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Is Burma Ready for Change?

November 6, 2008

From The Irrawaddy

Thanks to Barack Obama’s sweeping electoral victory on Tuesday, “change” has suddenly become a word that forcefully evokes the hopes of people around the world. President-elect Obama ran on a platform of change, and as the first African-American to win the US presidency, he embodies it like no other American leader before him.

Of course, change is not always seen as a positive thing. At a time when the world is already undergoing many dramatic upheavals—from seismic shifts in the global financial system to a rapidly warming planet—Obama’s message of change brings not only hope, but also a degree of concern about the uncertainties of the future.

But for the people of Burma, the need for change is something they can readily understand. Twenty years ago, they took to the streets to demand an end to decades of military misrule, and were willing to face a life-and-death confrontation with a ruthless, reactionary regime to fulfill their desire for a break with the past.

The years before the 1988 uprising had delivered only stagnation and steady decline, culminating in the almost total collapse of Burmese society. Change—which was initially thrust upon the Burmese people by circumstances beyond their control—soon became the choice of the overwhelming majority.

But in the end, change did not come to Burma in 1988, in part because in the early days of the mass movement, it was not immediately clear to the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered in cities around the country what direction change should take.

Then Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a spokesperson for the aspirations of ordinary people, and the way forward became more apparent. Even the regime—after first retaking control of the streets—conceded the need for elections. It was only when they lost by a landslide to Suu Kyi’s party in 1990 that they chose to defer Burma’s democratic destiny indefinitely.

Last year, after the people of Burma again fell victim to arbitrary policies that deepened their economic hardships, Buddhist monks and their supporters revived the dream of change with massive marches in Rangoon and other parts of the country.

Obama was among those who watched as these events unfolded. In a statement released on September 26, 2007, he paid tribute to the protesters, who he said demonstrated “the power of the human spirit—and the power of non-violent protest consistent with Buddhist tradition.”

A week later—as the junta continued its crackdown on the unarmed monks against the protests of the international community—Obama offered these words:

“It is easy in this age to be cynical about the power of people to bring about change. But ordinary people armed with courage and hope are not powerless; they are history’s mightiest force, even before the guns of a brutal regime. We must remain true to their cause and honor their bravery.”

These are inspiring words, and with Obama’s success in bringing change to his own country, they probably resonate more now than they did a year ago. But while the new president’s election is regarded by many as a promise of a brave new world, most Burmese will now be watching carefully to see if it will mean anything at all in their own country, where change is as elusive now as it was two decades ago.

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