An un­steady path to­ward democ­racy

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Wendy Law-Yone, a Burmese Amer­i­can writer liv­ing in Lon­don, is the Friedrich Dür­ren­matt guest pro­fes­sor of world literature at the Univeristy of Bern, Switzer­land.

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

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