An unsteady path toward democracy
The jury is still out on whether the government of Burma, a.k.a. Myanmar, is indeed in transition from military dictatorship to democracy, as the current regime claims. In 2011, the country entered an impressive reform period. Following the release of opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi after 16 years under house arrest, political prisoners were freed by the hundreds. Censorship was lifted, allowing the proliferation of newspapers and the publication of banned books. Blackballed exiles and prominent dissidents were welcomed back to the homeland. Trade unions were legalized. Most promising of all, the first national elections in 25 years were slated for November 2015.
However, these moves toward reform have been marred by a return to repression, coercion, surveillance and other dark features of the old regime. Freedom of speech is once again imperiled: journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, threatened and jailed for defamation, libel, trespassing and other trumped-up charges; in one case, a freelance journalist trying to escape military custody was shot dead. Students marching in peaceful protests have had their heads bashed in by security forces— the same security forces that stand by and look the other way while angry Buddhist mobs, inflamed by fundamentalist demagogues, carry out pogroms against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities. Meanwhile, the official government stance on the Rohingya of Rakhine state, on the west coast, is to disown the persecuted population entirely, denying them citizenship and the most basic of human rights, and effectively forcing them out to migrate by sea in harrowing conditions.
As for the November elections, the authorities have firmly ruled out — on constitutional grounds — Suu Kyi’s desired bid for the presidency. With the constitution allocating 25 percent of the seats in parliament to the military and with the authors of that constitution, the generals and their cronies, still calling the shots, maybe Burma’s much-vaunted transition has already taken place, in a carefully scripted segue from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary one.
How have Burmese aspirations for democracy come to this particular pass? What role did the diverse dissident groups play in the years prior to the current transition — the long, bleak years of extreme oppression and privation suffered at the hands of their military rulers?
In “The Rebel of Rangoon,” Delphine Schrank, The Washington Post’s former Burma correspondent, undertakes an intrepid exploration of these questions by tracking the underground activities of a young dissident, Nway, and some of his closest associates. Nway, who is identified only by his pseudonym, cut his teeth on opposition politics while a teenager in the late 1990s as a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi’s party.
Even at its peak, when it numbered 2 million registered members, the NLD lacked cohesion and organization. In the last general elections, in 1990, it swept the polls to no avail (the junta simply ignored the election results and refused to hand over power), and the party wasall but dismantled. By the late 1990s, when a newcrop of activists, including Nway and his comrades, began taking up the cudgels, the NLD was more a rallying cry of opposition than an actual opposition party. Yet the “Office,” a code name for the ramshackle NLD headquarters in Rangoon, remained a refuge for scores of dissidents like Nway who, even after leaving the party to pursue their own paths of resistance, stayed loyal to its figurehead, Suu Kyi, as well as to its abiding ethos.
In chronicling the political coming-of-age of Nway and his comrades against the backdrop of NLD party politics, “The Rebel of Rangoon” serves as a timely primer on the party’s often heroic struggles through the years to the current transitional period. But the real hero of the book is Nway, whose odyssey through the labyrinthine network of underground activism Schrank details with sympathy. Anyone wondering what an idealistic, brave and obsessed young Burmese rebel does from day to day need read no further than this fly-on-thewall reconstruction of Nway’s daily grind.
Nway lives hand to mouth, sometimes sleeping in seedy safe houses or on the floors of friends’ apartments, at other times wondering where he’ll get his rent money. He spends his days on the run, darting in and out of the office, trying to give government informers the slip, thinking up cheeky ways to outfox them or, when cornered, even engaging them — Burmese-style — in amiable conversation. He makes clandestine trips across the river to his home in Twantay, and over the border to Mae Sot in Thailand, hoping for a donation from a wealthy exile but returning empty-handed. He looks out for his brothers in arms, falls out with them, makes up with them, seeks new recruits all the while. Nights find him in Internet cafes, drafting articles and memos, conducting simultaneous chats in half a dozen open Gchat windows, figuring out ways to circumvent spyware and other surveillance on the Internet. When the cafes close down, he heads for a tea shop, there to crash on a plastic chair while the city comes to life around him.
Interspersed with the minutiae of Nway’s existence are flashbacks to other moments, other players big and small, some famous, some faceless, in the larger resistance effort. The trouble is that on a canvas so crowded, even the central drama of Nway’s journey starts to pall when stretched to a 300-page narrative. Tedium is the leitmotif of any prolonged resistance, and the author deserves credit for her tenacity in documenting the particular tedium of the Burmese resistance. The question is how to write about tedium in a way that isn’t, well, tedious.
Aware, perhaps, of this dilemma, Schrank resorts to turns of phrase that frequently stop a reader in her tracks, but for all the wrong reasons. Why, I wonder, is it necessary to refer to “a wheezing contraption of a native variety of vehicular dilapidation commonly identified by windows that require you to roll them down with pliers” when “an old car with broken windows” would do? And I have yet to come across a more puzzling depiction of the old NLD headquarters, commonly referred to as “the cowshed,” than “a stubborn barnacle, a hole-in-the-wall poke in the eye at the junta’s Ozymandian assertions of legitimacy.” Finally, my heart goes out to the NLD official who “spent a half-decade putting the party on ice . . . trying to salvage its amputated corpse, keeping it on life support until — some fresh moment.” That’s quite a feat.
Such labored language notwithstanding, Schrank makes a valuable contribution to the literature of pro-democratic resistance in Burma — although it’s worth pointing out a basic misperception in her statement that “here [in Burma] democracy was as much in the foundational myths as in the shared history, in the literature as in the pamphleteering.”
While it’s true that Burma did enjoy a brief experiment in parliamentary democracy following independence, evidence of democracy as a national aspiration would be hard to find in the more enduring foundational myths — the pre-colonial models of divine kingship and absolute despotism that Burmese rulers have glorified through the ages. That’s not to say the current leaders of Burma don’t consider democracy “an excellent idea,” as Gandhi responded when asked what he thought about Western civilization.
Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in the town of Natmauk in February.
THE REBEL OF RANGOON A Tale of Defiance and Deliverance in Burma By Delphine Schrank Nation. 312 pp. $26.99