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8888 in Burma

August 8, 2007

I.

19 years ago today, student groups in Burma took to the street to petition the Burmese military junta for reforms. The government’s response was swift and harsh. Soldiers fired their weapons into crowds and thousands were killed, and many thousands more wounded; there were mass arrests and protestors were tortured or were disappeared.

This was the climate in a country that had been at war against constitutional democracy since a 1962 coup toppled the country’s short-lived democracy. The same regime has been in power more or less for over four decades, though the junta has juggled different leaders and made minor structural adjustments. (After consulting with a PR firm it changed its name from State Law and Order Restoration Committee—SLORC—to the State Peace and Development Council—SPDC. Which is more Orwellian I leave to you.)

Burma has been at war with its ethnic minorities since even earlier than its coup; but the SPDC has frequently raised the struggle to a level the US State Department has called ethnic cleansing. The Burmese army eradicates ethnic minorities, burns their crops, rapes women, plants landmines, kidnaps men to work as army porters and build roads—always marching them in front to set off landmines from previous visits. It has done this with near impunity for far too long.

On that awful day, 19 years ago—a day Burmese democracy activists remember with the symbol 8888—the Burmese regime showed how little it valued the lives of its citizens. The ongoing brutality spread from campaigns against ethnic minorities on the outskirts of Burma into Burma’s urban areas to come down squarely on its student groups. But it was also the brutal repression of August 8, 1988, that sparked the work of a young Burmese ex-patriot.

Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting Burma, having left years before to study. After her marriage to a British academic named Michael Aris, prospects for her lasting return seemed remote. But she was called home to tend to her sick mother and was in Burma, rather fatefully, when her compatriots were slaughtered. When she saw the momentum the students had built, and what pathetic tricks the government resorted to, and their brutality, she felt compelled to speak out.

Not without precedent.

Her father had led Burma on to its independence from Great Britain after World War II. With the weight of history on her shoulders, then, Aung San Suu Kyi became a symbol of Burmese democracy. She telephoned her husband to say she wasn’t coming home, and she never did.

With incredible discipline and moral clarity, she began to speak about unity; she condemned military attacks on Burma’s own citizens, but made sure to remind whoever listened that her father had been a soldier and that he had secured Burma’s independence from Great Britain as a soldier. Burma’s army should not be made into a political tool, she argued. The army should remain neutral. In a word, she was a uniter.

Her message was clear, her commitment unyielding; the Burmese were ready for democracy. Once she even pulled off what became mythologized as a miracle of courage; witnesses watched as soldiers who had been ordered to shoot her down lost heart, and she walked confidently toward their rifles, which lowered as she neared point-blank range.

Whatever the truth of this episode, its effect was very real. Tales of her courage spread through Burma like a flame passed from candle to candle and inspired a movement. Or rather, confirmed a movement that preceded her. Democracy in Burma was inevitable, was what circumstances seemed to suggest. The dictators even seemed to capitulate, announcing elections that would take place finally in 1990. Whatever stratagem they envisioned (a campaign to discredit her? a stonewalling tactic?) failed; Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, won close to 90% of the vote, with Suu Kyi herself under house arrest during the last days of the campaign.

Instead of taking her seat in the halls of power, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi and at least 1100 of her peers remain in captivity nearly two decades later. Suu Kyi has remained the image of dignity, only once known to have publicly lost heart, understandably; when the junta sought to end her phone call with her husband as he lay on his deathbed with cancer, she cried out in despair.

For years she has had no visitors but her doctor and her housekeeper. Her life has been a remarkable one, drawing justified comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mohandas K. Gandhi, and earning her, while under house arrest, the Nobel Prize for Peace and myriad other accolades. If you’re cynical about politics, you need look no further than Aung San Suu Kyi for inspiration. Alone she sits in her home-cum-prison. Her husband passed away, her children grown up—without her.

II.

It’s in large part because of Burma’s ample resources that Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. China, Russia and India, in particular, have clamored for Burma’s natural gas, oil, and other resources (timber, gold, jade). China and Russia have frequently derailed US and British efforts to put the pinch on Burma at the Security Council, by vetoing anything but the most toothless sanctions. The money Burma gains from energy deals inevitably funds its atrocities, evidence shows.

India, for its part, has not only sought Burma’s resources but the military junta’s help in dealing with rebel groups in disputed border regions. Under these conditions, India has even rearmed and retooled Burma’s air force. That the country proud to dub itself the world’s largest democracy, as Ramachandra Guha calls it in his new book, India After Gandhi, would stoop to dealing with a country so anathema to democracy seems startling.

To be sure, India has its strategic reasons for dealing with Burma, and historical ones. There’s no denying that border alliances are a key to security. There’s no denying either that India’s growing economy requires resources, or that in a global climate of regional alliances neighbors would stick together. The chief proponents of economic sanctions, Bush and Blair have made the English-speaking West seem like bumbling bullies, even when they do the right thing, so their sanctions against Burma may seem like more gerrymandering for control that, historically, has not been altruistic in the region.

Nonetheless, dealing in resources is one thing. But only by ignoring the overwhelming evidence of atrocities could New Delhi choose to arm a country like Burma. What it may gain in security it loses in credibility. While near-term security could come from this alliance, in the form of attacks and intelligence against India’s perceived enemies, it may also lose in health security. The Burmese junta’s misrule is on the verge of spawning a humanitarian and health crisis with many of its neighbors. In Thailand, an AIDS crisis looms beside a refugee crisis at the border with Burma. Across the region dengue is on the upswing. There’s also a resurgent drug trade, mainly heroin, taking root in parts of Burma.

Rather than brutalizing its population, and being rewarded for it and enabled by neighbors, the government of Burma needs to be coerced to make reforms that take care of not only health and human concerns of Burmese, but their human rights. Many, including the esteemed Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, have argued that sanctions just don’t work. And some degree of engagement might be in order, but certainly not arms deals.

It’s worth mentioning that India is not the only country arming Burma. China and Russia have done this as well. But we expect more from fellow democracies, and it seems that in answering questions over how to deal with neighbors like Burma democracies like India (and the U.S) define ourselves. (It also deserves mentioning that U.S. sanctions allowed one company, Chevron, to stay in Burma. This, too, is unfortunate.) As an important anniversary of Indian democracy approaches this month, it behooves the government to respect not the bloodthirsty goons who illegally run Burma’s government, but the courageous democracy activists who have fought to stand proudly among world democracies, and who, like Suu Kyi, have sacrificed everything they could.

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