Resistance, Not Repression, Is the Real Story From Burma
Author: Cynthia Boaz
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 10/09/2007
Category: Special Report II
Note: the events within Burma described below come from a member
of the exiled pro-democracy leadership of Burma 8888. This individual is now
deeply involved in the current movement’s strategizing and communications, and
is in regular contact both with groups on the Thai-Burma border and within the
country. Because of the sensitive nature of his work, he has asked to remain
With the junta now claiming that they’ve found weapons caches in Buddhist monasteries, signs are that the regime in Burma is becoming more intent on discrediting the pro-democracy movement which, thus far, appears to have done an impressive job of maintaining nonviolent discipline in their resistance against one of the most heavily armed and repressive security forces in the world.
In contrast to the junta’s claims of “normalcy” and “restored stability,” sources inside Burma are telling some extraordinary stories of ongoing resistance over the past several days. These forms of resistance represent several categories of nonviolent tactics, and they serve as further support for the thesis that the uprising in Burma is more than a spontaneous series of protests by a few disgruntled students and monks. Some of these tactics include the following:
Pro-democracy groups are reporting that on Sunday morning, three large posters appeared on various sites around Rangoon. The one placed outside of the notorious Insein Prison attacked the regime’s well-known record of corruption and said (translated from Burmese): “If you have money, it is a heaven in prison. [With] no money, it is a hell. We [the regime] welcome bribes! Corruption is everywhere under military rule.” A second sign at the park where the Capital Building is located said: “Father, General Aung San! Although you built Burmese army to fight for independence, now they are killing our people! Although you brought military technology and knowledge, they arrest innocent people! They rape our country. Father General Aung San! Please come back and teach your army to be polite.” (General Aung San is widely considered the symbol of Burmese independence, and is the late father of National League for Democracy Leader, Aung Sun Suu Kyi. He and six of his Cabinet ministers were killed in 1947 during a paramilitary raid on the capital.) And yet, a third poster on an “independence monument” (erected by the current regime to honor themselves) in the capital city said to the people of Burma: “Remember! This is a fake independent monument. Are we really free?” This set of actions falls into the category of nonviolent protest and persuasion, and is intended to demonstrate to a larger audience – the population, the international community and the regime particularly – that the resistance represents, at its core, an unwillingness to remain complicit in the “lie” that all is normal on the streets of Rangoon. Additionally, on Friday in Mandalay, the movement leadership proclaimed a three-day vigil of prayers in honor of the Buddhist monks who had been killed or injured by the regime. A pro-democracy activist in contact with movement leaders in the country reports that, “After people engaged in a ‘Silent Protest’ the whole night, some people left ‘coffins’ at downtown. On the coffins is the name ‘Than Shwe.'” (Shwe is the head of the ruling junta.) This tactic can be considered a form of non-cooperation with the regime’s insistence on maintaining an appearance of “life as usual.” It is a sign individual citizens – acting collectively – are withdrawing their consent to be controlled, in this case, by signaling that moral authority lies with the monks, not the regime. Meanwhile, citizen journalists, possibly emboldened by other signs of resistance as well as daily rumors of cracks in the ranks among soldiers, have reportedly begun submitting lists of names of military commanders, soldiers and informers to the Democratic Voice of Burma. The lists, said to be provided by witnesses to the repression, include names of who has done the shooting, who is doing the arrests and who is passing information about protests on to the junta leadership. Movement leaders say they hope this direct accountability (and lack of anonymity) for those carrying out orders against the people of Burma will have the effect of making the generals and their security forces “understand how hated [this regime is] by the people, and will [cause them to] hesitate to commit more cruel torture and oppression.” This kind of tactic, which falls into the category of nonviolent intervention, can have the effect of upsetting the normal flow of life by confounding or frustrating its targets. And still, the “silent protests” are ongoing, amid excited talk spreading its way through the country that Air Pagan, owned by Tay Za, son-in-law of General Shwe, has closed down. Movement leaders credit the closing of the airline to two simultaneous sources of pressure: a boycott led by pro-democracy groups around the globe and the visa ban placed on the regime and its supporters. This additional form of non-cooperation, being applied by Burmese exiles and pro-democracy supporters outside of the country, is yet another point of pressure on the regime, and is an encouraging sign the movement may also be having some efficacy in undermining some of the economic pillars of support for the regime.
In any struggle for rights or freedom, a critical variable for a movement’s survival is its ability to adapt, to continue to come up with new and creative tactics that keep the oppressor on notice, and remind the people the will to resist is shared by their neighbors and countrymen. Observers of nonviolent resistance will sometimes point to extreme use of violence by a regime as evidence against a movement’s potential success. But an oppressor’s willingness to use repression is not necessarily a determinant of nonviolent success or failure (refer to the cases of Chile and South Africa) because it is not up to the members of the regime themselves to do the shooting, but those in the security forces whose job it is to carry out their orders. In the Burma case, members of the security forces are just as able as any ordinary person to see the regime has committed violence against the heart and soul of Burma. By exploiting this conflicting set of loyalties among soldiers – to the regime (who in most cases has conscripted them) on one hand, and to their Buddhist (and human) values on the other – the movement is showing signs they have been able to effectively sever most of the remaining ties between the regime and the people. In describing this phenomenon in the Serbian case back in 2000, one of the pro-democracy leaders there said, “We together [with the security forces] were victims of the system, and there was no reason to have a war between victims and victims. One [group of] victims were in blue uniforms and other [group] was in blue jeans, but there was no reason for blood[shed].” When a regime’s own defenders begin to doubt its ability to survive, it can no longer count on them to enforce its mandates. In any kind of system, authoritarian or democratic, the authority to rule comes from the people themselves and as said by Hannah Arendt, “where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use.”
With no moral authority, no remaining political legitimacy, increasing pressure from the international community, an increasingly tenuous hold on the country’s remaining sources of economic support, and more signs that its own defenders may be less willing to risk being on the losing side of the actual – as well as moral – conflict, the issue is becoming not whether this regime will disappear, but when. There’s no doubt this group of generals has thus far appeared unwilling to budge, but stubborn reliance on repression can be just another form of denial. And there’s no denying the people of Burma have had enough.
Bio: Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science and international studies at the State University of New York at Brockport and is on the academic advisory board to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.