Nisha Anand, CEO of Dream Corps
The events on Capitol Hill this week transported me back to the day I was imprisoned by a military dictatorship and sentenced to five years hard labor.
That was twenty two years ago in Rangoon, the largest city in Myanmar (Burma). Yet as we saw just how potentially fragile our own democracy is, my mind was back on my imprisonment in Rangoon.
On August 8, 1988, a pro-democracy uprising led by students in Myanmar came up against brutal military opposition in which close to 10,000 people were murdered and countless numbers fled. In the years that followed “8-8-88,” as it came to be known, the military dictatorship led a violent campaign of political repression, even blocking the peaceful transfer of power to the pro-democracy party elected in 1990 — Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
But the hope of a democratic future never died. Under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi implored the world to “please use your freedom to promote ours.” It became my guiding light as a young college student.
I became one of the Rangoon 18, as we were later named — part of human rights leader Debbie Stothard’s brilliant but risky plan to bring an international group to Burma on the ten-year anniversary of the 8-8-88 massacre.
We snuck into Myanmar with leaflets sewn into the linings of our bags and in the soles of our shoes. We split up into groups of three by nationality to distribute our leaflets. Here is our “dangerous” message:
At first, people were both scared to grab a leaflet and desperate to have one. An hour later, word had spread throughout the city and people began thanking us, grabbing as many leaflets as they could. A young boy followed me the whole time saying, “I know you. I love you.” I loved his dreams of a free and democratic Myanmar.
Then I was slapped across the face, grabbed, and shipped off for a sham trial where I was sentenced to five years of hard labor.
My group’s failure to return home sparked alarm from our families and national diplomats, and we were ultimately deported instead of facing our sentence. But there are freedom fighters, refugees, and elected officials still behind bars or suffering the consequences of their resistance. The ugliness and terror of a pro-democracy movement being crushed is something I will never forget.
I am worried that America is on the eve of a similar fate. Once, I could use my freedom — and America’s profession of faith in democracy — as a shield. Today that shield is crumbling.
It is too easy to say that America is no military dictatorship, like Myanmar. The peaceful transfer of power is everything to a democracy, and we just saw why. The President of the United States, many Republican leaders, and right-wing media figures laid the groundwork with completely unfounded lies about the election results. They incited an insurrection in the halls of Congress that almost disrupted that peaceful transfer of power.
Our democracy is not healthy if a handful of people can sweep us into crisis. The desperate attempt to hold onto power that I witnessed over the last few months is a grim reminder of what I felt in Myanmar. This election season placed us on a dangerous path, and we do not know where it will lead. We must stand up and declare that today is the end of this ugly spiral towards authoritarianism — that the insurrectionists represent a small and dying movement, not a growing one.
I am scared, yet not without hope. For every member of Congress ready to undermine the will of the people, there were dozens who refused. For every person on the streets calling for a coup, there were thousands at home appalled and finding new inspiration to heal our country. We need to hold onto that rare, fleeting feeling, and let it sweep us into the radical act of choosing bottom-up common ground. 2015 marked a turn towards democracy for Myanmar. We must ensure that, in 2021, America turns back to its democratic principles and the ideals laid out in our Constitution.
I risked my life fighting for democracy abroad. I won’t let it die in my own home.