Monday, September 24, 2007

The stirrings of a democracy

President Bush has promoted his “Democracy Agenda” as a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Inevitably, Iraq has taken center-stage on that in the past several years. As Saturday’s Washington Post points out, there is an opportunity for the U.S. to bring greater attention to a movement that is actively pursuing real democratic reform in a country that is long overdue for it: Myanmar.

Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar is a country that has had a military junta for the past 19 years. It came to power by crushing a democratic movement spurred on by students and Buddhist monks and nuns. Most people in my generation know of Myanmar only through the movie “Beyond Rangoon”.

Myanmar has certainly moved beyond Rangoon. Since taking power, the junta has kept dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi detained under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. More than that, though, their fear of the United States has caused the junta to build a new capital in the jungle about 200 miles north of Rangoon.

Myanmar allows limited interaction with other countries, and has an ongoing row with Thailand over the number of ‘displaced people’ who keep exiting Myanmar for Thailand. This limited interaction has changed to moderate attention in the past month.

On August 19, the junta raised the price of energy—for some forms, up to 500%--overnight. For comparison, if gasoline prices in the U.S. increased 500% overnight, we’d be paying $13.35 for a gallon of gas tomorrow. In a country where the average income is $1,800 per year and 70% of the people are farmers, that is nothing to sneeze at.

Following this price increase, people throughout Myanmar took to the streets to demand change. At first the protests were a relatively small affair. But they have grown steadily in the intervening month. Yesterday nearly 20,000 monks, nuns, and average citizens were reported to have marched through the streets. Some of the onlookers even shouting support for Suu Kyi.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made a statement supportive of the Burmese people over the weekend, and said Bush was likely to say something soon. Attention for the most recent stirrings of democracy in Burma would be welcome, but action even more so.

No comments: