Rebels Without a Clue

Why can't the Syrian opposition get its act together?

ISTANBUL — Omar Muqdad can usually be found smoking and drinking coffee all night in an empty room in Istanbul or Ankara. As a longtime Syrian activist, he can access senior Syrian opposition leaders, as well as their network of supporters around the world, with a phone call. He enjoys a sterling reputation among the activists and defected soldiers who risk their lives daily along the Turkey-Syria border.

But over the months, Muqdad's frustration with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the body intended to serve as the political representation of the Syrian opposition, has grown. He has diligently traveled around Turkey, arranging coverage of the Syrian uprising by major media outlets, holding meetings in Western embassies, and coordinating with activists inside the country. In the meantime, he has come to see the SNC as disorganized, disconnected from the Syrians on the ground, and out of step with the broad spectrum of Syrian society.

"We know it is impossible to be 100 percent representative of the nation or the opposition," Muqdad told me. "[But the SNC] does not know the principles of running the opposition."

Last weekend, defected soldiers belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) waged fierce battles with the Syrian military in the suburbs of Damascus, stirring activists' hopes that the end of President Bashar al-Assad's regime is closer than had been expected. The U.N. Security Council is also meeting this week to consider a new resolution that could condemn the regime for the violence and possibly endorse an Arab League plan that would lay out a blueprint for the transition of power. Even as Syria's revolution gains speed, though, the SNC's struggles may hinder international action against the Syrian regime.

It's not only Muqdad whose initial optimism regarding Syria's organized opposition has faded. A wide range of activists and diplomats are voicing concerns with the SNC, criticizing its lack of cohesion and effectiveness. While the majority of them have not given up on the council, they paint a picture of an organization out of touch with the protesters on the ground and dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

"No one from the SNC has influence inside Syria. Most members of the SNC are jumping on a train that started from the street," says Ammar Qurabi, a Syrian human rights activist, arguing that SNC leaders are trying to use the momentum of the demonstrations to take political power. Qurabi refuses to work with the SNC and plans to launch his own opposition group in early February.

The SNC is composed of a nine-person executive committee, sitting on top of an approximately 250-person body. The organization's leadership is primarily made up of Sunni Arabs, and though it has made an effort to include members of other sects and ethnicities, few are present on the council.

Qurabi notes that the SNC has been particularly negligent in incorporating members of Assad's Alawite sect. "No Alawite on the executive council -- that is a scandal," he says. "Especially when we fight Assad, who says, 'I am Alawite. I protect Alawites'?"

Diplomats have also criticized the SNC for focusing too much on building support for foreign intervention and neglecting ties with the grassroots movements that have driven the revolt. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drove home this message after meeting with SNC leaders on Dec. 6, saying that a transition in Syria "is more than removing the Assad regime" and must include the establishment of the rule of law and protection of minority rights.

"Syrians will have to use their own hands," says an Ankara-based Western diplomat. While Western governments have provided the Syrian opposition with some political training and technical support, such as communications equipment, the diplomat said that military intervention from the United States, Turkey, or Arab states remains unlikely in the next six months.

Indeed, the SNC's difficulty winning over Syria's minority groups has decreased the chance of foreign intervention. More aggressive action would likely only be possible, the diplomat told me, after Western countries recognized the SNC as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people -- a step that is currently impossible given the fractious state of the opposition.

The latest spasm of violence has also raised questions about whether -- if the conflict is increasingly defined as a guerrilla war -- Syrian military defectors will usurp the role played by the SNC.

"The Free Syrian Army could leave them in the dust unless the SNC can do something for the FSA," the diplomat worries.

Admittedly, many of the difficulties that have plagued the SNC have been beyond its control. Its mission has been badly hampered by 40 years of repression by the Assad regime, which fractured Syria's political forces and created an atmosphere of mutual distrust. According to Samir Nashar, a member of the SNC's executive committee, the process of bridging these divides has been slowed by a lack of funds. "We mostly depend on our pockets and some donations," he says.

The Syrian regime's domestic repression is also the reason that the SNC leadership lives in exile and why the council has had difficulty building connections to those on the ground. "Very few would go back and have popular support," says Enana Bisan, a Christian member of the SNC living in Turkey. Bisan told me she "just woke one day" to find herself part of the council, because of its need for minorities.

But other wounds have been self-inflicted. One particularly damaging stumble occurred when SNC Chairman Burhan Ghalioun signed a draft agreement with the National Coordination Committee, a Syrian opposition group largely based inside the country, in an attempt to unite the two groups. The agreement rejected foreign military intervention and called for dialogue with the regime, conditions that infuriated many Syrian activists. In the face of widespread opposition, Ghalioun backed away from the agreement.

"They lost a lot of prestige [because of the deal]," says Malik Al-Abdeh, editor of the London-based opposition channel Barada TV. "[That] hurt the SNC big time."

The most divisive issue surrounding the SNC, however, clearly remains the prominent role played by the Muslim Brotherhood. "The Muslim Brotherhood is the only party in town," says the Ankara-based Western diplomat.

The Brothers have been exiled from Syria for 30 years after losing a bitter armed conflict with the regime in the 1980s, and some activists distrust its outlook on democracy and the future composition of a post-Assad government. Muqdad's initial optimism about the SNC faded, he says, when he realized the extent of the Brotherhood's dominance. While he has been in close touch with Western diplomats, he thinks that non-SNC members have been blocked from speaking publicly and that the SNC takes credit for activities that it was not involved in.

"We have no problem with [the Brotherhood] as a political party," explains Muqdad, a Sunni Muslim who joined the opposition in 1999 and claims to have spent years living underground. "[But] they are using the wrong ways to lead."

Muqdad notes that the SNC has taken some positive steps recently, such as including the well-known Christian opposition politician George Sabra in its ranks. He fears, however, that the revolution for which thousands of Syrians have died would fail if an unrepresentative government took power in the post-Assad era.

"It happened to us one time before. That's how the regime came to be in power in Syria," he says. "We don't want to go back to the same story and the same game. The people paid in a lot of blood, and we will not allow that to happen again. It's a simple way: Just come and sit with the people, all the opposition, as equals."

The Brotherhood's prominence has also opened old wounds with former members of the Syrian military, who had counted the Islamist movement as its primary domestic foe before the current revolt. A defected Syrian soldier in the Free Officers Movement, which is aligned with the Free Syrian Army but does not take orders from it, describes the Brotherhood as "malignant."

"[The Free Officers Movement] has a limited relation with the SNC because they are controlled by the Muslim Brothers," he told me.

The officer, a Sunni, said that the Brotherhood's presence was particularly problematic in Syria due to the large number of minorities in the country. It would be difficult to convince minorities, especially the Alawites, that their rights would be guaranteed with the Muslim Brotherhood steering the political opposition, he says.

Mohammed Farouk Tayfour, the deputy secretary-general of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, insists that his movement will cooperate fairly with other opposition groups.

"The Muslim Brotherhood throughout history always worked with others," he told me. He gave examples such as the 1947 parliamentary elections, in which the Brothers ran on electoral lists with a range of candidates, and described how some Christians hid Muslim Brothers in their homes during Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's 1982 massacre in Hama.

The SNC is also well aware of these hurdles, and its leadership says that it is taking steps to improve. Nashar, the SNC executive committee member, says that he first met the Brotherhood's political leadership in September and that all parties are willing to make concessions so that all the elements within the SNC can work together. "I believe I can build bridges with a large number of Islamists," Nashar insists. "The SNC is increasingly united."

Despite its flaws, the council derives its legitimacy as protesters' lifeline to the outside world. Most activists continue to see it as the only opposition body that has managed to make their fundamental demands -- the complete removal of the Assad regime and support for some sort of foreign intervention to make that possible -- heard at high levels in the international arena.

"We have what we call in Arabic saqf al-matalib, the ceiling of demands. The SNC is the only opposition that has managed to reach the highest level of demands [of activists]," says Rami Jarrah, a Syrian activist who often goes by the pseudonym Alexander Page.

But for the exhausted corps of Syrian activists, who have spent the past 10 months risking their lives for the revolution, there is still a long way to go. The increasing violence in Syria and the uncertainty of outside help mean the SNC needs to get its act together. Only then will Syria avoid a potential bloodbath when Assad falls -- and can activists get some much-deserved rest.

"All Syrians have the mentality that they want to be president," Muqdad says. "Except me. I want to be on Miami Beach."



The Prisoners' Dilemma

While Myanmar's reforms this year may appear speedy to outside observers, for its imprisoned activists, the changes are long overdue. 

YANGON, Myanmar – For four and a half years, the only two human beings Ko Ko Gyi saw each day were a prison guard and the man who brought him his meals. The famed Burmese democracy activist spent the better part of the past two decades behind bars -- first for his leadership in the 1988 student-led democracy movement, and later for his role in the 2007 anti-government protests that became known as the Saffron Revolution. Most recently, in November 2008, he was sentenced to 65 years and six months in prison, in part for emailing three political statements.

Then, on the morning of Friday, Jan. 13, as he sat in a remote prison in east Shan State, the prison warden came to his cell with a long-awaited piece of news: He, along with 651 other prisoners in cells around Myanmar, would be set free. That afternoon, he boarded a plane back to the old capital.

The following evening, I met Ko Ko Gyi at the Yangon apartment of Mya Aye, another leader in the 1988 student movement who had also just been released from prison. Set in a quiet east Yangon neighborhood, the modest apartment was full of glass cabinets cluttered with books and stacked porcelain dishes. A large stuffed tiger sprawled out in the corner. The two men sat on sofas in the living room with other old friends, sipping tea and waiting for news of other newly released comrades still in transit from every corner of the country as a Korean soap opera played in the background. It would be a week of emotional reunions for lifelong political activists who were finally seeing, but hardly daring to believe, their country making strides toward real democracy.

That week, the gaunt faces of the "88 Generation" student leaders, as the venerable activists are known here, stared out from the front pages of newspapers, a decision that would have likely gotten editors imprisoned just a year ago. The pace of Myanmar's reforms over the past year has elicited plaudits from the international community, but for Burmese activists, this final push has been decades in the making -- and no one has had to sacrifice more in the fight for democracy than the nation's thousands of political prisoners.

"We love each other more than siblings," Mya Aye said. "Nobody can understand the suffering of those who have been imprisoned again and again, only those who have experienced it."

The 88 Generation Students loom large in Myanmar's decades-long struggle for democracy, their names synonymous with the nation's most famous democratic uprising, which catapulted Aung San Suu Kyi into the public eye for the first time. Shortly after the Burmese military crushed the democratic uprising in 1988, they imprisoned many of the student leaders in Yangon's Insein Prison, said to have the toughest regulations of any prison in the country.

After releasing some of the activists in the two decades that followed, the government rearrested many of them after the 2007 protests. This time, the government took care to cut off any possibility of contact between them, sending them to isolated prisons in remote areas around the country. Some were days' travel from their families in Yangon and denied access to medical care. Now geographically separated, they could only pass messages, mostly about their physical and mental health, through visiting family members.

Then, on Jan. 13, the military-backed government released all of the 88 Generation Student leaders along with dozens of other prominent democracy advocates. Emerging into the sunlight, they were greeted by old friends, family and representatives from Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. World leaders and international observers have embraced the amnesty as another positive sign from President Thein Sein's government, which, in the past year, has initiated reforms including increasing press freedom, opening dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi, and legalizing labor unions.

For the prisoners themselves, the release has brought relief and a reason to be cautiously optimistic, coupled with bitterness for years lost behind bars. "Of course the amnesty is a good thing, but really, we shouldn't have been arrested in the first place," Ko Ko Gyi said with a grim smile.

Many have emerged with chronic health problems and ravaged finances. Min Ko Naing, the leader of the 88 Generation Students, nearly went blind from an eye infection prison authorities refused to treat. Their families have also paid a high price. Zaw Thet Htwe, another '88 democracy activist and the former editor of a popular sports magazine, spent four years in Taunggyi prison in Shan State before being released on Jan. 13. He had been arrested twice before and spent months on death row. After an overnight journey back to Yangon, his wife and five-year-old daughter, born just months before his arrest, greeted him at the airport. His daughter threw her arms around him in the arrivals hall and mistakenly called him "uncle," his wife told me with a laugh. ("I believed I'd never see my daughter grow up," he said.)

At Taunggyi, Zaw Thet Htwe said he had more freedom than during his previous stint at more restrictive Insein. By the beginning of 2011, restrictions were loosened, allowing him brief periods outside to play pick-up games of soccer with other inmates. They were even allowed to watch movies from a recent Yangon film festival where films, for the first time, were not censored -- "I saw them before my wife did," he said. Still, these privileges were little comfort. All Zaw Thet Htwe could think about was his daughter growing up without him. He spent afternoons hunched over a notebook, composing long poems about her in a neat, measured hand. "In those days, this is what kept a hope and energy in my heart," he said.

He didn't quite believe he was being released until his car ride into town after leaving the prison gates, he said. The NLD members who greeted him and other newly released prisoners flanked the car on motorcycles and blared their horns, announcing their release to the world. "My happiness came out bigger and bigger on that car ride," he said.

Like Zaw Thet Htwe, journalist Sithu Zeya, 22, said his first reaction to hearing news of his release was utter disbelief. Twice last year, groups of prisoners had walked free as part of the government's amnesty program, leaving him crushed at being left behind. Then, finally, the prison's warden posted the list of prisoners to be released Jan. 13. His name was on it.

"Even though I was released, I wasn't completely happy," said Sithu Zeya, who had worked secretly as a video journalist for the Thailand-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma. "When I was taken away from my cell, I felt sorry for those still inside." Many still left in prison, he believes, are ethnic leaders. Myanmar's government continues to deny the existence of political prisoners, claiming that those in prison are just criminals.

The story of Sithu Zeya's arrest began at his journalism teacher's home in April 2010 in Yangon, during the Burmese New Year water festival. Hearing the sounds of grenade blasts, he grabbed his camera and ran outside to photograph images of the aftermath. The police arrested him shortly after. They beat him and denied him sleep, food and water. He was eventually sentenced to a total of 18 years.

He spent the first year and a half in Insein. He was only allowed to leave his 9 foot by 7 foot cell for an hour each morning, during which he would pace the prison's narrow corridor. He read whenever and whatever he could, particularly old issues of Reader's Digest, which were judged by authorities to be sufficiently apolitical. Desperately lonely, he once pretended to have the flu so he could enter the infirmary -- his only chance at fleeting contact with other prisoners.

I met Sithu Zeya at his family's apartment last week with his friend Kaung Myat Hlaing, also 22, a fellow political prisoner he had befriended during that trip to the infirmary. Both had been released on Jan. 13. Kaung Myat Hlaing was arrested and tortured in 2010 for spreading anti-government information online. He worries he will never be allowed to return to university because of his criminal record. Still, the two were adamant about returning to work as quickly as possible. Sithu Zeya said he plans to continue to work as a journalist -- though with greater press freedoms in place, this time, he hopes to find a position in domestic media.

It remains to be seen whether President Thein Sein's promise to allow the released political prisoners to participate in "nation building" is genuine. Whatever the case, the eight I interviewed all planned to return to political activism, journalism and creative pursuits, holding out a guarded optimism that they could do so, this time, in the open. Mya Aye said he hoped the 88 Generation Students could now communicate directly with the government instead of organizing protests. Zaw Thet Htwe is at work on a script for a film depicting the life of General Aung San, which he will make in collaboration with his friend, the Burmese comedian Zarganar, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the general's daughter -- a project that would have been unthinkable a year ago.

"As '88 students, our mission is here in Myanmar," Mya Aye said. "We are not afraid to be caught. We are doing the right thing."

He recalled a feeling of naiveté when first entering activism in 1988. "When I was younger, I didn't understand much about politics," he said. "I just couldn't tolerate injustice. That's why I joined the movement."

The amnesty has not come without conditions. According to agreements some said they signed before their release, if convicted of another crime, they would be forced to serve out the remainder of their sentences -- no matter how minor the infraction. It's no small matter in a country where even failing to notify officials of visiting houseguests can result in imprisonment. "I don't think it can be called a genuine amnesty," Mya Aye said. "What has been done in the past hasn't been completely erased."

Zaw Thet Htwe echoed the sentiment. "I want to believe that I'm totally free, but I can't trust 100 percent," he said. "I believe the president is an honest and righteous person, but he is not the only one in the government."

Eight days after their release, the 88 Generation Students held a press conference on the seventh floor of a mall in Yangon. About 500 mostly Burmese journalists and supporters sat on pink plastic chairs or crowded around the activists with cameras. Clad in dress shirts and dark longyis, the group's leaders made impassioned statements on cessation of ethnic conflicts, release of the remaining political prisoners, and their support for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party, to thunderous applause. A statement handed out to the press said the group would "participate to the fullest extent with the government led by the president, the parliament, military, political parties and ethnic minority groups for the emergence of democracy, peace and development."

It was their first public appearance together since 2007. Just a year ago, the very names of the 88 Generation Students could be uttered in public only in hushed tones. I also found it remarkable that none of the dissidents I interviewed believed they were under government surveillance or that their phones were tapped. "Even if they are watching me, I don't care anymore," Mya Aye said. "I have nothing to hide."

One evening, I walked back to my hotel with a Burmese journalist I know. Yangon's streets were crowded with diners sitting at low plastic tables, drinking bowls of noodle soup and cups of strong, milky tea. A few street vendors were selling laminated portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi from blankets stretched out on the sidewalk. I commented to my friend that outsiders have been shocked by how quickly the reforms over the past year have taken place, one after the other.

My friend let out a short, bitter laugh.

"Quick?" he asked. "How many people died fighting for this in 1988 and 2007? How many thousands of people?"