Eight summers and two conventions ago, when the Democrats gathered in Chicago to renominate President Bill Clinton, their National Democratic Institute honored one absent democrat with its highest award.
The laureate was Aung San Suu Kyi, crusader for freedom in Burma, and she was absent because she feared that if she left her country, the dictators in charge would not let her back. The Americans who honored her hoped, just as the Nobel Peace Prize committee that honored her in 1991 had hoped, that international attention might embarrass those dictators and nudge them toward openness and conciliation.
And today? If we've learned anything, it is that Burma's corrupt regime is beyond embarrassment. Aung San Suu Kyi is under house arrest. Her husband, who accepted the award in Chicago on her behalf, died outside of Burma, having been denied a final visit with his wife. Fourteen months ago she narrowly escaped an attack by regime thugs. More than 1,000 peaceable democrats are in prison; others have died there; many have been tortured. Just a few weeks ago a Burmese was sentenced to seven years simply for approaching the house where Suu Kyi is confined.
In the eight years since Chicago, Burma's regime has forced thousands more children and adults into something close to slave labor. Its army has pursued a policy of rape as a weapon of terrorism against ethnic minorities in the provinces. Of Burma's 50 million people, between 1 million and 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, primarily Thailand; an estimated 600,000 to 1 million are internally displaced.
"At the moment, we in the movement for democracy are facing a lot of difficulties," Suu Kyi noted, with typical understatement, in a statement she managed to send to Chicago eight years ago. The difficulties have multiplied, but amazingly, neither she nor many of her followers have given up.
She is the daughter of Burma's independence hero, himself assassinated in 1947, when she was a toddler and he was 32. She studied abroad but returned in 1988, to care for her dying mother, as Burma seemed to be stirring toward democracy. "Very reluctantly, Aung San Suu Kyi began to speak out, answering her people's call -- simply, fearlessly, and to electrifying effect," Madeleine Albright, then ambassador to the United Nations, recounted in Chicago. "Within two years, she was the leader of a democratic movement that won more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats contested."
Burma's dictators never allowed that parliament to meet, and their nation has been declining ever since.
If they cannot be shamed, can they be pressured? That we do not know, for the United Nations, and most nations of the world, despite a tremendous quantity of pious rhetoric, have never really tried. We know "engagement" has not worked; Burma's neighbors in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, began trying that in 1997, and they have been humiliated time and again by Burma's sullen and implacable refusal to liberalize even in the most cosmetic ways.
The United States, under both Clinton and President Bush, has imposed increasingly stiff economic sanctions, championed by Republicans such as Sens. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and John McCain (Ariz.) and Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Tom Lantos (both of California). The sanctions hurt Burma's regime, which also controls most of the nation's underdeveloped economy, but their impact is greatly weakened by Europe's refusal to join in. As Kavi Chongkittavorn, one of the region's best journalists, recently wrote, the European Union's primary concern remains ASEAN's status as "a huge market and a gateway to the rest of Asia and the Pacific."
The Europeans are facing another choice between principle and mercantilism this fall, when Burma hopes to join a summit of European and Southeast Asian nations due to meet in Hanoi in October. Some European countries (notably Britain and the Czech Republic) believe the regime has had more than enough time to prove itself; others would like to kowtow again. True to form, the regime so far withholds even the minor concessions of political liberalization that would allow the "engagers" to save face.
Inside Burma, meanwhile, it remains dangerous for members of Aung San Suu Kyi's party to talk politics; illegal for them to print a newsletter; impossible for them to consult their elected party leader. The prosaic business of the convention here in Boston for the next four days, that is, would be life-threatening for them.