Myanmar: Hints of a ‘velvet revolution’

Marwaan Macan-Markar

When a senior UN official returns to Myanmar in mid-November for a second visit this year, he will encounter a ruling junta feeling the heat from a sudden burst of non-violent activity that aims to register public discontent against decades of tyranny. In May, during Ibrahim Gambari’s first visit to Rangoon, there was hardly a hint of the quiet resistance being guided by a group of former university student leaders known as the ‘88-Generation’ and who enjoy wide respect for their courage in taking on the military dictatorship. The highlight of the May visit by the UN under secretary-general for political affairs was a one-hour meeting he had with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. Gambari, the first outsider in over two years to meet the Nobel peace laureate, pressed for her release from house arrest, but the request was turned down.

The current burst of resistance unfolding in Myanmar has also thrown up features that Gambari will find difficult to sidestep - the detention of five leaders of the 88-Generation in late September for alleged “subversive” activity. One of those detained, Min Ko Naing, enjoys legendary status as an activist and was only released from prison in November 2004 after being subject to 15 years of solitary confinement in a Myanmar jail.

Last Sunday marked the beginning of one initiative that appears innocuous at first glance but, on second look, conveys a serious political tone, given the oppressive climate in that South East Asian nation where the junta has clamped down on all political activity and expression. For a week, till November 4, the 88-Generation students have urged citizens to participate in “Multiple Religious Prayer.” The silent activity to be held in temples, churches and mosques across the predominantly Buddhist country will also include candle light vigils.

The call for prayers comes on the heels of two similar turns to non-violent means in October taken by the 88-Generation to engage with the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is officially known. One was the “White Expression” campaign, where people were urged to wear white clothes as a mark of honesty and purity, and the other was a campaign to collect signatures to back a petition calling on the junta to release all political prisoners, including Suu Kyi. The petition, which is finally destined for the UN garnered over 535,000 signatures.

As current developments at the UN show, the world body has grown increasingly troubled at Myanmar’s worsening political condition. Last December, Gambari made a telling argument about the oppression in the country. Many of his revelations were recently echoed in another report released in October by the United Nations human rights envoy to the country.

Together, they have pushed the SPDC into a corner and have helped to strengthen the case for greater involvement by the UN Security Council, which regards Myanmar as a country of international concern. “The international community has to listen to the 88-Generation,” says Khin Omar, a former student leader who was on the streets of the captial Rangoon during the bloody showdown in 1988. “They want to be able to resolve the political crisis in the country.”