The Whole World Was Watching
Posted on Jan 22, 2008
When the youths of Burma chanted “The whole world is watching!” through clouds of tear gas last September, it was—for once—an understatement. Cell phone footage of the junta’s violent crackdown made the rounds from Beijing to St. Petersburg. Rebellious monks graced the front page of The New York Times (twice!), and global leaders cheered them on: Desmond Tutu, Laura Bush, the Dalai Lama, Gordon Brown. Everywhere you turned—from late-night TV talk shows to political newsweeklies—the Saffron Revolution was hot.
But then came winter, with new battlegrounds de jour: Kenya, Gaza, Pakistan. In October, CNN’s Anderson Cooper may have pledged his journalistic fidelity to Burma’s 100,000-odd protesters—“We’ll continue to cover this story, no matter how long it takes”—but a mere three months later, while hundreds of monks still languished in Rangoon’s infamous Insein Prison and others continued to flee down the Moei River in inner tubes at night, Cooper had moved on to San Francisco, covering a death-by-tiger at the city zoo.
If only Burma’s junta had the short attention span of U.S. media moguls. To the contrary, the military regime ranks among the world’s most durable autocracies, with a 46-year-long rap sheet of endemic torture, forced labor and extrajudicial executions. If it takes endurance to transform an oil-rich nation of beaches and gemstones into one of the world’s most impoverished states, the Burmese junta has it in spades—along with an uncanny knack for natural-resource trafficking and diplomatic subterfuge. In the 1990s, Burma sold more heroin than any other country on the planet. Elbowed out of the market by Afghanistan, the regime now deals in more hoity-toity cargo—rubies, teak and assorted hydrocarbons—the last of which has been skillfully doled out by Gen. Than Shwe in exchange for more than $2 billion in military equipment from China and India.
But Burma’s democracy movement also has its masterminds. Allow me to introduce Maung Maung. In 1988, the Burmese trade unionist survived the front lines of a violent rally suppression that killed at least 3,000 of his peers. Two decades later, he remains an agitator-in-exile, helping to coordinate last fall’s nonviolent demos from the Thai frontier town of Mae Sot. As secretary-general of the National Council of the Union of Burma, an umbrella group for exiled politicians and ethnic leaders, Maung Maung shuttles revolutionary spores across the border like the Johnny Appleseed of Burmese democracy—everything from educational materials to digital cameras.
I recently caught up with Maung Maung over coffee in Washington, D.C. He’d flown some 17,000 miles to Capitol Hill for another crusade of sorts, testifying before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on the need for toothier U.S. sanctions against the junta. At present, he says, corporations like Chevron can slip through various loopholes in U.S. protocol, funneling millions into—and out of—Burma’s natural gas pipelines. American consumers, too, play a role in funding the regime, thanks to our taste for Burmese gemstones. In 2006 alone, the state-controlled Myanmar Gems Enterprise lapped up almost $300 million from the global ruby and jade trade, a revenue increase of 45 percent from the previous year.
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Sarah Stillman: Back in September, the whole world had its eyes on Burma. When the junta began clubbing students and shooting monks, the international community reacted with collective outrage and calls to action. But as we enter 2008, that flurry of attention has subsided ... although, of course, the torture and arbitrary arrests have not. What do you think will happen next within Burma? Do you anticipate a new wave of protests, or is the opposition within Burma in a period of consolidation and reassessment?
Maung Maung: There have been countless activities taking place that haven’t made it into the international news—much of it is happening secretly. Our main focus at the moment is getting the endangered monks and activists into safe homes, moving the resistance leaders out of harm’s way. Many of them are still in situations where they could be arrested at any moment by the regime.
There are also brave groups of young people who are getting together at roadside cafes to tear up copies of The New Light of Myanmar, the regime’s newspaper. They rip it up, throw it on the ground and stomp on it, saying, “We don’t believe this propaganda anymore!” They also held a small protest on Nov. 26, with a group of about 300 people.
So, yes, there is action—quite a lot of action, in fact—but there is not much reporting by the international media. Mostly silence.
Stillman: It’s interesting to hear about these roadside gatherings—I guess young people have always played an important part in telling the regime it has no clothes. ... Can you talk more about the role that students have played in the movement, from its origins until today?
Maung Maung: Well, students have always been more mobile and flexible in their activism—they don’t have to fear losing their jobs or being unable to feed their families. That’s one reason they’ve always played such a large role.
The last wave of protests in Burma—the movement that I came out of—took place more than two decades ago now. Young people who were born after that ‘88 uprising weren’t tuned in to the injustices of the regime, at least not in the same ways as those of us who lived through it. And so the younger people often fell for the propaganda of the regime more easily.
But last August and September, the protests let them see with their own eyes what this regime is really about. And so a new breed of activists is rising up and radicalizing. It’s a very hopeful sign.
The regime tried hard to prevent this; they opened karaoke bars and restaurants and things like that, trying to divert young people away from politics and claimed that “democratization” was finally happening.
But they couldn’t cover up all the hardships. And now, after the recent protests, the younger generation is finally asking, “Hmm ... what’s really going on here?” So, it’s a regime that we have to thank for showing a new generation of students, “Hey, this is how bad we really are.” We should thank them for their own stupidity.
Stillman: Let’s talk about the shifts between the 1988 protests and the current unrest. Clearly, one key change has been the rise of new forms of media—cell phones, digital cameras, blogging. ... What kind of impact have these technologies had on dissident culture in Burma? What are the other similarities and differences between the recent protests and ‘88?
Maung Maung: In ‘88, the movement was very different: There were more protesters from all parts of the country and all walks of life. It was much more diverse, in terms of participation. This time, the protests were more confined to the capital city of Rangoon, and monks played a more prominent role than ever before.
But, having said that, there is also the media difference you mention between now and ‘88. When ‘88 took place, very few people knew about it—the news slowly trickled out as we started telling people, and then more people, and then more people all around the world. This time, you’re right, the graphic images could come out right away with the help of new technologies. The activists inside the country have started to use the available technologies to their advantage—the Internet, the cell phone, the satellite phone. We’ve trained more than 200 activists to transmit images from the front lines of the demonstrations, using satellite phones and digital cameras.
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