By Norman Robespierre
YANGON - The one-year anniversary of Myanmar's military crackdown on non-violent protests in Yangon and several other cities calling for political change came and went without incident.
While the Buddhist monk-led demonstrations briefly raised global awareness of the Burmese people's plight, it also highlighted the failure of the opposition's long-held non-violence strategy as the best means to bring change to the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) regime that views the failure to use violence as a sign of weakness.
While outwardly a spontaneous gesture in reaction to economic woes, the demonstrations were the culmination of years of planning by opposition forces inside and abroad for non-violent action to confront the regime. Opposition to the ruling regime is figuratively headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, the founding father of Burmese independence. Her commitment to non-violent struggle for political change has earned her the Nobel Peace Prize and global admiration, but two decades since soldiers opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, there is little else to show for her two decades of non-violent struggle.
The resounding victory of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party in the 1990 elections was the political high-water mark for the opposition. While the regime refused to honor the poll's results, the election provided political legitimacy to the NLD and a handful of opposition activists. Many of those elected still cling to demands that the election's results be honored, but with each passing year those claims to legitimacy become less germane. Close to 40% of the elected members of parliament have been dismissed or resigned and a full 20% have died.
The opposition defined broadly is comprised of a plethora of political organizations. Among the best known are the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma, headed by Dr Sein Win, Suu Kyi's cousin, the All-Burma Student's Democratic Front (ABSDF), Democratic Alliance for Burma, National League for Democracy-(Liberated Areas).
Additionally, there are several umbrella organizations such as the democratic Alliance for Burma (DAB) and the National Council of the Union of Burma (NCUB), which count membership from various political groups and ethnic insurgent armies. These organizations receive substantial backing from Western organizations, such as the Open Society Institute and National Endowment for Democracy.
The vast majority of the opposition follows Suu Kyi's guidance that political change can and should be achieved through non-violence. That doctrine was further promulgated by the Albert Einstein Institute of Geneva and New York. In 1994, it sponsored a consultation on political defiance for Burmese democracy leaders. Included in the audience were representatives of ABSDF, NLD-LA, DAB, and the NCGUB, represented by Dr Sein Win. A key speaker at the pivotal event was the institute's founder, Gene Sharp.
Sharp's involvement with the Burmese opposition was specifically mentioned in a June 1997 press conference condemning foreign support to terrorists by then Secretary-1of the SPDC, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. In hindsight, rather than condemnation, Khin Nyunt should have heaped laurels on Sharp for promoting non-violence.
The opposition's adherence to non-violence has given the regime a monopoly on fear that allowed it to solidify its position, condemning generations of Burmese to life (and in some cases, death) under the military regime. Additionally, limiting the prospect of violent consequences removed one aspect which may have motivated the regime to negotiate change.
Further, the promotion of non-violence undermined the united opposition against the regime. Under the tutelage of Khin Nyunt, the regime succeeded in enticing numerous armed ethnic opposition groups to surrender their arms and "enter the light" - or at least accept a ceasefire. Khin Nyunt used a variety of incentives to the groups and particularly their leaders to gain their cooperation. The elevated principle of non-violence made it easier for group leaders to accept the bribery.
The success of the regime's effort to pursue ceasefire deals continues to haunt the opposition with fragmentation and conflicting interests. Ethnic armies whose cooperation could have tilted the "Saffron" revolution to effect real change, sat and watched, perhaps out of concern that armed rebellion would jeopardize their lucrative mining or other concessions. As a result, the regime was able to focus its military might on the unarmed protesters and monks.
Incentives and self-interest affect not only limited ceasefires and peace groups, but also some ethnic armies that continue to put forces in the field against the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw. According to a senior Thai military officer, the SPDC is able to continue to benefit from the vulnerable Yadana-Yetagun gas pipelines because the Mon insurgents in the area are receiving payoffs from both the regime and the Thai authorities. Construction of a third foreign exchange earning pipeline in the same area is reportedly slated for this dry season.
A valuable experience
The Einstein Institute's website comments that while the non-violent struggles in Myanmar, China and Tibet "have not brought an end to the ruling dictatorships or occupations, they have exposed the brutal nature of those repressive regimes to the world community and have provided the populations with valuable experience with this form of struggle".
How 20 years of mostly ineffectual resistance can be summed up as a "valuable experience" is a mystery. One wonders to what valuable experience those sitting comfortably in their ideological ivory towers refer: languishing in a Myanmar prison, being knocked senseless by a police truncheon, having family members disappear, torture, death? How much longer before the Burmese people realize the opposition's strategy of non-violence is ineffective against those who have the means and determination to kill to maintain control and decide to pursue a different, more assertive course?
Opposition optimists say that the regime was weakened by last year's crackdown, arguing that the violence police and soldiers perpetrated against Buddhist monks irked the populace and many military officers, the majority of them Buddhist. Further, they cite perennial rumors of infighting among the generals and lower ranks that could lead to fractures in the leadership and eventually a democracy-promoting mutiny.
However, earlier leadership struggles in which top generals fell from grace - including Tun Kyi, Saw Maung, Ne Win and Khin Nyunt - only brought changes in military personalities, not a transformation of the military-dominated system. Indeed, the system is highly resilient and endures with a new crop of military officers entering the top ranks of the Tatmadaw each year. Although many of the officers are not enthusiastic that monks were beaten, most believe that the majority of the protesters were recent novices who had donned monk's robes expressly to carry out illegal political demonstrations.
The optimists also claim that the regime's inadequate response to Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 80,000 people and adversely affected the livelihoods of over 2 million, also weakened the SPDC. As evidence, they mention that many military personnel and government workers had relatives in the worst-hit Ayeyawady Division and were upset at the delayed response. The actual intensity of disenchantment caused by the slow reaction to the killer storm, of course, is hard to quantify without public opinion polls.
However, the fact that Burmese people are used to being self-sufficient and not in the habit of relying on the government for anything likely means the fallout from such a callous official response was less severe than it would have been in other countries. Whatever disenchantment the government's limp response to Nargis and the September 2007 crackdown may have sown, to date it has not been exploited to cause the Tatmadaw to split or the military government to fall.
From another perspective, it could just as easily be argued that Cyclone Nargis made the regime stronger by opening up a new tap of foreign aid. Millions of dollars of humanitarian aid poured into the economy as foreign nations rallied to assist the storm's survivors. The regime's multi-tiered foreign exchange system allowed them to extract an estimated 20% to 25% from all foreign exchange certificates converted into the local kyat currency.
The diversion of United Nations (UN) funds alone resulted in at least US$1.5 million (some estimates are as high as $10 million) of humanitarian aid being delivered straight into the regime's coffers. The tilted exchange system also affected non-UN aid agencies for an undetermined amount of donations. Hard currency intended to relieve the suffering of cyclone survivors instead directly benefited the regime.
Nargis also brought a recent call from the International Crisis Group (ICG) to repeal sanctions and provide more aid than beyond what is necessary to recover from Nargis to develop the impoverished country. While few share the ICG's sentiment, which in the past was criticized by the Open Society Institute for its unscholarly approach with respect to Myanmar, its call would allow the regime to reap even more foreign money to consolidate its position.
Nargis brought not only financial benefit, but also is believed to have increased the regime's confidence. Certainly, the regime's confidence soared when French and US warships withdrew from waters off Myanmar's coast in the aftermath of the killer storm. While the vessels were sent to deliver humanitarian aid, antagonistic rhetoric about the humanitarian "right to protect" Myanmar's citizens by Western diplomats preceded the vessels' arrivals, raising the regime's suspicions about their mission.
Rather than appear to submit to Western threats, and fearful of a possible uprising by opposition activists should foreign forces land on Myanmar soil, the regime barred the aid from being delivered by other than their own naval personnel. Eventually the vessels withdrew without a shot being fired and much of the aid went undelivered. The regime's ability to diplomatically ward off the perceived threat posed by French and American warships is believed to have boosted the regime's confidence in its ability to stand up to neo-colonialist adversaries.
Confidence in the regime's decision-making, often portrayed as daft or worse in the international media, has recently reportedly grown among the rank and file. In particular, the decision to move the political capital to Naypyitaw from Yangon is - after the cyclone which hit the old capital - viewed in a favorable new light. Prior to Nargis, the abrupt move in late 2005 was widely criticized for its exorbitant expense and ridiculed for its reliance on astrology. It is now looked at by many Burmese as cosmic confirmation of the wisdom and even prescience of the senior leadership - or at least that of their astrologers.
More important is the regime's growing confidence in the reliability of government forces to deploy as instruments of control. The ability to successfully extinguish the pro-democracy protests in September 2007, without notable dissension within the ranks of the police and military, left the Tatmadaw stronger and the regime more self-assured. According to several foreign diplomats based in Yangon, the regime is now reportedly more confident in the loyalty of its forces and its ability to control unrest.
On the other hand, the position of the political opposition is decidedly weaker. More opposition members are in prison than before, while countless others have fled the country due to very real concerns for their personal security. An untold number have perished. Despite the overwhelming support of the populace, the opposition was unable to capitalize on social discontent in 2007, when the junta removed fuel price subsidies and fuel costs shot up 500% overnight. Nor have they been able to leverage the chaos and suffering brought on by the junta's inept handling of the cyclone disaster this year into a renewed call for political change.
Instead of maintaining offensive pressure and preparing adequate defensive measures to protect their supporters, they have blindly clung to the gospel of non-violence in the hope that international pressure would eventually lead to democratic change. As many Saffron Revolution demonstrators can attest, hope is a weak defensive shield against a police baton, a charging truck, or the ammunition of soldiers trained to kill.
While pursuing a moral high ground of non-violence, the opposition has ceded the battlefield to its military enemy. Unlike themselves, the ruling SPDC junta is more than willing to use violence to achieve its goals. One means at the regime's disposal are Swan-ar-Shin thugs, whose actions undoubtedly are directed by elements of the military regime, most likely the Sa Ya Pha , or military intelligence. Swan-ar-Shin often intimidate and cower the populace with the threat of violence and physical assault and many were captured on film beating unarmed demonstrators after they had been arrested.
The regime's asymmetric use of violence breeds fear in the populace, forcefully enabling the regime to squash even the faintest hint of opposition to its rule. Viewed through that lens, the Swan-ar-Shin has been an unqualified success for the regime and instrumental in its staying power. Their ability to use violence with impunity and intimidate those holding dissenting political views has muzzled open expression of support for political change.
As the Einstein Institute's Sharp points out in his writings, it is the fear of violent sanctions, rather than the violence itself, that creates the climate of fear which causes the populace to yield. In the absence of a functioning legal system, the opposition would be wise to pursue extra-legal action against the regime's violent henchmen. For instance, makeshift justice squads of the people could be formed to mete out street punishment to the Swan-ar-Shin members known to be guilty of the most heinous abuses.
These Swan-ar-Shin agents are well known to their neighbors and a few instances of vigilante justice would no doubt cause others to consider the consequences of their unjust actions and embolden those who oppose them. While opposition-led vigilante squads may not totally remove the climate of fear, at least fear would be more equally distributed to both sides of the political aisle.
In February, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported on a rare example of focused direct action against the junta's henchmen. According to the report, a regime-linked United Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) member from Hlaing Tharyar township with a local reputation for abuse was found beheaded. The circumstances of his death caused other USDA members to fear a similar fate and their harassment of people noticeably reduced, according to the report. Were this fear of retribution more widespread, the regime would have fewer resources to strangle dissent and added incentive to negotiate with the opposition.
Instead, the exiled opposition blindly adheres to non-violence and is now mounting a major effort to petition the UN to revoke Myanmar's diplomatic credentials. There is nothing original in petitioning the UN: a similar initiative met with no success in 1996 and there is no reason to think the current initiative has any better chance of succeeding. Numerous other countries in the UN General Assembly are also far from being democracies and they would be reluctant to support such punitive measures out of fear that some day a similar procedure might be launched against them.
China and Russia certainly are no proponents of democracy and without their support inside the UN Security Council the latest effort will also fail. Even were the effort successfully staged and Myanmar lost its seat at the UN, the domestic impact on the regime would be marginal. While the UN initiative helps maintain global awareness, the opposition's international efforts might be better deployed in targeting the regime's primary enabler, Singapore, which is particularly vulnerable because of its global commercial interests, including the recent stakes it took in big Western banks.
Singapore has successfully deflected criticism for its role by pointing the finger at China or other neighboring countries as principal supporters of the regime. But it is Singaporean support that is the regime's lifeblood. Many of the regime's leaders and their family members are known to have Singaporean bank accounts. The regime's tyrants frequently travel to Singapore for state-of the-art medical treatment and receive cordial official welcomes. Burmese democracy activists in Singapore, on the other hand, risk arrest or revocation of their visas should they protest their regular arrivals.
Singapore also allows numerous Myanmar businesses with direct links to the regime to incorporate in Singapore. Singapore's willingness to sacrifice ethics for money gives the Myanmar regime a cloak of international legitimacy to do business and enables it in many cases to circumvent financial sanctions imposed by Western countries. One example of Myanmar's Singaporean commercial fronts is Silver Wave Energy, reported in the media as a Singaporean company that brokered oil and gas deals between the regime and Indian and Russian companies. However, research into the firm indicates its phone numbers and offices are in Yangon at the Trader's Hotel.
Meanwhile, the expatriate opposition leadership continues to be led by the same inept strategists that espouse non-violence as the sole implement to effect political change in Myanmar. Nearly two decades have passed without a democratic election and the opposition's leadership has grown stale, devoid of new ideas and lacking a coherent strategy. Indeed, they continue down the path of failed tactics that has degraded the opposition into its present sad, ineffectual state.
Perhaps the opposition finds itself in this position because it relies so heavily on Western financial aid, which is explicitly tied to non-violent action. Accepting such financial aid should not preclude coordinating a unified offense that complements non-violent action, nor should it divert resources from potentially successful operations targeting the regime and its enablers with violent and non-violent methods to those historically proven to be without merit.
Expatriate opposition leaders are known to travel in business class on democracy grants and other donations recycling old ideas that simply don't work in Myanmar's military-run context. They are neither up for re-election, nor beholden to an electorate - apart from their Western government patrons. Many, it seems through conversations, expect to retain their exile status and cushy positions for life. They suffer no adverse consequences for their failed policies, although those actually inside Myanmar often bear a heavy burden for their bravado.
Opposition leaders inside the country, including Suu Kyi, have likewise failed on numerous fronts. They failed to capitalize on the regime's temporary weaknesses in 2004 when it disbanded its military intelligence network amid an intra-junta power struggle. They failed to coordinate offensive actions of the various ethnic armies to support the broader movement for political change. Meanwhile, the opposition as a whole continues to fail to adequately target Singapore, China and other key international enablers of the regime. In sum, they have failed to seize the initiative. And they still fail to realize that they will fail again if they use the same tactics under the same conditions.
Brothers in arms
Perhaps the opposition's biggest failure has been its lack of a concerted effort to split the armed forces. This should be their most critical strategic objective if they are ever to liberate their country from the SPDC's oppressive rule. Although the Tatmadaw itself generally follows collective responsibility and duty, outsiders placing collective guilt upon all members of the army serves to unite the armed forces rather than divide them.
As an example, an opposition supporter authored a list entitled "Enemies of the Revolution" that anonymously circulated on the Internet. The list, while notable for its implicit threat of violence, was unfocused and included the director of medical services for the military. Presumably, he was placed on the list for the crime of wearing a uniform. However, the simplistic, carte blanche approach of painting the entire Myanmar military as evil is self-defeating and undermines the strategy needed to weaken the strongest pillar of the regime.
Unfortunately, this has been the general approach used by the opposition as well as many Western diplomats. The opposition needs at least some military officers to support them in order to fracture the regime's main power base. Despite this, rarely will an opposition leader talk of any positive accomplishments of the armed forces. Rather the military is universally equated with the regime rather than being seen for what it is: an implement of national power, as necessary for the opposition should it assume control as it is for the current regime.
Opposition leaders would be well advised to cultivate junior military officers by openly recognizing the national importance of the military and outlining how military service and the abysmal conditions soldiers currently endure would be better under a more democratic government. Last year's crackdown clearly demonstrates the opposition has failed to undermine government forces' reliability to impose violent sanctions on behalf of the regime.
The opposition has had two decades to infiltrate the military with those who would willingly carry the banner of democracy to leapfrog their own promotions. It has had 20 years to tempt military officers to abandon the carrot of self-interest that supporting the military government holds for them. The opposition should have sought to reassure the army and police that they would have a key role in any new government and that a system of compensation and benefits will be maintained and in places improved. It has made little headway in that direction and there is scant evidence to suggest they even really endeavored to do so. Had they swayed even a faction of military or police officials that political change offered a better future for them and their families, last September's "Saffron" revolution could have had a decidedly different finale.
The failures of the past two decades may in large part be attributed to the movement binding itself too tightly to Suu Kyi's personality cult and the philosophy of non-violence. Her reported intolerance of any type of violent dissent and willingness to dismiss members who seek alternate solutions to problems may be why the NLD and other opposition groups have failed to groom a new generation of leadership. In any case, the "Saffron" revolution may have succeeded where Suu Kyi has failed. A number of her supporters now recognize that non-violent dissent alone will not change the status quo and her increasing marginalization from years of house arrest may yet serve as impetus for more confrontational tactics.
Violence alone, of course, is not a solution. But tougher tactics coupled with constructive engagement or inducements for the regime to change its behavior would mark a welcome departure from the current dogmatic adherence to non-violence. The opposition now suffers from 20 years of pushing for change without a logical and realistic strategy.
To be sure, its leadership has suffered immensely from arrests and crackdowns. But unless the opposition soon infuses a dose of realism into its strategic mix and uses all available tactics at its disposal, including efforts to undermine support within the military for the SPDC leadership, its efforts are unlikely to result in democratic political change. Meanwhile, the next generation of emboldened soldiers will come of age and take up positions of power in defense of the oppressive status quo.
Norman Robespierre, a pseudonym, is a political scientist and freelance journalist specializing in Southeast Asian affairs. He may be reached at email@example.com.