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May Confrontation a Step Backward for Burma's National Reconciliation - 2003-06-19

On May 30, Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democracy movement in Burma, was on her way to meet supporters in northern Burma. There are different versions of what happened next. Democracy activists say that along a rural road, a pro-government gang dressed in the orange robes of Burmese monks attacked her motorcade.

But the Burmese government denies responsibility for the attack and says the motorcade provoked a clash by driving through a gathering crowd. The government says four people died, while democracy supporters say as many as 80 may have been killed in the melee.

With the exception of a short visit by a UN representative in early June, Aung San Suu Kyi, who heads the opposition National League for Democracy, or NLD, remains in the “protective custody” of the Burmese government, unable to be photographed or interviewed.

The violence crushed hopes for reconciliation between the NLD and the government. Now Burma, which has been ruled by a military government for more than four decades, is once again the focus of international attention.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, which usually refrains from commenting on political matters of member states, has urged Burma to release Aung San Suu Kyi. The European Union increased its sanctions against Burma. And in the United States, the Congress and President Bush are expected to ban Burmese imports.

For some observers, it’s clear who is at fault for the May 30 incident. “I think this attack was an effort by the hard line part of the junta who do not believe in reconciliation and negotiating with the democratic opposition, and for some reason they thought they could demonstrate their antipathy for Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD,” says Maureen Aung Thwin, director of the Burma Project at the Open Society Institute in New York, which works to foster democracy in the world.

But across the United States in Honolulu, Michael Aung Thwin, an historian at the University of Hawaii, does not agree with his younger sister. For him, it’s difficult to assess blame for the May 30 attack. He says political events in Burma are used by both sides to advance their cause, and reliable information is hard to come by. He thinks Western press accounts lack credibility because they are often written from outside the country and depend on biased sources inside Burma.

“This is a perpetual problem about Burma,” he says. “You have to have journalists in there who speak the language and who are actually on the spot. So I would say: take everything with a grain of salt. I don’t consider one side angels and the other side devils. Both sides lie.”

The May 30 incident isn’t the only disagreement between Michael and Maureen Aung Thwin. Though they shared a common childhood in Burma and were both educated in the United States, their views on Burma are as distant from one another as the cities where they now live. That includes their opinions about Burma’s most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

“She represents a potentially free Burma,” says Maureen. For Maureen, Aung San Suu Kyi is the face of democracy in Burma. Her party’s victory in the 1990 elections, which were invalidated by the military government, and her commitment to non-violent opposition have gained international support for her drive to end military rule. And her lengthy periods of house arrest have set an example for Burmese citizens.

But Michael, who travels to Burma regularly to do academic field work, says that Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity is based largely on support outside the country. He questions how much she represents the aspirations of Burmese citizens when she criticizes the tyrannical rule of the military junta. More often than not, he says her popularity in the West makes her appear to be a tool for efforts to apply American-style democracy on a society struggling to maintain order.

“In Burma, they are far more afraid of anarchy than they are of tyranny,” says Michael. “So when we come from this perspective that tyranny is the issue, we are not on the same wavelength with Burmese values at all. So it seems to the Burmese that all we are doing is imposing our values on them and then they ask the question: why? I think it’s a mistake for us to think that quantification of votes is the answer -- that that’s the ultimate yardstick for measuring what people feel.”

Maureen, who is prohibited from traveling to Burma by the military government, counters with a moral argument. “The majority of Burmese people know right from wrong, and vast numbers of the military voted for the NLD in 1990,” says Maureen. “So when people come around and say the country is not ready for democracy, remember in 1990, the elections were held after decades of military rule, and then somehow the people knew. They voted their conscience, including the military.”

Because she thinks the Burmese people are ready for democracy, Maureen believes U.S. sanctions on Burmese imports could hasten the transition by weakening the military’s grip on the economy. “In Burma, that is the strongest, very potent leverage that we have,” she says. “We in the United States being the biggest consumer country, I think when you do have sanctions on imports, it really does affect those companies and factories run by the military and their cronies. In the long run, you have got to use these very strong measures to guarantee a permanent change.”

But Michael says American sanctions, without the support of Burma’s neighbors, won’t be effective and could hurt the cause of democracy. “Our idea is to speak loudly and carry a big stick,” he says. “That just will have the opposite reaction in Burma. They will just dig their heels in even deeper. So I don’t think it’s going to do any good."

"Burma is getting what it needs from China and Singapore and Malaysia," he says. "It becomes more of a symbol of being bullied by the superpower. The more we bash the government, the more it resents it, and it doesn’t want to give in to whatever the NLD is doing, because it will seem as if they are giving up to U.S. pressure, and they don’t want to show that. So if we stayed out of it, I think things might be even better.”

Michael and Maureen have their particular views of a promising future for their native land. In Michael’s vision, Burma will develop like the “Asian tigers” of South Korea and Taiwan, which delayed political liberalization while they developed their economies. He believes an improving economy will erode the power of the military junta and become the engine for democracy.

But for Maureen, the government’s May 30 debacle was a watershed. Burma’s main trading partners in ASEAN are for the first time voicing their displeasure with the regime and demanding that Aung San Suu Kyi be freed. “I believe there has been a shift,” she says. “More people around the world, more countries who were apologists for Burma and for the military there or who feel we can’t criticize internal affairs -- I think they are also getting fed up.”

With Aung San Suu Kyi still in government custody, the United States is intent on rallying world opinion to pressure the military junta. How the junta responds is an open question. One thing is for sure: Michael and Maureen Aung Thwin will be watching closely and voicing their different opinions on the latest developments in their home country.