EIGHT YEARS ago, after the military rulers of Burma had bloodily repressed the latest uprising for democracy in their Southeast Asian nation, we published on the opposite page an essay by one of the Buddhist monks who had led the nonviolent protests.
Given that he was on the run from police at the time and that democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, U Gambira’s message may have struck some readers as naive bluster. “What Burma’s Junta Must Fear” was the headline.
“The regime’s use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago,” U Gambira wrote. “We have taken their best punch. Now it is the generals who must fear the consequences of their actions. . . . It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow.”
Now, allowed to vote freely for the first time in a quarter-century, Burmese citizens have delivered a landslide win to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. The NLD secured a majority in parliament despite a constitution designed to prevent just such an outcome.
It remains to be seen whether the military will honor the results; it failed to do so when the NLD won a similar landslide in 1990. If it does , it remains to be seen whether the NLD can rise to the challenge, remaining true to its democratic principles and delivering economic improvement and justice for the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities. As so often in such transitions, the dictators do not contemplate giving way until they have made such a hash of things that democrats inherit a mess. Burma is poor and corrupt.
But before turning all attention to coming challenges, it’s worth reflecting on the lessons of this historic moment. Here’s one: Economic sanctions combined with timely engagement worked. The sanctions were maintained over the objections of repressive governments such as China and Russia and even, sadly, democracies including India; they were dismissed as ineffective by Burma’s embassy, its hired guns and not a few academics and other Burma experts. But when the ruling regime decided it did not want to become a satrapy of China, it realized it would have to allow democratic reforms in order to escape the economic sanctions and build ties with the West. Legislators such as Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) were right to be steadfast. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama (and first lady Laura Bush) kept U.S. policy on track.
The experts were wrong, too, in their continual whispers that the Burmese people had lost faith in the National League for Democracy; that they valued the stability that a reforming regime could provide; that we should all move beyond Aung San Suu Kyi, who was portrayed as too old or out of touch. When finally permitted to express themselves, the Burmese people said what people from Tunisia to Nicaragua to Korea have said when given the chance: They want to live in a democratic country.
Many lives were sacrificed over the past 25 years, as U Gambira warned. Tortured and held in solitary confinement, activists died or were permanently damaged. But today we know that the people were on their side. That’s worth keeping in mind when you hear experts telling you that people in some other part of the world — Egypt, say, or China, or Cuba — are happy in their dictatorships.
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