Burma’s Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Speaker's Corner: Burma was once known as the "Golden Land" by Western adventurers. Not any longer. Under a tyrannical regime, the country's spiritual and de facto political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, languishes in prison. For her 60th birthday, Jeff Greenwald has a gift idea.

06.29.05 | 6:50 PM ET

BurmaIn many Asian cultures, one’s 60th birthday is an occasion for special joy. It marks the point in time where an individual has passed through all 12 signs of the zodiac (Horse, Tiger, Rooster, etc.) in each of the five elements (wood, air, iron, earth and water). It’s a mark of completion, a point of new beginnings, and a testimony to the cyclical nature of all existence.

On Sunday, June 19, Aung San Suu Kyi - the spiritual and de facto political leader of Burma - turned 60. It should have been a monumental day for Daw Suu Kyi, or “the Lady,” as she is affectionately known. As an author, freedom fighter, wife, mother, Buddhist scholar and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, she has lived her life with extraordinary commitment and courage.

For Suu Kyi and the people of Burma, however, the passing years bring no satisfaction. Time slouches onward, a potholed road moving from bad to worse.

Known as the “Golden Land” by Western adventurers who visited five centuries ago, Burma was once a great Buddhist center, a treasury of teak and gems, and Southeast Asia’s largest exporter of rice. All this changed in the years following World War II, when the popular leader Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father) was assassinated. A despotic general named Ne Win took his place. For the next half century, the country was dragged down the road of an exploitive and corrupt socialism. The country’s military rulers slaughtered more than 3,000 students and monks during a peaceful demonstration in 1988. Two years later, they shrugged off the results of a free election that overwhelmingly placed Suu Kyi’s party—the National League for Democracy (NLD)—in power.

Since then, decline and oppression have defined the country’s fortunes. Renamed “Myanmar” by the ruling generals, Burma has become a case study in tyranny.  Some 1,400 prisoners of conscience languish in jail. Rape is used as a weapon of terror. Relocation, and the use of forced labor to build roads, waterworks, and the tourist infrastructure are common. Though half of the country lives in poverty, nearly half the nation’s budget goes to weapons and the military. 

Still, during an assignment to Burma in 2002, I was amazed by the grace and hospitality of the Burmese people. As I traveled around the country, I continually found—whispered in rickshaws, on boats, and in local restaurants—an aching desire for freedom, and an unsinkable conviction that the wheel of time will eventually turn, bringing an end to their suffering.

Sadly, nothing lends credence to this sentiment. Earthquakes rattle and subside, tsunamis strike and recede, but the plight of Burma has worsened for 15 years. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent nearly 10 of those years in prison. Her most recent spate of freedom ended in May of 2003 when, during a speaking tour near Mandalay, her motorcade was attacked by pro-government thugs. Nearly 100 of her friends and allies were beaten to death with clubs and spears. The generals’ response was to arrest Suu Kyi again, “for her own protection.”

Several of the 10 members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) have publicly voiced their outrage at the junta’s arrogance, and demanded democratic reforms by the rogue state. It’s especially embarrassing that, in 2006, Myanmar is scheduled to assume ASEAN’s presidency. Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have expressed strong objections to this possibility. “At one stroke,” wrote a Malaysian analyst in the Asian Wall Street Journal, “ASEAN would see its credibility evaporate in the international arena.”

American businesses are forbidden to trade with Burma (U.S. policy on the junta is something this country has gotten right). Still, a few companies—notably Unocal, grandfathered in before the sanctions—continue to work with the junta, well aware that their investments empower a murderous regime to oppress its citizens. High-end expedition agencies still run package tours to “Kipling’s Burma” and the “Burmese Land of Gold,” even though Suu Kyi has specifically asked freedom-minded people to avoid bolstering the junta’s credibility through organized tourism.

In light of these challenges, one might well wonder what to give Aung San Suu Kyi for her 60th birthday. Clearly, the only gift of value in these circumstances is action. In the time it takes to frost a cake, one can take a critical step in support of Suu Kyi and Burmese democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi has asked, simply and directly, that citizens of the free world “use your liberty to promote ours.” There are many opportunities for Americans to heed this suggestion. Call, write, or fax your Congressional representatives. Ask them to champion the cause of Burmese democracy, and insist that Burma be put on the UN Security Council’s agenda. Boycott companies that trade with the junta, and don’t patronize travel outfitters that romanticize the country. Visit Ethical Traveler, and upload a digital photo and message of support to Aung San Suu Kyi. (Though mailed cards will never reach her, your online greeting may.)

For those who seek deeper insight into the situation by visiting Burma itself, preparation is the key. Although Daw Suu Kyi discourages travel to Myanmar, some Burma activists feel that educated, individual travelers can be a powerful force for advocacy and citizen diplomacy. Certainly, my 2002 visit to Burma had a profound impact on my own perceptions about the country and its people.

If one does visit Burma, care should be taken to avoid supporting the regime. Inform yourself about the crisis, support local businesses, and return home with stories to share about the indelible spirit of the world’s most gracious oppressed people.

For Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma, there can be no better gift than our vigilance. The candles we light to celebrate Suu Kyi’s 60th birthday may help initiate a new era of Burmese freedom, dispelling 15 years of darkness.

Photo by Rolf Potts.

Jeff Greenwald

Oakland-based Jeff Greenwald is the author of Scratching the Surface: Impressions of Planet Earth, from Hollywood to Shiraz and other travel memoirs. He is the Executive Director of Ethical Traveler, an international alliance of travelers committed to human rights, environmental protection, and ambassadorial qualities of travel.

No comments for Burma’s Ongoing Cycle of Despair.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.