Burma or Myanmar: Is This a de Klerk Moment?

The civilian/military government of Myanmar now is making moves that may be similar to de Klerk, the Prime Minister of the last apartheid government in South Africa.
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We human rights people have insisted that Myanmar is not the name of Burma. We see the name of Myanmar as a military name, not one chosen by its people. So, in symbolic protest of Myanmar's history as a military dictatorship which has long raped, tortured and abused its people, we simply call it Burma. Once the rice bowl of Asia, now a sad and down trodden nation, the civilian/military government of Myanmar now is making moves that may be similar to de Klerk, the Prime Minister of the last apartheid government in South Africa who started and hung in with the deal that freed Mandela and led to the ANC's easy election to the presidency. Now in Burma, the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has decided to run in this years' election.

A high wire act is being played out in Burma. The civilian/military government has freed Aung San Suu Kyi to be with her people in and around Rangoon. The government has begun discussions with the fighting forces in and around the borders of China and Thailand. Some political prisoners have been freed. This is not a light at the end of the tunnel. It is the light near the front of the tunnel.

The president, Thein Sein, wants Burma to be the chair of the ASEAN meeting in 2012. Some of these steps are the road to that successful journey. Recently, Aug San Suu Kyi met with Chinese delegates as well as the American Secretary of State. Both moves are to be cheered. Those of us who struggled for years to get the world to know the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as pronounce it as Jim Carrey did in this video, are shocked into silence.

Does Thein Sein know what the rest of the world knows, namely, that Burma could easily be a giant in the world instead of a pygmy?

Even if there are the NLD members in parliament, this is not enough. There is still much more work to be done. Even if the election goes smoothly, the release of all political prisoners is not just a good act but a necessary one. The regime must also end its fighting against ethnic people on the borders and ensure that Burma's soldiers cease raping ethnic women. The new Constitution must be rewritten to lessen the power of the military over civilian life.

In some senses the NLD is being tested at this point too. To keep the support of the world the NLD must continue its fight against human rights abuses in the country. If it does not, the holy shroud comes off the shoulders of Aung San Suu Kyi and she becomes just another politician.

The military knows that if an election were held with the proper safe guards, the NLD with Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader would sweep away the opposition with ease. But if in the meanwhile, Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi are dealing with each other daily and finding solutions to the savagery as well as the economic situation, then we got a good game going. The future of Burma with its massive resources, its great coastal water ways, and their islands is surely becoming the object of desire by the hotel chains and industrial giants of east and west.

Another important question is, can we activists around the world move from a sad story to a happy one? If Aung San Suu Kyi sees a real path to a real and fair election in her life time, I would take the deal. She must call for the releasing of prisoners; stopping the raping of women; no more torture in the prisons, no more disappearances, no more child soldiers and safety for all returning refugees. These demands must be met by the sitting military/civilian government.

This is an interesting moment for Burma watchers around the world. For me, I began this activism in 1990 when I met Michael Aris, Aung San Suu Kyi's husband, in Boston and I promised him my help. After that I tried to make Burma a priority at Amnesty U.S.A. and aided the Free Burma Coalition and its successor organization. In the next 20 years, Human Rights Action Center and its volunteers produced a musical album, a movie of her political and musical supporters, 30 small movies called "Burma it Cant Wait' and discussed with Shep Fairey the possibility of him creating an iconic figure of her with a poster which he created so beautifully. A highlight of my work came when I met Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon in Feb 1999 when she was handing our rice to her people at the headquarters of the NLD. The changes in Burma will also mean that I have to change the ways in which I work in solidarity.

If this is indeed the transition that the NLD has been waiting for then shine up the Nobel for Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, her second. Shine it up for all the refugees that can go home in safety. Shine it up for the long suffering people of Burma. Open the schools and universities. Bring home the children from the army. And call this nation any name its people want.

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