In A Grain of Sand – Democracy is the Color Red

Dahlia Rizk

All I could see was the red. The vibrant color of the Buddhist monks’ robes against the dreary somber streets of Rangoon. All I could hear was the clapping. The clapping of the people as they walked along with them and joined in. The clapping that was louder than the bullets and machine guns of the junta militia not too far in the distance. And the robes kept flowing, and the monks kept walking. And the people kept clapping.

On September 18, the Buddhist monks in Burma lead the first of many mass demonstrations in the city of Sittwe, peacefully protesting against an unexplained hike in fuel prices that then inflated the costs of most staple foods in an economy already rampant with poverty. And even with the threat of violence and torture by the state militia, the demonstrations grew in number and size over the next few days.

The media and the telecommunications of the age became one of the biggest assets of the activists. Everything from blogs to the video I was watching on YouTube taken by a firsthand witness helped to get the word out against a regime so suppressive that it cut off the internet on Friday. A regime that, ever since seizing power in 1962, has rooted out any opposition — systematically and brutally.

A little history on violence in Burma is necessary to put all of this in context. There were the demonstrations at the 1974 state funeral of U Thant, the third Secretary-General of the United Nations, who was himself from Burma, and who had often challenged the Burmese dictatorship while in office. Then, in 1988 and 1989 hundreds of activists were massacred by the state police during more protests against the harsh economic conditions and political oppression. From then on, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) staged a coup and declared martial law. Ironically, free democratic elections were held there a year later with democracy activist (and, in 1991, Nobel Laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi elected as Prime Minister. However, she continues to live under house arrest after the regime ruled the elections results null and void.

So how can the people of Burma get it right this time? Hopefully with the help of other nations who are watching in horror. The UN has already sent an envoy to the country to try to talk peace. But this measure alone is not enough. There needs to be repudiation from the United Nations, from ASEAN, from WTO, and especially from the countries that border Burma. After all, here is a regime that is just as inhumane as that of Iran, or North Korea, or of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Just because it is not building nuclear weapons or threatening the destruction of Israel does not mean it is not a threat to world stability. The need for democracy building extends beyond the sphere of the Middle East.

But I thought I’d end with some good news. Despite the stagnant opposition it faces, the democratic movement in Burma is burgeoning. Since Burma is a largely Buddhist country, the Buddhist monks are a leadership of the people and its desires. They are the very incarnation of peace and human dignity that I believe can be much stronger than the bullets they face. All the mechanisms for a home-grown, sustainable democracy in Burma are taking root, and we are there to witness this process. Just look on YouTube.