Ghost Dancing in the Darkest Hour

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"Burma: In Search of Peace" was the title of the Cultural Survival Quarterly issue I guest-edited in 1989. Over a decade later, genuine peace in Burma remains elusive, although for the most part the widespread ethnic insurgency of 1989 has subsided. The absence of pitched battles between ethnic groups like the ceasefired Kachins or beleaguered Karens and the Burman-dominant State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) might give an appearance of calm. In reality, the horror is worse than ever. Ethnic cleansing has been carried out in much of the Shan and Karenni states. Since 1989 the AIDS virus has spread and the junta is still in denial about it. In the past ten years, new drug routes, heroin refineries, shooting galleries, and amphetamine production have penetrated the mountains. Forced labor is the norm throughout Burma, not only for army pottering, but now for military profiteering schemes such as logging and mining as well.

Along with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) and the ruling junta, leaders of Burma's ethnic nationalities are routinely cited as the third component of sought-after "tripartite dialogue." But the issue of ethnicity -- with its implications of territoriality, resource possession, and cultural identity -- often seems an afterthought to the urban-based nonviolent drive to supplant army oppression with representative democracy.

A new generation has brought some innovations and expanded the scope of the movement for ethnic liberation in Burma. Although ethnic rebel leaders of the past have disappointed their people, young civilian and guerrilla leaders are in training for the future. Women are gaining empowerment in exile. Frontier infiltrators -- like Goldman Prize winner Ka Hsaw Wah, a Karen -- excel at gathering detailed information that tells the world what is happening to Burma and who the criminals are (specific army officers, multinational corporations). Independent monitoring groups have sprung up, with the Internet giving voices to the voiceless. Even isolated groups like the Chins and Rohingyas now manage some form of Internet access, despite Burma's notorious fax/modem ban.

"Economic warfare" from the outside world keeps the junta from becoming even stronger. Unocal and Total, the primary culprits in the corporate ravaging of southern Burma, are harassed by lawsuits and protests. Unfortunately, arms continue to be sold to the SPDC, mostly by Asian neighbors. Asian consciousness of SPDC oppression is on the upswing, thanks to the leaders of South Korea, East Timor, and activists accross the region, but the governments of the region can do much more to help end Burma's nightmare.

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