Sunday, June 7, 2009

Myanmar democracy movement appears to be weakening

A mishmash of disparate anti-government groups has not been able to persuade foreign powers to push for Aung San Suu Kyi's freedom.

By Charles McDermid

Reporting from Bangkok (Chicago Tribune), Thailand - Even as the trial of activist Aung San Suu Kyi approaches a predictable conclusion in a tumbledown prison courtroom in Yangon, the verdict may already be in for Myanmar's pro-democracy movement.

The opposition, already reeling before Suu Kyi's arrest, increasingly appears powerless, divided and incapable of mustering the international intervention needed to topple the country's long-ruling military government. As one opposition leader put it, the prevailing sentiment within the opposition is "outrage and utter hopelessness."

A mishmash of acronyms, ethnic divisions and agendas, seven alliances of about 100 anti-government groups operate inside and outside Myanmar. Galvanized by recent events, the disparate groups have led a chorus of derision for the arrest and trial of Suu Kyi.

International outrage has followed, with President Obama calling the drama a "show trial." But there have been no changes in the government's stance that Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, violated the terms of her house arrest by allowing an uninvited American to spend two nights at her highly guarded compound. She faces three to five years in jail.

Hard-core activists are not impressed by the international response.

"We are very thankful the international community is on our side. But this is only lip service," Khin Maung Swe, an executive committee member of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, said by phone from Yangon.

Western threats of crippling economic sanctions have yet to materialize, and the government's closest allies, China, Russia and India, have remained silent.

Sources in Myanmar, also known as Burma, have confirmed that officials from China, Myanmar's biggest supplier of consumer goods and the main investor in the resource-rich country's energy and mineral sectors, have visited in recent days to meet with the ruling generals and hold unofficial talks with opposition leaders.

Political scientist and author Aung Naing Oo was once foreign secretary of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, an armed group involved in the violent 1988 protests that catapulted Suu Kyi to prominence. More recently, Aung Naing Oo, who studied at Harvard and now lives in exile in Thailand, has advocated dialogue between the regime and the opposition.

"Throwing sanctions from 10,000 miles away" won't change the xenophobic mind-set of the regime, he said.

He blames both the opposition and the regime for stubbornness and inaction, what he calls "old general syndrome."

"I'll give you an example: A 16-year-old fights his whole life for what he thinks is right. Now he's a general, he's 70, that's all he knows. These old politicians won't change their minds for the country even if they know this is the right way," Aung Naing Oo said.

With Suu Kyi again detained and many other leaders jailed, the National League for Democracy is facing a crisis of leadership and morale. Moral authority, according to Aung Naing Oo and others, is not enough to carry the day.

"Moral authority has kept the movement alive, given it a lifeline," he said. But "you need to bring pragmatism into the game. As Bill Clinton said, politics is rhetoric and reality. How to combine the two in Burma, I don't know."

Meanwhile, sources in Myanmar say the streets of Yangon, the former capital, are cloaked in a renewed reign of fear, rage and helplessness.

"In every neighborhood of Yangon, there is always one former political prisoner or a family whose son or husband is in jail for political reasons. People are too afraid and too poor to take risks," former prisoner Swe Win said. "Only if someone or some group can successfully initiate a movement so big and so strong for the ordinary people to participate will protests erupt."

As the trial of Suu Kyi resumes, and the reeling opposition scrambles to rally universal support, the people of Myanmar are left with little more than a day-to-day existence and wishful thinking.

"Hope is something that keeps Burmese going," Aung Naing Oo said. "When you are Burmese, you have to have hope; otherwise, you have nothing."

McDermid is a special correspondent.

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