Sunday, July 20, 2008

A New Generation of Activists Arises in Burma

Network Strengthened By Junta's Crackdown, Post-Cyclone Bungling
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008; Page A12

RANGOON -- They operate in the shadows, slipping by moonlight from safe house to safe house, changing their cellphones to hide their tracks and meeting under cover of monasteries or clinics to plot changes that have eluded their country for 46 years.

If one gets arrested, another steps forward.

"I feel like the last man standing. All the responsibility is on my shoulders. . . . There is no turning back. If I turn back, I betray all my comrades," said a Burmese activist who heads a leading dissident group, the 88 Generation Students, named for a failed uprising in 1988. He took command after the arrest last August of its five most prominent leaders.

In a nearly deserted Rangoon coffee shop one recent morning, he spoke in an urgent whisper, often glancing over his shoulder to look for informers.

The security apparatus of Burma's military junta was thought to have largely shattered the opposition last August and September, in a crackdown that included soldiers firing on an alliance of monks and lay people who had taken to the streets by the thousands to protest a rise in fuel prices. More than 30 people died. At least 800 were detained and many more were forced into exile, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

But a new generation of democracy activists fights on, its ranks strengthened both by revulsion over last year's bloodletting and the government's inept response after a cyclone that killed an estimated 130,000 people two months ago. Largely clandestine, these activists make up a diffuse network of students, militant Buddhist monks, social service workers and leaders of the 1988 uprising.

Some activists express impatience with what they call the largely passive policies of the National League for Democracy, the country's main opposition party and one of the few anti-government groups that operates legally. In 1990, the league won a national election by a landslide, but the military prevented it from taking office. Its emblem, a fighting peacock, endures as a symbol of resistance to the military for millions of Burmese.

From its closely watched headquarters in downtown Rangoon, a clutter of dusty wooden desks and chairs, the league is led by three octogenarians whom many people here call the "uncles." The men oversee the party while its leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, languishes under house arrest.

"Their biggest goal in life is to return the party to the lady," the honorific that sympathizers here use for Suu Kyi, said the leader of the 88 Generation. "They won't do anything. They are just guardians. . . . Because of them, their party is divided."

One woman who is active in the new opposition said she thinks that "the NLD has lost the trust of the people. They have been issuing many announcements, that the government must do this. But the government has not, and anyone who gets involved with the NLD gets in trouble."

Because of what it sees as an absence of clear direction from the NLD's leaders, the 88 Generation has acted on its own, issuing statements with the All Burma Monks Alliance and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. The most recent statements criticized the junta for holding a referendum on a new constitution while the bodies of cyclone victims still floated in the waterways of the Irrawaddy Delta.

Since its founding in late 2006 by newly freed political prisoners, including legendary student leader Min Ko Naing, the group has launched a series of creative civil disobedience campaigns. Last year, people were invited to dress in white as a symbol of openness; to head to monasteries, Hindu temples or mosques for prayer meetings; and to sign letters and petitions calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. That effort resonated with so many that the group had to extend its closing date.

The group was at the forefront of the protests in August and reached out to monks, the 88 leader said.

"The struggle is still on," said a young lawyer who was sentenced to seven years in jail for starting a student union at a university. Since his release, four years early, he said, he has resumed regular contact with several groups of politically active current and former students. "Students will fight if they think it's just," he said, continuing a tradition among young people here that dates to the era of British colonial rule.

One group of young people, whose members gathered as a book club, decided to organize votes against the proposed constitution, dismissing it as a sham that reinforces the military's control of the country. So they created hundreds of stickers and T-shirts bearing the word "no" and scattered them on buses, in university lecture halls and in the country's ubiquitous tea shops.

Another student said he and some of his peers acted as unofficial election monitors during the referendum, taking photos and interviewing voters who were given already marked ballots or coerced to vote yes.

The 88 leader said such efforts have given him a stock of evidence to show that the vote was neither free nor fair.

Despite the obstacles, the group has not ruled out trying to become a legal party to run for elections in 2010, he said. "People think that if you accept to run, that means you accept the constitution. No! I want to have a legal party to fight from within," he said.

Outside experts have compared the network to Poland's Solidarity movement in the early 1980s, a broad-based coalition of workers, intellectuals and students that emerged as a key political player during the country's transition to democracy.

Just as Solidarity organized picnics to keep people in touch, some new groups here meet as book clubs or medical volunteers but could easily turn at key moments to political activity, said Bertil Lintner, a journalist and author of several books on Burma.

Meanwhile, the devastation wrought by the cyclone has sometimes been a trigger for more overt political activities. A handful of members of an embattled activist group called Human Rights Defenders and Promoters headed to the delta after the storm to hand out relief supplies as well as copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to a lawyer. They were subsequently sentenced to four years in jail, he said.

Monks remain politically active, too, in spite of increased harassment from security forces since the protests.

Some have hidden pamphlets inside their alms bowls to distribute when they go out to collect food in the mornings, according to a Mandalay monk. They have smuggled glue and posters inside the bowls to stick on street walls.

Ten years ago, the monk said, he started a library that has since expanded to 14 branches across the country. Under cover of membership, patrons take classes in public speaking and pass around poems and pamphlets that are often scathing about their rulers, he said.

"I told people to read lots of books, so they can start to know, and then they can change the system," he said. "Because we want freedom. Because it is difficult to speak and write in this country."

The cyclone's aftermath has also spurred vast new stores of anger, sometimes among monks, who take vows of nonviolence.

"Now we want to get weapons," said a monk known to other dissidents by the nom de guerre "Zero" for his ability to organize and vanish without a trace. "The Buddhist way is lovingkindness. But we lost. So now we want to fight."

In the dormitory of a monastery one recent afternoon, he sat among piles of handwritten speeches and recent clandestine pamphlets stamped with names of groups such as Generation Wave and the All Burmese Monks Alliance. Two young monks listening from a tattered mattress nearby nodded excitedly, and a third pretended to wield a machine gun.

Because of his role as a chief galvanizer of the monks in the protests, the monk has been on the run since September, moving from one monastery to the next. But since the cyclone, he has managed nonetheless to make about 20 trips to the devastated areas, where he buried more than 200 bodies and coordinated with monks and lay people.

"In September, we lost because everywhere, every village did not follow, because of fear," he said. But in the post-cyclone period, "we can do more. Now I can grow and grow."

At a 1,500-strong ceremony commemorating the victims of the cyclone, 15 dissident monks and lay people pondered their options, he said. Should they organize a strike in September to mark the first anniversary of the protests? Hold one to coincide with the auspicious date of 8-8-08, twenty years since the 1988 uprising?

Asked about prospects for an armed struggle, the 88 leader demurred. "We are totally, from beginning to end, peaceful," he said. But the militant monk, he said, chuckling, was a force to be reckoned with.

From house to house, meanwhile, Burmese whisper a new slogan:

"Mandalay, pile of ashes" -- for a fire that the government was barely seen to help extinguish.

"Rangoon, pile of logs" -- for city trees felled by the cyclone and still cluttering the streets.

"Naypyidaw" -- the generals' new capital -- "pile of bones."