After Egypt and Libya, What's Next for Those Still Under Dictatorships?


Alex Wagner

White House Correspondent

As it stands, 2011 will be remembered as the year that a handful of harsh dictatorships around the world fell -- or at least teetered on the edge of collapse -- driven by largely peaceful public protest.

President Obama, in his remarks on the situation in Libya this week, eloquently summed up the moment as he recalled a plea from one Libyan protester: "We just want to be able to live like human beings."

Obama repeated the line for poetic emphasis, and though this device is something he deploys from time to time -- and despite the fact that the situation itself was quite familiar, with Egypt and Tunisia still in the collective rear-view mirror -- it resonated.

Most certainly it resonated with the protesters being fired upon in Tripoli and Sabratha and Adjabiya and those fresh from Tahrir Square or still amassing in Tehran.

But it undoubtedly spoke to the hearts of those citizens around the world who looked to these revolutions with some combination of admiration and awe and hopelessness. People in places like Burma and Zimbabwe who feel that protest -- peaceful or otherwise -- is not an option for them and will not likely be any time soon.

As journalists have sought to untangle the disparate threads that unite these uprisings, one of the most interesting revelations has been a common reference to a dusty -- but still relevant -- book, "From Dictatorship to Democracy."

Earlier this month, the New York Times proclaimed its author, Gene Sharp, a "shy intellectual" who had created "the playbook for revolution" -- noting that his work was posted on the Muslim Brotherhood website during the Egyptian uprising, and was cited equally among Tunisians, Bosnians and Estonians in their quest for freedom. So far, it has been translated into 41 languages.

The book is a how-to manual for "liberation," dissecting classic protest strategies (sit-ins, leafleting) as well as more innovative options (selective resistance). While I do not own a copy, I discovered that it is very much a part of my family library. My grandmother, a Burmese exile who came to the United States when the government fell in the 1960s, was tasked with translating the book into Burmese nearly 25 years ago, with the aim of reprinting it, smuggling it back into the country and fomenting an overthrow of the military dictatorship.

In the months following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising inside Burma -- which resulted in the slaughter of thousands of civilians -- many Burmese students fled the country and emigrated to the United States. This moment, my grandmother, Mya Mya Thant Gyi -- now 94 -- tells me, was catalyzing. "That was the last straw," she says. "I became very angry."

Meeting at local Buddhist monasteries, exile Burmese communities started forming their own resistance organizations, raising funds to send back home to support the pro-democracy movement inside the country and on the Thai-Burma border.

In the Washington, D.C., area, where she still lives, my grandmother worked at the Library of Congress as the head of the East Asian books department and joined a group called the Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma (CRDB) at a monastery. ("Ours was a political monastery," she notes, simultaneously chiding "the fence sitters" at others). The group's leading light was U Tin Maung Win, acknowledged by some in the community to be Burma's likely prime minister, should the military regime ever fall.

Sharp, who at 84 is working on strategic nonviolent action at the Albert Einstein Institute, told me that "From Dictatorship to Democracy" began when Tin Maung Win contacted Sharp to contribute to a Bangkok-based publication he had started: the New Era Journal.

Sharp says he decided to write generally about nonviolent protest -- rather than specifically about the Burmese democracy movement -- because "I didn't know Burma. The only way I could write in that kind of discussion was to make it generic."

The resulting article was serialized, printed in pamphlets and would eventually become "From Dictatorship to Democracy." Years later, at the request of CDRB leadership, my grandmother, who was a Fulbright scholar, would translate it, and the text would finally return to the cause from which it was borne -- Burma.

After the text was translated, it was printed in Thailand and smuggled into the country -- my grandmother believes embassy channels were one route -- later distributed to activists, students and military personnel.

Bilal Rachid, the president of the CRDB, testified to the importance of Sharp's writings inside Burma. "It became source material for the courses we developed to teach activists in the jungles of Thailand," he said.

Today, Burma is still widely acknowledged to be ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Human rights organizations have called for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry regarding govt-sponsored Crimes Against Humanity, including "widespread and systematic abuse and atrocities committed by the ruling military junta, government-sanctioned torture and rape, conscription of child soldiers, forced labor, complete censorship of the media, and political repression."

Because the brutal military regime remains as entrenched as ever, many Burmese now question the efficacy of peaceful protest.

Drawing parallels with the situation in Libya, Rachid asserts, "The Burmese situation is not going to change by nonviolent action. You're dealing with mobsters, criminals. We even saw in 1988 that they had no compunction about slaughtering our own people. They actually machine-gunned down the students."

He continues, "Personally, I believe the tactics have to be different. Peaceful nonviolence will not work." Ghandi, Rachid posited, was successful, "because he was dealing with a government that had a modicum of morality."

Sharp is quick to dismiss such criticism. The Burmese, he says, "have done some remarkable demonstrations," but "they don't really have a plan as to how to undermine the regime." He adds that his "conviction that this is a viable form of protest remains as strong as it ever was. It's about people taking it seriously."

Having borne witness to nearly 100 years of Burmese history -- from the British colonial era to the present -- my grandmother only says that she "is not that optimistic" about Burma's future, "knowing the character of Burmese people."

She explains, "They won't take pains to arouse people -- and on the other hand, how could they do it? The Burmese are dealing with a very cruel, uncivilized government."

And yet, their story -- the story of Burma -- helped set into motion countless other revolutions, by virtue of Gene Sharp's 94-page manuscript, by virtue of the fact that people everywhere recognize the desire to "live like human beings" -- no matter the latitude and longitude separating them -- and that the story of oppression carries with it a powerful resonance.

If 2011 is the year for Egypt and Tunisia -- and just maybe a few others -- perhaps, for the Burmese, the revolution will be cyclical. The forces that inspired protest so many years ago might once again return to the banks of the Irrawaddy River -- in different form and fashion, but potent all the same.