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The unquenchable fire in Burmese hearts

I've seen tremendous courage in the face of a freedom-hating regime.

By Karen Zusman / December 1, 2008

New York

Eleven hundred years and counting. That's the cumulative time in prison sentences given last month to a handful of people expressing political dissent in Burma(Myanmar).

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The news gives me particular pain.

In August 2007, the Burmese regime eliminated fuel subsidies, causing the price to rise by 500 percent. Food costs spiked enormously overnight. A few weeks later, Buddhist monks took to the streets in nonviolent protest and many of them were shot or beaten by the junta. Understanding the significance of these events, I felt compelled to visit so I could bear witness.

What struck me as much as the horror of their stories was the fact that the Burmese people were willing to tell them. This was in stark contrast to my previous trip in 2004, when no one dared to speak about anything remotely political. Now, emboldened by the world's gaze, there was the hope that by sharing their stories they might keep that window of attention cracked open a little longer.

Much of what I learned, I heard from taxi drivers, flower vendors, waiters, students, housekeepers. Our conversations posed a difficult riddle: Each time I let anyone confide in me, I potentially endangered them. As one of the few white faces to arrive in Rangoon, just postprotests, there was strong reason to believe I was being watched.

Yet despite my caution, it seems I was sought out everywhere I went – people felt the need to express themselves at last. Behind closed doors with the shades pulled down and the music turned up, I sat with a group of students cross-legged on the floor. I pressed them before we began, "Are you sure you want to speak?"

Aung Soe (not his real name), a slender man in his mid-20s, jumped at the question. He shook his fist in the air.

"If we don't talk to you maybe we are cowards. I was downtown where the monks were shot just outside our Sule Pagoda. I was marching, too. In some ways it was the best day of my life. They can't take that away from me. From now on I speak the fire in my heart!"

By the time I returned home in November 2007, Burma had faded fast from the news.

Then, tragically, cyclone Nargis hit this past May and again the troubled nation held the world's attention. Yet despite repeat visits by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambiri, negotiations with the junta's generals have been a dismal failure.

Today, the sentencing in Burma reads like ticker tape: 65 years, 45 years, 20 years, 2.5 years, 12 years, 14 years, extending its reach beyond the "Generation 88" student activists (leaders of the 1988 protests against the junta that resulted in thousands of deaths) to include comedians, poets, bloggers, even a rap star.