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The Seattle Times

Myanmar: Guns Vs. Google

Ryker Labbee

When I was last in Burma in 2005, I was tapping away on a keyboard at a newly opened Internet café (the government having eased a restriction on public Internet access in 2004) when a 12-year-old boy at the terminal next to me leaned over and whispered, "Gen. Than Shwe is a playboy; he is no good for my country."

Surprised, I glanced over at his computer; displayed on the screen were Google search results for "Aung San Suu Kyi."

Given the government's lengthy list of blocked Web sites, results were sparse. Still, he kept searching, following links, hunting for relevant news about "The Lady." I wondered silently how many 12-year-old children across the globe were - at that moment - searching for news about detained democracy advocates.

Tens of thousands of protesters have filled the streets of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) in recent weeks. Rising gas prices have fanned the flames, yet the political situation there has been smoldering for decades.

The impetus behind the current movement is not the price of fuel but rather general government repression. The Southeast Asian country has been under military rule for 45 years. It has been nearly two decades since the last major uprising was squelched by the ruling junta; as many as 3,000 protesters were killed.

The world is different today than it was in 1988. Technology and economic integration are, at last, forcing Burma's story upon us. It is our duty to pay attention and respond. Change is afoot in Burma, yet it may not be achieved without adequate support from the outside world.

Suu Kyi, leader of the country's democracy movement and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, refuses to resort to violence as a means of eliciting change:

"Even if the democracy movement were to succeed through force of arms, it would leave in the minds of the people the idea that whoever has greater armed might, wins in the end. That will not help democracy."


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Change has been slow in coming to Burma in part because of the refusal of Suu Kyi's supporters and followers to use violence in their fight for freedom. Ousting gun-toting dictators without resorting to violent means is far from easy. Change will only come if alternative action is taken. It is one thing to embrace Gandhian principles of nonviolence, entirely another to act upon them. Nonviolent protest requires action; it is utterly ineffective otherwise.

As someone who has walked the streets of Myanmar with monks and ordinary citizens warily whispering political viewpoints in my ear (an activity formally against the law), I ask that you join in supporting the cause of the Burmese people.

Research the issue on the Web. Drop a letter to an elected representative or send a message to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at Sign an online petition calling for Chinese President Hu Jintao to compel Burma toward national reconciliation. China has the power to force change in Burma; should it choose to do so, its standing within the international community would rise.

As reports of recent events in Burma have come to my attention, my thoughts have turned to the 500,000 internally displaced persons inside the country; government offensives have made them refugees within their homeland.

I think of the dozens of Burmese monks with whom I've traveled, shared meals, taught English classes and pondered ideas. I think of all the Burmese people - many of them owning little more than modest houses and a few items of clothing - who generously welcomed me into their homes to share a meal or cup of tea (or, many, many cups of tea); adult men who grasped my hand and joined me on a stroll; others who helped me master the knot preventing my sarong-like longyi from falling in a heap at my feet; the dozens of children who've begged me to divulge the secret behind the only card trick I know.

I think of Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Aung San Suu Kyi. I owe it to all of these people to speak out now, at a time when the voices of change are gaining strength in Burma.

For centuries, violence has been the primary means we humans have used to attain political freedom. In Burma, an opportunity exists for change to be achieved through other means. We - the citizens of free countries with every right and opportunity to speak our minds - must stand behind our Burmese neighbors not afforded such basic rights. We must use our freedom to help them seize their own.

Ryker Labbee worked for a Seattle-area consulting firm for seven years before leaving to travel and volunteer in developing countries; he spent two months in Burma in 2003 and 2005. Currently living in Bologna, Italy, Labbee is working toward a master's degree in international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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