Wednesday, 16 July 2008

A Call to Arms?

The Irrawaddy News

“Nothing can defeat Burma’s military regime—at least to date.” I wrote those words in a commentary after the monk-led uprising was crushed by the junta last year. “All attempts at peaceful or violent means, including armed struggle, people’s uprisings, international sanctions and political engagement, have failed.”

But I missed one thing: a natural disaster.

The destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis has tested the military regime. It clearly exposed again how restrictive, unreasonable and brutal the generals are, but it couldn’t change the generals’ mindset—even to fully collaborate with the international community to help their own people.

People expected that the monks uprising in September 2007 would have led to something positive for the country. Again in May this year, many people had hopes that an unreasonable response by the junta to the cyclone disaster might create a positive scenario for humanitarian intervention. But hopes were dashed when the generals largely shunned the international community’s effort to provide quick, effective relief aid.

The generals have proved they can handle mass uprising and natural disasters on their own terms, regardless of what others think and feel.

A people’s uprising is unlikely to happen again in the near future. Any uprising, if it happened, would be brutally crushed.

Likewise, economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, led by United States, have caused some disruption and inconvenience among the junta’s senior leaders and business cronies, but they lack real power to bring about democratic change.

After 20 years, diplomacy has proven to be a failure. Burmese people now realize more than ever that they can’t count on the United Nations or the international community to make meaningful change within the country. The generals will continue to do whatever they wish.

The UN is actually useful to the generals—when they want to use it as a political card—but useless for the people.

Perhaps, there is one option left: armed struggle. More Burmese people have been talking about armed struggle in recent months. In fact, armed struggles are nothing new in Burma.

When asked if there is a moral justification for an armed uprising by the people of Burma, Noam Chomsky, the well-known political critic at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview with Thailand’s Bangkok Post newspaper: “There certainly is, in my view, with one qualification: An armed uprising would have to evaluate with care the likely consequences for the people who are suffering.”

He said, “I think it’s appropriate for people to rise up, but it’s not for me to tell people to risk mass murder. As for assassinating leaders, the question is very much like asking whether it is appropriate to kill murderers. They should be apprehended by non-violent means, if possible. If they pull a gun and start shooting, it’s legitimate to kill them in self-defense, if there is no lesser option.”

Burma has had various forms of armed struggles going on for the past six decades, following the country’s independence from Britain. After 1988, ethnic armed groups along the border were reinforced by groups of student activists who fled the country after their movement was crushed by government troops.

In 1989, the once powerful Community Party of Burma split into smaller groups after it faced a mutiny within the party. In the 1990s, about 17 armed ethnic groups gained ceasefire agreements with the military regime. They abandoned their fight, focusing on business concessions offered by the government.

The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), founded by students in 1988, gradually began to lose its momentum after 1991 following a split in the leadership. ABSDF was very popular among the public. It appears that its armed struggle is all but finished.

Today, a few armed groups, including the oldest rebel group, the Karen National Union, haven’t reached ceasefire agreements, but their military strength is only a tiny fraction of the regime’s 400,000 troops. It has been a long time since armed groups staged large battles against government troops. Brief skirmishes are now the norm.

Armed struggles have had an impact on Burmese politics in the past—positively and negatively.

If an armed uprising could be sustained—one which focused on the freedom of people—it could put pressure on the junta to some extent. It might even move the country’s political scenario into a more positive, productive path. If there is a moral justification for an armed uprising of suffering people as Chomsky said, the question is now: Is it time for a new armed uprising?

No comments: