National Geographic : 2011 Aug
• down hundreds of antigovernment protesters, the junta denied the sweeping victory of the main opposition party, the National League of Democracy (NLD). en for much of the next two decades, it put top opposition gures in prison and kept under house arrest the party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. e Lady, as she is known, pushed the NLD to boycott last November's polls, which she, then still under house arrest, was barred from partici- pating in. Joining such an "unfair" exercise, she argued, would give legitimacy to a regime that in 2007 again resorted to lethal violence--- ring on protesting Buddhist monks---and a year later neglected the victims of Cyclone Nargis. at catastrophe left approximately 140,000 dead and nearly a million homeless. Not everybody agreed with Suu Kyi; some opposition gures be- lieved that the transition to civilian rule, however awed, o ered their last hope to remain relevant. Less than a week a er the 2010 election, as military-backed parties claimed an overwhelm- ing victory, came another glimmer of hope: Suu Kyi's release. en 65, the Nobel laureate had spent 15 of the previous 21 years in detention, and the world rejoiced at her freedom. e sight of the Lady thronged by young followers led some to believe that a new era was dawning. But Suu Kyi harbors no such illusions. "Society has changed enormously," she said, marveling at the ubiquity of mobile phones, Twitter, and Facebook when I interviewed her in February. "But politically, there is no di erence at all." It is tempting to see Myanmar as a simple morality tale, a battle between light and dark- ness. But the Lady and the generals don't rep- resent the only poles vying for the country's future. Within the ranks of both the military and the opposition there are voices, still mut- ed, pushing for greater exibility and reform. Beyond this contest among the elites, there are the ethnic minorities, who make up about a third of the population and occupy more than half the territory. e question of how to govern this kaleidoscope of restive groups has vexed Burmese rulers since the time of the ancient kings, and any real progress will depend on their paranoia---of its military leaders. e tatmadaw, as the national military is known, was the only institution capable of imposing its authority on a fractured country in the wake of indepen- dence from Britain. It did so, in part, by pulling Myanmar into a fearful isolation, from which it is only starting to emerge. is isolation, deepened by two decades of Western economic sanctions, may have pre- served the nostalgic image of Myanmar as a country frozen in time, with its mist-shrouded lakes, ancient temples, and blend of traditional cultures largely unspoiled by the modern world. But it also helped accelerate the decline of what was once referred to as "the jewel of Asia." Myan- mar's health and education systems have been gutted, while the military---with some 400,000 soldiers---drains nearly a quarter of the national budget. Most notoriously, the tatmadaw's brutal suppression of ethnic insurgencies and civil op- position has made Myanmar a pariah nation, a distinction it now seems eager to shed. Out of this tableau of darkness have come some eeting rays of light. e country's rst parliamentary election in 20 years, held last No- vember, heralded the advent of what military leaders call "discipline- ourishing democracy." ough marred by widespread fraud and in- timidation, the elections have given Myanmar its rst nominally civilian government in half a century. Longtime military strongman an Shwe o cially retired in April, even though the new president is none other than his loyal dep- uty former Gen. ein Sein, who has exchanged his army uniform for civilian clothes. If one of the regime's election goals was to win legitimacy at home and abroad, another was to erase the memory of the 1990 elections. In those polls, held two years a er the tatmadaw gunned By pulling Myanmar into isolation, the generals accelerated the decline of what was once "the jewel of Asia." They have made it a pariah nation.