For a few days in September, scenes of barefoot Buddhist monks confronting Burmese soldiers and riot police in the streets of Rangoon made it onto the evening news. The images were disturbingly picturesque. To the Western eye, they presented a real-life costume drama of good versus evil, freedom versus repression. To some, they recalled an iconic image from another thwarted revolution: the lone protestor facing down a row of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

They should also have reminded us of a less picturesque-or at least less pictured-confrontation in Burma itself. One year before the protests in Tiananmen Square, the military junta that now rules Burma put down a popular uprising by beating, arresting, and torturing demonstrators. Before it was over, three thousand Burmese citizens had been killed, at least as many people as died during the Tiananmen Square protests. Burma, of course, is not China-it’s not as large or as powerful, and therefore not as important to the rest of the world. On the rare occasions when events there do appear on the front page of our newspapers, they disappear again quickly.

That suits Burma’s rulers very well. They thrive on this obscurity. Not only do they resist the scrutiny of foreign observers; they also carefully discourage critical attention on the part of their own people. Following the advice of astrologers, the junta recently had a new capital built in a remote and unpopulated area, thus further isolating themselves within an already isolated country. In September that isolation was briefly interrupted as Burmese citizens used their cell phones to record and transmit images of massive street demonstrations and, later, of the government’s violent crackdown. These images, of students and red-robed monks marching into clouds of tear gas, were hard to ignore.

But will they be as hard to forget? After the Burmese government finally cut Internet and cell-phone connections, the photos and videos stopped coming, and the outrage began to fade. Meanwhile, the outrageous brutality continued. Monasteries were raided and shut down. Monks were arrested, defrocked, and tortured. In October, Win Shwe, a prominent prodemocracy activist, died during interrogation by security forces. Other dissident leaders are still being hunted down. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, is living under house arrest, as she has for twelve of the past eighteen years.

To its credit, the Bush administration has responded quickly and firmly, strengthening longstanding economic sanctions against the junta and imposing a few new ones. Russia, India, and China, countries with greater influence over Burma, have acted less honorably. Instead of sanctions and diplomatic pressure, they urge patience and constructive engagement. In this context, “constructive” has come to mean safe and profitable. All three countries have designs on Burma’s natural resources, and this has made it easy for Burma’s government to play them off one another-or off the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which Burma has belonged since 1997.

None of these countries wants to jeopardize its influence or access by issuing uncomfortable demands, and so they all continue to sell arms to the junta and look the other way. In January, China and Russia together blocked a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned the Burmese government. (It was their first joint veto in thirty-five years.) Even in the aftermath of the September protests, China has shielded the junta from UN pressure on grounds that the UN is authorized to interfere only in crises that threaten international security. China’s ambassador to the UN recently told reporters that “the situation [in Burma] has some problems, but does not constitute a threat to international and regional peace.”

This, of course, is exactly what the junta wants to hear. After all, it too claims the country has some problems-specifically, all the people who oppose the junta. Burma’s rulers, who officially renamed the country Myanmar in 1989, also renamed their government the State Peace and Development Council in 1997. They could hardly have chosen a less fitting name for their ruthless and incompetent regime, which has stymied the country’s economic development and forced its subjects into silent obedience. That’s why we shouldn’t forget what happened in September. Just as the events in Tiananmen Square drew attention to the barbarity of China’s Communist government, this year’s demonstrations in Burma briefly lifted the curtain on the junta’s paranoid despotism.

Burma’s monks, meanwhile, have reminded everyone of what some in the West lately appear to have forgotten: that the force of religious tradition need not be antidemocratic, that real piety and the longing for justice and freedom can go together, and often do.

October 16, 2007

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Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: View Contents
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