Nonviolent Resistance, not Violent Repression, is the True Story from Burma
by Cynthia Boaz
(Selections of this essay appeared on Truthout.org in several pieces from 10/09/07, 10/12/07, and 10/16/07. They are being reprinted with the editor’s permission.)
“People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work,’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” -Theodore Rosza1
This quote by Theodore Roszak is both frustratingly prescient and helpfully illuminating when it comes to a close examination of media coverage and general public opinion on the recent events in Burma. Although the monk-led protests, followed by some extraordinary acts of nonviolent resistance by many Burmese not already jailed or in hiding received a flurry of international media coverage in late September and early October, the news and analysis on Burma has all but come to a screeching halt. It seems that most media have dangerously defaulted to the Burmese regime’s claims that they have restored stability and that life is returning to “normal” in the country. In other words, the conclusion on the part of most of those following the story from Burma is that repression was successful, and that because we can’t see the protestors any more, they have been effectively crushed, along with their hopes for a free and democratic Burma.
This is not a fair or accurate conclusion, and it represents a problem both of media irresponsibility and a dangerous misconception that violence is a manifestation of power.
The assumption about successful repression is based on an unfair double standard. The only argument that gives violence and repression any advantage over alternate forms of waging conflict is that is tends to produce quicker results (although this assumption can itself be challenged with a glimpse at ongoing attempts at ‘conflict resolution’ through violence in Iraq, Israel, and numerous other conflict areas around the globe.) While nonviolent resistance movements can, in some cases, produce results relatively quickly (e.g. the Philippines in 1986), most movements takes years or even decades to achieve victory. It took about six years in Chile, ten years in Poland, about twelve years in South Africa, and nearly three decades in India. But the patience and discipline required to successfully wage a nonviolent struggle are more than made up for in the potential for long-term stability and true democratic legitimacy in the system that follows. A 2005 study by Freedom House reported that in 50 of 67 transitions to democracy in the past three decades, “the presence of cohesive nonviolent civic coalitions is the most important of the factors examined in contributing to freedom.”2
Now that the junta has claimed that they’ve found weapons caches in Buddhist monasteries (although they cannot produce any evidence of this), and that the rhetoric about “foreign interference” has begun to border on the hysterical, all signs are that the regime in Burma has become intent on discrediting the pro-democracy movement who, thus far, appears to have done an impressive job of maintaining nonviolent discipline and a continued will to resist 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 have been telling some extraordinary stories of ongoing resistance over the past several weeks. 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. It is not repression that is so interesting about the events in Burma, but rather that resistance goes on despite the repression. Some of the nonviolent tactics employed since the claims of “restored stability” were issued include the following:
- Pro-democracy groups are reporting that during the first week of October, three large posters appeared on various sites around Rangoon.3 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[the] 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.”4 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.
- A few days later 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.’”5 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 that 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 been 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 that 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 been 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 that the movement may also be having some efficacy in undermining some of the economic pillars of support for the regime.
- Pro-democracy groups also report that in mid-October in Thingangyun Township, sixty helium balloons carrying thirty posters were released, each of which had the face of General Than Shwe with an accompanying swastika and the word “Butcher” above his photo. On the same day, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions issued a formal statement that proclaimed, “We firmly reaffirm our commitment to continue the unfinished task of our fallen brothers and sisters and will preserve their brave fighting peacock spirit [and that] we hereby profoundly declare that ABFSU will strengthen and solidify all student unions [and] student [organizations] to be a unified front to wage our unfinished uprising.” The previous day, October 8th, the Lawyers Union had issued a statement via Voice of America describing the junta’s unwarranted arrests of monks and students, while a simultaneous strike was being staged by more than 800 workers of the Charming garment factor in Rangoon. This demonstration of solidarity across groups and classes is a promising sign of the movement’s unity and will be critical to its ability to both adapt and endure.
- And a few days earlier than the public statements noted above, a more cheekily hallowed message was left at the entrance of the North Okkalapa Mae Lamu Pagoda in Rangoon which said “[Even] I myself, Lord Buddha, am under house arrest.” Later that same day, a wreath was found hanging on the banyan tree in front of State High School No. 3 in Tamwe Township with a portrait of Than Shwe and the words, “Military Dictator Than Shwe, the Atheist” written under the portrait. To refer to General Shwe’s “atheism” is to highlight the separation of the regime from the Buddhist identity of Burma. It is signal to the people that those in charge are not real Burmese, and therefore aren’t entitled to rule. The tactic has the potential to help remove any remaining shred of regime authority among the people.
- And finally, many monks themselves continue resisting in many forms. Many have been engaged in a hunger strike for up to three weeks now. Others have been instrumental in organizing protests of other types, including prayer vigils in honor of their fallen brethren. Each of these actions highlights the inability of the regime to win back the moral authority which has now been entirely transferred to the monks.
In any struggle for rights or freedom, a critical variable in 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 that the will to resist is shared by their neighbors and countrymen. Observers of nonviolent resistance will sometimes point to the 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 that 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 that 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 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 [the] other [group] was in blue jeans, but there was no reason for blood[shed].”6 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. As Hannah Arendt asserted, “where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use.”7 From this perspective, the regime may be closer than it dares to acknowledge to its final days. Once the security forces begin to join the side of the people en masse (and there is historical precedent for this in other highly repressive struggles) by refusing to carry out unjust orders that, in the end, will only prolong their own suffering as well as the people’s, the system will no longer be capable of sustaining itself.
With no moral authority or political legitimacy remaining, the only thing holding the regime in place is the threat of force. But with every bullet or baton used against the people of Burma, the regime reveals that their ‘strength’ will in fact be their undoing. And now with sustained 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 that 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 that the people of Burma have had enough.
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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 committee to the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
1. Quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune, “Making peace more compelling than war,” October 13,
2. “How Freedom is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy,” Freedom House Report, May 25, 2005.
3. This and all subsequent documentation of events inside Burma in the past month, as well as quotes accompanying the reports, 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 anonymous.
4. 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.
5. Shwe is the head of the ruling junta.
6. Srdja Popovic, Optor leader. Quoted in documentary film “Bringing Down a Dictator,” released in 2002 and produced by York Zimmerman Inc.
7. “Reflections on Violence,” from the New York Review of Books, February 27, 1969.
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