Burma's moment of release

I didn't sleep at all last night. But it was worth it. I spent the night speaking with former friends and colleagues in Burma who were released from prison at midnight here on the West Coast of the U.S., where I live. (That was early in the morning local time.)

Yesterday I received a message from the family of Min Ko Naing (shown in the picture above back in 2007). You probably haven't heard his name unless you're Burmese. But within the country he's widely known as the second-most-important opposition leader, right after Aung San Suu Kyi. As the head of the national student association back in 1988, he organized many of the demonstrations and protests against the generals that rocked the country that year. His name, Min Ko Naing, means "Conqueror of the King," so the presence of that name on many of the leaflets that called upon people to resist had a certain symbolic resonance.

When the military cracked down, shooting thousands of unarmed demonstrators, he was a prime target for arrest. His first sentence in jail, which started in 1989, lasted for 15 years. Upon his release, he reorganized the veterans of the 1988 student groups into a new movement and launched a series of public campaigns calling for a national reconciliation. In 2007, when Buddhist monks led the people to another mass protest that came to be called the "Saffron Revolution," he again played a major organizing role. He landed in jail once again - this time with a sentence of 65 years. His alleged crime was sending and receiving e-mails considered "detrimental to national security."

What the message from his relatives told me was the news that we've all been waiting to hear for weeks: Min Ko Naing's family members had been informed that the authorities were about to free him, along with a long list of other famous prisoners. For some time the government had been dropping hints that a major release of political prisoners was on the way. According to the rumors, the big day was supposed to be Jan. 4, Burma's Independence Day. But it came and went with only an announcement of a reduction of sentences for some of those in jail. That was a big disappointment. People were wondering whether this meant that all of the government's recent promises of liberalization were a hoax.

But suddenly the story took a different turn. After sending me the message, Min Ko Naing's relatives set off for the prison in central Burma where he was locked up. They took up position outside the entrance of the jail and waited. And then, at 10 AM local time, Min Ko Naing came out, a free man. Thousands of local people came out on to the street and greeted him. His family took him to a house in the nearby town.

They had given me a phone number, and finally, around midnight in California, I made the call. I was expecting to hear the voice of the man whose number I'd been given, but it was Min Ko Naing himself who answered. I immediately recognized his voice. Back in 2004, I was the first person to interview him when he was released from jail then. Now, a few hours after he walked out of jail, I was on the phone with him again.

It was a surreal moment. It was hard to believe that it had finally come. As we spoke, a crowd of ordinary people and media, thousands altogether, were gathering outside the house he was sitting in, desperate to hear what he had to say.

His first concern, he told me, is to make sure that the rest of Burma's political prisoners are freed. This morning's release involved hundreds of them, including some of the most important leaders of ethnic resistance groups and some of the Buddhist monks of the Saffron Revolution. But there are still dozens in jail.

He also stressed the need to end the government's continuing war against the Kachin ethnic group in the north of the country. This, he said, is crucial if President Thein Sein really wants to demonstrate his commitment to changing the old ways. Finally, he said that government needs to show that its "so-called reforms," as he called them, really benefit the general public. Freeing prisoners is important for its own sake, he said. But we shouldn't give the government a pass just because it does that. We should expect more.

The conversation lasted 20 minutes. He closed by telling me that he had to go speak to the assembled crowd. You could hear the people's excitement in the background. As I hung up, I couldn't entirely suppress a feeling of guilt. Many of the people I demonstrated with back in 1988, like Min Ko Naing, have spent decades of their lives in jail. I've lived a different life in exile, trying to gain skills that might one day come in handy back at home. What I've always said is that I would be ready to go back once all of Burma's political prisoners are released. After yesterday's events, I'm seriously thinking about whether it's time to head home.

Min Ko Naing was only the first of the ex-prisoner I spoke with last night. Many other conversations followed, and somehow I never quite managed to get to sleep. I'm looking forward to many more sleepless nights in the weeks ahead.


Democracy Lab

A real race in Caracas

In Venezuela, as in the U.S., 2012 is an election year, and in both countries the opposition is deep in its primary process. In the States, the conservative vote has splintered as its candidates veer ever further to the right. But in Venezuela, the opposite dynamic seems to be at work: a campaign remarkably free of personal attacks has seen three centrist candidates polling at a combined 90 percent, leaving their hard-right competitors in the single digits.

In the context of Venezuela's growing authoritarianism, the very notion of holding an open primary to pick a challenger to Hugo Chávez is radical. This is, after all, a country where the harassment of opposition activists by the state remains the norm. The clean and forward-looking primary campaign, held in the face of constant surveillance and judicial harassment, has vividly illustrated the contrast between the two competing visions of the future at stake.

It all amounts to a startling reversal of fortune for Venezuela's long derided anti-Chávez movement. For much of the last 12 years, words like "fractious," "disorganized," and "hapless" have frequently been used to describe it. But, as so often happens with stereotypes, this picture is both grounded in fact and increasingly outdated.

The opposition earned its Keystone Pols image in the 2002-2004 period, thanks to its promotion of strikes, demonstrations, and even an attempted coup. A series of high-risk gambits led to a string of spectacular own-goals. One day it was crying electoral fraud in the absence of clear evidence, the next it was calling for a mass walk-out of dissident workers from the state oil company. These moves disrupted people's lives, alienated swing voters, and unwittingly helped consolidate the president's support.

Slowly, but steadily, some key lessons have been learned. In 2009, a new umbrella group for opposition parties and NGOs, the Roundtable for Democratic Unity (with the unfortunate Spanish acronym MUD), was created. It has become the first coherent coordination mechanism for the dozens of groups that oppose Chávez.

By crafting a consensus around the idea of a primary, working towards a set of agreed rules to hold them, and agreeing on a common political platform that all candidates are pledged to, the MUD has brought organizational depth and political coherence to a group that badly needed both. It has given the opposition some gravitas.

The result has been a primary campaign mercifully free of internecine squabbles. The marginalization of opposition extremists, along with a level of message discipline and commitment to unity undreamt of a few years back, has emboldened them. Recent opinion polls show their strongest candidate running neck-and-neck against the President.

Still, the road ahead is full of pitfalls. Facing down a silver-tongued rabble rouser at the helm of a cash-flush autocratic petrostate was never going to be a bed of roses. But after much trial and even more errors, the Venezuelan opposition is finally building an organization that gives it a real chance against Chávez.

The clear front-runner is 39 year-old Henrique Capriles. The popular governor of Venezuela's second most populous state, Miranda, Capriles has run a results-based campaign stressing his record of school-building and his equal dedication to both his opposition-minded and chavista constituents. His messaging is centered on a clear rejection of political sectarianism and ideological polarization -- key planks of Chávez's governing style.

His nearest rival, Pablo Pérez, is also the young, moderate, governor of a key state: Zulia, Venezuela's most populous. Both he and Capriles are running on records of achievement and both explicitly portraying his candidacy as a path to national reconciliation. Meanwhile, more radical candidates such as 73-year-old Diego Arria, former Venezuelan ambassador to the U.N., who calls for Chávez to be tried for Crimes Against Humanity at the International Criminal Court, languish in the single digits.

Even 13 years into the Chávez era, memories of the pre-Chávez era remain politically toxic in Venezuela. That makes youth a key asset. Little separates Capriles and Perez ideologically, though the old political parties that ran the country before the Chávez era have bolstered Capriles's credibility . . . by endorsing Pérez. Capriles, by contrast, has gained endorsements from key left-wing parties that were until recently part of the Chávez coalition, thus signaling to disaffected chavistas that he's a safe-harbor for their confidence.

Regardless of where your sympathies lie, the competition can only be good for Venezuelan democracy.