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Opinion: Earnest appeal to President Obama on behalf of Burma

The military junta's sham election laws and increasingly consolidated power leave only one option — and that’s you, Mr. President.

Members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) shout slogans to free Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at the NLD party headquarters in Yangon March 29, 2010. Myanmar's biggest opposition party said on Monday it would not register for this year's election, meaning the party of Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed any role in the military-led political process. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Twenty years on, my escape from Burma is still vivid in my mind.

In June 1988, six military intelligence agents knocked on my door in Rangoon in the middle of the night. They had come to arrest me for speaking out against the regime during the student uprising that came to be known as the “8888 Uprising.”

With my father’s help, I managed to evade arrest that night. A determined monk hid me among the novices at a nearby Buddhist temple. In the morning, I fled to a small remote town in Upper Burma.

I was one of the lucky few. Up to 6,000 innocent protesters were gunned down, and many more were imprisoned or mysteriously disappeared in the night. I lost many colleagues and close friends.

It is for them and for those who continue to suffer that I appeal to you, President Barack Obama, to pay more than lip service to a new, more proactive policy toward Burma (Myanmar*). The Obama administration must take serious steps now to pressure the military regime if we are to have any hope of ending its murderous reign before elections later this year prolong it even further.

Burma was a harsh environment for nearly everyone back in the 1980s. Most of my neighbors in Rangoon spent from dusk until dawn trying to piece together odd jobs in order to make just a dollar a day, if that. To speak about fundamental human rights was taboo — a crime punishable by torture, imprisonment and sometimes even death.

The country was plummeting below even third-world standards due to the military regime’s economic mismanagement, corruption, general carelessness and greed as it plundered natural resources. Eventually, Burma was reduced to “Least Developed Country” status by the United Nations in 1987. Today, it is considered one of the most corrupt governments in the world by Transparency International.

The 8888 Uprising was initiated and led by university students like myself, who took to the streets to demand basic rights and the regime’s accountability for the murder of a student by security forces. I remember standing on top of the concrete gates out front of the lecture halls and speaking to thousands of students, encouraging them to band together in protest.

Within months, we had gained substantial public support. What began as a cause for student rights quickly turned into a nationwide anti-government, pro-democracy movement — until it was brutally suppressed by the state. It’s a story you heard again in 2007 with the monk-led protests.

But while the Burmese junta was brutally storming the homes of student leaders and peaceful protesters in 1988, the country still had semi-functioning schools and hospitals despite the low GDP figures and bleak economy.

Today, the situation is worse. General Than Shwe's junta spends about 2 percent of GDP on combined education and healthcare. Yet military spending is more than 40 percent of GDP and the rest is safely deposited into the junta’s lavish retirement accounts abroad, especially in Singapore.