Kim Jong-il, the supreme leader of North Korea from 1994 until his death in 2011, came as close to being a household word in the United States as any tyrannical dictator in Southeast Asia since Mao Zedong.
Much of his notoriety had to do with making nuclear weapons, imprisoning American journalists and brainwashing his people into deifying him while demonizing the United States.
But as much as Jong-il hated America, he loved American movies, especially James Bond films and anything with Elizabeth Taylor in it. (Jong-il caught Hollywood’s eye as well; the dictator was parodied in the 2004 film, “Team America: World Police.”)
Jong-il’s infamy may be well deserved, but Andrew Reynolds points to the anonymous cast of characters in the military junta that has ruled Burma (now Myanmar) the past four decades for having a record of cruel lunacy not even Jong-il could match.
Topping the list was Ne Win, a devotee of Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin who ruled the country for 26 years before he died in 2001 at age 91, said Reynolds, a London native who has made a career out of helping nascent democracies find their footing.
In this role, he sees himself as a doctor of sorts, one who believes it is paramount to test for and diagnose the unique, complex array of historical, economic, cultural and social forces at work in each country rather than prescribing a predetermined, theoretical cure.
Perhaps it is true that democracy can be spread across the globe, he said, but that is harder in some places than others.
Reynolds learned those principles working with governments and opposition forces in South Africa, Guyana, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Kenya – and Burma.
In the past decade, he has traveled to Burma three times, most recently in March. He has also served as an adviser in Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, and more recently, Libya, Egypt and Syria, where he is working with the Syrian opposition.
By taking a more deliberate, diagnostic approach to democratization, he believes, constitutional framers can avoid the mistake of relying too heavily on their own experiences of democracy.
Burma may have a form of lunacy all its own.
Ne Win, for instance, bathed in dolphins’ blood to regain his youth, Reynolds said. He was also a numerologist so addicted to the power of numbers that he decreed that the national currency, the kyat, would be issued in denominations of 45 and 90 because they were divisible by his lucky number, nine.
In 2005, his successor, Than Shwe, had a bad dream that convinced him that the United States was about to invade Rangoon, Reynolds said. “As a means to protect the capital from this pending invasion, Than Shwe ordered the capital moved from Rangoon to a swamp-infested jungle six hours to the north,” Reynolds said.
The decision, he added, was as foolish as it was strange.
“The country spends billions to build this new capital, which is now Naypyidaw, as if the American military couldn’t find it with GPS,” Reynolds said. “I can find it on my computer with Google maps. And it is decisions like this that have made the military dictatorship there one of the most idiosyncratic and bizarre.”
‘The Burmese Spring’
Such leaders may be laughable, but the hardships and brutality they inflicted on their countries are far from it, Reynolds said.
After Ne Win gained power in 1962, he crushed all opposition and turned Burma into a ruinous one-party state, Reynolds said. Foreign businesses were forced out and their assets were nationalized.
Ne Win’s decision to retire on Aug. 8, 1988 – or 8.8.88 – had the most devastating and far-reaching consequences, Reynolds said. It triggered student protests that would come to be known as the 8888 uprising during which as many as 10,000 demonstrators were killed.
In the years since, the regime curtailed human and political rights and was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. Among the most oppressed are the ethnic groups that ring the country’s borders with Thailand, Laos and China.
One of the largest groups is the Karen (or Kayin), Reynolds said. Over the past decade, some 200 Karen families who gained political asylum in the United States have settled in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, including many who have found employment as University housekeepers, he said.
Inexplicably, the regime began to relax its iron grip on power – a process begun last fall when the government announced it would hold a national election on April 1.
“I was suspicious that this was real change, but every month they did a little bit more,” Reynolds said. “They freed more political prisoners. They really allowed campaigns from opposing parties to go ahead. And when April 1 arrived, they held a real election.”
Reynolds shared this mix of hope and doubt about that election during an April 5 lecture on “The Burmese Spring” at the FedEx Global Education Center.
What he lacked, he said, was a plausible explanation for why the Burmese government seems willing to give up, or at least share power with groups it had long oppressed.
“People have demonstrated in the hundreds of thousands before – in 1977, in 1988 and again in 2007 – and each time they were beaten down and killed,” Reynolds said. “That is how the Burmese Spring is so different from the Arab Spring in the Middle East.
“A popular uprising was not the trigger forcing democratic reforms. These guys in power arrived at this decision on their own. What we have yet to figure out is why.”
One credible theory is that the military government is seeking to gain political and economic leverage from China, which requires “playing nice” with the United States and the rest of the international community, Reynolds said. What is also different now, perhaps, is that the world is finally watching what is going on inside the country in a way it never has before.
Unlike Jong-il, the Burmese military junta had no nuclear weapons program it could use to threaten its neighbors. Unlike countries in the Middle East, it has no oil and harbors no terrorists, although Reynolds said al-Qaeda has a significant presence in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Still, what has finally grabbed the world’s attention is not the country’s geopolitical import so much as its story, Reynolds suggested.
“Right now, and this may change, it has resonance because it has a simple Hollywood-movie story line between black hats and white hats, where the good guys are really good and bad guys are really bad,” he said.
Adding to the power of this story is that the bravest and most beloved white hat wearer is a woman.
The moral force of Mandela
Her name is Aung San Suu Kyi, and if there is any reason to believe in the possibility of a happy ending to this unfolding drama, it is the sheer moral force her name evokes, Reynolds said.
Her father, Aung San, was the revolutionary founder of the Burmese army who was instrumental in bringing about independence from British colonial rule. In 1947, when Suu Kyi was 2, her father was assassinated six months before that independence.
Suu Kyi studied at Oxford University in England where she fell in love with Michael Aris, a leading Western author on Bhutanese, Tibetan and Himalayan culture, whom she later married.
Then, her mother’s poor health led her back to Burma. The year was 1988.
Suu Kyi founded the political party that won the 1990 elections, but the Burmese military refused to accept the results and kept her under house arrest for more than a decade.
Reynolds was in South Africa in 1992 as a young political science student observing the transition of power. He wrote his first books on the subject.
He sees striking similarities between Nelson Mandela and Suu Kyi.
Like Mandela, she won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. “Mandela negotiated with his jailers from prison and he had to bring his party with him while doing so,” Reynolds said. “Suu Kyi has been more conciliatory to the military than the rest of her party, and like Mandela, communicated with her enemies while they kept her under house arrest.”
Now free, she recently returned to Oxford University and has reunited with her children, who grew into adults in her absence, Reynolds said.
She also continues talks with military leaders to find a peaceful path to bring her country closer to democracy, Reynolds said, although that process remains fragile.
No substantive change has occurred.
She is one of 43 members of her party now in the parliament, but the military junta reserved a fixed number of seats for themselves to perpetuate control.
Reynolds explained, “They have no power, but they are there.”
As everywhere, there is a battle between hardliners and moderates in the military, he said. “Some within the military think they are going too far and they won’t be able to hold onto this process – and they are probably right.”
The next election is scheduled for 2015.
“I mean, the white South Africans felt they could hold onto the process, too, until the process overwhelmed them,”
Reynolds said. “I was there when they were trying to do everything they could to give away a little bit of political freedom but still maintain enough power to stay in control.
“They may now be approaching that moment in Burma.”
- Story by Gary Moss