In Box

You Can't Go Home Again

An exiled journalist returns to a changed Burma.

RANGOON — Sixteen years ago, on a rainy, moonless May night, I left Burma. My friend Thet Win Aung and I had been in hiding, working in the pro-democracy underground, for nearly nine years by that point -- writing, organizing, and pushing for a new politics, led by our hero and confidante, Aung San Suu Kyi. But early that year, we saw the junta's net of military intelligence finally closing in around us, and we made the decision to flee.

That final night, we stayed at Thet Win Aung's Rangoon home, packing our belongings and contacting what friends and family we could. At 3 a.m., we said goodbye to his parents as the monsoon rain poured down. Then we got in a car and headed for the Burma-Thailand border, past checkpoints and guards, out of the low Rangoon flood plain and up into the jungle hills to the east. Little did I know how long it would be -- and how much was to happen -- before I would be able to return to my homeland.

A year later, my friend decided to slip back into Burma to organize a movement calling for national nonviolent reconciliation. He was arrested and sentenced to 59 years in prison. We heard little about Thet Win Aung over the next eight years. I worked as a reporter on the border and in Bangkok, as a visiting scholar in Berkeley, California, and as a journalist in Washington. Thet Win Aung sat in his cell. He died, reportedly broken and beaten, like so many hundreds before him, in detention in October 2006.

Today, Burma is a different place. After decades as a violent military dictatorship and pariah state -- a North Korea on the Irrawaddy -- it is finally seeming to embrace a new democratic political experiment. Over the last two years, the military junta has released its throttlehold on power, freeing hundreds of political prisoners, relaxing restrictions on the media, and finally allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled there last year in a historic gesture of a budding new relationship between Washington and Naypyidaw. So, in that spirit, I finally went home too, to see my old friends -- and to try to understand if and how Burma had really changed.

One of the first places I visited after arriving last December was Thet Win Aung's house. His parents are old now, but gracious and courageous. He and I had been childhood friends growing up in Rangoon, and we spent our teenage years together, playing guitar and soccer. When Burma's democratic struggle burst into the streets in 1988, we were high school students, and we became active helping to organize the student-led democratic uprisings that summer. For our efforts, we were summarily kicked out of school. For years after that, we lived underground, moving from house to house, disguising our identities, always looking over our shoulders. His parents had been supportive, and when I returned from my long exile they greeted me warmly and we sat for hours trying to assemble the missing pieces of his story.

In 1998, his mother had no idea that he had returned to the country, she told me, and was caught completely off guard when she saw her son's face on state-run TV next to officials announcing his arrest. The news came as her husband was heading back home from a visit to Thet Win Aung's brother, another well-known activist then languishing in a remote prison. They had been consoled, up until then, by the thought that at least their other son was living beyond the harm of the regime in a Thai border town. They told me that his life could have been saved if prison officials had responded in a timely fashion when he collapsed in his cell. I felt searing guilt. I knelt down and paid my respects in the Buddhist fashion, said goodbye, and left. But my mind was heavy, weighed down by a sense of unfinished business.

Not all my encounters were so sad. My wife and my family invited our relatives, neighborhood friends, and teachers to join us for a reunion at a Rangoon monastery. There were greetings, cheers, hugs, and tears. Old memories resurfaced. Our 9-month-old daughter, born in America, was the real center of attention. My cell phone rang again and again. "Do you know who this is?" the callers kept saying. "Oh, you don't even recognize my voice!" Again, I felt pangs of guilt: It's hard remembering people's faces and voices after nearly two decades of forced separation, but they refused to accept that we had ever really been apart. "We always listened to your programs on the shortwave radio." "We saw you on TV." "We just read your article." It was a transcendent experience. But they were wrong: Time passes and we forget; things do change.

THE PHYSICAL LANDSCAPE of Rangoon -- my old neighborhood, even my high school -- had been transformed to such an extent that I hardly recognized it. My family's old house turned out to be badly in need of repairs. When I was growing up in the 1980s, it was one of a few concrete two-story buildings in a neighborhood of low, traditional wood houses. In exile, I often recalled lying on the balcony, enjoying the sun and breeze. Today, seven-story apartment buildings cast long shadows over our house, and the population on my small street has increased by a factor of 10. The city feels crowded in a way it didn't before. People visibly suffer from poverty and disease. There are beggars and the homeless, refugees from the ethnic areas to the east and from up north. Over the past two decades, Burma has seen an intense polarization: There are the rich and the poor, but few in between. There are the soldiers and the pro-democracy activists, but no one in the middle.

Yet it's now a place where I can feel free. I can't explain how odd this was. Back in the early 1990s, I couldn't make a turn at an intersection without reflexively looking behind to see whether someone from military intelligence was trailing me. It was a habit that stuck with me even after I arrived in Thailand. As I walked through the streets of Rangoon gathering supplies for a homecoming party, I felt the same reflex and, in some way, almost a funny nostalgia for those days.

My house was once a center for the opposition movement. One of my old colleagues, the founder of a political-prisoner support group for exiles, suggested that we all act as if it were a hideout again, just as we'd done some 20 years ago. There were more wrinkles and aching joints this time, but it turned out to be a wonderful evening. My old friends and colleagues, all former political prisoners, kept dropping in. Around 9 p.m., Min Ko Naing, once a chairman of our clandestine student union and now a leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Students Group, walked in. He was dressed just the way he would have been two decades ago: a blue denim jacket and a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his face, as if he were still dodging surveillance. Everyone laughed. But there were holes in our group, Thet Win Aung among them, and we couldn't help missing those taken from us.

Still, nostalgia is not a political program. And the more I spoke with Burma's intellectuals, with the dissidents who had struggled alongside me so many years ago, what I heard was not simply joy about a country finally opening to the world after having been dubbed one of the "outposts of tyranny" by the U.S. government -- but also the striking disappointment, in particular with our beloved Aung San Suu Kyi. People who once went to jail with her name on their lips, ready to die for the cause she represented, now express frustration about the lack of political institutions and viable alternatives within the opposition movement. "All Aung San Suu Kyi has done since 2011 is personalize politics," one famous magazine editor told me in a tea shop in Rangoon. "In a range of crucial policy issues, from her support for the removal of sanctions to her cozy relations with business cronies who benefited from the junta, she never consults other stakeholders in the democracy movement. She plays a one-woman show." I felt a personal sadness in this.

As a high school activist, I had frequently visited the Lady, as Aung San Suu Kyi is reverently known, at her house at No. 54 University Avenue, and had worked closely with her in the wake of the 1988 student uprising. She was the first person I met in our hierarchically structured society who treated younger people with genuine respect. I had met several veteran politicians who saw me more as an eager grandson; our meetings ended with teas, cakes, and other snacks, but substantive political issues were off the table. Aung San Suu Kyi was totally different. She called me Ko Min Zin (Ko is a respectful prefix for a young male adult), and she listened to, argued against, and laughed with me -- a bright-eyed 15-year-old, the same age as her son.

Today, however, even among those who love and respect Aung San Suu Kyi, her sainthood appears tarnished by an increasing aloofness and distance from the rest of the political opposition. Her leadership style makes her unapproachable. In the party congress of her National League for Democracy, held in March -- the first in more than 20 years -- she alone handpicked her central executive committee. But even worse than this worrying authoritarian streak, she seems willing, even eager, to please the former generals at the expense of moral and political principles. One of the most striking examples is her silence on the racist discrimination and violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Burma. She has also avoided criticizing the Burmese army's brutal war in Kachin state against Kachin ethnic rebels fighting for a degree of autonomy from a government that has long tried to assimilate them by force. Her position has outraged many ethnic minority groups that once lent their support to the Lady in her fight against the military junta. Again and again, I heard the refrain from the activists of my youth: We cannot give up the principles for which we have fought for so long. Otherwise, what do we even stand for anymore?

But though her stature among political elites and intellectuals is dwindling, Aung San Suu Kyi is still highly popular among the general public. In teahouses and on the street, I was struck by how many people with whom I spoke still seem to expect the solutions to our political problems to come from great heroes like Aung San Suu Kyi or current President Thein Sein -- not from institutions. And I realized that it's something uniquely rooted in Burmese history and our Buddhist tradition. We are looking to "the good king" as the panacea for all the country's chronic ills. But there is no good king.

AFTER A WEEK or so in Rangoon, my family and I traveled north to Bagan, one of the centers of ancient Burmese civilization. Founded in the 11th century by King Anawrahta, this is where Theravada Buddhism, the national religion, took root in central Burma. It's a vast plain of red earth, low trees, and scrub brush, dotted with upwards of 2,200 gracefully decaying pagodas and temples. Modern-day Burma is still very much under the spell of Bagan, both in terms of political culture and religious practice. Perhaps it's here, in this landscape ruled by outsized kings and legendary warriors, that you can understand why the cult of the great leader still shapes Burma today.

As the sun began to set, we wandered into the 11th-century Manuha Temple, built by a king defeated in war by Anawrahta. With the permission of the victor, who had taken him prisoner, King Manuha built a temple filled with four massive gold Buddhas enclosed in spaces much too small for them. They fill the cramped interiors, leaving barely enough room for visitors to sit and pray. They are said to represent the feeling of being under detention, and when you enter, it's true: The claustrophobia of captivity was palpable. I thought about my friend, Thet Win Aung, and his long, cruel years in a cramped, barren cell. And I looked up at the shimmering gold Buddha and wondered about our new political gods: Do they still imprison my people, not in jails, but by crowding out everything else?

At the temple's dedication almost 1,000 years ago, the vanquished King Manuha prayed, "Wherever I travel in the cycle of rebirth, may I never again be the prisoner of another." I said a prayer of my own: that we, the Burmese people, may never again be the prisoners of tyrants -- democrats or otherwise.

Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images

In Box

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Democracy is in retreat. And there's a surprising culprit.

Over the past two years, the world's attention has been captured by previously unimaginable -- even rapturous -- changes throughout parts of the Arab world, Africa, and Asia, where political openings have been born in some of the most repressive and unlikely societies on Earth. In Burma, where only six years ago a thuggish junta ordered the shooting of red-robed monks in the streets, the past two years have seen a formal, and seemingly real, transition to a civilian democratic government. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, longtime autocrats were toppled by popular revolutions, and citizens in these states seemed at last to be enjoying the trappings of freedom.

"The Arab Spring is the triumph of democracy," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, told the Guardian in 2012. The Arab peoples "have come up with their own answer to violent extremism and the abusive regimes we've been propping up. It's called democracy," wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Don't believe the hype. In reality, democracy is going into reverse. While some countries in Africa, the Arab world, and Asia have opened slightly in the past two years, in other countries once held up as examples of political change democratic meltdowns have become depressingly common. In fact, Freedom House found that global freedom dropped in 2012 for the seventh year in a row, a record number of years of consistent decline.

The Arab Spring has not only led to dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family digging in across the region, but it has also pushed autocrats around the world to take a harder line with their populations -- whether it's China censoring even vague code words for protest or Russia passing broad new treason laws and harassing human rights NGOs. As Arch Puddington, Freedom House's vice president for research, put it, "Our findings point to the growing sophistication of modern authoritarians.… Especially since the Arab Spring, they are nervous, which accounts for their intensified persecution of popular movements for change."

But it's not the Arab Spring alone that's to blame. According to Freedom House, democracy's "forward march" actually peaked around the beginning of the 2000s. A mountain of evidence supports that gloomy conclusion. One of the most comprehensive studies of global democracy, the Bertelsmann Foundation's Transformation Index, has declared that "the overall quality of democracy has deteriorated" throughout the developing world. The index found that the number of "defective" and "highly defective democracies" -- those with institutions, elections, and political culture so flawed that they hardly resemble real democracies -- was up to 52 in 2012.  

In another major survey, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, democracy deteriorated in 48 of 167 countries surveyed in 2011. "The dominant pattern globally over the past five years has been backsliding," the report says. We're not just talking about the likes of Pakistan and Zimbabwe here. Thirteen countries on the Transformation Index qualified as "highly defective democracies," countries with such a lack of opportunity for opposition voices, such problems with the rule of law, and such unrepresentative political structures that they are now little better than autocracies.

Even countries often held up as new democratic models have regressed over the past decade. When they entered the European Union in 2004, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia were considered success stories. After nearly a decade as EU members, however, all of these bright lights have dimmed. Populist and far-right parties with little commitment to democratic norms gained steady popularity; public distaste for democracy increased; and governments showed more willingness to crack down on activists. Hungary has deteriorated so badly that its press freedoms rate barely better than they were under the communists.

Meanwhile, as European democracy falters, old-fashioned coups are returning elsewhere. In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, coups had become rare by the late 1990s. But between 2006 and 2012, militaries grabbed power in Bangladesh, Fiji, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Thailand, among others. In places like Ecuador, Mexico, Pakistan, and the Philippines, where the military did not launch an outright coup, it still managed to restore its power as a central actor in political life.

This is also true across the Middle East, where the Arab uprisings appear to be entrenching the power of militaries, sparking massive unrest, scaring middle-class liberals into exodus, and empowering Islamist majorities. Protesters may have bravely challenged leaders from Yemen to Egypt, but it's the loyalty of the military that has determined whether these rulers stay in power.

SO WHAT WENT wrong? Let's start by blaming an unlikely culprit: the middle class. Contrary to the modernization theories of Samuel Huntington, Seymour Martin Lipset, and most Western world leaders, who have long argued that the growth of the middle class in developing countries is a boon to democratization, it hasn't worked out that way.

In theory, as the middle class expands, men and women should become more educated and more demanding of greater economic, social, and ultimately political freedoms. And once a country reaches the per capita GDP of a middle-income country, it should rarely if ever return to authoritarian rule. "In virtually every country [that has democratized] the most active supporters of democratization came from the urban middle class," Huntington wrote. Or consider the words of Russian economist Sergei Guriev, who declared just this past January that his country's booming middle class has become "too well-educated and too determined to enjoy increases in their quality of life" not to force an end to President Vladimir Putin's creeping authoritarianism. "They will demand that the Russian government is less corrupt and more accessible," Guriev said.

But they're not succeeding. Sure, it's true that the middle class globally is exploding; the World Bank estimates that between 1990 and 2005, the middle class tripled in size in developing countries in Asia, and in Africa it grew by a third over the past decade, according to the African Development Bank Group. Today, roughly 70 million people worldwide each year begin to earn enough to join the middle class.

It seems, however, that this new global middle is choosing stability over all else. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the rising middle class has often supported the military as a bulwark against popular democracy, fearing that it might empower the poor, the religious, and the less-educated. In research for my book, I studied every coup attempt in the past 10 years in the developing world and then analyzed a comprehensive range of local polls and media. I found that in 50 percent of cases, middle-class men and women either agitated in advance for coups or subsequently expressed their wholehearted support for the army takeover. This is a shockingly high percentage, given that in many of these countries, such as Pakistan and Thailand, the middle class had originally been at the forefront of trying to get the army out of politics.

And in many countries, middle classes have increasingly come to disdain norms of democratic culture such as using elections, not violent demonstrations, to change leaders. From Bolivia to Venezuela to the Philippines, middle classes have turned to street protests or appeals to the judiciary to try to remove elected leaders.

And the trend is only growing stronger. Opinion polling from many developing countries shows that not only is the quality of democracy declining, but public views of democracy are deteriorating. The respected Globalbarometer series uses extensive questionnaires to ask people about their views on democracy. It has found declining levels of support for democracy throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. In Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, the story is the same. In Kyrgyzstan, which despite its flaws remains the most democratic state in Central Asia, a majority of the population did not think that a political opposition is very or somewhat important. And recent polls show that only 16 percent of Russians surveyed said that it was "very important" that their country be governed democratically. Likewise, in Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Peru, either a minority or only a tiny majority of people thinks democracy is preferable to any other type of government.

Global economic stagnation since the 2008 crash has only weakened public support for democracy. New middle classes have been hit hard by the malaise, particularly in Eastern Europe. A comprehensive study of Central and Eastern Europe by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development released in 2011 found that the crisis severely lowered support for democracy in all 10 of the new EU countries. "Those who enjoyed more freedoms wanted less democracy and markets when they were hurt by the crisis," the report noted.

Even in Asia, one of the world's most economically vibrant and globalized regions, polls show rising dissatisfaction with democracy -- what some researchers have termed "authoritarian nostalgia." Indonesia, for example, is considered by many to be the democratic success story of the 2000s. Yet vote-buying and corruption among elected politicians have begun to wear. In a 2011 study, only 13 percent of respondents thought that the current group of democratic politicians was doing a better job than leaders during the era of Suharto's authoritarianism.

Even where democracy has deeper roots, disillusionment with the political process has exploded in recent years. From hundreds of thousands of Indians demonstrating against corruption to Israelis camping in the streets of Tel Aviv to protest their leaders' lack of interest in basic economic issues to the French pushing back against government austerity measures, middle classes are increasingly turning to street protests to make their points. "Our parents are grateful because they're voting," one young woman told a reporter in Spain, where unemployment now tops 50 percent for young people. "We're the first generation to say that voting is worthless."

In his second inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama, like every U.S. president for decades, spoke of America's role in helping promote democracy around the globe. "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom," he declared. Obama may have the best of intentions, but in reality there is little he can do. The sad, troubling regression of democracy in developing countries isn't something that America can fix -- because it has to be fixed at home too.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images