Can the rebels of Rangoon take power in Burma?

Democratic aspirations in Burma are mostly seen in the West through Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate. But Burma's opposition includes hundreds of leaders and thousands of democracy foot soldiers. A Q & A with author Delphine Schrank. 

Hkun Lat/AP
A member of Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party waves a party flag during an election campaign in Mandalay, the second largest city in Burma, Tuesday. With the military still firmly in control of the process, there is widespread speculation as to whether the election will be free and fair.

In the “The Rebel of Rangoon,” Delphine Schrank seeks to broaden awareness of the burgeoning civil society forces in Myanmar (Burma) by painting a vivid picture of the life and aspirations of the foot soldiers of the country's democratic opposition.

Her book comes out as Myanmar prepares for its first elections in a quarter century, to take place Nov. 8. This week the country’s most famous democrat, Aung San Suu Kyi, confirmed that her party will participate. “The lady” herself is blocked from holding the nation’s top job by the terms of the military junta's constitution. 

While billed as a “free and fair” election, 25 percent of the seats in parliament are reserved for the military, whose generals until recently ran the country as a closed state. Whether the democrats can carve out more space in authoritarian Myanmar is a question that resonates in the country and is closely watched abroad.

In August, in a new twist, Suu Kyi created an alliance with the forces of former military junta leader Thura Shwe Mann. He recently was ousted from high office for alleged sympathies to Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.

This week the Monitor caught up with Ms. Schrank, a former Washington Post correspondent:

QUESTION: Many are calling the Nov. 8 elections in Burma a crossroads. Do you agree?  

ANSWER: Yes it is the first time the National League of Democracy and the vast pro-democracy opposition and parties are really able to participate. The NLD boycotted the 2010 elections, and this election is the first one to open up a possible 75 percent of seats for them in the parliament. I’m looking to see if the elections will be free and fair. If the NLD wins the majority, will they be allowed to take their place? In 1990 they won in a landslide but then not allowed in. The military junta stayed in power, the key democratic leaders were thrown in jail, and 20 years passed.

Q: Do Burma’s generals seem less or more powerful today moving into elections? 

A: That’s the 64 million dollar question. The military can surely make provocative gestures and dominate the political scene and that’s a scary prospect.  The constitution is trip-wired to allow them to stay dominant. There is a sense of some backtracking away from the euphoria of reforms since 2011.

But with the recent opening to global scrutiny, foreign companies and aid coming in, I’d like to think the basic trajectory of change in Burma is irreversible. Connections are being built that couldn’t be built before and people are talking in new ways. The military regime planned for some limited change, for some political and economic concessions to pull the country out of poverty. But it didn't count on so many actors, the NLD, the new generations, civil society, stepping in to participate. That is why these elections are significant. If they are free and fair and at least somewhat credible, it could lead to more change.

Q: You found an unusual or special “rebellious spirit” in the Burmese civil society or freedom movement.

A: I had been told that Burma is a Buddhist society, very passive … they just believe in karma. There is an element of that, but I saw another side. In Buddhism there is also a belief in personal agency. You don’t just follow doctrinaire approaches but find your own way. I early felt something different, especially in Rangoon, a spirit of defiance and an ability to work around or resist the system. Not everyone. But I saw it among a lot of ordinary citizens. People were trying to struggle against the regime, through avenues such as social work, providing free funerals or health care, or schooling, and treading a fine line in a country with no basic rights, where freedom of assembly was not allowed, where speech was curtailed.

Q: Your book follows two young men who outwit the “Dogs,” the state security trying to arrest them. Yet we find these are not free- floating dissidents doing just what they want but are aware of their role in a larger struggle.

 A: These young men know they come at the tail end of a long struggle, that begins in the effort to throw off colonial rule. They are part of a sporadic but connected effort by students and others over time to throw off the one-party socialist rule of Gen. Ne Win. They are conscious of their roots in 1988 and the birth of the National League of Democracy and of politicians, now elders of their movement, who stepped to the forefront of society. Their “rebellious politics” comes from an awareness of a very deep movement and lessons drawn from the past as their tactics have evolved, and also they have been thinking about how they relate to struggles in places like South Africa and East Europe. They've wanted to achieve greater freedom. To them, that isn’t an abstraction or something academic. They are thinking in concrete terms, of the right to carry a USB drive and not be thrown in jail, the right to put up a poster on the wall, the right to have your land not be taken away or requisitioned by the military.

Q: In Burma a strong Buddhist nationalist movement is now being felt through the figure of a hard-line monk named Wirathu. 

A: Yes the dangers is that this ultra-nationalist undercurrent has made a transition into a real political manifestation. They have successively passed laws through parliament restricting marriage and religious freedoms, and that are discriminatory against Muslims. They hadn’t coalesced before, as an organized political entity, because there was no political space. They draw from longstanding racism against Muslims. They are becoming significant as a political movement, likely with patronage from elements within the military. They speak in the name of Buddhism but there’s not a lot of reference with the rhetoric to actual Buddhist scripture.

Q: After elections, would they be natural allies with the military in a political coalition? 

A: Certainly it's possible over the long haul. The military over time has become a xenophobic Buddhist-Burman led institution. There is ideological basis for possible high-level support from within the military for what this Buddhist nationalist movement represents, which offers a dangerous prospect for a future alliance.

Q: Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is the face of Burma in the West and has dominated Burmese democracy since 1988. How do you see her now?

A: As a truly intelligent woman now playing in a complex political game. In 2012, she was able, after years of detention, to join parliament, but, along with members of her party, in a minority position. So she is now trying to build trust with the military. For years they didn’t talk to each other. Over and over, she reached out, they ignored her. Now she is working with former military officers and trying to bring the country forward. She is operating in that thought-context.

We in the West see her as a great moral force, which she has been. But now she is fighting a campaign for her party to win, within an ambiguous political landscape.

Q: The lady is increasingly being described, for example in the New York Times, as authoritarian and removed from local problems. 

A: To call her authoritarian is to partly misconstrue the complexity of her position, as the head of the main political opposition calling for democracy with a country that is not yet a democracy, barely three years out of a junta-ruled system. This is not a new charge against her. For years, people had built a cult of personality around her, and about her positions on issues were seen as oracular. That’s not entirely her fault. Even within the democracy movement,  people have been operating under a very hierarchical, very disciplined structure. For years those close to her would say: even if we disagree with her, we need to stand united behind her, because we are dealing not with a political opposition but an enemy for whom no action is too low; We can’t break rank. Now, with more political space, there is room to break rank, and speak out and disagree with her openly, and that is part of what we are seeing.

If she is presented as authoritarian, it is partly a result of her personality and reputation for being rigid, but also because her word is still largely taken as final, and people bow before it, even if she doesn't necessarily intend it that way. What people also don’t always appreciate is that the resources and structure around her is fairly minimal. She doesn’t always have access to what she needs. Great thinkers from around the world offer her help. But the reality of her day- to- day life, the mechanics of her party, the little office in Yangon, her specific problems, are challenging and demanding and she needs to address them.

Q: Why is Aung San Suu Kyi so loved?

A: She is the daughter of the martyred independence hero of the country and she even looks like him; she has the same eyes. But in her own right, since she burst onto the political scene in 1988, she has always been able to articulate ordinary people’s aspirations. In and out of house arrest, everywhere she went, she would laugh, speak clearly, and diffuse people’s fears. Her most famous essay is titled “Freedom from fear.” When she stepped on the stage, she seemed the opposite of the cold, detached military generals. She wasn’t so poetic, but she was eloquent and real and a voice of hope.

Q: The activists who follow Aung San Suu Kyi, are the subject of your book. What special insight did you come away with? 

A: I watched my main character, Nway, start in 2009 go underground and become a political fugitive… So I was tracking a wanted man in a police state … an adventure with a lot of weird shades of grey.

With Nigel, the other main character, and the rival of Nway, I reconstructed a two-month detention that he underwent. I wanted to piece together a real understanding of what it took for him to get through that experience, when he did not know if he would be released.

What was curious about Nigel’s case is that he was not bashed up. Instead the security services were trying to turn him into an informer. He slowly began to realize this. They were playing games and tricks with him during his detention. He had no contact with the outside world, meanwhile his wife was pregnant. He actually came out stronger. I wanted to know how one can come out of repressive experiences like that, and be willing to stand up and go on and fight. We can romanticize what it means to be “resisting,” but these are situations where you aren’t sure you will get through alive or sane.

Both my main characters grope in complete darkness. They often have no idea where they are being held or what will happen to them. But something in the "rebellious spirit" allows them to keep moving and not to quit.

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