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…
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