Having functioned as a military dictatorship for nearly 45 years, the government of Burma (or Myanmar, as the current regime has renamed it) is among the world’s worst abusers of human rights. The last decade has been witness to thousands of incidents of political imprisonment, state-sponsored torture, repression of ethnic minorities, forced labor and relocation. Burma’s current leader, the avidly superstitious General Than Shwe, recently used his astrological practices to justify the relocation of the country’s capital to a half-built city/fortress 200 miles away from its previous location. Yeah, he’s that crazy.
But what is probably more interesting than Burma’s tragic political condition is the strength and commitment of its democratic opposition. Aung San Suu Kyi, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and an internationally recognized face of Burma’s struggle for democracy, is the charismatic, nonviolent leader of a political party called the National League for Democracy. In 1990, while reeling underneath growing calls for democratic reforms, the military government held its first elections in 30 years. Suu Kyi and the NLD swept at the polls, winning more than 80 percent of the popular vote. The problem is the dictatorship decided to immediately nullify the results, placing Suu Kyi under house arrest (where she still remains) and retaining total control of the government.
Here in the United States, our leadership enjoys blabbering on endlessly about the inalienable human rights of freedom and democracy and the need to promote them across the globe. And yet, when presented with clear opportunity to stand for a cause that is a perfect representation of these ideals, it gets conspicuously quiet.
The Burmese dissidents, whose growing voices remain unmatched by political action from the international community, are calling for sanctions and increased political pressure against the current government. With activists inside Burma acknowledging the economic cost of this pressure, their call for sanctions – despite their negative short-term effects – is an argument that must not be ignored.
As in so many other instances of multilateral action, however, the effort of pushing for a democratic Burma is a complex and arduous path. Within the United States, the lack of public awareness and the current administration’s unwillingness to make Burma a priority hinder the creation of more forceful policy. Among the East Asian community, countries like China and Malaysia continue to invest heavily in the Burmese market in hopes of capitalizing on the eventual opening of its economy. And on the international front, the U.N. Security Council is reluctant to set harsher restrictions until Burma can be viewed as a threat to regional stability.
Of course, no one would really call Burma a threat to stability within Southeast Asia – unless you account for its 700,000 political refugees, its generation of child soldiers, its massive exportation of heroin and opium and its rapidly increasing rate of HIV/AIDS infection. Oh yeah – I guess it is a threat to regional stability.
Most important in an examination of this country should be a discussion of the role grassroots activism must play in changing the policy and increasing awareness. Groups like the U.S. Campaign for Burma and Free Burma Coalition, which lobby at all levels of government for a more aggressive, proactive stance on the issue, have been remarkably effective in promoting what progress has been made on these policies.
Here at the University, student activism has caused some progress thanks to groups like the Coalition to Cut the Contract with Coca-Cola, whose efforts demonstrated the ability of direct action and pressure to alter the policies of a large institution. Critics of student activists, especially of those fighting for more distant, international cause’s, often argue that these undertakings are too abstract in their goals and fail to make any difference worldwide. The formation of a Burma activist group at the University and at other college campuses, however, could profoundly increase the political power focused on the issue. To suggest that a sufficiently large, unified movement among college students nationwide would not have any impact on public awareness and interest would be a glaring underestimation of the role grassroots activism has played throughout our country’s political history.
On points of international concern, there is rarely an issue that comes across as completely black and white. In far too many instances, oppressed or neglected people are given the choice between bad and worse, which generally leads to their getting screwed either way. Perhaps nowhere do things seem more clear-cut than in Burma, where a nonviolent democratic movement is thriving underneath a brutal, incompetent dictatorship with little interest in moving the country forward. Unfortunately, continued indifference from much of the outside world will give little hope to those who struggle for a democratic state. While an international campaign for a free Burma must function in all levels of society, it will take a grassroots, bottom-up effort – and the voices of those who compose it – to make true progress.
Bielak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org