Now that ‘People Power’ Has Come to Burma, U.S. Must Lend a Hand

<i> Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) is chairman of the Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee</i>

The winds of democracy are once more blowing through Asia. In 1986 “people power” triumphed in the Philippines. In 1987 South Korea experienced its first free and fair presidential election in a generation. And now Burma is in the process of being transformed from a single-party dictatorship into a multiparty democracy.

I have just returned from a brief trip to Burma, which for more than a quarter-century has suffered from the political repression and economic stagnation of one of the most repressive regimes in Southeast Asia.

For the past several months the people of Burma have been demonstrating for the establishment of genuine democracy. This is truly a national upheaval. Unlike the Philippines and South Korea, where the protests were largely confined to the countries’ capitals, hundreds of thousands of men and women in cities, towns and villages all across Burma have taken to the streets in peaceful demonstrations against the government.

Challenged by a citizenry demanding an end to dictatorship, the government has waffled between repression and conciliation. For the last few weeks the Burmese army has stayed in its barracks. But before martial law was lifted in late August, army units gunned down as many as 3,000 Burmese in cold blood for the “crime” of peacefully protesting for a restoration of political pluralism in their country.


In view of the fact that the army has already turned its guns against the people whom it is supposed to protect, the willingness of the Burmese people to lay their lives on the line for democracy is a deeply moving commentary on the courage and commitment of the democratic forces in that country.

In response to this outpouring of protest, the government has at last agreed to hold multiparty elections. Yet it is doubtful that this will satisfy the Burmese people, whose confidence in the credibility and integrity of the government has long since vanished. Indeed, most Burmese share a deeply rooted suspicion that the government’s decision to permit elections was only a tactical concession and that, if the current government is allowed to remain in power pending the holding of elections, it will somehow contrive to cheat the people of their just democratic deserts.

The protests, therefore, are likely to continue until the government is toppled or it agrees to the establishment of an interim government to preside over the transition to a genuine multiparty democracy.

In fact, former Prime Minister U Nu announced the creation of such an interim government last week. But its failure to include a number of prominent opposition leaders suggests that it may not yet enjoy the kind of popular support necessary to sustain it.


The army’s reaction will be crucial. Most of the enlisted men and junior officers up to the rank of colonel appear to be in sympathy with the people. Indeed, some units have already joined the opposition. But the loyalty of the upper echelons of the officer corps, which the government has cleverly tied to the status quo through a system of payoffs and privileges, is uncertain.

While the ability of the United States to influence events in Burma is limited, we would be derelict in our duty if we did not lend our moral and political support to this extraordinary movement for political pluralism.

We must, in the first place, continually reaffirm our commitment to peaceful change and the establishment of genuine democracy in Burma. The Reagan Administration, to its credit, has issued several statements along these lines while both the House and the Senate have adopted resolutions placing the United States squarely on the side of democracy.

We should also review whether, under present circumstances, it is prudent or even possible to maintain existing U.S. aid programs.


At the same time, we should indicate a willingness to consider sympathetically any proposals designed to help Burma recover once a genuinely democratic government has been established.

Finally, since some top Burmese leaders like former Prime Ministers Ne Win and Sein Lwin may conclude that their lives would be in jeopardy should the revolution succeed, it may well be necessary to offer them asylum abroad in order to facilitate a peaceful transition to democracy.

We must not underestimate the importance of seemingly small gestures on our part. I was impressed to discover in Rangoon that, thanks to the Voice of America, the Burmese people had been greatly cheered by the various statements and resolutions of our government identifying our country with the struggle for democracy in Burma.

During my stay, I had one of the most moving experiences in my 14 years in Congress. As I drove through the city with our ambassador, the American flag flying from the front fender of his car, Burmese bystanders spontaneously cheered. Their applause was not for us but for the United States, which they saw not only as the embodiment of democracy but as a country that has publicly supported their own democratic aspirations. It is no accident, therefore, that members of the Burmese opposition have chosen the site of the American Embassy in Rangoon for many of their demonstrations.


Just as the triumph of people power in the Philippines and South Korea has inspired the people of Burma to demand democracy for their country, so the establishment of political pluralism in Burma will undoubtedly encourage other peoples who also suffer from repression to insist on genuinely democratic societies as well.