A New Generation of Activists Arises in Burma

Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008

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.

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