THE anniversary on August 8th of Myanmar’s popular uprising against military rule in 1988 saw exiled activists across the world remember fallen colleagues and call for renewed pressure on the junta by foreign governments. But in the teashops of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, the talk two decades on is not of sanctions but of the need for dialogue, of frustration with the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, and even with its detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the widening gap between those who oppose the junta from abroad and those who live under its thumb.
Once supported as the rightful government, after its ignored election victory in 1990, the League is increasingly seen as ineffective and irrelevant, with policies that do more harm than good. A guesthouse owner says economic sanctions, which the League supports, are “killing us”. The League, he says, are “just another bunch of politicians”. A few even grumble about Miss Suu Kyi herself. One critic says she “has lost touch with the suffering of the people”. Even some who helped found the party are disillusioned. A veteran of the 1988 movement admits that the League has “not met the expectation of the people”.
Subject to a constant campaign of harassment, it has not really had a chance to try. And Miss Suu Kyi herself has been in detention for most of the past 20 years. Of course she has lost touch. Her support for sanctions is a decade old. Her present views are unknown. But citizens have nothing to show for 20 years of support for the League. It is hardly fair to blame it for the junta’s mismanagement, but rising food and oil prices are biting hard. Jobs are scarce: even those with degrees are working as secretaries or taxi drivers. Feeding a family is a full-time job. Most resented is the League’s support for a tourism boycott. Many argue this simply reinforces the junta’s self-isolation.
Most people are too busy making ends meet to give much thought to the future of the League. But of those who do, not many see much hope. Most say last year’s protests changed nothing. Since the regime is ready to shoot even at monks, few see street protests as more than a futile invitation to further repression. One of the monks who marched last year in the town of Bagan says they are still angry, but know they are powerless. “We have only our prayers and our mouths—they have guns.”
The opposition, such as it is, is fragmented and unorganised—in prison, in exile or in hiding. One frustrated 88-er laments that the new generation has no political education; no new ideas or leaders are emerging. Some see hope abroad. A leading activist takes heart from the arrest of Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade and the proposed indictment of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president. He hopes the next dictator international justice will catch up with will be Than Shwe, the junta’s leader.
But the fear of retribution may make the junta resist reform even more tenaciously. And others vest greater hope in the humanitarian teams working on the response to May’s devastating cyclone. A former Burmese politician now with the United Nations says the teams are training thousands of young educated Burmese in organisation, information technology and management. These young people are also in contact with foreigners, often for the first time. He sees them as Myanmar’s best hope for change. He may well be right, but it seems a slim one.
6 months ago