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Story Publication logo February 4, 2009

Come Hell or High Water, the Burmese Junta Endures


Repressed and mismanaged by a cadre of generals since 1962, Burma erupted last September in the...


In a rare outing from the Rangoon home in which she is imprisoned, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi met with U.N. special envoy to Burma Ibrahim Gambari on Monday to discuss the possibility of political reform in her country.

This marks Gambari's seventh trip to Burma, a country locked in a military dictatorship since 1962. His efforts have had little effect. During Gambari's last visit, Suu Kyi refused to meet with him at all, in apparent protest over the ineffectiveness of the United Nations' diplomatic brokerage between her and the military.

In their meeting, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party leaders trotted out their steadfast demands: that all political prisoners be released, the new constitution be reviewed, and Suu Kyi's 1990 election victory be acknowledged.

It must have been painfully evident to everyone that the elephant in the room was sighing. As long as the recalcitrant generals are at the helm in Burma, none of these demands is likely to be met anytime soon.

Suu Kyi's own history is evidence enough. She is nearing her 14th year of detention because of the political threat she poses to Burma's 47-year-old military junta.

Since her first imprisonment 19 years ago, Suu Kyi has received dozens of major international awards she could not collect personally, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. In January, Queen Noor of Jordan gave her the Trumpet of Conscience Award for her continued nonviolent fight for freedom. Perhaps most disappointing of all was the election she and the NLD won by a landslide in 1990. The military annulled the results, locked up the party leaders, and plunged the country into another devastating era of martial law.

Military-ruled Burma is not a nation to which change comes quickly. In North Korean fashion, the xenophobic generals have isolated their country in a time warp to buttress their power. Pre-World War II commuter buses grumble along the streets of Rangoon. Political change in Burma comes slowest of all. Today, 16 months after crushing the monk-led pro-democracy uprisings in Rangoon and eight months after sabotaging the international aid effort to help the millions affected by Cyclone Nargis, the Burmese military junta has proved that neither hell nor high water can shake it from power.

Nor, apparently, can Aung San Suu Kyi, who at 63 remains the most effectively marginalized political leader in the world. Daughter of Aung San, Burma's independence hero, Suu Kyi has symbolized Burma's greatest hopes for democracy for the last 20 years. Educated at Oxford, Suu Kyi is a devout Buddhist, an artful writer, and a charismatic orator. To most Burmese, she is known simply as "The Lady."

The closest I got to Suu Kyi was in a paddleboat offshore from her lakeside home in Rangoon. Ironically, her house lies just opposite the crumbling residence of the late Gen. Ne Win, who founded Burma's military regime in 1962. Guards keep watch over her house at all hours, and nine Burmese were recently arrested for venturing too close. But though Suu Kyi's physical presence is limited to her family's compound, The Lady was seldom far from the minds of the Burmese I spoke with.

"In Burma, human rights, no," a man named Nyein told me one afternoon in a tea shop, using all the English he had. Worried about being overheard by a government spy (one in four residents of Rangoon is thought to be a government informant), Nyein edged his stool closer to mine and looked away. "All people like Aung San Suu Kyi," he said. He folded his hands at the wrists under the table. "But talking, danger." And then he left.

As their lives go from bad to worse and the international community fails to put any meaningful pressure on their government, many Burmese are beginning to lose hope that the military will ever be vanquished. In Burma, little could be more dangerous than the status quo.

The majority of the population here lives on less than $1 a day while almost half of the national budget is spent on the military. Underneath the government's propaganda billboards, beggars ply the streets by day. Prostitutes take their turf at night, dolled-up and doe-eyed outside the cinemas and under the bypasses, trawling for a livelihood in a country that is the source of four unique strains of HIV, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report. In Burma, 360 children die of preventable diseases every day because the junta puts only 3 percent of the budget into health care.

It's a situation so dire and persistent that Suu Kyi's vision of nonviolent resistance unraveling the generals' power can seem naively optimistic. ("There will be change," she has said, "because all the military have are guns.")

For the few remaining armed resistance groups fighting the military in remote swaths of jungle near the borders of India, China, and Thailand, the concept of nonviolent revolution is an idealistic luxury reserved for the cities. Here among the country's ethnic minorities, Burmese soldiers have been burning and looting villages and raping and killing their inhabitants for decades. In the age-old counterinsurgency tactic, they are trying to kill the fish by draining the sea.

When I sneaked across the Thai border to visit the Shan State Army, a threadbare rebel militia in northeastern Burma, I met a man who had been a monk for 20 years but recently exchanged his robes for a gun. He told me what he thought of the pacifism enshrined by Suu Kyi and the protesting monks in Rangoon. "Here, if you have no gun, it's like you're sticking your neck out for them to cut it," he said. "Without a gun, you will not see peace in Burma."

The key to the generals' longevity is keeping people fearful, whether in the jungle or on the city streets. Fear of government spies ensures that public conversations in the city never stray too far into politics. That fear is well-founded. The junta's draconian courts regularly impose massive sentences for petty crimes—just talking to a foreign journalist can earn a Burmese seven years in lockup.

Recently, a famous Burmese comedian known as Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years in prison after mounting an independent relief effort to aid the cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy Delta. In the raid on his home, police found several banned DVDs, including a film of the jewel-encrusted wedding of Senior Gen. Than Shwe's daughter and a copy of Rambo 4, in which Sylvester Stallone guns down the Burmese military in the eastern jungles single-handedly. U Gambira, one of the monks who organized the September 2007 protests, was sentenced to 68 years. A student activist in his 20s was given 104 years for his anti-military political activities.

In this way, thousands in Burma can directly relate to Suu Kyi's plight. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, 2,162 prisoners of conscience sit in Burma's jails as of Jan. 1, 2009. Thousands more came before them.

I gave the AAPP's office a call when I was reporting from Mae Sot, a town on the Thai side of the Burmese border. I asked the man on the phone if he would be able to put me in touch with a former political prisoner.

"Maybe I can help," he said. "I was in jail for 14 years." I walked to the office and met Aung Kyaw Oo. Aung Kyaw was a frail man with a tired face. Like many Burmese in Mae Sot, he had escaped his homeland and was living illegally in Thailand. Aung Kyaw had been a student activist and was arrested three years after his role in the massive pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988, during which the military killed thousands of people on the streets and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a national icon.

Aung Kyaw was abused and starved in prison. He wasn't allowed outside. "They treated me like a slave," he told me. "Like an animal." He survived by controlling his mind through meditation and learning English from scraps of newspaper smuggled in by the kinder prison guards. He read about the Internet and computers and told himself that one day he would learn about them, too.

Aung Kyaw was finally released in 2005. By that time he was very sick, and the free life offered him little consolation. "People were still poor," he said, "still working all day and not having enough to eat. I knew I had to do something to change my country." Fearing a return to jail, Aung Kyaw fled to the Thai border where he works with AAPP, keeping track of political prisoners back in Burma.

At the top of that list is Aung San Suu Kyi, still awaiting her "Mandela moment" when she will step out of her house and lead her country out of oppression. For many of Burma's disheartened, it won't come a second too soon.

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