Two worldviews taunt me these days. As a writer covering Aung San Suu Kyi's campaign for democracy in Burma/Myanmar, I'm mesmerized by the election in which people voted out generals who oppressed them for 50 years and are moving toward reconciliation. As grandparent of a Hunger Games fan, I'm intrigued by response to Mockingjay Part II--the finale in which Katniss Everdeen and other rebels free Panem from "The Capitol."
I can't help noting how much better things are working out in Burma, where the weapon was non-violent resistance, than in Panem, where weapons included bows, rockets, firebombs, hovercraft and more--anything designed to deceive, kill, maim, and destroy.
The comparison is irreverent, to be sure. Burma is real, the events there happening to living persons whose pain over decades has been profound, whereas Panem is imaginary, a conjured post-apocalyptic America where citizens have been numbed into submission so profound that they view children killing one another entertainment. But the essential dilemma is the same: how does a population long oppressed by force take back its rights.
In neither is the answer easy. In Burma, there is euphoria these days as people celebrate the triumph of a 27-year campaign against a cruel, heavily armed military junta. More than 80 percent of eligible voters, even those numbed into hopelessness, flocked to the polls, inspired by a vision of a future free of oppression and free of revenge. When the results were in, the pro-democracy party had taken an unheard of 80 percent of the seats in Parliament--well beyond what anyone dreamed possible.
That is not to say the victory was easy. The entrenched generals had done what people in power do when facing the prospect of losing hold--restricted access to the things that gave their subjugates education, hope, resources, and connections with one another. They had closed universities, suppressed the press, corrupted the courts, forced citizens into unpaid labor, and imprisoned anyone who stood up to them. Thousands had died. Education floundered, health care went underfunded, social services grew nil, and the only route to business was through cronyism.
For reasons both pragmatic and philosophical, the opposition chose non-violence. From a practical standpoint, the armed forces were so large, so heavily armed, and so indoctrinated to kill that citizens had no chance in armed conflict. But more significantly, the citizens eschewed violence because they considered it an inferior way to live. When asked if she ever felt fully disempowered by the generals, Aung San Suu Kyi said, "No, and I think this is because I have never learned to hate them. If I had, I would have really been at their mercy."
Instead, a strategic long view became their prime weapon. Daw Suu Kyi and others imprisoned, as well as those in the diaspora, made friends with foreign leaders who would impose sanctions, as well as journalists, scholars, celebrities, aid agencies, and international opinion leaders, who would keep their story alive. They endured.
Over the years I have interviewed dozens of Burmese activists. Because I was not able to be in Burma these days, some wrote to describe the scene on election night and thereafter. The streets are "electric," they reported, people ecstatic at what they had accomplished. Photos they attached showed people with fists raised in celebratory pumps, not anger--powerful testimony to a long, complicated, persistent revolution by people who, in spite of the grave harm done them, expressed little or no venom.
"A lot of people who have suffered tremendously are only interested in building up a better future," Daw Suu Kyi told a disbelieving Washington Post editor.
The victory is as sweet as any I know. Burma is poor, but because those seeking freedom resisted preaching hatred, the survivors seem free of the bitterness that has led other newly freed people into a tunnel of destructive recrimination. If the post-election transition continues as the victors are describing, tangible improvements in education, social services and business environment will evolve quickly.
In Panem, by contrast, even after the revolution has been "won," the future is grim. The "Hunger Games" are no more, the monsters who created and ran them have been overthrown, and the rebel leader-about-to-turn-despot has been dispatched. But Panem is a graveyard: millions are dead, the infrastructure lies in ruins, and the "warriors" are scarred--inside and out.
Katniss herself, having been "victor" in two terrorizing Hunger Games and performed heroically in the rebellion, feels little pride in what she has accomplished, much less optimism. "It feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I'm afraid it can be taken away," she says in the book's epilogue, while a fellow rebel who is engaged in the recovery is dour. "Now we're in a sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But we're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction."
Burma, too, is fragile, of course. The choice of non-violence in the face of violence and forgiveness in the face of harm is one that must be made again and again. There will surely be provocative callousness among those currently in power and reluctant to let go, and among the harmed populace there will surely be outliers who will crave revenge. But my guess, based on current evidence, is that non-violence will carry the day. At the end of Mockingjay, to keep nightmares at bay, Katniss plays a game, "I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I've seen someone do." It sounds like something Aung San Suu Kyi would say.
The series author, Suzanne Collins, says she was inspired by her father to teach young people about war and peace. Surely we should consider news from Burma a more exemplary source.
Susanne Dumbleton is Professor Emeritus and Former Dean of DePaul University School for New Learning. She is writing a book about Aung San Suu Kyi and two other women fighting for human rights.