Nonviolence: From India to Burma

Burma gained independence in 1948 as a parliamentary democracy. However, in 1962 an army coup created a military-dominated regime which held power for 26 years as a dictatorship. The party's isolationist policies ruined the economy and its brutal violation of human rights prompted demonstrations, which it crushed. In 1988, a mass uprising demanded an elected civilian government. Instead, the army installed a junta, the State Law and Order Council (SLORC) and slaughtered up to 10,000 protesters, jailing and torturing thousands more, many of whom are still in prison. (SLORC later became "State Peace and Development Council" -SPDC.) SLORC promised free elections and, to everyone's surprise, kept their word. They created a party, evidently expecting it to win, but over 80 percent of the votes went to the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of a democratic general who had been assassinated when she was a child. SLORC did not allow NLD to take office, and placed its leader under house arrest. After six years, during which time she received the Nobel Peace Prize, Aung San Suu Kyi was released in 1995, but was again arrested in 2001 and now is in prison. This article is a comparison between the methods of the Indian liberation struggle by the Congress Party and Mahatma Gandhi and the Burmese nonviolent campaign by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Aung San Suu Kyi

By Yeshua Moser

Although not foreseen by the political pundits of that time, the Salt campaign, launched by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party in India, became the key nonviolent direct action campaign to achieve freedom from British rule. At the outset of the campaign, a New York Times correspondent asked Gandhi what he hoped to achieve by the campaign, and what would happen if he were arrested at the beginning. Gandhi answered that it wasn't a matter of winning or losing that campaign because the freedom movement was already in control. Britain could only respond. The freedom movement would take actions to practice their freedom, and this in turn would bring one of two results: provoke a reaction by the British authorities, or bring about a change.

Democrats are in Control

The situation in Burma today is at a similar stage of the nonviolent campaign, and it is critical that the international community understand that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD compatriots are not victims. They are in control. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party have been "practicing democracy" by exercising their freedoms around the country, with the clear understanding that this will either provoke a response or bring about change. Most likely it will bring both.

The SPDC "freed" the NLD leadership, and its charismatic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in mid-2002, not because they suddenly became supporters of liberal democracy, but only for reasons of power. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recounted this in a meeting with Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, who visited Burma's Peace Laureate in Feb 2003 at her Rangoon residence. She said that in 2000 the junta set out to completely destroy their movement, after she and the NLD party leaders had provoked a dramatic showdown. Their motorcade was stopped when leaving the capital as they exercised their alleged freedom, which in reality the authorities denied them. In the end, the military junta failed to crush the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, because of the combined internal and external support for the movement. She made clear to Ms Williams that both domestic support by the population of Burma (especially the democracy activists who continue to be arrested on almost a daily basis) and the support of those nations and international support groups who withdrew recognition were what prevented the military junta from destroying them. Eventually, the military junta themselves were "forced to see the wisdom" of releasing the NLD leadership, some prisoners, and to promise a dialog on the future governance of the country.

While the SPDC military junta has publicly stated they will fully participate in such dialog, their actions have yet to meet their rhetoric. Though proclaiming the democracy movement and its leaders to be free, they only mouthed the words.

Compare these developments to the Gandhian style satyagraha campaigns, which were actions undertaken to reveal the truth. Upon their release in mid-2002, the NLD set about immediately holding the generals to their word by traveling to different provinces and states of Burma. These visits were ostensibly for party building, and while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did make a few short public speeches, primarily she provided a venue for the people to speak for themselves, while she listened. The people of Burma lost no time in taking advantage of the space she provided. They turned out in the hundreds, and then the thousands - mostly young people who had not taken part in the 1988 democracy uprising. They turned out not just to listen to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but to speak to her, sometimes until the very late hours of the night. Around the country, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the generals, were hearing the same message over and over again. Young people gathered and stated that in today's Burma, they had no educational opportunities. They wanted them, and they didn't believe they could get them under the current authorities. Therefore, for their future, they wanted regime change - as quickly as possible.

The military leaders themselves are slaves to their own training. Military organizations do not run democratically. Multiplicity of opinions is interpreted as insubordination and an obstacle to achieving their mission. The toolbox of the military contains but a single tool: a hammer. This unhappy message from the thousands of mouths of the people reached the ears of the generals, who attempted to shut them up by limiting the venue for the people to speak. While again restricting the movements, the generals also learned something from their last failed effort to repress the problem, and tried to disguise the hammer. Instead of soldiers, they used mass mobilization organizations controlled by the military, such as the Union Solidarity Alliance and the Myanmar Red Cross, to carry out their repression, which they tested in Rakhine State. When that failed, military and police allegedly dressed themselves as workers and Buddhist monks and attacked the NLD caravan in northern Burma.

Disguised or not, a hammer is still a hammer, and it has fooled no one. Other tools are required to build viable societies. The NLD has continued to act as though they are free, forcing the generals to respond or change, just as Gandhi did with the British. The generals are now scared and they don't know what to do. They have run out of tools.

You will walk out

Some have mistakenly argued that the military junta controlling Burma differs from the British colonial rule in India (and formerly in Burma), and that nonviolence will be ineffective. But remember, when Gandhi launched the main phase of the nonviolent freedom struggle, the Amritsar Massacre took place. General Dyer, using British troops, coldly executed a gathering of independence supporters, causing 1,516 casualties with 1,650 bullets, according to the record. That premeditated atrocity was described by General Dyer as follows: "My intention was to inflict a lesson which would have an impact throughout all India." That the crowd included women and children was irrelevant. Gandhi called the Amritsar Massacre the most extreme example of the lengths to which the British had to go in order to control Indians. He added that it was time for the British to go. One surprised British official said "You don't simply expect us to walk out, do you?" Gandhi replied, "Yes. In the end, you will walk out, because 100,000 Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate, and that is what we intend to do, until you, yourself, see the wisdom of leaving."

Again, there are similarities to the situation in Burma. Most recently, the Depayin incident in the north left at least nine dead and many missing - some of them presumably killed and hundreds imprisoned. This illustrates the extreme measures to which the military junta will resort in order to control the country. Their intention was, undoubtedly, to have an impact throughout all Burma, but it brought the same results as before, leaving the generals even more isolated. They have again imprisoned the NLD leadership and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who began a hunger strike in protest. Sooner or later they will be forced to see the wisdom of releasing Suu Kyi and her colleagues because she has always, like Gandhi, left the door open for the generals to depart as friends. They must see for themselves the wisdom of doing so. Suu Kyi made clear in that they must do this, for if, "the generals want to see a transition to democracy take place without massive violence, they have no other choice."

The future is no longer up to the SPDC or to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alone. It is now, more than ever, up to the people of Burma and all to the rest of the people of this world who believe that the people should choose their leaders. All who believe in nonviolent change must withdraw recognition from the military regime. The generals will not see the wisdom of departing until forced to do so. Those nations who do not withdraw their recognition either do not understand the dynamics of a nonviolent power struggle or do not want to see a popular nonviolent change of government succeed.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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