Bangkok: Win Min has spent 20 years trying to recover a moment of hope in Myanmar, when it seemed the people had defeated their brutal military rulers and freedom lay ahead.
Friday is the anniversary of a huge popular uprising in 1988 that was crushed by soldiers at the cost of 3,000 lives, leaving the country in the grip of a military junta and setting the course of Myanmar's history ever since—and likely well into the future.
Face of the struggle: A file photo of Aung San Suu Kyi. The pro-democracy leader has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years. (AFP)
“We had a big hope that we would succeed,” said Win Min, who was a student leader in Myanmar, which was then known as Burma.
“It was the biggest struggle ever in Burmese history. Not just in one town but even in remote villages. The whole country was marching in the streets.”
On Thursday, Win Min will be among a small group of activist exiles who are scheduled to meet here with President George W. Bush, who has given his backing to what has so far been an unsuccessful struggle for democracy in Myanmar.
The military junta that seized power in 1988 has only tightened its grip since then. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years.
The junta violently suppressed a uprising led by monks in September and restricted foreign aid to victims after a cyclone in May.
The generals have demonstrated that they will take whatever steps are needed to retain power, Win Min said, so it is hard to remain optimistic.
Since the September crackdown, Bush has tightened economic restrictions. But some dissidents say the restrictions, and harsh criticism of the junta, have added to a wall of hostility between the nations that limits Washington's influence.
This is the message that Aung Naing Oo, another former student leader, hopes to bring to Bush. “Isolation has pushed the Burmese military towards authoritarian regimes instead of democracies,” said Naing Oo, who is now a political analyst in Thailand.
While the West and the junta have been locked in mutual isolation, China has been moving in with trade and development projects that have increasingly become part of Myanmar's economy.
“The most important development of the last 20 years is not so much suppression of the democratic movement but the opening up to China,” said Thant Myint-U, a historian who wrote The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma.
The junta may be quite comfortable in its isolation from the West, which began after a military coup in 1962 and continued after the current junta took power in 1988.
“We have a long history of isolation in Burma, and that has given the military a free hand to do anything it wants,” said Aung Naing Oo. “Isolation is what the Burmese military wants.”
© 2008/The New York Times