DAVID KOPPERS

With the announcement of freedom for hundreds of opposition activists in Burma/Myanmar and the normalisation of United States/Myanmar relations, we have may have now seen significant progress toward openness in Myanmar. During the recent visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she observed “flickers out of progress”. We can now say that those flickers have manifested into real progress. The question now becomes, can Myanmar continue on the path toward democratisation, or will it quickly close the door to freedom as it has in the past?

On November 13, 2010, Nobel Peace laureate and opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. This can be seen as the end of a chapter in her life in which she was under house arrest in for almost 15 of the past 21 years. She continues to be the most prominent and vocal supporter of democracy in her country. Her release from house arrest and the recent reforms made by former generals and current president Thein Sein have heralded the unraveling of Myanmar’s military dictatorship.

In the 1990 general election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 59% of the national vote. By the time of the election however, she had already been placed under house arrest. Time and again, Myanmar’s military rulers would not cede power, regardless of election or popular protest. The student protests of August 8, 1998, known as the 8888 Uprising, ushered in the era of Aung San Suu Kyi as a national icon of her country. It also brought about the worst in the military government. Soldiers opened fire on demonstrators, killing hundreds, if not thousands. Starting in August 2007, hundreds of Buddhist monks assembled to protest against the government. The “Saffron” revolution, as it has been called, saw a similarly violent crackdown against the opposition. This time the authorities had to contend with the information age as Internet and cell phone usage was blocked.

Throughout Myanmar’s military dictatorship, internal conflict has persisted. A low-intensity war has pitted the majority Bamar against various minority groups such as the Shan, Karen, Kachin and Mon. The Burmese army has been fighting guerilla armies of these different ethnic groups.

Inevitably, the minorities, particularly women and children, become displaced. They flee into refugee camps in Thailand. Now, Myanmar’s minorities have communities in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe. From their new homes they have spread the word of the troubles in their native land.

One of the worst atrocities to befall Myanmar was not man-made; it was caused by nature. On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck, killing at least 138,000. The natural destruction was the worst Myanmar had ever faced. Compounding this disaster was the military government’s refusal to allow in foreign aid. Ships carrying assistance were unable to dock. Thousands needlessly suffered and died while relief was stranded at sea. One might say that things could not get any worse. Surely, the dictatorial rule of General Than Shwe will go down in history as one of Asia’s, if not one of the world’s, worst. Only since he handed down control to his successors have we seen any kind of improvement.

What large-scale protests as seen in the Arab Spring could not achieve in Myanmar, now may take place sheerly through the weight of history. Perhaps not wanting to be a surrogate of China or another North Korea, Myanmar sees reforms as a chance for new economic opportunities with the West. Interestingly, both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein are the same age. Perhaps their shared generational perspectives can help bring about the freedom many have dreamed of for so long.

David Koppers teaches refugees from Myanmar in Aurora, Colorado.

– Asia Times Online