The last time I was in Burma was back in 1990. The military junta – so confident of its grip on power and the people – had allowed foreign journalists to come in and observe national elections. The generals clearly thought the oppressed and intimidated populace would give the junta its vote and with it the veneer of legitimacy. But the people didn't comply. They voted overwhelmingly for the party of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, even though she'd been under house arrest and unable to campaign. I will never forget people literally were dancing in the streets, jubilant that they had defeated the generals with ballots.
The next morning the generals held a press conference and in front of the world's cameras said they would acquiesce to the will of the voters. But after the foreign journalists left, the military rulers rounded up the opposition leaders, threw them in jail, then tightened their grip on the country they call Myanmar.
That's why what's happening now – the people reaching for democracy, the junta snatching it from their grasp – seems so tragically familiar. The generals know the whole world is watching and they don't really care. They're counting on the world having a short attention span. Once again they've kicked out foreign journalists. This time they've also shut down the Web and blocked cell phones, so even the internet images that alerted the world to this latest crisis have been cut off.
The pro-democracy groups in exile here in Thailand are betting that this time will be different, that images of soldiers gunning down monks are too shocking for the world to forget. The generals are betting this time will be just like the last – that nothing has changed ... and nothing will change.