The Saffron Revolution
by Stephen Schwartz
At this writing, on Friday, September 28, the Burmese military regime has brought its heavy hammer down on the thousands of people demonstrating against the country's 45-year-old dictatorship. Police and troops have fired on protesters, killing at least 13 people. Buddhist monasteries have been raided and sealed, including the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous and beautiful building in Rangoon, and some 200 monks are under arrest. Internet traffic, which dissidents used to report events to the world, has been cut.
It may be pardonable to begin comment on a land almost completely sealed off from the rest of the world with the only trace of humor in its situation--the difficulty some English-speaking newsrooms have had in deciding whether to adopt the nationalist renaming of the country and its main city, from Burma and Rangoon to Myanmar and Yangon. The Washington Post sticks with the former; the New York Times and other leading dailies prefer the new system, though the mouthful "Myanmarese" has failed to gain currency, leaving pretty much everyone still saying "Burmese."
Whatever one calls the country, its history since World War II has been one of almost unrelieved tragedy. Ruled as a part of British India from 1886 to 1948, it was once rich enough to be aptly symbolized by the gold of its pagodas--especially the thousands in the town of Pagan. An earthquake in 1975 damaged many of Pagan's treasures, but that destruction was merely physical--nothing compared with the political and psychological cruelties Burma has endured.
Burma has been subjected to just about every form of political and governmental brutalization the 20th century--and now the 21st--could offer. It has much in common with other victims of state socialism, including Cuba and the former Yugoslavia.
Like Castro's fiefdom, it fell from significant prosperity to extreme poverty, becoming a backward, ramshackle place. Like Yugoslavia, it was never a genuine nation-state. Although the CIA World Fact Book (which calls it Burma) claims the population of 47 million is 68 percent ethnic Burman, some question that figure. The many minority groups in the northern and eastern highlands, usually called "hill tribes," probably comprise at least a third of the population. They include several major and dozens of minor identities, with Karens and Shans being the best known, because of their long armed struggle for freedom.
While ethnic Burmans are typically Buddhist, the Karens are Christians and the Shans have their own religion mixing Buddhist and animist elements. A Muslim minority spread throughout the country is indistinguishable from the Burman majority in language, but has also been violently repressed, and hundreds of thousands of Burmese Muslims have fled west to neighboring Bangladesh.
Burma has not enjoyed real peace in over 50 years. Already in the 1930s it saw growing nationalist agitation against British rule. With the outbreak of World War II, "the Thirty Comrades," a group of Burmese patriots opposed to Britain, were recruited by the Japanese and trained in Tokyo to lead a "Burma Independence Army" (BIA). In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma. They were welcomed as liberators by the anti-British populace, and the BIA collaborated with them in ruling the country. Quickly, however, the new invaders' atrocious behavior alienated the people, and the resulting resistance movement had a strong radical-leftist flavor.
The leader of the collaborationist, then anti-Japanese, forces was General Aung San, the most charismatic and popular of the nationalists. His assassination in 1947 was a national trauma. With the fall of the Japanese, Communist and ethnic independence fighters such as the Karens sought to establish power in their own enclaves. Even after independence in 1948 and the establishment of a nationalist/populist government--a "light" one-party state--turmoil continued, fed partly by China, which treats Burma as its satellite.
In the "nonaligned" dreamland of the 1950s, when figures like Tito in Yugoslavia, Nasser in Egypt, and Sukarno in Indonesia (that last having also previously cooperated with Japanese invaders) claimed to lead the former colonies toward progress, Burma was a major player. Its representative at the United Nations, U Thant, served as U.N. secretary-general from 1961 to 1971, even after Ne Win (one of the original Thirty Comrades) and the military seized control of the country in 1962.
Ne Win committed Burma to economic and political ruin by adopting a scheme called "the Burmese Way to Socialism," based on total isolation, the looting of the economy for the benefit of the military caste, and continued suppression of the minority peoples. He was a confirmed believer in astrology and numerology, who reconfigured the national currency, the kyat, in bills of 45 and 90 units in the hope of increasing his own longevity.
Ne Win left power in 1988, the year of a democratic movement that the military suppressed by killing thousands, and which brought Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to the fore. Esteemed as the daughter of Aung San, she commanded respect in her own right for her dignity and simplicity. Since the late 1980s, and even after she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi has been in and out of house arrest, where she remains today.
Burma's current leader is General Than Shwe, another megalomaniac, who is busy moving the capital from Rangoon to a "new city" 200 miles to the north called Naypidaw. Than Shwe seems bent on delivering another lesson to his subjects and the world about the defiance of Rangoon's military rulers. But before he shut down the Internet, the whole world saw the affecting sight of Buddhist monks and nuns, in their maroon and saffron robes, peacefully protected and assisted by ordinary citizens, filling the streets of Rangoon and Mandalay in orderly protest.
Some Western pundits have argued that a China now oriented toward capitalist growth has an incentive to dissuade the Burmese army from administering a bloodbath. Such optimism about Beijing, however, is vain.The only hope for the rescue of the tormented peoples of Burma resides in the solidarity expressed by President George W. Bush at the U.N. General Assembly when he said, "Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma. The ruling junta remains unyielding, yet the people's desire for freedom is unmistakable."
Cynics may decry the president's stand as a mere effort to renew the vision of democratization that accompanied U.S. intervention in Iraq. But Burma--like Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzia before it--shows that the weak links in the global chain of tyranny are breaking, one by one, and that the worldwide movement for entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty can assert itself, with or without the help of outsiders. For Americans and all haters of oppression, the message is clear: The United States should show effective support for the aspirations of Burma's diverse citizens; tougher sanctions against the regime are only the beginning.