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In Burma, Carefully Sowing Resistance: Fragile Opposition Wary of Confrontation

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 9, 2009

RANGOON, Burma -- Dreams of revolution die hard in the silences of this city's monsoon-soaked streets.

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Under cover of night, on a wet, deserted strip of jetty, a young opposition activist gazed toward the ragged lights on the opposite bank of the Rangoon River and talked into the wind that blew through a pair of coconut trees.

"I am not afraid, but I do not want to be arrested, not at this time," said the activist, 27, who had fled Rangoon days earlier, trailed by an intelligence agent.

A flickering neon bar sign caught the contours of his disguise -- a baggy anorak, a pair of glasses, a hairnet to mask his thick, dark mane. "If I'm arrested, I cannot take part in demonstrations or campaigns."

On the run or under watch, Burma's semi-clandestine opposition activists have struggled to rouse action while their leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, languishes in Rangoon's Insein Prison. She is being tried on charges that she broke the terms of her house arrest when a U.S. citizen swam across a lake in May to visit her in the compound where she has been confined for 14 of the past 20 years.

For an issue as emotive as the fate of the leader whom Burmese refer to in whispers simply as the Lady, the general inaction has in many ways revealed the fragility of long-cherished visions of toppling the junta from the streets, born of memories from the mass pro-democracy protests of 1988. Some, such as the young activist, have ventured from remote village hideouts back into the cities to launch protests.

In the past two months, dozens have defied barriers and a heavy police presence to hold a vigil outside Insein Prison, where Suu Kyi is being held. Others have distributed pamphlets or photos of her, and some have tried to trigger spontaneous marches with what they call "flash strikes" -- unfurling banners in crowded markets in the hope that people will follow.

But the disparate networks of the opposition have tried in vain to forge a united strategy, and their attempts to prompt a mass movement have fizzled in a society frozen by decades of oppression and poverty.

From the Shadows

Although Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won elections in a landslide in 1990, the ruling military junta invalidated the results, imprisoned opposition leaders and solidified its grip on power.

Two decades later, faith in the NLD's ability to bring the country closer to democracy has waned under its octogenarian caretakers. A few smaller groups have emerged from among groups of Buddhist monks, students or the aging leaders of the 1988 protests, with a shared goal of bringing change through nonviolent resistance to the one of the world's most repressive governments. But with many of their leaders arrested after the failed, monk-steered uprising in September 2007, the remaining activists operate illegally and from the shadows.

"All the organizations, they should be united. Some want to make strikes, some do not," said the deputy of a leading opposition network, a former political detainee who faces retaliation from authorities if his name is published. "We need more people; 100 to 200 people is not enough to make the whole country strike."

Wearing a starched shirt and longyi, the cloth wrap that substitutes for trousers, the leader sat in a downtown coffee shop, digging into a plate of fries. "I have so many different identity cards," he said with a grin. "Sometimes I am a teacher. Sometimes I am a student. Today, I am a teacher."


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