A Quiet Revolution In Burma

This week, Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi walks freely. Tuesday marked Aung San Suu Kyi's release after 19 months of house arrest in the Burmese capital of Rangoon -- the result of patient, quiet negotiation between the pro- democracy movement she leads and the brutal military dictatorship that has terrorized Burma for over a decade.

Aung San Suu Kyi called the day a "new dawn" for Burma, a country renamed Myanmar by the junta that in 1990 invalidated the free elections that named her the country's leader with over 80 percent of the vote. Since then, she has spent much of the intervening time in prison or under house arrest; other members of her National League for Democracy, elected to parliament at the same time, remain imprisoned after 12 long years. Their release is Aung San Suu Kyi's next focus.

Meanwhile, the junta has slaughtered ethnic minorities throughout Burma's mountainous outbacks; an international pariah, it has funded its domestic terror primarily through the lucrative drug trade that, along with every other facet of the country's wretched economy, Burma's military takes a substantial cut from.

When charlatans like George W. Bush declaim the United States' commitment to ensuring freedom and democracy around the world, one wonders why Burma is not on its, or virtually anyone else's, radar. Like the Taliban before Sept. 11, Burma's military junta practices its tyranny in relative isolation. Neighboring countries deal with (or exploit) its refugees, and western democracies look the other way, preferring to target evil-doers in countries with more interesting spoils to divvy up.

Which, in the long run, may be a blessing for Burma. Rather than being carpeted with Washington's humanitarian bombs, Aung San Suu Kyi has set a course whereby her country's tormentors are slowly, inexorably losing their grip on their power. When they are, eventually, supplanted, the lack of bloody warfare -- whether by armed resistance groups or high-tech Pentagon missiles -- vastly improves Burma's chances for building a permanent, positive peace.

The alternative is all too familiar. Country after country in past decades has liberated itself, only to be plunged into yet another era of pseudo-democracies or kleptocracies or worse, cycles of bloody factional wrangling and/or illegitimate U.S. puppets or yet more juntas and guys with foreign weapons and ancient grudges.

For any Third World country, the effort to establish a civil society that can support democracy, support a wide spectrum of political views, and improve its peoples' standards of living is a formidable challenge. Add on top of that the increasing inability of any country to chart its own course, rather than becoming an economic captive of the IMF and big transnationals, and the challenge of leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi is beyond formidable -- it will literally require an approach nobody has tried before.

The traditional model for Third World liberation in the Cold War era was the armed guerilla movement. Those still exist, but the most remarkable grass-roots victories in recent years have been nonviolent. And there have been dozens. From the former Soviet bloc a few years ago to the Venezuelan counter-coup a couple of weeks ago, the preferred method for standing up to forces of Third World repression has become massive peaceful resistance.

To that approach, Aung San Suu Kyi is adding two more layers -- a slow, careful cultivation of a resolution, and direct engagement (ala South Africa) with one's oppressors. The process does not make headlines, even when there are breakthroughs like her release from house arrest and newfound ability to move about freely. But the hope is that over time, fewer people die and more people are free -- and made free not by the strings-attached intervention of a foreign power, but by their own hands and hearts. That's worth headlines.

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