Time to Step Up for the Saffron Revolution

September 27th, 2007



It ought to be explained that Burma and I first met when I was a scrawny girl of thirteen. I stepped off the plane at Yangon airport sporting hair down to my waist, a set of pink glasses, a Sony Walkman shoved into my back pocket and only a vague sense of the experiences waiting ahead.

I was just recovering from the 30 hours of transit when my parents loaded all thirty extended family members onto a rusty renovated tour bus and pushed us through Burma’s northern regions via dusty mountain roads and thatch roof hotels. By the end of two weeks, I had climbed ancient Burmese temples in Pagan, squatted in “public restrooms” that were literal holes dug into the ground, and eaten in noodle shops with the nation’s rural poor. The trip ended with my cousins and me participating in a ceremony to commemorate my brother’s (brief) entry into the Buddhist monkhood. For four days he donned saffron robes, awoke at sunrise to collect breakfast with his begging bowl, and passed nights on a hard wooden floor. Afterwards, he returned home to the fifth grade.

In Burma, joining the Buddhist sangha is a traditional rite of passage for young men. Starting from the age of five, adolescent boys make the commitment for days, weeks, or months at a time to observe the Buddhist teachings of elder monks before re-entering society.

So now, as nonviolent monk-led protests in Burma escalate to a heady climax, I stare at the television with uneasy familiarity. How can this end? Most recent news reports confirm fears that the government has answered protests with strongly violent action. Shots have been fired into demonstrating crowds. Monasteries have been raided. Aung San Suu Kyi has been moved from her home to the notorious Insein Prison.

Throughout his term, President Bush has made the spread of democracy and freedom the hallmark of his administration. Let’s not forget how simple nomenclature revised the Iraq War from “WMD preemption” into “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” At his second inaugural speech, President Bush boldly declared that “the best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Apparently, however, Burma didn’t quite classify as part of that expansion project. The Clinton Administration took a firm stance by actively banning American investments and refusing to allow Burma’s “government officials” (read: military hooligans) entrance into the U.S. following a bloody repression against democracy-led movements in 1997. Sure, Bush recently made an emboldened plea to the U.N. on Burma’s behalf, but let’s not forget he also exempted UNOCAL – America’s largest investor in Burma – from Clinton’s previously instituted economic sanctions. UNOCAL moved forward with developing the Yadana pipeline in tandem with the military government using “local workers” (read: forced village labor). Bush’s message is conflicting: Let’s work to install economic sanctions and cripple the ruling dictatorship except when it comes to oil projects. Of course I support the widespread expansion of freedom, democracy, and human rights but only if it doesn’t inconvenience me too much.

What’s with the hypocrisy? I have never understood why Burma’s plight for liberation keeps falling to the wayside of national discourse. Unlike other regions Burma boasts a clearly elected leader the people are willing (even anxious) to follow and remnants of a pre-colonial national infrastructure. It is ripe for democracy.

Yet, as news of the protests spit forth, the Western community is left clucking its collective tongue and shaking a demonstrative finger. Bad Burma. No more trade for you. Is that all anyone can say? Can do? It’s infuriating. Never before has the contrast between vacant promises and literal action been more distinct. Seated in the pit of my stomach rises a nagging fear: Is Burma a nation beyond fixing? How do we get to the situation we all want so badly? How much can Bush (or anyone) really do to bring democracy to Burma?

I recognize that the options before us are limited. I have no answers for the questions I raise, so in the meantime I continue to hold my breath. Deep down, I still believe that movements like this can change the world. Apparently, despite heavy-handed military repression over the past three decades, so do the people of Burma.

And maybe – just maybe – that resilience says more about freedom’s expansionary tract than any inaugural speech or empty rhetoric could ever hope to vocalize. It certainly speaks louder to me than anything I’ve heard before.

—Michelle Kobler