Nonviolence in Burma's Struggle

The "Saffron Revolution" was not saffron. Unlike their peers in neighboring countries, the Buddhist monks of Burma do not wear orange but rosy-red robes.
When they filled the streets of Rangoon this past September, they were marching with their begging bowls turned upside down, indicating their refusal to accept alms from the dictatorship. Yet within days the junta had crushed this revolution. What prompted this nonviolent resistance against the government? Will it rise up again? Can -- and should -- the rest of the world help the Burmese win democracy for their country? In this issue we offer several glimpses into the suffering and potential liberation of Burma.

Almost the whole time since Burma gained independence in 1948, it has been ruled by a military regime. Yet there have been other pro-democracy movements before, especially in 1988, when a mass uprising was crushed even more violently than the one this year. Instead of granting democracy, the military killed up to 10,000 protesters then, jailing and torturing thousands more, and installed a junta, which remains in power. It changed the country's name to Myanmar and the capital's name to Yangon -- terms that the democratic opposition rejects. Surprisingly, it conducted free elections, apparently expecting to win, but over 80 percent of the voters chose the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Nevertheless, the NLD was not allowed to take office and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest. She was released in 1995, but again arrested in 2001 after her continuing popularity became evident and she had won a Nobel Peace Prize. She has spent 12 of the past 18 years in almost total isolation.

The junta, now calling itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) is one of the worst governments in the world. Incompetent and greedy, it nevertheless has managed to suppress all challenges to its power. It has ruined the economy and violated all principles of human rights. For many years several of Burma's many nationalities maintained guerrilla armies that fought against the Burmese army, but they suffered so many defeats that they eventually accepted ceasefire agreements, though nothing that can be called real peace.

Economic Mismanagement

The SPDC continues spending beyond its means, maintaining a large army, building a nuclear power plant, creating a whole new capital city in the middle of nowhere, and paying millions for lavish weddings for their offspring. The IMF and World Bank long ago stopped making loans to Burma, but that country still owes a small amount on its previous loans, so the banks were ready to send investigators for the regular, humiliating annual visit this fall. Foreseeing the inevitable reproaches for their unbalanced budget, the junta took a dramatic measure overnight, cutting the subsidies for fuel. Immediately prices soared -- up to 500 percent in some places -- and many workers could not even afford the bus fares to go to work. Yet the only group who could with impunity demand change from the regime were the monks. And so the monks began to march.

Need More Than Demonstrations

It would be naive to expect to overthrow any dictatorship merely by marching in the street. Demonstrations must be supported by other forms of protest, such as boycotts or strikes. In Burma this time, the other institutions did not participate in the uprising. Foreign journalists were barely present, but initially, some young supporters did have cell phones and were able to capture video images of the marching monks, which they sent abroad through the Internet, to be broadcast everywhere on television. During the night, the monks' leaders were arrested and the peaceful marchers were fired upon, shocking viewers around the world. At least 13 people were killed (dissidents estimated far higher numbers) and 3,000 were jailed. The Internet was virtually shut down. Many governments officially protested and announced new sanctions against the Burmese regime. The United Nations appointed officials to visit and convey the world's opinion to the junta. These processes are still going on.

But not all governments condemn the SPDC and it has not suffered economically. China, in particular, is selling arms to Burma and will be buying much of its main product, natural gas. The French company, Total, and to a lesser extent Chevron, control much of the oil and gas. There are important mining projects as well. So long as Western corporations continue to function in Burma, the junta may keep its grip on power.

On November 14, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier announced that Ottawa will henceforth ban all new investment and the transfer of technological data. Also, sanctions will restrict the export of Canadian products to Burma (except for humanitarian goods) and completely rule out the import of Burmese goods. Financial assets of individuals connected with the junta are to be frozen and no Burmese planes or boats will be allowed to harbor in Canadian territory.

Unfortunately, the new measures do not apply to existing investments, including the 14 Canadian companies already functioning in Burma. Moreover, the new Canadian restrictions will have little actual impact on Burma's economy, for there already has been a great decline in trade relations. During the first nine months of 2007, only $5.8 million in products were imported from Burma and exports to that country were negligible. If the whole world maintained economic sanctions as strong as Canada's there would surely be results, but with China, Russia, and India continuing to support the regime, no such changes are expected.

How We Can Help

Thus the people of Burma will have to get rid of their dictatorship mainly through their own efforts. Still, many countries maintain organizations that help democratic opposition movements inside tyrannical regimes. In Britain, it's the Westminster Foundation. In the US it's the National Endowment for Democracy. In Sweden it's the Olof Palme Center. In Canada it's Montreal-based Rights and Democracy.

Moreover, there are experts who have studied nonviolent struggle and who can help dissident movements develop effective strategies. In this issue of Peace, we interview one such expert, Colonel Robert Helvey, who helped the Otpor movement in Serbia plan their successful campaign, which ousted Milosevic from power without shedding a drop of blood. Those Serbs maintain a center of their own now, and have assisted the Ukrainians and Georgians, among others, who have also brought about "color revolutions." One study done by Freedom House showed that of 67 recent transitions toward democracy from dictatorships, over 70 percent resulted from civic resistance movements. Nonviolent struggle works.

Dictators realize that fact, and fear such movements. They are even learning how to prevent such struggles by limiting the power of ordinary citizens to communicate among themselves. The Internet is a marvelous tool for freedom, and so the Chinese are censoring it. Television journalism is a great tool, and so Putin has shut down open discussions on TV. Democracy is not always easy to attain. We always need to nurture every fragile little sprout of it in the world.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2008, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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