Hope or acquiescence in Myanmar?

When I visited Myanmar (formerly Burma) seventeen years ago, the opposition activist Aung San Suu Kyi had already been under house arrest for years, since winning the aborted elections of 1990 (for which she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991).  She would remain imprisoned or under house arrest for most of the years that followed, until she was released one year ago.  Today, it was announced that she would re-enter the political process — though it’s not clear whether this is a triumph for her or for the thugs in the military junta that govern Myanmar behind a scrim of civilian control — and in what is widely perceived to be a reward Hillary Clinton will be the first US secretary of state to visit the country in half a century.

Is this good news?  It is hard to overstate the strangeness of Myanmar.  When I visited, the military dictatorship called itself SLORC — a name they cannot have focus tested for associations of cuddly liberalism — and was given to whimsical, paranoid policy changes.  There was a plague of car accidents because the junta had suddenly declared that henceforth all cars needed to drive on the opposite side of the road, though, of course, the steering wheels could not be moved, which predictably caused all sorts of problems.  Likewise, the currency (called kyats, which is pronounced like ‘chats’) had been rebased from the usual ten to nine — so there were, say, 45- and 90-kyat notes — since General Ne Win had deemed nines to be numerologically auspicious; when it became apparent this created too many denominations some were eliminated without warning or a mechanism for exchange, so if you’re life savings happened to be stored in the wrong denomination you were bankrupted overnight.  Since then, the junta has decreed the capital should be moved from Yangon (the former Rangoon) to the newly fabricated, North Korea-style Naypyidaw in the middle of nowhere.

It cannot be said that Aung San Suu Kyi was much talked about — or even whispered about — when I was there.  One of the few conversations I had about her was with a Burmese man who had heard she’d died but seemed unsure of the facts or perhaps was just unwilling to court trouble by talking publicly about her.  But her name had currency, in the literal sense.  There were no foreign magazines allowed in the country but a few street vendors sold outdated copies and at one I noticed that a two month old copy of the Economist was selling for more than a one month old copy.  I asked why and he whispered, “Look at page 56” and, sure enough, it contained an uncensored if fairly innocuous story about Aung San Suu Kyi that justified the higher price.

Politically, the problem for outside parties seeking to influence events within the country was readily apparent to any visitor: there is no way to isolate a country whose principal exports are illegal teak, heroin, and gemstones because these traveled via China or organized crime and sanctions would not be effective against either.  Still, we tried, to no apparent effect.  In 2007, there were large-scale, anti-government protests by Buddhist monks — I mention them at the end of this long piece about Libya — that constituted remarkable acts of courage and were subsequently crushed by the regime when no outside assistance was offered.  The following year, Cyclone Nargis hit and was the worst natural disaster in Burmese history; by all accounts, the regime impeded foreign aid and abandoned its citizens to their own devices in a Chernobyl-scale act of official neglect.  Still, the junta survived, until fraudulent elections last year led a military-backed civilian party to be installed as window dressing in what remains a military government.

Aung San Suu Kyi was released soon after those elections, in which her party had not been allowed to compete.  She has shown a heroic stoicism throughout her two decades of intermittent incarceration but they have surely taken a toll, not just on her spirits but on her faith in a political strategy in which her persecution would play a symbolic role in forcing outside pressure to be brought to bear on the junta.  It will be important to watch whether the return to the political process announced today constitutes a new approach by her to challenging the junta or a capitulation of sorts to the futility of the effort.  She has earned a retreat, to be sure, but in this year in which eternal dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt fell, with Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain threatened, is it too much to hope she has one last round of struggle in her?

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Update: Max Fisher has an interesting post about Myanmar in the Atlantic that places Clinton’s coming visit in the context of trying to contain Chinese influence.  This is a valid point, though a futile policy: the Burmese military is so tight with China that this would be like trying to contain Chinese influence in Beijing or Shanghai.  Still, Fisher goes into some detail about the hopeful signs of a democratic opening in Myanmar though they sound, to me, like the sort of airy reforms of which I said in this post about Libya: “Dictatorships of all stripes go through waves of so-called reform (look at Bashar al-Assad, when he took over in Syria) that rarely amount to more than luring dissidents from their hiding places with the promise of a coming Spring so they can be cut down in the inevitable Winter.”  Let’s hope there is more than that at work in Myanmar.

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