Burma: Where love and kindness must win over everything
-Banner carried by monks in last month’s demonstrations.
For decades the Burmese dictatorship has fought off a raft of atrocities – imprisoning elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other democracy activists, wiping out thousands of villages in the provinces, and bringing misery to refugees with forced labour camps. With the media spotlight now fixed on the regime, former Salient Feature Writer Nick Henry talks with London protest organisers while abroad and asks: Can another massacre be prevented?
“WE want people inside Burma to know that we are with them,” was the message from Burmese activists in London when Salient took a break from sightseeing to speak to them. It wasn’t that much of break actually, given that they were camped out in parliament square, in the shadow of Big Ben. “We will be here every day,” said one of the protesters, when this reporter braved the London drizzle to join them on the picket line outside the embassy of Myanmar, the military regime’s name for the country most people still call Burma.
When protesters came out onto the streets of Rangoon and other Burmese cities in recent weeks, it was a sign of both hope and danger. That mass protests would happen at all was more than most democracy supporters had hoped for, let alone protests led by columns of Buddhist monks and supported by thousands of ordinary people. The danger of a military crackdown was obvious to all. Memories are still fresh among Burmese people of the massacres in 1988, when the military crushed democracy protests and appointed a council of generals who still rule the country. Even without those memories, the daily repression and control that the military exercises over all walks of life in Burma would be enough to strike fear into the heart of any would-be protester. That’s why when the monks came out in protest it was so significant. Their example gave ordinary people the courage to hope that political change was possible and to give voice to their grievances.
The original grievance that sparked the protests was more of a last straw than a cause in itself. The junta had announced in August a big increase in the official price of fuel. People already living in poverty faced being unable to afford cooking fuel or transport. Increases in bus fares meant that some government employees would be spending their entire salaries to get to work. In response, a group of former student leaders known as the ‘88 Generation’ announced that they would call a protest. Several activists were immediately arrested, but others continued organising and the first protests began with small groups of less than 100 people, walking two or three abreast quietly through the city streets. The protests began in Rangoon, before smaller groups were formed in Mandalay, in Sittwe, in Arakan state and other places. Some, like in Mandalay, were organised by members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Others, like in Sittwe, had the support of local monks.
All were small and seemed unthreatening. At least they would to us, living in countries where governments are content to allow and ignore even large vocal protests. But to the regime in Burma, resting as it does on the bare-boned authority of fear, any sign of dissent is dangerous. Demonstrations were broken up by hired goons from the junta-backed USDA, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (Burmese politics are full of such euphemistic acronyms, the regime now calls itself the SPDC or State Peace and Development Council, on the advice of a New York public relations firm). It was in breaking up a small protest in Pakokku that the military made its biggest mistake. Soldiers rounded up monks who were supporting the protest and tied two of them to a lamppost, beating them severely.
The Buddhist Sangha is the closest thing to legitimate authority that exists in present day Burma, and the monks are deeply revered by the majority Buddhist population. Their treatment at the hands of the soldiers aroused indignation and caused high-ranking monks to call for an apology. A group calling itself the All Burma Union of Buddhist Monks emerged, threatening a boycott on receiving alms from military officers, equivalent to excommunication. They set a deadline of September 17 for an apology from the regime, and when none was forthcoming, the monks began their boycott.
These beginnings bear a strong resemblance to events in 1988, the last time any major protest was seen on the streets in Burma. Then, as now, anti-government feeling had been stirred by an arbitrary decision that threatened people’s livelihoods, when the ruling dictator General Ne Win tried to combat inflation by randomly cancelling bank notes. But the big protests only started after an unconnected incident when police intervened in a tea shop fight and beat up some students. Student groups started calling for an apology and investigation. When the only response to their protests was further violence from the police, their demands escalated until they were calling for the overthrow of the government. Their protests drew widespread support from the impoverished public and became a movement for democracy spreading throughout the country.
A key difference between 1988 and today is the speed with which news and images of the protests and state repression have travelled out of Burma. In 1988, eyewitness reports of the military crackdown took as long to reach the outside world as it did for the refugees to reach the border. It took much longer for those political refugees to forge the networks and contacts that today allow them to mobilise international campaigns in solidarity with Burma. Members of the Burmese Diaspora, who have left the country in the decades of military rule since 1961, sustain support groups in many countries, including New Zealand. They hope to one day return to a democratic Burma.
In London, Burmese people made up the majority of those protesting. A Burmese spokesperson for Burma Campaign UK, who wished not to be named, said “The people in Burma still want to protest, but they are really scared now. We want to do something, whatever we can, to keep up the momentum.”
These demonstrators feel the desperation of the situation in Burma and want to use their relative freedom to help the ordinary people and the monks who are resisting the regime.
“The Buddhist monks are very valuable to us. They are asking for three things: better food and living conditions for the people; dialogue for national reconciliation; and to release all political prisoners.”
The demonstrators want to get this message out to the international community and to communicate back to Burma that they have international support. This is possible through Burmese language radio news broadcasts, such as that of the BBC, which can be heard inside the country.
“We desperately need international community help for the innocent people and Buddhist monks who are suffering with no human rights, no human life. Now we are organising a big march. If they are willing to do in every country, to draw the attention of the government and the people, we ask every organisation to join us.”
Although the situation in Burma now looks grim, the dynamics of the movement for political change in the country can’t necessarily be fitted into the timeframe of a standard news cycle. While the mass protests may have died down following the violent state repression, this may simply signal a shift of tactics by leaders of the movement.
Again, we can look to 1988, when street demonstrations over several months were combined with a general strike covering the whole country. Even as the military intervened to crush the protests, the turmoil resulted in several changes of leadership and an eventual promise of elections. These elections were held in 1990 and resulted in an unexpected landslide for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Although the military ignored the election result, it has stood ever since as a symbol of the regime’s illegitimacy and a rallying point for democracy supporters.
Both calls for a general strike and rumours of a split in the military leadership are again in the air. According to Burmese activists, members of the 88 Generation group have called for a strike of government employees.
“The 88 Generation still want to do something. They never stop, they just plan and take their time,” says the Burma Campaign UK spokesperson I spoke to.
Meanwhile, reports are circulating of a split between ruling council chairman General Than Shwe and his army chief General Maung Aye. It will take some time before the political fallout of the army crackdown becomes evident. If one faction of the junta decides it is in their advantage to patch up their tattered reputation by reaching out to the monks or popular leaders such as Suu Kyi, some kind of political opening or compromise could be possible.
Burmese activists have long called for international pressure to bring the regime to the negotiating table. “In our opinion it is not enough to just send one UN envoy,” says the Burma Campaign UK spokesperson, “we desperately need international community help. Any individual or government that joins with us is welcome.”
One emerging target for international pressure is the Chinese government, the closest thing the Burmese regime has to a friend and increasingly sensitive to international opinion in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. Burmese democracy groups are also in need of direct financial as well as political support. At the same time, we can do all we can to show our active political support for the democracy movement. When you read this, people all over the world will have come out in support of the movement with coordinated protests on October 6. Continuing such visible displays of support is one thing that we can do, daring to hope that change is possible and will come.