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World's leading ex-dissidents offer insights, warnings as drama builds in Myanmar

The Associated Press, September 28, 2007

Paris, France -- Lech Walesa and Desmond Tutu speak of solidarity. Vaclav Havel hopes for another "Velvet Revolution." Wei Jingsheng warns of a bloody sequel to Tiananmen Square.

Some of the globe's most prominent former dissidents — acutely aware of what can go right and wrong when a repressed society attempts to shake off tyranny — see shades of their own past struggles in the escalating drama now playing out in Myanmar.

In interviews this week with The Associated Press and other media outlets, they offered insight and advice to the Buddhist monks and pro-democracy protesters defying Myanmar's military government — and to the world leaders and ordinary people watching it all unfold.

"If there's not enough international pressure, and China offers support in the background, then there will very likely be in Myanmar something like Tiananmen Square: a big massacre," Wei, China's best-known ex-dissident, told the AP in a telephone interview from the U.S., where he lives in exile.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, were killed in 1989 when the Chinese army cleared the Beijing square of pro-democracy protests.

Wei, who spent 17 years in Chinese prisons for urging reforms of its communist system, called for more international pressure on Myanmar's ruling junta and on China for its perceived backing of the regime.

Walesa, who founded Poland's pro-democracy Solidarity movement and became the nation's first post-communist president, said the only hope for Myanmar's monks and activists was to stick together — and for the world to rally around their cause.

"My advice for them is to build their own internal solidarity and to make efforts to win international solidarity," he said in an AP interview.

But Myanmar in 2007 is markedly different from eastern Europe two decades ago.

Isolated and insulated by a trigger-happy regime that has crushed dissent for the past 45 years, Myanmar missed out completely on the irrepressible wave of reform and revolution that swept much of the world in the late 1980s.

In 1989, when Havel's peaceniks packed Prague's Wenceslas Square to denounce a regime he famously mocked as "Absurdistan," their sheer numbers and determination prevailed over police truncheons and tear gas.

When demonstrators tried the same thing in Myanmar in 1988, thousands were gunned down in the streets.

"If they have no solidarity today, they will lose and will have to approach the issue many times again," Walesa said.

Yet "even if they fail, the price (they pay) will speed up the process," he added.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who marshaled tens of thousands of workers in electrifying 1980s strikes at Gdansk's gritty shipyard, concedes the showdown in Myanmar has rekindled a little of his own old fire.

"Maybe I will join in, too," Walesa said. "I will certainly do something because I cannot remain indifferent ... I like to win."

Fellow laureate Tutu, who won his Nobel for his role in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, was preparing to join a march in Sweden protesting events in Burma when he spoke by telephone to the AP Friday.

"In South Africa we had rolling mass action that covered the action taken by the people. We also had an alliance of faith-based organizations. To that extent that the monks are now in the forefront does reflect our own situation," Tutu said. "While in Burma they don't have different religions as most Burmese are Buddhists. The important thing is that religious leaders have now put their lives on the lines and I admire them for that."

Tutu said he would call on China to use its "very powerful leverage" on Myanmar's leaders. If China did not respond, he said he would join calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.

Havel, the playwright-turned-president whose nonviolent movement toppled totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, said he's also ready to go to Myanmar — also known as Burma — if opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi emerges from longtime house arrest and takes power.

"You can't imagine how happy I would be to travel there as soon as possible," Havel, now 70, told the Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes, hailing Suu Kyi as "a brave and well-educated woman."

Two years ago, Havel teamed up with the Dalai Lama and other dignitaries to pen a poignant letter decrying her house arrest. "Neither walls nor weapons can silence even the most isolated voice of courage and truth," it read.

But today, asked about the specter of major bloodshed, he responded with a terse: "I am afraid."

Tutu said of Suu Kyi: "I hope she knows how much the world supports her. She is a remarkable woman."

In another letter this week, Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer — known for her works about the inhumanity of apartheid in her native South Africa — appealed to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to do something "in the name of shared humanity."

"No one anywhere in our world who respects the sanctity of life, justice and the freedom of people to demand reconciliation of conflict through peaceful means can turn aside from the spectacle of Burma," she said.

Harry Wu, a renowned human rights activist deported from China in 1995 after being convicted of what he insists were trumped-up charges of espionage and stealing state secrets, said he's confident that democracy will take root in Myanmar soon.

"I think it will happen. I'm very excited," Wu, who spent nearly two decades in Chinese labor camps, told the AP by telephone from his office in Virginia.

"I think Burma is at a turning point," he said. "The monks and nuns usually don't protest. It's significant that they've come out. The military just wants to control the people. But the monks and nuns have had enough, and the people will follow. They've had enough, too."

Walesa, whose defiance still took a decade to whittle away at communist rule in Poland, urged "patience and wisdom" but said the monks' momentum was probably unstoppable.

"I wish them success as soon as possible," he said. "And at a lowest possible cost."

Associated Press Writers John Leicester in Paris, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, Celean Jacobson in Johannesburg, South Africa and Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic, contributed to this report.

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