For nearly a decade, pro-democracy dissidents vying to topple the military regime in Burma have urged a nonviolent strategy. Now, frustrated by the lack of progress, some in the movement appear to be changing their tactics.
Activists speculate that the first armed resistance outside Burma - last weekend's hostage drama at the country's Bangkok embassy - will not be the last.
On Saturday, after 25 tense hours at the embassy, the renegade exiles exchanged the 38 unharmed hostages, including one American, for safe passage in helicopters to the Thai-Burmese jungle border.
They say their action was designed to transform international sympathy for the pro-democracy cause into international pressure on Burma, which is called Myanmar by the current government.
Since nullifying a democratic election in 1990, the Army-run State Peace and Development Council has ruled the pariah nation amid charges of gross human rights abuse. While some dissidents have previously taken up arms in the eastern reaches of the Southeast Asian nation, across the border in Thailand pro-democracy exiles languish in refugee camps. Those who did not flee following the military's consolidation of power in 1988, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, report suffering harassment and arrest.
In the wake of the embassy incident, Burmese dissidents are grappling with just what the raid by the heretofore-obscure Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors means for their movement.
"I cannot support this action, but I can understand and sympathize with their feeling," says Sai Win Pay at a conference attended in Bangkok this week by several dissident groups. A member of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party (NLD), Sai Win Pay is one of the representatives elected in 1990. His opinion echoed an official NLD condemnation of the raid.
Despite the denunciation by the respected NLD, more than half of the dissidents interviewed at the human rights training program - which ironically convened just before the raid - say armed struggle must be a complement to civil disobedience.
"San Suu Kyi asked every democratic fighter to make decisions on their own experiences and perceptions," says Khaing Kaung San, a representative of Burmese students from the Arakan ethnic minority. In his mind, that is an implicit endorsement of armed struggle.
The embassy raid came a few weeks after Burmese exile groups urged their compatriots to launch "a wave of force that would topple the regime," beginning on the numerically auspicious date of Sept. 9, 1999. On Aug. 8, 1988, millions of Burmese took to the streets and demanded an end to repressive military rule.
Though the dissidents differ on tactics, each predicts the embassy raid is not likely to be a one-act wonder. Indeed, the Vigorous Warriors themselves promised, "We will continue to fight until we get democracy," in an Aug. 29 statement announcing the group's founding, Thai press reported.
Burma watchers suspect that is not just bluster. Somchai Homlaor, who helped negotiate the hostages' release, thinks that some splinter group - be it the Vigorous Warriors or another upstart faction - will act again.
"My assumption is, so far as we cannot solve the problem in Burma, this will happen again," he says.
Mr. Somchai, secretary- general of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, noted that students have demonstrated regularly outside Myanmar's walled embassy in Bangkok "but it didn't become big news." And news, he surmised, was the ultimate goal of the exercise.
"The event has both positive and negative impacts," according to Somchai.
"The negative impact is that the Thai authorities may deploy more strict measures to prevent the movement of Burmese students in Thailand. The positive impact is that the Thai people [now] understand that whenever Burma has a problem, Thailand cannot avoid the effect."
If the hostage-takers were looking for international sympathy, there is ready evidence that they succeeded. In comments that vexed Burma's military leaders, the Thai interior minister called the five gunmen "student activists struggling for democracy."
And in a bizarre twist at the end of the drama, a half- dozen of the Western hostages tearfully bid their captors goodbye, shouting "Free Burma" as the helicopters whisked the five men away.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society