Beware the Ides of March: Burma's culture of violence

Pascal Khoo-Thwe

Mar 20, 2009 (DVB), Historically, March is the month of violence in Burma. Over the course of almost half a century, March has repeatedly stood out as a bloody mark on the political calendar.

It is a period when the intensity of military rule is stepped up with often harrowing results. Last week Burma marked the 21-year anniversary of the now infamous shooting by riot police of Rangoon Institute of Technology student Phone Maw. Four other students – Win Aung, Tin Maung Oo, Than Shwe and Maung Maung Soe , died with him on 13 March 1988 whilst demonstrating in front of the local police department.

Four days later, while protesting against the shootings, droves of students were killed at White Bridge; some beaten, some drowned. Many of those who survived the initial attacks were thrown into trucks and cremated alive. Cases of girls being raped by riot police have been well documented. Thus, White Bridge was renamed Red Bridge by the students on account of blood spilled. Every year the 16 March is still remembered as Red Bridge Day by activists in Burma and abroad.

Then, two days after Red Bridge Day, hundreds of students marching towards Sule pagoda in Rangoon were rounded up and arrested. Forty-one of these students later died from suffocation as they were being transferred to Insein jail in a cramped prison van.

It is common for instances of petty violence in Burma to spiral out of control. Phone Maw's death, and the subsequent events, resulted from a fight over music between a student and the son of a government official, whom police arrested for assault. Under pressure from the officials, he was quickly released, and Phone Maw and his friends' reaction, and the returns from the police, became the key trigger of the 1988 uprising.

The wave of killings was unprecedented, and brutal even by Burmese standards. No previous rulers of Burma, including the British, had killed civilians in such a callous way. General Ne Win was to reiterate the indifference of his government to opposition activists five months later with the promise that "if there are more demonstrations, the army will shoot to kill".

The number of victims from March was so overwhelming that doctors and nurses in Rangoon General Hospital found it quite impossible to keep track of all those who died. They themselves were later to become targets of the soldiers’ guns, killed while trying to save the wounded and the dying. And all this was only within the perimeters of Rangoon.

March is also a time when Burma's rural areas come under attack from the army, with major dry season offensives launched against rebels based in the border regions. This has occurred regularly since the army seized power in March 1962. The destruction of properties, grains, livestock, and the deaths of soldiers, rebels, villagers and army porters have been draining the country’s human and material resources like a gaping hole in a water tank. There is no end in sight at the moment either.

The army is now getting so adept at meting out violence with divide-and-rule tactics on civilians and armed rebels alike that it doesn’t have to use its soldiers to quash minor protests and rebellions. Major rebel groups, political parties and civilians are split into various groups and pressured into fighting each other.

Many notable political prisoners have also died in the month of March. National League for Democracy youth member Win Tin (also known as Annul) died in March 2008, Reverend Hla Chit of Bogalay in 1997, Nyo Win in 1991, Khin Maung (also known as Bo Set Yaung) in 1990, and Soe Naing in 1988. The list continues. Their deaths are the result of a combination of persistent torture, extreme weather and dire living conditions inside Burmese prisons.

Time to kill, time to heal

It is hard to say whether it is the onset of the dry hot summer which causes the explosion of violence in Burma. One thing is certain however: the culture of violence has been made worse with the establishment of a police state which has caused greater deprivation of rights, morality, and security than has existed at any point in Burma's history.

Now, it would be almost impossible to rid Burma of violence once and for all because our society favours violence or force as the means to keep the family, the community and country in order. Children are regularly beaten and humiliated by parents and teachers in the name of discipline, without giving serious attention to the emotional damage caused. Likewise, the government vigorously enforces draconian laws in the name of law, order and peace, whilst giving armed thugs the freedom to carry out whatever violent acts they like. It is not surprising that many Burmese proverbs and adages carry violent images alongside contrasting advice.

Ordinary Burmese people have been living in constant fear of mental and physical violence everywhere , in classrooms, prisons, workplaces, even in monasteries and churches. It casts a long, intractable shadow, reaching from childhood to adulthood, and is a vicious circle instilled into younger generations through excessive feelings of insecurity from older generations. School children are often stripped and beaten by teachers in front of their classmates for minor infringements of school rule. Sometimes, a violent act and the reactions of its victims constitute comic entertainment.

Violence in any form is bad enough; it is worse when it becomes an integral part of society. It will take generations to get rid of it but Burma can ill afford to chance that it leaves of its own accord. Violence is a crude but easy way to display one’s power or lack of, and therefore can be addictive. It has taken root in our crumbling society because Burma lacks cohesiveness. Placid religious traditions or force alone will not make Burma truly peaceful or unified unless one is prepared to channel the violent attitude into outlets such as disciplined sporting activities that bring forth positive outcomes. These will be tough lessons to learn as they involve much soul searching on the part of individuals.

People in power must also learn to differentiate between discipline and violence, firmness and harshness. They must also realize that the stubborn inflexibility which blocks change and progress must be exchanged for the dignified courage to give up violence. In short, learning to give respect where respect is due, and promoting self-esteem in the process. It is said that people with low self-esteem often become perpetrators or victims of violence, humiliation or domination.

But the healing process to reverse the impacts of violence is a matter of a balancing act, a process of inviting suggestions and criticisms, and allowing individuals to exist with dignity, space and responsibility. Then again, it might be easier diffusing a bomb while walking on a tight rope.

Even if violence cannot be stopped or even controlled, there are ways to prevent it from becoming an all-consuming factor in our national life, if we do have the determination and true respect for life.

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