No one knows yet how the Saffron Revolution will be remembered. The protest movement in Burma is still fresh, the memories still alive. The trajectory is well-known. In mid-August, when about four hundred people marched to protest a sharp hike in fuel prices, it was the largest demonstration Burma has seen in years. In early September, with protests steadily growing, military soldiers beat three monks while suppressing a peaceful demonstration, leading the newly formed All Burma Monks Alliance to call for an end to military rule. On September 24, hundreds of thousands of civilians rallied around tens of thousands of monks as protests reached their height. Three days later, the expected crackdown arrived. Soldiers turned automatic weapons on non-violent protesters, causing several hundred deaths. Monasteries were raided in the night, prominent dissidents arrested, tortured, even in some cases killed, and internet and phone lines severed. The resulting information blackout has led the international media to focus on issues of international diplomacy—on events in New York, rather than on the streets of Rangoon, but the question remains: What is next for the movement?
First, we must be clear: the movement has not failed. And while organizers in Burma regroup, grassroots activists around the world must continue to press for concrete action from the United Nations and other actors. As protests in Burma reached their height, activists at Columbia turned up nightly in front of Butler Library for candlelight vigils. New faces came, new faces went, and again new faces came. We all burned candles, expressing our solidarity for the movement in Burma. Faces lit by jumping flames spoke of news accounts and video footage, of photographs and radio broadcasts. When the crackdown arrived, we spoke a bit more quietly, and we tempered the tone of hope. But a sense of energy and commitment colored our words, and we took our movement beyond the Columbia gates: at the Burmese Mission, the Chinese Mission, and the United Nations, Columbia students have joined the group of activists supporting and prolonging the Saffron Revolution. There is a sense in which the moment of deliverance—the moment that could liberate Burma from the military regime in power since 1962—remains very much at our fingertips. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's opposition movement, remains imprisoned, but the possibility of genuine dialogue with the regime is more apparent than ever before, and finally the UN has begun to work concretely towards democratic reform.
Despite these suggestions of progress, the crackdown in Burma has largely succeeded in limiting media coverage of the revolutionary movement. Without their images of fist-pumping protesters or blood-strained streets, mass media sources have turned away from the scene of the crime. Sadly, the eyes of the world go with them. There is word that the movement is "re-energizing," yet no BBC or New York Times reporters are on hand to spread this word.
The absence of media attention at this critical moment challenges the idea that this revolution has depended on the media. Indeed, we are hesitant to believe, as many do, that the Saffron Revolution has been a triumph of media coverage. True, as the movement neared its height on and around September 24, new media forms enabled unprecedented documentation. The world's major media outlets were getting their news largely from Burmese bloggers inside the country, jubilant protesters taking camera phone pictures, and DIY video footage being posted on Youtube. The BBC constantly set Burma at the top of its news programs, and the New York Times' front page was awash in images of saffron. And with such intense media coverage, we believed that maybe this time—unlike in 1988, before the internet and camera phones—the military regime would wither under the glare of the media, and refrain from using force to suppress the protesters. Not so. Just as Youtube captured demonstrations choking entire city districts, so too did Youtube capture the last moments of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai's life, as a junta soldier knocked him to the ground and put two bullets in his body. Our new world of technological innovation has not ossified barbarism—it has simply made it easier to document.
We know now that mass media could not prevent atrocity in Burma, but we should have known it long before. Walter Ong, Jay Martin, and (most famously) Susan Sontag each described how the visual experience of an image is based on the distance between the subject and the object, the viewer and the viewed. To behold an image is to behold it at arm's length, to know it as a reproduction from afar. The image intrinsically underlines the space any prospective action must cross. When we looked upon images from Burma, then—the photos and video of protests in the street, and dead bodies in swamps—perhaps what we really saw was "something happening far away." Instead of acting, instead of traversing the gulf those images presented, we assumed the images would be enough: as long as they exist, we told ourselves, the regime will not load its guns. We were wrong.
The universal eye of the Western human rights activist has not at all destroyed totalitarianism, and neither has its information agent, the modern mass media. Documentation is not an end in itself—it is valuable only insofar as consumers thereof take action. In New York City, we have tried to act upon what we learned: keeping international attention on Burma is important, but it is only a start.
Columbia's own Burma 88 Coalition, along with many other Burma groups—the US Campaign for Burma, Burma Point, the New York Burma Strike Committee, the Coalition for Regime Change in Burma, and quite a few more—have begun aiming protests at the Burmese Mission, the Chinese Mission, and the United Nations.
Increasingly, the focal point of grassroots action has become the Chinese government, which is using political, economic, and military might to preserve the Burmese military junta. As an arms supplier, a major foreign investor—primarily in the extractive industries—?and the leader of efforts to block all Security Council action on Burma, China has exhibited nearly unqualified support for the junta. Burma's generals know that China's sponsorship is crucial to their survival: in 2007, the junta chose to forgo an estimated $8.4 billion in natural gas exports in order to keep China's international support, primarily by selling large, newfound natural gas reserves to China rather than India. As a result, Burma advocates largely agree: freeing Burma means moving China.
Already, there have been small signs of progress. On October 11, the Security Council finally passed its first unanimous condemnation of the Burmese junta's violent suppression of peaceful protests. China weakened the language of the resolution, but did not veto it?—unlike in January, for example, when China vetoed the first-ever attempt by the Security Council to intervene in Burma. For grassroots organizers this shift is only a beginning, and a sign that increasing pressure on China can be successful.
A major point of leverage against China is the summer 2008 Beijing Olympics. Like Darfur activists decrying China's substantial trade with Sudan, Burma activists all over the world are threatening to boycott the Beijing Olympics if China does not relinquish its sponsorship of the Burmese junta. In New York, this work has manifested itself as a postcard campaign: every week for the foreseeable future, we will deliver to the Chinese Mission thousands upon thousands of postcards revealing New Yorkers' support for an Olympics boycott. In early October, a rally in Union Square drew hundreds of supporters bearing red flowers in tribute to those who have recently sacrificed their freedoms or their lives in Burma. We collected more than one thousand postcards pledging a boycott of Beijing. (There are, though, well-intentioned activists who oppose an Olympic boycott. They argue that activists ought to use the spectacle of the Olympics to highlight China's abuses for all the world to see. A boycott, they argue, would be a missed opportunity. This is a healthy debate.) Simply put, the gift to China that is the Olympics is too generous to give without strings attached.
Though media attention has largely turned elsewhere, it is clear to us that the Saffron Revolution remains very much alive.
As we stand with the movement, and particularly as China comes under increasing international pressure, we must be unequivocal: the voice of a people has an eloquence that no crackdown can ever fully suppress. Burma's monks, and the citizens who marched with them, crafted a protest movement of tremendous power and beauty. We mean to honor this movement the best way we know how—by acting upon the movement's demands, by working towards a new Burma free of military rule. And despite a long history of dictatorship, we are right to act with a sense of confidence. For as Aung San Suu Kyi has said, "There will be change, because all the military have are guns."