Sort of Free At Last in Myanmar/Burma

The police known as the Special Branch in Myanmar/Burma detained a couple of dozen student activists around the country on July 6th. Many of them were former prisoners of conscience. The mass detainment was a pre-emptive move to keep them from holding rallies on July 7th, 2012. The rallies were to commemorate the brutal and bloody destruction of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABSFU) Building at Rangoon University that happened decades ago.

Until very, very recently, it was illegal for students to organize and promote civic education and talk about politics. Also very recently, it was illegal to show the picture of Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Less than a year ago many students were even afraid to say her name in public and they would sometimes whisper it in conversations out of fear of being exposed as being “against the government.” But, with the recent pre-emptive detainments, I believe progress towards real Democracy has finally nudged its way forward to Myanmar/Burma.

In recent months, students across Myanmar have enjoyed more freedom amidst the economic and political reforms that have made Myanmar/Burma a more free and open society in major population centers. Many students organized into distinct groups and while they all share the same goals of seeding Democratic reforms, they sometimes have competitive spirits that make them want to be leaders, not followers. This is a truly healthy development in Myanmar/Burma. More student groups wish to join a new All Burma Federation of Student Unions.

But what happened over the past weekend should not be analyzed in a way that puts the Special Branch and the Myanmar/Burma government in a negative light. A statement released by the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) during a fact-finding visit said the pre-emptive detainment of protesters was “Unacceptable”.

AIPMC went on to say that:

If they [Myanmar/Burma government] want to impress upon the international community that they are no longer a repressive country, then they have to act differently. If they are going to arrest people before any crime has taken place, this shows that they continue to use fear and intimidation to repress. This act of oppression has given us the impression that the old ways of practice are still in effect despite all of the positive change that we are hearing.

In Myanmar/Burma, where brutal oppression has been the norm for decades, where thousands upon thousands of people have been imprisoned because of their quest of freedom, without fear, while trying to bring democratic change to Myanmar/Burma have suffered unimaginable neglect and demise, much indeed has changed. The recently pre-emptively detained students all have been released without charges.

When I heard the news of the pre-emptive detainments it made me sad and I must admit, a little worried. However, I reasoned that the Myanmar/Burma police were simply following the examples of other democratic societies. That indeed, Myanmar/Burma has absolutely achieved true Democracy if one compares the recent pre-emptive detention with those in other highly principled and democratic places such as the United States of America.

Compare the recent Myanmar/Burma governments pre-emptive detainment action with the one as described and published in Workers World by Laura Flanders on 29 September 2010, in response to similar pre-emptive detainment practices by the FBI (one of America’s Special Branches) that occurred in the United States recently:

Anti-war, anti-racist and left political activists in the United States have responded with unprecedented energy and outrage against nationally coordinated FBI raids on the homes of well-respected political organizers. Within 72 hours of the Sept. 24 raids, protest demonstrations were held or scheduled in 32 cities across the country.

Activists have established a Committee to Stop FBI Repression to coordinate the opposition to the FBI attacks. Dozens of organizations, local, regional and national, have condemned the FBI raids, including the San Francisco Labor Council.

This latest instance of state repression began early Sept. 24 as FBI agents armed with grand jury subpoenas raided the homes of several anti-war and social justice activists in Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois.

Organizers believe the Oct. 5, 7, 12 and 19 grand jury subpoena dates will become dates to mobilize the entire progressive political movement. They expect the demand to stop the subpoenas and “No to the grand jury investigation” to become slogans of a national movement that can stop this dangerous precedent.

That same day FBI agents “visited” activists’ homes in California, Milwaukee, Michigan and North Carolina demanding immediate cooperation. When activists refused to speak with them, the FBI threatened to talk to employers and landlords, and also subpoena the activists.

The targets of this “raid against terrorism” included leaders of the Minneapolis Antiwar Committee, whose office was raided; the Palestine Solidarity Group; the Colombia Action Network; the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera (a Colombian political prisoner held in the U.S.); Students for a Democratic Society; and the Freedom Road Socialist Organization.

It seems to me that in order for Myanmar/Burma to have true Democracy it must follow the leading practices and principles under the rule-of-law in leading democratic societies around the world, which is exactly what Myanmar/Burma has done.

It’s extremely comforting to know that the people of Myanmar/Burma are sort of free to pursue their causes, to promote the rule-of-law and to teach citizenship and civil society, to protest racism and oppression, just as people are sort of free to do so in the United States. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, the Myanmar/Burma people might say: Sort of free at last, sort of free at last, thank God almighty, we’re sort of free at last.

Ko Tha Dja is an educator and writer who lived in Burma for five years. His collection of stories about his time in Burma is forthcoming. Now residing in Vientiane, Lao PDR, he can be reached via his personal blog at Read other articles by Ko Tha Dja.