Vancouver resident Alan Clements won't reveal exactly how he recovered some of the rarest multimedia footage in the world from Burma. All he'll say is that it remained buried somewhere in the totalitarian southeast Asian nation for 15 years.
“I had attempted to get these tapes out of Burma three separate times...and each time had failed,” Clements recounted in an exclusive interview with the Georgia Straight. “In '97, 2003, and 2006. And then they were lost.”
He was describing a rich archive of video and audio interviews with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
For 22 years, Suu Kyi has led a struggle against tyranny in Burma (also known as Myanmar). She has been imprisoned or held under house arrest in Rangoon for roughly 15 of the past 20 years. Her supporters describe her as a light for democracy shining in a country shrouded in the darkness of a ruthless military regime.
Over a period of months in 1995, Clements, a journalist and former Buddhist monk, gained unprecedented access to Suu Kyi. The result of the time they spent together was a book detailing their conversations, the recordings of which were hidden.
At his modest home in Kitsilano, Clements described Suu Kyi's movement as a spiritual revolution with a political front.
“She is communicating a message that the only hope that we have for our survival is through the ability to learn the power to talk to each other,” he said. “It's not a new idea, but she is manifesting it in the worst of conditions. She is asking the generals for dialogue and asking tyrants to reconcile their differences and to move forward in what she calls a ”˜hand-in-hand' approach.”
One day in 2009, Clements said, a non-Burmese man approached him while he was on a book tour in Australia. With a new resolve to bring Suu Kyi's voice to the world, the two got to work on an effort to retrieve the archive.
Later that year, Clements's new partner successfully entered Burma. The dissidents there were nervous about meeting with anybody, Clements recounted. But his man was persistent and gained their trust. A meeting was eventually arranged, and while driving through the streets of Rangoon, with the government's soldiers everywhere, Clements's friend was instructed by his driver to reach into the glove compartment. He grabbed what was there, stepped out of the car, and ran.
After lying buried in the earth for 15 years, the archive was recovered.
Still inside Burma, Clements continued, the man stayed awake for the better part of a week, painstakingly digitizing as much of the material as he could. Then he carried the archive out of the country and back to Clements in Australia.
“Getting the material out of the country was a significant step,” Clements emphasized. “Because we have”¦a Nobel peace laureate who is a prisoner of conscience, who the world does not know except through iconic posters and very brief sound bites leaked by her lawyer.”
The people of Burma live in the shadow of a military junta led by a man named Than Shwe. United Nations and Amnesty International reports describe a dystopian prison state where ethnic-cleansing campaigns target villages unpredictably, forced-labour camps dot the country, and tens of thousands of conscripted child soldiers fight on both sides of ethnic insurgencies on the nation's fringes. Rape is used as a weapon, torture is endemic, and extrajudicial killings are common. Burma is a country where even talk of human rights can result in a person's disappearance.
And yet in the face of such terror, Suu Kyi offers these words, as heard on one of the tapes Clements retrieved: “We must try our best to see others as a whole and not just their actions. This principle asks us to be spiritually creative—to find ways to bring out the good that is inherent in our oppressor, our enemy. Nurture the best in them; seize the moment to learn, grow, and to use love to halt anger.”
Over the next few weeks, the world will be watching the regime that has silenced Suu Kyi for most of the past 20 years.
On Sunday (November 7), Burma will hold its first general election in two decades. And on November 13, Suu Kyi is scheduled to be released from her latest term of house arrest. The upcoming election has been described by the UN as “deeply flawed”, and it is far from certain that Suu Kyi will actually be granted some form of freedom. Nevertheless, top-ranking members of Burma's opposition movement say that it is not impossible to see a revolution on the horizon, and that Suu Kyi could one day lead a democratic Burma.
At the same time, Clements is working with the archive he recovered to bring to the world the words of Suu Kyi, two of her closest mentors—Kyi Maung, now deceased, and Tin Oo—and many other advocates for a free and democratic Burma. The plan is to create an interactive multimedia edition of the 1997 book he coauthored with Suu Kyi, The Voice of Hope: Conversations With Alan Clements.
“To see it and to hear it was a whole different experience,” Clements said. “It was a spiritual experience to be with her, and I want people to have that experience.”
In researching this article, the Straight has learned that Clements's efforts are not isolated. With the goal of informing the world about what is happening in Burma, a number of people continue to do everything they can to carry materials similar to Clements's archive out of the country.
The military junta has ruled Burma since 1962. But cracks in the secretive regime's seemingly unshakable hold on the country may slowly be forming.
On May 27, 1990, Suu Kyi was democratically elected the leader of Burma. Her political party, the National League for Democracy, won a landslide victory over the State Peace and Development Council (then called the State Law and Order Restoration Council). But the vote was never recognized by the military junta, which imprisoned Suu Kyi and hundreds of NLD members and supporters.
In a rare telephone interview, Tin Oo, the party's vice chairman and a long-time mentor of Suu Kyi's, explained to the Straight why the NLD is boycotting the 2010 general election.
“We do not believe that the coming elections will be free and fair,” he said while on a brief, government-sanctioned visit to Singapore. “We have been harassed and restricted since 1990 up to now, and our political leaders are imprisoned. So how can they stand for elections? We don't see it as free and fair. It is a sham election.”
Released from seven years of house arrest in February this year, Oo remained defiant. He charged that Burma's military leaders have used the country's constitution, election laws, and emergency laws—which are expected to remain in effect for the election—to ensure the military remains in power.
“The [NLD] central committee members and our central executive members all unanimously agreed not to register for the election,” he said. “We want to say—the National League for Democracy—that we will not proceed.”
As told by Clements, Oo's story is an example of the Burmese people's capacity to forgive and of a human being's ability to change.
Many years ago, Oo was a decorated general who had reached the highest ranks of the military junta. To get there, it is very likely that he did terrible things. But in 1976, and without warning, Oo was forced into retirement and later sentenced to hard labour for treason. Upon his release in 1981, Oo entered a monastery, where he studied Buddhism alongside Clements. He went on to found the NLD alongside Suu Kyi. Ever since the party's victory in 1990, Oo has shared Suu Kyi's fate of enduring repeated terms in prison and under house arrest.
From Singapore—where he was only allowed to travel for medical reasons—Oo pledged the NLD's loyalty to the people of Burma. “We will not do party politics but the people's politics,” he said. “We will do what is in their minds and hearts.”
En route to Montreal for a speaking engagement, Tin Maung Htoo, executive director of the Canadian Friends of Burma, explained how the junta's constitution ensures that the November 7 election will only solidify the military's dominant role in the country.
Htoo explained that the constitution reserves 25 percent of seats in both houses of parliament for military officers and requires more than 75-percent approval for constitutional amendments.
Regarding the executive branch, Htoo continued, the constitution states that several key ministerial portfolios must be controlled by the military. These include home affairs, defence, and border areas.
“The leading role of the military in Burma is not just temporary,” Htoo said. “It is forever. That is written in the constitution.”
Supporting Htoo's remarks, a December 2008 UN analysis of the constitution states: “The denial of justice, liberty, and equality (indeed the fear of these ”˜virtues') is inscribed in virtually every principle.”¦The only objective that the constitution will achieve is the privileged position of the armed forces.”
Complementing the constitution's provisions regarding the military are election laws targeting the junta's two most significant opposition groups. As reported by BBC News, anybody with a criminal record cannot participate in the election. That rules out Suu Kyi, Oo, many other members of the NLD, and thousands of activists who have crossed the regime. In addition, a second law makes it illegal for members of religious orders to vote. In 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks led the largest public show of opposition since 1988's 8888 Popular Uprising. (Both demonstrations were crushed with lethal force.)
After the junta refused to recognize the results of the 1990 election, many members of the opposition retreated to Burma's border with Thailand. There, an exile government was formed. The NLD and other opposition parties elected Suu Kyi's cousin, Sein Win, as its prime minister. Today, Win leads the Burmese diaspora from the headquarters of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma in Rockville, Maryland.
Win echoed Oo's remarks and said that the NLD refuses to participate in the upcoming election because the junta's constitution and electoral laws have made a fair vote impossible.
“Under these conditions, Win explained by phone, “we don't want to give our endorsement; we don't want to confuse the people; we don't want to confuse the international community.”
For this story, the Straight repeatedly attempted to interview NLD spokesperson and Suu Kyi's lawyer Nyan Win. Telephone numbers supplied to the Straight often rang briefly before disconnecting.
For many living in Burma, the junta's continued rule is a matter of life and death. A report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2010 states: “There is a pattern of gross and systematic violation of human rights which has been in place for many years and still continues. Given the extent and persistence of the problem, and the lack of accountability, there is an indication that those human rights violations are the result of a State policy.”
The report details dozens of recent atrocities, making it clear that the situation in Burma is not improving. Take just one example: in Shan state, since July 29, the military has forced the relocation of about 40 villages, making that operation the largest forced migration in the country since 1996–1998, when more than 300,000 people were displaced.
Paul Pickram, a Canadian journalist and the author of the recently published No Easy Road: A Burmese Political Prisoner's Story, has seen the work of the junta firsthand.
“What is happening in Burma is the real dark side of humanity,” he said from Chiang Mai, Thailand. “A sea of this could very well be the undoing of human civilization.”
For the past two years, Pickram has worked for Burma News International, a collective of exiled Burmese media organizations. His job has often taken him to the Burma-Thailand border region, where an estimated 150,000 Burmese refugees live in a string of camps and where the price of opposing the junta is perhaps most evident.
“What they do is they just hammer you,” he said. “The brutality that they strike back with is so strong, so overwhelming, for even the smallest infraction in their eyes, that the people are just bludgeoned into total submission. And if they're not, they're just totally destroyed.”
Pickram recounted some of the stories he's heard. “There are dark zones—they call them black zones in Burma—where people are shot on sight. Rape is regularly used as a weapon of war. They starve people; they burn villages to the ground; they have publicly executed people. They have killed thousands.”
The international community has slowly started to turn its attention toward Burma. At the UN, efforts are under way to establish a commission of inquiry. The governments of Canada and the United States have expressed support for the initiative, but China—Burma's biggest trade partner—and other nations are lobbying against a UN inquiry.
Ron Hoffmann, Canada's ambassador to Thailand, who is also responsible for relations with Burma, told the Straight that the Canadian government is “deeply disappointed” by the junta's behaviour in the run-up to elections.
“This exercise is designed and has always been designed to put this military regime back in power,” he said from his home in Bangkok. But there are events to keep an eye on. “This so-called process of civilianization”¦does usher in a number of major structural changes, the implications of which are simply not clear at this point,” he explained.
For example, Hoffmann said, the new constitution establishes a national parliament and regional parliaments. And, at least on paper, it does decentralize Shwe's power by creating a presidency, two vice-presidencies, and other key positions.
But Hoffmann was quick to add that if such developments do mark the beginning of a transition to democracy, that process will be a long and arduous one.
He noted that the junta has proven itself unpredictable, and he warned that there are indications the situation in Burma could actually get worse after the election. Shwe's government has repeatedly oppressed ethnic minorities—such as the Muslim Rohingyas, Karen, and Chin—with violence, causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. With renewed confidence after an election, Hoffmann continued, the military could intensify operations against minorities in the country.
On Suu Kyi, Hoffmann was cautiously optimistic. He said that the information he has does suggest that Suu Kyi will be released on or close to November 13. “We don't know what that release will be,” he added. “But it will probably give her greater freedoms than she has at the moment.”
Hoffmann emphasized that Canada's political and economic sanctions targeting Burma and the junta have long been the toughest in the world. For that to change, he continued, Canada would have to see “significant, tangible, and enduring” reforms.
The Straight filed an interview request with the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar in Ottawa. An e-mailed reply stated that the submission would be sent to “HQ”. Further inquiries received no response.
After leading the campaign against Burma's military government for more than two decades, the NLD was dissolved on May 6, 2010. Once the party refused to register for the November election, Burma's electoral commission—which is controlled by the military—declared the NLD illegal.
On October 14, a letter bearing Oo's signature was sent to NLD members and other opposition groups. The letter (which was translated and supplied to the Straight by Canadian Friends of Burma) stated that the NLD is fighting the regime's decision and that Burma's high court has agreed to hear the case.
Tim Aye Hardy, director of outreach for the Burma Global Action Network, told the Straight that Suu Kyi will never cease to fight for a democratic Burma. Speculating on what Suu Kyi will do if the junta does grant her a degree of freedom, Hardy said that he is sure she will speak out against the junta.
“She will talk about issues of injustice and human rights and speak out for the people,” he affirmed from his office in New York City. “That is who she is; that is what she has been doing; and that is what she has devoted her life to.”
Hardy, one of the student leaders who dared to publicly oppose the regime in 1988, has long shared Suu Kyi's dream of bringing democracy to Burma.
“She will speak out,” he repeated. “When that happens, it is guaranteed that people will rally behind her, that people will come and listen to her, and that people will support her.”
Oo and every other Burmese the Straight spoke with hold Suu Kyi in the highest regard, the tone of their voices audibly changing as they spoke of her.
“She is truly a symbol of light, of democracy, human rights, and liberty,” Oo said, despite the possibility of the regime's reprisal. “And once she is released from custody, she will go around and talk to the people.”
Clements, finally in possession of the long-lost archive, said there is much that people of every nationality can learn from Suu Kyi.
“You've got this woman who is basically saying, ”˜No. I am going to confront you with the power of kindness over cruelty, dialogue over destruction, and decency over death,' ” he said. “She has a very beautiful condemnation of force.”
What Suu Kyi is doing extends far beyond the borders of Burma, Clements continued. “Aung San Suu Kyi is bringing forth this new vision, this new paradigm, for a new form of world democracy that is decidedly committed to nonviolence.”
And yet Suu Kyi remains a prisoner of the state, separated from her family but refusing to leave her people. Whether or not she is released from house arrest on November 13, one thing will not change. In 1990, Suu Kyi was democratically elected to lead the people of Burma. She has been doing so ever since.
Canadian Friends of Burma will hold a demonstration on Saturday (November 6) at 11 a.m. at Library Square. Hollyhock and Banyen Books are hosting a series of presentations by Alan Clements on Saturday and Sunday (November 6 and 7), and November 13 and 14. These sessions will explore Aung San Suu Kyi's call for a global revolution of the spirit, which Clements described as “a form of nonviolent, feminine-based activism grounded in liberated Buddhism, love, and defiant comedy”. Tickets include a copy of the audio version of Clements's book, The Voice of Hope, and are available at worlddharma.com.