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Burma's 'transformative moment'
Southeast Asia scholar Darren Zook thinks the junta is no match for the Internet, and may not outrun the 2008 Olympics, either

| 24 October 2007

For academics as for journalists, the obstacles to exploring Burma - which was renamed Myanmar in 1989 by its military rulers, and is now in the throes of a popular uprising against them - are overwhelming. But in contrast to an earlier wave of pro-democracy protests in 1988, when the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators at the government's hands only briefly pricked the consciousness of the global community, the whole world seems to be watching what has been dubbed the "Saffron Revolution." And, with the notable exception of countries like China and Russia, much of it is demanding an end to 45 years of hardship and repression under the thumbs of the generals.

The similarities are striking. Then as now, the leader of the democracy movement was Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, nationalist leader Aung San, was assassinated shortly before Burma won its independence from Britain in 1947, and whose party, the National League for Democracy, was kept from power after the junta voided its sweeping election victory in 1990. Then as now, it was dissatisfaction with the government's economic policies - this time over fuel-price increases - that triggered the crisis.


Darren Zook (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

But Darren Zook, a Berkeley political scientist and Southeast Asia scholar, says there is one huge difference between today's protests and those of nearly two decades ago: the Internet. The military has arrested thousands of dissidents, many of them Buddhist monks, and estimates of the dead range from dozens to hundreds; Suu Kyi, who has spent most of the past 18 years in detention, remains under house arrest. Yet the ability of a relatively few determined activists inside Burma to connect with the outside world has turned the current turmoil into a teachable moment on a global scale. This time, declares Zook - who is linked via e-mail to a Burmese activist in the U.K., among other regular sources of intelligence - "the issue of Burma won't go away."

"For better or worse, and mostly for worse, Burma is one of these forgotten places," observes Zook, explaining that it's almost impossible for academics to get research visas to study there unless they plan to investigate something "relatively nonpolitical," such as temple construction. Zook himself, who travels frequently in the region and speaks a number of Southeast Asian languages, has spent only a few days in Burma - "just long enough to get a feel for it" - during a visit two years ago to Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Yet as hard as it is to penetrate Burma, a steady stream of compelling, often-graphic words and images is finding its way to the rest of the world. As one small example, Zook cites the experience of his undergraduate class in Southeast Asian politics. "When I talk about Burma," he says, "the reaction from students is usually, 'I had no idea. I had no idea it was ruled by a military government, I had no idea who Aung San Suu Kyi was. How could all this be going on and I don't know about it?'?"

They know now.

"If you go into Google and type in 'Burma protests,' you could spend eight hours watching footage," Zook says. "Even though the Internet is heavily monitored, people have been absolutely ingenious in finding ways to get information out," often in close to real time.

"What it means," he continues, "is that film footage that would be confiscated by the military is already out there. This has never happened with Burma. Internet connections there are actually quite small - it's not a heavily wired country."

Among the images of brutality to have emerged recently was one of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, who was killed in last month's protests. While the Burmese government denied responsibility for his death, video footage appears to show what Zook describes as the journalist's camera being taken away, after which "he's just shot at point-blank range."

"That footage," he points out, "ended up getting the Japanese government to first of all demand an investigation, and then to withdraw a pretty substantial amount of funding based on the fact that Burma would not let Japan investigate, and they would not investigate on their own. They simply said he was caught in the crossfire, that's our official position and that's it.

"Ten years ago this would have been the official story, the film would have been confiscated, no way to tell what's going on," he adds. "Just eyewitness accounts."

What's happening today in Burma is an object lesson in "how to take a small protest and have it make a sustained impact around the world," says Zook. "I think there are activists out there, and there are other countries, that are taking notes on all of this."

'Blood Olympics'

Zook isn't sure he likes the term "Saffron Revolution," he says, "because the monks are only part of what's going on." But it was the monks' demand that the government apologize for using violence against lay protesters - whose demonstrations initially targeted the government's punishing fuel-price hikes - that turned a pocketbook protest into a broad-based demand for regime change.

"That's the transformative moment," observes Zook. "The monks had already made the statement that we stand with the people, we're here to protect the people. And when the government not only came after the monks, but refused to apologize, that's that moment of saying, OK, this has gone from 'you have 10 days to make things right' to 'you can never make things right.' So they declare the regime an enemy of the people, and say, basically, that legitimacy lies with Aung San Suu Kyi."

In Burma, where the Buddhist government has relied heavily on the nation's monasteries for its moral and political authority, the monks' tactic of "withholding merit" from military rulers and their families has been a severe blow.

Given the brutality and repressiveness of the junta, however, Zook believes Burma's hopes for democracy rest largely with the international community, and particularly its ability to pressure China to relax its opposition to United Nations action against Burma. With the 2008 Olympics set to be held in China, pro-democracy activists - again, working primarily outside Burma, and using the Internet as a key communications tool - have found a new and powerful target of opportunity.

"It's so clear that China is in morbid fear that something is going to go wrong," says Zook, who traveled there during the summer break. That fear was evident in April, after Darfur activists threatened to christen the games "the genocide Olympics" unless China modified its support for the Sudanese government. Beijing, he notes, did just that. "Because the last thing it wants in the middle of the marathon is for somebody to unfurl a banner in front of thousands of TV cameras that says 'China, blood is on your hands.' It would just be devastating.

"So the new Burma campaign is 'blood Olympics.' And in many ways, China has conceded," says Zook, pointing to its vote for a U.N. resolution, albeit a nonbinding one, condemning the crackdown on dissidents and calling for the release of all political prisoners. "That gives these protests tremendous hope."

If China can be pushed to join international calls for substantive measures against the Burmese government, he adds, "Russia will have to follow. And that will completely change the politics of the Security Council, and put tremendous pressure on the military junta."

Meanwhile, for those who want to help, Zook urges them to keep the pressure on China, either by joining in weekly demonstrations at the Chinese consulate in San Francisco or contacting activist organizations like the Free Burma Coalition and the Bay Area-based Burmese American Democratic Alliance, or simply educating themselves about the situation. Campus interest in Burma was evident last week, when Zook gave a well-attended public lecture sponsored by the Religion, Politics, and Globalization program.

"If you're interested in helping to further the cause of the Burmese protests, what you should do is not go straight to Burma, but get involved, and get educated," Zook says. "This is one of those cases where I would say, 'Don't go to Burma,' because that's probably one of the least effective things you could do."

Optimistic as he is, Zook doesn't expect the military regime to be sent packing. "They probably won't just crack. And given the nature, for instance, of Aung San Suu Kyi's method, loving kindness and compassion, this is not going to be a 'drag generals from their offices and kill them in the streets' kind of thing. That would be, in a strange way, not the Buddhist way of regime change." Instead, Zook looks for what he calls a "graceful exit," whatever form that may take.

Regardless of the outcome, though, he's convinced that this time, Burma's progress toward democracy will not be reversed. "Even if they end up being a failure in the sense that they wanted regime change and didn't get it, these protests have been amazingly productive," he says. "I think the military regime in Burma has been dealt a humiliating blow that it can't recover from. It's gone from 'We'll stay in power forever' to 'How do we get out of this?'"

And his undergrads, like people the world over with Internet access, are watching it all, and helping to ensure that Burma is never again a "forgotten place."

"Even though the Burmese regime can arrest people, and they've killed at least one activist - unfortunately, there'll probably be more to come - I really feel that these protests are the beginning of the end," Zook says. "It might take five years, but when the military regime does step down - and I'm optimistic enough to think it will - when people ask when did it start, it will be this moment."