from her office at Stanford University. She noted that democracy can take time and pointed out that the U.S. had its own difficulties coming to the concept of equal rights. She said that her parents could not go to restaurants or movie theaters in Alabama for many years and her father could not vote as recently as 1952. "But differences can be overcome, prejudices do not have to remain," she told them. "You are the leaders who can make this happen."
As their weeks of study were coming to a close, the Burmese were anxious to go home and have rice and green tea instead of Texas-sized sandwiches and iced tea. They were ready to lug their four-inch thick notebooks home and share their training with others. One of them, who had been imprisoned for five years for protesting military violence against monks, said she would be teaching classes on civic participation. "I don't think it will be easy," she said. "People have been brainwashed; they have been born and grew up and lived in fear. We have to change the people's mindset to make things better than before."
"We are not a real democracy yet," observed another group member. He had to flee the country at one point for providing videos of military abuse to journalists. Now he has returned to make a documentary about the current transition period and said, "Hopefully, it will get better."
Another class member, who grew up in a home without electricity, TV, telephone, or plumbing, went on to graduate from law school. "You are living freely and without fear here," she said. "But inside Burma we didn't have any freedom, so I didn't have a chance to produce what is freedom. Now I will."
When the Bush Institute took the group to the Trail Dust Steak House to celebrate, the staff advised the Burmese men that they needed to wear a necktie because of the dress code. The staffers distributed some ties obtained at Goodwill. What the Burmese didn't know was that the steakhouse has a rowdy tradition of cutting off neckties to keep the atmosphere "cowboy casual."
When the group entered the restaurant, bells were rung and it was announced over a loud-speaker, "We've got some lawbreakers here!" As their new neckties were snipped in half, the Burmese laughed uproariously as they caught on to the joke. In their country, they had seen much oh so much worse happen after alarms. They had learned a long time ago that laughter drives out fear -- and to be prepared for anything.
Rena Pederson, a former State Department speechwriter, is the author of "The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of Nation," to be published by Pegasus Books in January 2015.