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Betrayal in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi; drawing by Pancho

In late 2010, I traveled to Myanmar—formerly known as Burma—the resource-rich country of 52 million people bordered by China, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand that had been blighted for decades by brutal repression and squandered opportunity. After seizing power from a civilian government in 1962, a military junta plundered the treasury, wrecked the economy, imprisoned and tortured thousands of dissidents, imposed some of the world’s toughest censorship laws, and cut off the country from the West.

In August 1988, pro-democracy protests erupted in Rangoon, the capital, and the country’s then dictator, Ne Win, ordered his military to fire into crowds; about six thousand people died. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the country’s independence leader, Aung San—who had been assassinated in Rangoon in 1947—rose to prominence during this time, and cofounded the National League for Democracy (NLD). After the NLD won an unexpected victory in a parliamentary election in 1990, the military regime, which had arranged the election, annulled the result and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She remained imprisoned for fifteen of the next twenty-one years. The NLD remained technically legal, but the junta banned all political activity—including organizing, demonstrating, and making anti-regime comments of any kind.

But when I arrived in Myanmar, there were stirrings of dissent. A small, clandestine opposition movement was challenging the regime, carrying out hit-and-run graffiti attacks, embedding anti-regime messages in rap lyrics and paintings displayed at Rangoon’s art galleries. Perhaps the most promising sign of change was the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2010 after seven consecutive years of house arrest. This was part of a series of concessions aimed at deflecting criticism from the United Nations and Western governments and ending punitive sanctions that were first imposed after the 1988 uprising.

When I met the Lady—as her followers affectionately called her—in her temporary office in downtown Rangoon, in the shadow of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda, she sounded both defiant and hopeful. “The regime can’t shut out information,” she told me, as a team of the government’s plainclothes security men with cameras monitored the comings and goings of visitors to her headquarters from a teashop across the street. Internet cafés and satellite dishes—purchased on the black market and tolerated by the regime—were everywhere, she pointed out. “I’m the only one without a satellite dish, precisely because they’re illegal,” she told me, with a laugh. She believed that it was growing increasingly difficult for the regime to keep its citizens, particularly the youth, in the dark. “Journals and magazines have come up in the last seven years that carry articles on politics, economics, history, the struggle for independence. The self-censorship is decreasing.”

In early 2011, following another stage-managed election that nominally replaced the military junta with a civilian government, the parliament selected Thein Sein, a former general, as president. Most observers assumed that Thein Sein would conduct business as usual—enriching himself and his cronies through the control of the jade and ruby trades, jailing dissidents, cozying up to China, Myanmar’s immediate neighbor to the north. However, defying expectations, he freed hundreds of political prisoners, relaxed the country’s censorship laws, began to open the state-controlled economy, stopped a controversial Chinese-sponsored dam project, and invited Aung San Suu Kyi to join in political life.

When I traveled to Myanmar again in May 2012, shortly before Barack Obama became the first American president to visit the country, I witnessed a scene that would have been unimaginable on my previous trip. Voted a member of parliament in a 2012 by-election, the Lady stood on a third-floor balcony of the National League for Democracy headquarters, which had been shut down by the junta nearly a decade earlier and had just reopened. To chants of “Mae Suu”—Mother Suu—she called for a moment of silence to honor demonstrators who had been killed during the pro-democracy uprisings of 1988 and 2007. Tens of thousands of supporters held up lit candles, and pinpricks of light illuminated the streets of downtown Rangoon, which had been cast into darkness by one of the country’s frequent power outages. The mood was euphoric.

In The Rebel of Rangoon: A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma, Delphine Schrank tells the story of those tumultuous years in Burma, before the optimism began to fade, a wave of killings and persecutions of the country’s Muslim minority swept the countryside, and Aung San Suu Kyi lost a great deal of her luster. Schrank first traveled to Myanmar for The Washington Post in May 2008 to cover Tropical Cyclone Nargis, a devastating storm that had swept away 150,000 people and destroyed hundreds of villages in the Irrawaddy Delta, a broad expanse of low-lying land where the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar’s main waterway, flows into the Andaman Sea.

The regime responded with foot-dragging and indifference, then tried to keep the international press from reporting on the catastrophe. Schrank slipped into the country on a tourist visa and, posing as a “private donor,” joined ordinary Burmese involved in an ad hoc relief effort. “I watched them gather at dawn and by night across the tree-clogged intersections of Rangoon—monks, bands of friends, actors, doctors, housewives, colleagues, whole neighborhoods,” she writes in her preface:

For days at a time they shuttered their shops and clinics, hired trucks and boats, and threw together bags of rice, blankets, candles, soap, and cooking oil. They negotiated and fought their way through checkpoints and army convoys, surrendering goods when ordered, clinging to the rest, and rattling for hours down the lone broken road to the delta…. They returned with tales of official confiscations and neglect, of bloated bodies floating in the bracken rice paddies, of frail men and women evicted from refuges to nonexistent homes, of government rice handouts fit only for pigs.

One year earlier, in August 2007, the junta’s decision to hike prices for fuel and other staples had set off pro-democracy protests across the country—the so-called “Saffron Revolution.” At the time, Aung San Suu Kyi was still being held nearly incommunicado in her lakeside villa in northern Rangoon, and the National League for Democracy, the only organized opposition, was in the hands of aging leaders, most of them in their seventies and eighties, who were too frightened to confront the regime. “The monks had eventually taken up the baton, thousands of them pouring red down the boulevards, bald of pate and often bare of foot,” Schrank writes. “But they’d had no strategy. No endgame. No political plan.”

The military brutally suppressed the uprising, gunning down monks, shutting monasteries, and shipping hundreds more of the monks, revered in Burmese society as paragons of self-sacrifice and sanctity, to the country’s gulags. The relief efforts by local people in the delta rekindled a spirit of activism that had been put down the previous year. “The trauma from the crackdown on the ‘Saffron’ uprising had lingered,” Schrank writes. “But social activism, long thought leveled under laws that forbade assembly or associations of more than five, offered a subtle new way to push at the confines of the state.”

Schrank hangs her tale on two young activists, both galvanized by the horrors of 2007 and 2008. Nway, a brash, chain-smoking man in his early thirties, grew up in the slums of Rangoon, the son of physicians at a government hospital. He joined the NLD as a teenager and caught the eye of Aung San Suu Kyi, who made him the spokesman of the NLD’s Youth League. (The party’s aging leadership later disbanded the league while Aung San Suu Kyi was back in confinement.) At English classes at the British Council, Nway met the other central figure in Schrank’s story: Nigel, a guitar player, martial arts expert, and son of pro-democracy activists. “Because of politics he had lived cramped together with eight siblings and their parents in a two-roomed hut on a muddy alleyway,” Schrank writes, “screwed tight on either end with informers and block authorities who spot-checked on their affairs almost as a sport.” Nigel began as a reluctant participant in politics, but his outrage over the killing of monks in 2007 drew him to the NLD, and his abilities as a leader thrust him to a prominent position in the party, where he formed a bond, and a rivalry, with Nway.

Schrank follows the two men over four dramatic years, as they try to reinvigorate the flagging democracy movement and call attention to the regime’s abuses. Under constant surveillance by state security agents, they shuttle from “The Office,” the barn-like headquarters of the NLD, to safe houses around the city. They go to a refuge across the border in Thailand and to clandestine meetings with fellow activists on derelict piers in Rangoon under cover of darkness.

Much of their work centers on the city’s ubiquitous Internet cafés, magnets for the country’s youth. There, for about thirty cents an hour, Nigel, Nway, and a few colleagues recruit new activists, organize flash-mob protests outside Aung San Suu Kyi’s villa, and file dispatches to media outlets run by Burmese exiles, as well as to Western human rights groups. They change their passwords, use multiple e-mail addresses, and find other ways to stay one step ahead of a regime that views the Internet as a threat to its power.

“Every Internet café…had a kit of mandatory surveillance devices” used by the government, Schrank writes.

In the early days there had been keyboards that were said to record passwords; screenshots that flashed across desktops every five minutes; monitors positioned for easy over-the-shoulder viewing; and spy software to intercept transmitted data. Lately, the Directorate of Communication required monthly submissions of users’ records, including date, time, screenshots, and a history of all URLs. The directives from the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication had shape-shifted…but their gist held: follow the rules, whatever they currently be, or face loss of license and punishment “according to the existing laws.” Patrons, for their part, were duly warned with an old standby, a piece of copy paper stuck fading and limp on the wall of every café, perhaps under a box of fraying wires held together with a chopstick, reminding them that use of the Internet for political purposes was strictly forbidden.

The threat of prison hangs over practically everyone’s head in The Rebel of Rangoon. For much of the book, Aung San Suu Kyi, often called “Auntie,” remains a spectral figure, at one point forced to direct strategy through a single courier who carries messages to her NLD underlings from her guarded villa on the lake. Nigel’s parents spent much of their adulthood in the regime’s gulags, and his wife, an activist, was briefly locked up in Insein Prison, a notorious facility on the outskirts of Rangoon where many of the “Big Brothers”—the respectful, familial nickname for the student leaders of the 1988 rebellion—were also incarcerated.

Early in the book two plainclothes cops arrest Nigel as he emerges from an Internet café, interrogate him, then toss him in a cell for two months. Yet others had a much harder time, including Win Tin, one of the NLD’s most revered leaders, otherwise known as “Grandpa,” an octogenarian journalist and cofounder of the NLD, who was arrested after the 1988 uprising and sentenced to life imprisonment for his defiance. Forced to sleep on a bare concrete floor, subjected to regular beatings, and deprived of pens and paper, this resourceful figure sent coded messages to fellow inmates using strings of pebbles; had newspapers, copies of Time and Newsweek, and pocket radios smuggled into the prison; bribed guards to look the other way; and eventually oversaw the distribution of a prisoner-published magazine. Released after twenty years, he returned in 2008, “lion-maned and wearing his trademark prison blues,” to NLD headquarters to resume the life of a pro-democracy agitator.

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Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Buddhist monks protesting the United Nations’ support for citizenship for Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya population, Rangoon, January 2015

The second half of Schrank’s book details the efforts of this indefatigable figure—reduced to poverty, living on handouts from admirers—to reinvigorate the NLD by reviving its disbanded youth wing and organizing a boycott of the 2011 election. Win Tin and other party leaders argue that participation in the election under the junta’s stringent terms would be a shameful capitulation. Former political prisoners were banned from running for parliament, and the NLD would have to accept the nullification of the 1990 vote. “The NLD’s sworn purpose was to rid the country of military rule,” Schrank writes. “To bow before the restrictions of the junta’s electoral laws, to agree to abide by the terms of its flawed constitution, to trust in their haphazard, abusive legality, was to give it all up.” The principled decision to boycott the election splits the party—and leads to the banning of the NLD during the junta’s final year in power.

How much did Nway, Nigel, and their youthful colleagues really achieve during their four years of underground organizing and protest? Schrank makes a persuasive case that their small acts of defiance kept the National League for Democracy relevant during the darkest days of the dictatorship, and prepared the way for its leading part in Myanmar’s post-junta politics. The NLD “began transforming itself from the rigidly hierarchical fossil it had become in the previous two decades into the byword for democratic government that it always promised to be,” she writes.

Yet one of the failings of the book is Schrank’s inability to draw a direct link between the activism of Nway and Nigel and the sweeping changes of 2011 and 2012. This may have been an impossible task for her. Like the Soviet Union’s transformation under Gorbachev, Myanmar’s revolution seems to have been almost entirely a top-down phenomenon. The burden of international sanctions, the powerful persona of Aung San Suu Kyi, and Thein Sein’s eagerness to end Myanmar’s isolation in an increasingly interconnected world were more important to him, it appears, than the consciousness-raising efforts of a small circle of idealists.

Today most of the repressive laws that were used to intimidate Nway, Nigel, and their fellow activists have been lifted: the government abolished a twenty-five-year-old ban on public gatherings of more than five people and released thousands more political prisoners. The European Union removed its last sanctions last year, a sign of international approval of Thein Sein’s initiatives, and the Asian Development Bank resumed lending to Myanmar for the first time in thirty years. In November Burmese will go to the polls in the first general election since civilian rule was reinstated in 2011, and the National League for Democracy is expected to win a sizable majority in parliament.

But on many other fronts, there is a sense that reforms have stalled, or that the country is backsliding. Myanmar’s military maintains a tight grip over the political process, thanks to the 2008 constitution—passed in a rigged referendum—that gives it one quarter of the seats in parliament as well as the power to appoint key ministers and veto any amendments. The armed forces three months ago beat back an attempt by the opposition to remove a constitutional clause that makes it impossible for Aung San Suu Kyi to become president. (It excludes anyone whose family members are foreigners: Suu Kyi’s late husband was British, and her two sons are British citizens.)

Journalists, meanwhile, are being harassed and intimidated. According to a June 2015 Amnesty International report, “at least 10 media workers are languishing in prison, all of them jailed in the last 12 months.” Journalists, the report went on, “are well aware of what ‘red lines’ they cannot cross—mainly stories relating to the military, extremist Buddhist nationalism and the plight of the Rohingya minority—and often shy away from covering these issues.”

The violent, state-sanctioned pogroms against the Muslim Rohingya people, who live near the border with Bangladesh and have long been treated by the regime as outcasts and noncitizens, have been the most egregious development in the post-junta era. The latest round of violence began in June 2012, after rumors spread that three Muslim men in Rakhine State had raped a Buddhist woman. Mobs of Buddhists—encouraged by the government—went on a rampage, killing hundreds of Muslims, and Burmese officials, monks, community leaders, and state security forces joined in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. They have herded more than 140,000 into concentration camps that lack adequate food or medical care; another 100,000 have fled the country aboard rickety boats to Thailand and Malaysia, and hundreds have died while crossing the Andaman Sea. An extreme nationalist Buddhist movement called 969, a name derived from Buddhist numerology, has stirred up hatred against the Rohingya, arguing that the Muslims are plotting to take over the country and institute sharia law. As Schrank writes in her epilogue:

By May 2013, Burma had swapped out one fear for another—and the new version was darker and spreading like a black stain, because it was coming from the people, a voluntary mass of farmhands and shopkeepers and housewives whipped up by the pathological Buddhist ultra-nationalism of a movement called “969” and the demagoguery of its spiritual leader, a monk called Ashin Wirathu.

Throughout the pogroms stirred up by Wirathu—who has been called “the Burmese bin Laden”—Aung San Suu Kyi has been either silent or awkwardly reticent. She has argued, unconvincingly, that drawing attention to the Rohingya’s plight would lead to more violence against them by Buddhist extremists, and also tried to portray the attacks as coming from both sides, contradicting evidence provided by human rights groups. Many believe that Suu Kyi’s refusal to take a forthright stand in defense of the Rohingya is based on political calculation. The ethnic extremists have frequently attacked her as a “Muslim lover,” and in a country that is 90 percent Buddhist, showing sympathy for a widely despised minority could well damage the NLD’s chances of achieving a majority in the upcoming election.

Over the past year, party members have also criticized Suu Kyi for a series of tone-deaf and autocratic decisions. She has excluded prominent former political prisoners, known as the 88 Generation, from the list of candidates for parliament, ignored the recommendations of local chapters, and then expelled party members who complained about it. She sided with the government in a dispute between poor farmers and a Chinese-backed copper mine, despite the fact that a commission found that the project lacked environmental safeguards and wouldn’t provide jobs for local people. (Suu Kyi argued that it was important to attract foreign investment to Myanmar.) “She has made enemies with the people she needs,” U Sithu Aung Myint, an independent columnist, told The New York Times in August. “She lacks strategic thinking, and she is not a clever politician.”

Aung San Suu Kyi remains a highly popular figure, and if the party secures its expected electoral victory on November 8, she may no longer feel so constrained about confronting the Buddhist extremists. But her silence on the repression of the Rohingya over the past three years stands in marked contrast to the courage of the young pro-democracy activists who risked everything to bring her to power.

Schrank ends her book on a melancholy note. Nway is now a powerful operative inside the NLD, and Nigel has been elected to parliament. But both men sense that Myanmar’s people are far from free. “The junta had dismantled itself on its own terms…. The generals had done well,” she writes. “They had only to make a few selective gestures and—lo!—the world, the West had eased sanctions…. No one had been held to account; no one of significance. Not a single general had been felled for the sins of the past.” Schrank’s book is an evocative reminder of how much has been achieved over five tumultuous years, and how far Myanmar has to go.