Three Groups Oppose Myanmar's Government Opposition movements from Africa to Russia and beyond are making news about their struggle. Bridget Welsh of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University says the monks protesting in Myanmar are one of three opposition groups protesting there.
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Three Groups Oppose Myanmar's Government

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Three Groups Oppose Myanmar's Government

Three Groups Oppose Myanmar's Government

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

This week, we're giving some time to the opposition. From Africa to Russia and beyond, critics of governments have been making news or struggling to. Just yesterday, 100 students confronted the president of Iran, calling him a dictator. This week we will examine who the opposition is in several countries.

And we begin in Myanmar, the country that many still insist on calling Burma. Bridget Welsh of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is a regular visitor there. She's been watching the career of the best-known opposition leader, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Professor BRIDGET WELSH (Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies): She's the daughter of the most important general in Burmese history. His name is Aung San. He was seen as the key independence fighter and he was assassinated.

INSKEEP: This is independence from?

Prof. WELSH: From the British.

INSKEEP: After World War II now?

Prof. WELSH: After World War II Burma was an important colony. It is an extension of India. And Aung San Suu Kyi is his daughter.

INSKEEP: The sons and daughters of major political figures do not automatically become major political figures themselves. What did she do to rise to prominence?

Prof. WELSH: Well, she began as a key leader, raising concerns about the government, overseas, where she studied in England. And she decided to leave England, where she was married to an Englishman, come back into Burma, and to lead the opposition. And in 1988, there was a key student movement and Aung San Suu Kyi came back. And because of her status as a daughter and an effective spokesman, she began to be the symbolic leader for the opposition movement. And they formed at that time the National League for Democracy.

INSKEEP: What is known about what she actually stands for them at this time? Is she a small-D democrat?

Prof. WELSH: Absolutely. She is seen as a person who wants to have dialogue and open change in the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi is never categorically come out and say that there can be no military government. What she has said is that we want a change of regime that is better for the people, and that it needs to be one that is democratically elected, and that the military may play a role in some sort of government, will not be its leader.

INSKEEP: Now, what is the connection between the monks who have demonstrated so prominently in recent weeks and the opposition group that we've just described?

Prof. WELSH: Well, definitely step back for a bit. There are three major opposition groups that one could to talk about in Burma. The first we've discussed, the National League for Democracy, and that particular party has really been massively repressed. The second group of opposition has traditionally been the students. They were the leaders of the 88 protests.

The third group is the one you just asked me about, which are the monks. And in this case we have a situation where the government has tried to co-opt the monasteries through the existing hierarchy in the monks - the monks at the very top by paying off towards monasteries or building pagodas. The monks, they are divided. There are some that people who are still collected and part of the government side. But the monks, they have formed a national organization and they are continuing in the most recent statements to come out and say that they will continue forward protesting the regime.

INSKEEP: So are the Buddhist monks and nuns as conflicted and as complicated a situation as you could imagine, the Catholic Church in any number of countries that have been under dictatorships over the year, some might end up being part of the power structure, some might end up being compromised, others stand up bravely against what they've seen as wrong.

Prof. WELSH: Absolutely. Although what has happened in the last month or so is a real tide has turned where more and more have become organized against the government.

INSKEEP: So given that this opposition is widespread - you mentioned three major groups - what is it that they're lacking that has made them unable so far, anyway, to dislodge the military government?

Prof. WELSH: It's not about what they're lacking; it's more about what they're facing. There is a very high level of fear in society. The military has used fear systemically to keep themselves in power. And the costs are not just about your own - to your own person, but to your family.

The second thing that's happened in Burma is the government has basically favored some groups over others. And in a situation of scarcity, they have actually allowed some people to have more access to economic gain through allegiance to the military. And so this kind of divide and rule strategy limits the way that people can organize.

INSKEEP: Have outside groups or countries such as China or the United States had any influence on the opposition movements inside what we know as Burma?

Prof. WELSH: I would say that the U.S. has had influence. When there's been particular incidents on human rights violations in the country, you've seen U.S. support to raise those things on the international agenda. So the U.S. has played a key role in trying to allow the opposition to get more space and to flower.

INSKEEP: There are some places where U.S. support of the opposition would actually discredit the local opposition.

Prof. WELSH: Yes, that's true. But I would argue that in the case of Burma, that's not one of them, that in fact despite all of the change towards the United States internationally, whenever I would go to Burma, there would still be a tremendous welcome because I was an American.

INSKEEP: Bridget Welsh works for the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and she's a regular visitor. Thanks very much.

Prof. WELSH: You're welcome. Thank you.

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