"Burma is not Vietnam" read the neon yellow t-shirts worn by dozens of activists.
What was the slogan supposed to mean?
"It refers to the lifting of sanctions against Burma," he said, explaining that he didn't think the arguments for lifting sanctions against Vietnam in the early '90s applied to Burma today. It was a dig at Senator Jim Webb, chairman of today's meeting. I recalled what Sen.Webb wrote in a NYT op-ed back in August:
As someone who has worked hard to build a bridge between Hanoi and America’s strongly anticommunist Vietnamese community, I believe the greatest factor in creating a more open society inside Vietnam was the removal of America’s trade embargo in 1994."A lot of people you see wearing yellow shirts helped get Webb elected" the activist continued.
The back of the room was packed with people sporting the neon yellow t-shirts.
At least Sen. Webb showed up for the meeting. That is more than could be said for his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee on Burma. In the photos you can see only one seat is occupied. A veteran of senate hearings, a woman from Human Rights Watch, expressed her surprise to me about this.
I have blogged about Burma since 2006, and if I have learned one thing, it's that its problems are not simple. They are overwhelming.
Prof. David Williams of Indiana University testified that the military commits mass atrocities against its people. It has displaced half a million.
But it was not always this way, explained Prof. David Steinberg. "In the 1940s people in Bangkok stomped to Rangoon to go shopping." He added, "Back then, anyone you shared a beer with in old Rangoon would have sworn that Burma, not Thailand or even South Korea, would be the success story."
"One man rule has meant there has been no dissent." The government had not been making informed decisions. "Arbitrary rule, based on ignorance, leads to disaster" added Steinberg.
Yet, despite its many horrors, Burma is not North Korea. Thant Myint-U pointed to religious tolerance and hundreds of NGOs as bright spots. It was also noted that unlike Laos and China, Burma permits an opposition party.
Looking to the future, Prof. Thant Myint-U worried the new generation of leaders coming up through the ranks of the military -- not having had broad experiences -- will have a narrow outlook on affairs. How to open their minds?
More to come.
Top photo shows two of several dozen activists who turned out for the filled-to-capacity meeting room. Middle two photos shows many empty senator-seats. Note, also, the Buddhist monks. Bottom photo shows the only senator who bothered to show up.
*****Update: I decided to investigate why so many senators didn't attend. My findings are posted here.