Since 1996, military abuses have forced one million villagers to flee their homes.
The presence and conduct of the military are central to the plight of these civilians. Military operations have placed a particularly heavy burden on rural populations affecting their ability to sustain livelihoods.
Cases of rape and sexual violence committed by military personnel, many of them against young girls and adolescents, have been reported by human rights organizations.
It should also be noted that after the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in 1988, the regime"…took a number of steps to increase their military strength."
Instead of considering the extent of popular dissent the government in fact increased their supply of arms and military strength in order to act even more effectively against any protests. "… the regime had begun planning an ambitious ten-year program to expand the armed forces and significantly upgrade their operational capabilities. The SLORC also increased the scope and output of Burma's indigenous arms industries."
This would also tend to suggest that the non-violent mode of protest had no significant impact on the negative intentions of the military.
5. Forms of Peaceful Protest and Resistance in Burma
In the light of the intractable nature of the government and the vicious application of military force there seems to be little hope of achieving democracy without the use of violence. One pundit notes the following in an assessment of the possibility of achieving democratic right in the face of the continuous and often unethical application of military force. "Since 1962, Burma has been run by the military. Despite brief glimmerings of hope for the pro-democracy opposition, the ruling junta remains as firmly entrenched as ever."
However, in spite of the intractable nature of the ruling junta most of the resistance in the country has been, and still remains, of a passive and non-violent nature.
The reasons for the continued use of non-violent means of achieving freedom lie to a great extent in the philosophical and religious background of the culture. In order to understand something of the ethos and tradition of non-violence in this society one has to understand the religious underpinnings of this type of resistance. This becomes very clear for the words and public pronouncements of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy
She advocates a philosophy of care and concern for members of the society. This includes the value of metta or loving kindness, which is a fundamental aspect of Buddhist ethics. This refers particularly to Theravada Buddhism. Therefore, She attempts to"…temper the rising tide of violence that was occurring in Burma by advising the audience to attend to 'rightful principles'; referring to the teachings of Buddhism, which informs the broader Burmese culture."
The term 'rightful action' in Theravada Buddhism "…specifically deals with nonviolence, requiring adherents to refrain from doing harm intentionally or delinquently…. It is the opposite of violent or destructive mental states."
Monks therefore represent these ideals and have exerted their right to peaceful protest in demonstrations against the government. In the 2007 demonstrations against the regime they marched while uttering chants and prayers in Rangoon. Their protest was peaceful and completely non-violent "…despite a baton charge by police at the city's holiest shrine."
As noted above, student dissent and protest has formed an important part of the resistance movement in the country. This peaceful opposition has been extended by the "open forums" that Aung San Suu Kyi undertook in meetings with military junta leaders in 2007. While the meeting were ostensibly intended to repair the rift between the democratic movement and the military government they were in reality little more than propagandist attempts to ameliorate the image of junta. As one report states the meetings "…don't mean anything. Overall, it's a staged meeting in which to show the soft side of the Burmese military junta."
The same report also offers the opinion that, "It is time for the international community to come together and pressure the military junta to free Suu Kyi. She will be the first step towards democracy in Burma if she is freed."
6. International Pressure
Brief reference has already been made to the general condemnation of the Burmese government by international bodies such as the United Nations. However, there is still no political consensus among the international community on the situation. "World governments remain divided on how to deal with the military junta."
This refers to the fact that some countries, such as the United States as well as France and Canada, are in favor of sanctions as a means of pressurizing the Burmese government; while counties like China are opposed to sanctions. There are those within Burma such as prominent figures like Thant Myint-U who feel that the application of severe sanctions would harm the Burmese people more than the government.
7. Conclusion: Has Non-violence Failed?
Taking the above analysis into account and especially after the severe crackdown against protesters in 2007, it would seem that the policy of non-violent resistance has in fact failed to remove the government or even created any real and lasting concessions. From a perspective outside the country it would certainly appear that non-violent protests as a means of changing the status quo have failed and that new and more forceful initiatives are needed.
However, one should also bear in mind that from another perspective there are those in Burma who believe that persisting in non-violent resistance will eventually create the desired democratic changes in the country. This is the view of figures like Suu Kyi who wrote after the 1988 uprising that,
If you ask whether we shall achieve democracy ... here is what I say: Don't think about whether or not these things will happen. Just continue to do what you believe is right. Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own.
It is a moot point whether this view still pertains today and whether the number of people who still believe in the continued efficacy of non-violent protest has declined.
Nevertheless, the protesters in Burma have to a large extent "…continued to be overwhelmingly nonviolent, despite ongoing brutal arrests and imprisonment."
As one commentator stated after the 2007 non-violent demonstrations;
It seems that the Burmese nonviolent uprising has failed. The monks have been jailed or killed. There are still spotty demonstrations by angry people on the streets of Rangoon, but the army seems to be breaking them up quickly. One must feel discouraged.
There are many critics who are concerned that the recent failure of peaceful resistance, especially when the status of the monks in Burmese culture were also ignored by the regime, could mean that faith in this method of resistance will be lost. This has led commentators to suggest that, "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."
An aspect that is of concern in resolving this problem is that the international community is not unified on this matter. Countries like China still support the Myanmar regime. "China, in particular, is selling arms to Burma and will be buying much of its main product, natural gas."
France also has oil interests in the region through its Total Company. There is a feeling among many researchers and critics that as long as large corporations from countries like China and France continue to function and profit from the regime in Burma, then the military junta will have support to remain in power. This in turn means that the objectives of peaceful resistance become all the more difficult to attain.
In critiquing the method of non-violent resistance among the Burmese, one should respect their commitment to their view of life and to the ethos of non-violence. On the other hand it is becoming more and more evident that non-violent methods of resistance are simply not enough to usurp the Myanmar regime. A possible solution lies in the application of stringent international sanctions that could be implemented so as to reduce the impact on the people themselves. However this objective is seriously hampered by the non-participation of major countries like China.
In the final analysis one is reminded of the situation that existed in countries like Apartheid South Africa, where non-violent protest was also met with violence and extreme force by a similarly doctrinaire and unyielding regime. In this country leaders like Nelson Mandela were eventually forced to adopt more forceful and violent means of protest in order to convince the government of the necessity for change. While peaceful resistance is the first option, the South African scenario is possibly the unfortunate but inevitable road that the Burmese people might have to take in order to achieve true democratic independence.
Aspden, Rachel. "Forgotten Burma: As the Country Prepares to Vote in a Discredited Referendum, Rachel Aspden Visits the Forgotten Burmese Resistance -- the Eastern Ethnic Groups Promised Independence 60 Years Ago." New…