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Burmese Spring or Phony Thaw?

As the repressive country stands at a critical crossroads, Melanne Verveer, former political prisoner Zin Mar Aung, author Peter Popham, and Tina Brown assess its prospects.

The final panel of the summit opened dramatically with a series of photographs of Burmese political prisoners. All had received astoundingly onerous prison sentences for transgressions as innocuous as privately writing a pro-democracy poem. One got 17 years for delivering documents to the office of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who’s spent a decade and a half under house arrest. Another got 12 years—and wound up deaf in one ear after being beaten—for distributing pamphlets critical of the military government. One activist got 11 years for posting pro-democracy messages in public.

The big question facing Burma today is whether recent, tantalizing signs of a thaw in what had been decades of hardened repression by the brutal military government might accelerate—and if so, what will it portend for the country and for the world. The most tangible symbol of tectonic plates shifting has been the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, and the government permission for her to campaign for elections scheduled for April.

“We all know the amazing story of Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest, a story that has inspired the world,” said Newsweek & the Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown, who moderated the panel. “Now a political thaw seems to be taking place…What would a Burmese Spring mean, for women, for Burma, and for the world?”

“It really seems like a turning point,” observed panelist Melanne Verveer, the U.S. State Department’s ambassador at large for global women’s issues. “There are incredible opportunities ahead.”

For the past quarter century, Burmese generals—all male—have dominated positions of power. But if the government genuinely hopes to morph into a more democratic regime, women’s participation will be crucial. Four-fifths of small farmers are women. Atrocities such rape and human trafficking targeting the country’s myriad ethnic minorities often victimize women. And in the political process, “women have been on the far margins,” said Verveer, who reiterated U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the U.S. will take a step towards normalizing relations with Burma in tandem with the regime’s steps in opening up. “We hope the reform process can go forward.”

The audience was spellbound to hear panelist Zin Mar Aung give her dramatic, firsthand account of life behind bars in Burma. She was arrested in September 1999 for disseminating poems and statements critical of the government. Initially sentenced to 20 years in prison, she was ultimately released in September 2009. Brown observed that those 11 years must have been “hell,” and asked if Zin Mar Aung had had any contact with other prisoners.

“I was mostly in solitary confinement,” she replied, “But even though I was held in a tiny cell, I felt I wasn’t alone.” Throughout her detention, she recalled, “I repeated a poem that kept me going: Someone can imprison your body, but not your mind.’”

As soon as Zin Mar Aung was released, she jumped back into political work. She began reaching out to other former political prisoners, including many women who have been detained but whose sacrifices have not been recognized. And she publicly refuted the idea that democracy is an alien concept to Asians—an excuse that autocratic regimes in Asia often trot out to explain why “Asian values” are more appropriate than democracy. “We try to deliver the message: democracy is not only for the West, but for all human beings. Why can’t we practice it in our society?”

The third panelist, author Peter Popham, estimated that 600 political prisoners remained behind bars in Burma, down from a high of 2000. “I’ve heard of incredibly long sentences,” said Popham, who just published a book titled The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi. “A friend who wrote a poem in his private diary was jailed for seventeen years….The regime tried to extinguish the movement by brute force.”

Brown pointed out that Burma has been through several cycles of loosening up followed by repression since a particularly brutal crackdown in 1998. “How do we know this isn’t a phony thaw?” she asked.

Popham pointed to cautiously optimistic assessments made by Aung San Suu Kyi herself, who is actively campaigning for office across the nation. But he acknowledged that genuine reform requires a lot more “heavy lifting,” including a revision of the current constitution to provide more protection for civil rights.

“The military could declare martial law again overnight…What’s happened in the past six months is extraordinary and exciting mainly because the background to it was so terrible,” he said.

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Popham speculated of Aung San Suu Kyi’s current campaign that, should the government offer her a ministerial position, “my hunch is that she would embrace it. She’s 66 going on 67, and the sooner she goes to work, the better.” But the world awaits to see whether or not she will wield any real power as a result of the April elections.

Brown closed the panel on a rousing note, introducing a dynamic short video of Burma’s first all-girl band, “a touching look at what’s coming.” To an infectious hip-hop beat, several young Burmese women appeared on screen, alternatively dressed in demure pastel traditional dresses followed by black leather with camouflage fatigues and hoop earrings. The contrast evoked the contrasting prospects for Burma at the crossroads.