The future of Burma's nonviolent campaign for democracy

Gemma Dursley

Dec 2, 2008 (DVB), Since Burma's pro-democracy protests of 2007, many of those at the centre of the Saffron Uprising have been quietly jailed, and the optimism that many allowed themselves to embrace last September has quickly given way to the more familiar anger and frustration.

For some, these emotions have led to demands for a reappraisal of activist methods. The same despair that led many to hope for an unlikely Iraq-style invasion has caused some to question the wisdom of taking on the junta through nonviolent means. Since these have failed to bring change, and since the regime even dares to kill and imprison revered monks, then perhaps it is time to speak to the generals in a language they understand.

The dissatisfaction brought by failed uprisings and almost half a century of military rule is clearly understandable. However, strategy cannot be guided by emotion, and jettisoning a nonviolent struggle in favour of a violent one must be critically examined. So far this has not happened , articles and arguments on exile news websites have appeared to only address the morality of employing violence, without looking at what would be gained or lost by such an approach, and even whether it is possible.

Types of nonviolent resistance

This focus on whether violence is ethically right or not stems, I believe, from the failure to distinguish "strategic nonviolent resistance" from "principled nonviolence". The Buddhist component of the pro-democracy movement in Burma often serves to fudge this distinction, yet it is crucial to understand the difference.

Strategic nonviolent resistance is a way of waging conflict against an opponent through mass civil disobedience and disruption. It includes a wide variety of tactics, such as strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and the setting up of alternative institutions. Its effectiveness is unquestionable: academics at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict have shown that nonviolent campaigns have been almost twice as effective as violent campaigns, while Freedom House reports that in the last 35 years, nonviolent struggle has accounted for the vast majority of victories for democratic movements.

While activists might embark on a nonviolent campaign due to its effectiveness, principled nonviolence finds its origins in religious and philosophical convictions that are devoid of political content. Despite much success, nonviolence still has connotations of pacifism and 'doing nothing'. However, there is nothing passive about such resistance, no intention to make weaponry from compassion and love. It is a strategy which works by bringing massive disruption to the state.

Why nonviolent methods work

The Philippines' Marcos in the 80s, Indonesia's Suharto in the 90s, and authoritarian governments in Central and Eastern Europe in the early part of this decade, to name but a few, were all brought down by nonviolent movements. Memories of TV footage showing the vast multitudes involved in these revolutions indicate one particular reason why nonviolent campaigns are effective.

Nonviolent methods unite groups across the social spectrum, as do violent state reprisals against nonviolent campaigners. The peaceful nature of Burma's 2007 uprising made the junta's justifications for the crackdown appear absurd, and many Burmese who may once have viewed themselves as apolitical were suddenly politicised by the military's actions. Violent movements, however, are seen as ugly and extreme by many sections of the public, even if the violence might be morally justifiable, and participation is drastically reduced.

Nonviolent groups also receive widespread international support. An excess of suffering in the world means that international NGOs and, to some extent, governments, must pick and choose the causes they support. Although market metaphors might sound heartless, one factor giving the Burmese pro-democracy movement a higher value than other struggles is the nonviolent methods employed by the opposition. Violent opposition is hard for overseas groups to market to potential supporters. State crushing of violent resistance elicits, if anything, only guarded international protest; firing on unarmed demonstrators, on the other hand, unites much of the world in condemnation.

Repressing nonviolent campaigns yields high costs within governments, as regime members find themselves in disagreement over the correct way to respond. Although the junta appears intact and unified today, we know that many in the army had, and still have, grave misgivings about violence meted out upon the protesters and the Sangha. Violent opposition elicits little if any understanding from government members. Officials are far more likely to switch their allegiance away from a regime if they are sure the resistance will not threaten their lives.

Failure in Burma

Despite these advantages, a frustrating lack of progress and a justifiable indignation towards a regime with no conscience tempts activists to countenance violence. If peaceful methods aren't yet working, then surely violent methods must be deployed.

But the wisdom of activists' choices can only be assessed by looking at the political context in which they are made, and the continuation of military rule has little or nothing to do with the pro-democracy movement choosing the wrong route to emancipation. Failure to bring change is due to the way structural conditions impede the collective action which effective resistance requires.

People don't naturally come together to rebel , they must be convinced to contribute to a movement, whether violent or nonviolent. Mobilising recruits needs, amongst other things, leadership and movement entrepreneurs, and organisation. However, these require a degree of structural space within which to operate. Such room is denied by the junta's repressive machinery, which deals in the surveillance, harassment, assault and detention of anyone trying to mobilise resistance.

A legal system which fails to provide or protect political and civil rights means that association and communication between activists is strictly curtailed. This makes disunity among opposition groups difficult to overcome, and leads to a lack of imagination and coordination. Even the sole legal opposition organisation struggles to exist. Any would-be political entrepreneurs thus face enormous difficulties, whether they are committed to a violent or a nonviolent approach, and a fractured opposition is not going tempt regime members to switch loyalties. The problem, in short, is not the content of the strategy, but the near impossibility of devising and executing any strategy.

The current political situation makes surrender to the most immediately satisfying 'solution' very tempting. Diplomatic efforts to improve the stalemate proceed at a snail's pace; meanwhile, prisons are filling up with political detainees, and one-sided political violence intensifies. Frustration and tiredness pervade activist circles, and 'an eye for an eye' can rejuvenate and motivate some.

Yet it is crucial to understand that any attempt at violent resistance would run into the same obstacles that impede nonviolent action, while possessing none of the advantages of the latter. Instead of allowing themselves to be led by the military into a futile armed confrontation, activists should concentrate on circumventing the obstacles to collective action imposed by the junta, presenting a coherent and united movement for change, and maintaining a commitment to nonviolent methods.

This is the fourth in a series of articles by Gemma Dursley for DVB on Burma's collective action problem.

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