Is the brutal military dictatorship of Burma (renamed Myanmar by its ruling junta) starting to thaw, or merely angling once again to co-opt opposition and get U.S. and European sanctions lifted? This Sunday, Oct. 2, local human rights and democracy activists will hold a sutra reading, peace walk, and candlelight vigil at Green Lake’s south shore, starting at 5:30 p.m. They’ll commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, when Burmese monks and civilians took to the streets in protest and, for a heady moment, it seemed the regime might bend or break. Organized by cellphone and Internet, the Saffron Revolution was a blueprint for the peaceful uprisings of this year’s Arab Spring — except that the Myanmar thugs, like their counterparts in Iran, managed to suppress the peaceful demonstrations with truncheons, bullets, and mass arrests.
These events are preserved in a moving documentary, the Oscar-nominated Burma VJ, which could be a primer for other such uprisings. But Burma quickly vanished once again from the headlines, leaving its generals free to build their remote new fortress capital and, perhaps, resume their efforts to get nukes from North Korea. Burma's ordeals aren’t as remote as you might think; a few years ago it emerged as the United States’ and this state’s number-one source of political refugees, most of them members of the Karen, Chin, Kachin, and other minorities displaced by harsh exploitation and some of the world’s longest-running ethnic conflicts. In the new multinational mixing pot of Kent, they fill borrowed church halls with their hymns and dances.
I confess to an outsized interest in Burma, which sometimes drives my editors nuts; once the place gets under your skin, it’s hard to get it out. I crossed into the Karen rebel areas from Thailand a few months after the even bloodier military crackdown of September 1988 and met hundreds of students who’d fled into the jungle and were now dropping from malaria; they implored me to ask the CIA to send them guns. I went to the Burmese heartland and jungle logging camps in 2000 to research a book on elephants and saw both the persistence of repression — prisoners led through the streets in chains — and the endurance of an irrepressible people. A few years ago I wrote in Seattle Met about Karen refugees making a new home in anonymous apartment blocks along the aptly renamed Tukwila International Boulevard; I’ve stayed in touch with them since. When Burma VJ first showed in Seattle, I met the Venerable U Pyinya Zawta, who organized his fellow monks to be Saffron Revolutionaries and afterward escaped to the United States. He was astonishingly serene about the prospects for democracy and peace in the Burma: The regime would fall, he said, when the soldiers who were also its victims joined the monks and ordinary citzens opposing it.
Perhaps, but the new meme — sounded recently in The Economist and Financial Times — is a very different one: the regime is starting to open up. Witness: Last year it released Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and pro-democracy leader it’s kept under house arrest for most of the past 21 years (ever since her party overwhelmingly won the last free election). It’s even let her travel a bit, publish an article, do foreign radio broadcasts. The hardline junta leader Than Shwe has retired; the new quasi-civilian president, Thein Sein, talks a softer line, as does the xenophobic official press.
A prime exponent of this hopeful view is the historian Thant Myint-U, grandson of the diplomat U Thant, who was UN secretary general back in Burma’s better days. He argues in his new Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia that Burma’s underappreciated strategic position makes change inevitable; India and especially China are jockeying for influence and investment, opening things up. Meanwhile Western sanctions have made the West irrelevant there.
Maybe, but Chinese patronage hardly makes countries more democratic; look at Zimbabwe and North Korea, or China itself. And these heralded breakthroughs sound wearily like past flowerings, such as the annulled 1990 election that should have made Suu Kyi prime minister. Those withered in the official chil.
I can’t help recalling similar hopeful buzz about Syria after the supposedly kinder-and-gentler Bashar Assad succeeded his brutal father. You know how that’s gone. Don’t throw away your vigil candle just yet.