With release of Burmese dissident, a little hope

MUMBAI, India — I moved to Burma to work at the Myanmar Times newspaper for a year in 2003. I was 22 and new to Asia, let alone a military dictatorship. At that time, Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest, and I quickly learned to not mention her name in public. She was simply, “The Lady.”

I worked at a major newspaper in Burma, and yet we had to act like The Lady did not exist. (A friend still working there says the Myanmar Times covered Suu Kyi’s recent release, a major feat. Though it ran on page three.)

We sent every story we wrote to the military junta’s censors to be approved. The censors did not just block stories on the detained democracy leader — a subject they deemed too “sensitive.” They rejected anything that might make Burma look bad. They cut out the word “dirt” before “dirt road,” lest we imply that the nation was too poor to have paved roads.

I remember being furious with the censors after they rejected another one of my columns. I stormed into the office bathroom in rage. As I stood in front of the sink, cursing the regime and vowing to never write for the paper again, a young Burmese reporter wearing a graceful longyi and the traditional thanaka painted on her cheeks walked in.

The reporter, Wai Phyo Myint, told me the censors reject one story of hers a week. And yet, she keeps writing them.

“I don’t choose stories by what is ‘sensitive’ and what is not,” Wai Phyo said. “I write what I think is the story.”

Wai Phyo, now studying abroad, is one person who has worked tirelessly to make her country better despite set back after set back. There are thousands more like her.

Now, after years of struggle and hard work, Wai Phyo and the Burmese like her have a reason to celebrate.

After Suu Kyi’s release on Saturday, Wai Phyo changed her Facebook status to: “Finally free!!! :)” Her profile image is now a photograph of the democracy leader as she stands at her home’s gate.

There are many who look at the release of the Nobel laureate with a dose of healthy skepticism. Human Rights Watch promptly published a statement welcoming her release but saying it is a ploy by the junta to distract the international community from the election fraud. Others remind us to not forget the 2,000 other Burmese political prisoners who still languish behind bars.

They are right, of course. A friend of mine is one of those political prisoners, and Suu Kyi’s release probably brings him no closer to freedom.

There is a long way to go before Burma achieves the kind of political reform it so desperately needs. Will Suu Kyi be able to accomplish much? Will she be allowed to hold more speeches? Will she travel the country once again, drawing thousands and thousands to the streets? Will the junta find the simplest excuse to lock her up once more? How long will this most recent stint of so-called freedom last?

These questions swirl around in the back of her supporters’ minds. The Burmese people are not naive.

And yet, none of that takes away from the meaning of Suu Kyi’s release. In a word, it means hope.

It’s hope for a people who have taken decades of abuse. A military junta has ruled Burma since 1962. For almost 50 years, the country has been under the thumb of leaders who govern by self-interest. The junta has no qualms burning down villages, raping its women, attacking monks and forcing children to dig ditches and carry guns.

And yet, despite the length of the country’s imprisonment, the people keep fighting.

They marched with students across the country in 1988, demanding reform, only to be gunned down.

In 2007, they took to the streets again — this time, following the monks. The government claims to be Buddhist, we said at the time, maybe they will let the country’s spiritual leaders protest peacefully. Nope. Days later, the junta brought out the batons and guns again. Photographs and videos of soldiers storming monasteries and beating up young monks in their saffron robes flew around the web.

In 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit, killing about 140,000 people. Initially, the junta prioritized its paranoia and fear of foreigners over helping its own people and blocked foreign ships from delivering aid. The Burmese people took up the mantle and — secretly and at great risk — helped the survivors. Many who got caught now languish in prison. After well-known comedian and activist Zarganar tried to help the millions left homeless after the cyclone, the junta sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

We don’t know what Suu Kyi’s release will do for Burma. But we do know one thing — the Burmese people like Wai Phyo have suffered for so long, they deserve this glimmer of hope.

And, most importantly, they need it. The battle ahead will be long.