Memory, indeed, has many uses: "Democracy is not strange for our people. Before 1962 we had many experiences with democracy and democratic government. So we are ready. But we have to make it" -- he searches for the right word -- "sustainable."
That's precisely the challenge. Burma's rulers -- most of them, at least -- understand that the cost of maintaining absolute power can only be extremely high. "They can control the military, they can control the parliament, but they cannot control the public," says Zarganar. But that's not the whole story.
The leaders are also aware of the desire for revenge harbored by many of their own citizens, and that fear compels them to tread cautiously. For all the progress that Burma has made within the past few months, many of the most repressive laws of the old regime remain on the books. "They let me out of prison but my sentence remains in effect," Zarganar says. "I still have 31 years and four months to go. If I'm arrested again, I'll have to serve the rest." Under current law, you can still receive decades of jail time for reading or writing an email deemed to be subversive by the government.
Zarganar prefers to look forward. He wants to see a Burma that respects both the economic interests and cultural identities of the ethnic minorities. He wants to see a country that allows its own people to prepare themselves for active participation in the global community. And though he declines to join a political party for the moment, he does not rule out the possibility of one day running for political office. If all goes well, he says, Burma could achieve the status of a full-fledged democracy by the year 2020.
That seems optimistic. But if this man can summon up optimism, surely the rest of us can.