The Ongoing Nonviolent Struggle in Burma

Dr. Tint Swe,
Burmese Member of Parliament

Like in many other countries, the people of Burma went through difference struggles against different bad rulers: the terrible Kings, the British colonizer, the Fascist Japanese occupier, corrupt civilian governments, the authoritarian one-party Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP) rule and the dictatorial military (SLORC and SPDC) regimes.

Struggle during colonial era
The British who ruled more than a hundred years successfully used extreme harsh measures to conquer and suppress the armed rebellion by means of warfare and maximum punishment e.g. the rebellious peasant leader Saya San (1876-1931) was hanged.

But British found difficult to contain unarmed resistance. In retrospect, the people of Burma learned that under the British rule, not like under military control, they could have the benefit of the limited space for anti-government campaigns. The colony government allowed some associations to form. E.g. the literary organization, the Nagani (Red Dragon) publishing house (1937) was exceptionally successful to educate and organize the people for patriotism and freedom.

Therefore there appeared organizations of different classes of people:
  • Young Men's Buddhist Associations (YMBA) in 1906,
  • Suriya newspaper in 1911,
  • The Oil Field workers strike in 1915,
  • Yenan-Chaung BOC clerks strike in 1917,
  • Burmese Women (Kumari) in 1919,
  • Monks (Sangha Samaghi) in 1919,
  • General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA) 1920,
  • University students strike in 1920,
  • Saya San Movement or the Farmers‟ Revolution in 1930,
  • Dobama Asiayone (We the Burman Association) 1930,
  • Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU) (Ta-Ka-Tha) in 1931,
  • All Burma Students Union (ABSU) in 1935-36,
  • No-footwear in the pagodas strike (1936)
  • Nagani (Red Dragon) publishing house (1937)
  • British Oil Corporation (BOC) Strike or 1300 Revolution in 1938
  • The Own Rule or Swaraj (Ko-Min-Ko-Chin) 1939,
  • East Asia Youth Association in 1942,
  • Thang-Dabin movement in 1946,
  • All Workers strike in 1946,

Independence struggle
The struggle for independence was more or less the same as those of other colonized countries like India. Almost certainly Gandhi and the struggle of the people of Indian subcontinent was the nearest and the most appropriate for the people of Burma to imitate. Moreover Buddhist teaching of universal love and unconditional passion prevailed for centuries, the nonviolence practice was readily applied in Burma.

When the first student martyr Aung Gyaw was beaten to death on 20 December 1938, the entire country was being able to mobilize and it was one of the reasons British had to return home. However there is no sign of military returning to barracks although the number of death was more than a hundred during the monk-led protest in 2007 and the number of death and disappearance was 3 to 10 thousands during the nationwide uprising in 1988.

The most remarkable nonviolent method during the independence struggle in Burma was creation of “Thakhin” sir name. “Thakhin” stands for the opposite to slave because Burmese leaders effectively used terming of colonized subjects as slaves. So Aung San, the national hero and the founder of independent Burma became Thakhin Aung San. The first and the last democratically elected Prime Minister was called Thakhin Nu. Even the communist leaders were also named Thakhin Than Tun and Thakhin Soe. There were also women Thakhins.

It has to observe that not only the Burma Independence Army (BIA) and Burma Defense Army (BDA) but also the political negotiation and the nonviolent resistance of the people made British to ultimately grant freedom.

The struggle under own rules
Freed Burma unfortunately went through a devastating civil war waged between the White and the Red Communists and the government in power. Likewise discontentment by ethnic nationalities gave birth to armed insurgency. Those were years of the Cold War. In addition opium plantation, heroin purification and drug trading are a good resource for armed insurgency. The UN and America try to eradicate narcotic business. But as long as responsible government is in power it is near impossible to do so. The Burmese governments tried to suppress all kinds of armed resistance by the might of army. That made army as a troublesome stakeholder of the nation. Though it has taken five decades, use of army could not finish the resistance by the ethnic peoples. Till today all ethnic nationalities are holding arms.

The current regime fabricated ceasefire agreements with them. Now as their new constitution does not permit more than an army the junta is trying to transform the ethnic armed groups into border guards. That does not go smoothly and the end of armed resistance either.

So it can be observed that:
  • It is not Military might that can contain ethnic resistance but (1) the ending of Cold War paved the way to finish off communist armed revolt and (2) because the ethnic groups defected from communist control and established own armies.

  • Although armed resistance can be finished when resources are terminated, nonviolent movement which rely mainly on unarmed manpower and dynamic leadership providing that the leader is free to lead.
  • Therefore the military regime is strategically indirectly helping drug business and holding Aung San Suu Kyi under detention.

Ne Win’s method
The restricted laws do not allow any citizen to possess even a knife longer than pencil sharpener. The intelligent apparatus is effectively used. Thanks to poverty as people are easily recruited as informers, spies and moles posted everywhere, teashops, markets, offices, workplaces and elsewhere. There was no union of students or workers by any means. Intellectuals, artists, writers and poets are also not allowed to organize. The farmers and workers are grouped under the leadership of the party. All they have to do was to clap after long pre-written speeches. The ethnic nationalities are instructed to wear magnificent traditional dresses to applaud the speeches of party leaders. Therefore all activities against the authorities are categorized underground mostly known as UG.

Ne Win's regime kept in check all nonviolent activities by means of:
  • Martial law and strict rules,
  • Effective and extensive use of intelligent apparatus, and
  • Letting no space for ordinary people.

The courageous efforts by the students against military rule have been written in a special history book. It was clandestinely published and the author Aung Tun was arrested and imprisoned. (Aung Tun was among the 7,114 prisoners released in 2009. Aung Tun, age 42, arrested in February 1998, was released on September 18 from Tharyawaddy prison, Pegu division. Aung Tun, a central executive member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, is known for his book on the "History of Burmese Students' Movement” in 2007. It is a collection of records of past student leaders and movements and includes secret documents of student organizations. In 1999, he was honored with a Hellman/Hammett grant and was made an honorary member of PEN Centers in Norway, Canberra, Australia and Canada respectively.)

The chronological movements mostly involved by the students are:

  • In 1951, the All Burma Federation of Students' Union (ABFSU) was formed by joining the All Burma Students' Union (ABSU), the Rangoon University Students' Union and the Rangoon District Students' Union
  • In October, 1956, 26 students were imprisoned and 256 students were expelled
  • In 1958, the 10th Anniversary of the Internal Peace Strike
  • On 5th July, 1962, a strike at the Dutch Embassy was carried out by three big unions.
  • On 7 July, 1962, at 1:00 p.m. the Students' Union held a meeting. In the evening at about 5:30 p.m. two army trucks arrived. In Mandalay Hall alone more than 17 students died and over a hundred students died
  • On 8 July, 1962, at dawn the Union Building was destroyed by dynamite
  • 1969: The uprising of the South East Asia Peninsular (SEAP) Games
  • 1970: The Golden Jubilee of the Rangoon University
  • 1974: Burma Workers' Strike
  • In December, 1974, U Thant's (former General-Secretary of the United Nations) Funeral
  • 1976: The birthday of the Peace initiative leader Thakhin Ko Daw Hmaing
  • In June, 1974, there was a Burma Workers' Strike.
  • On 23 March, 1976, the centenary celebrations of the birthday of the famous national writer and winner of the Starlin Peace Prize Thakhin Ko Daw Hmaing were held
  • June, 1976 Tin Maung Oo, a student from the Rangoon Arts & Science University (RASU) was hanged in Insein Prison

The nationwide uprising which is called as four Eights (8888) movement has been known by the world. That was purely of nonviolence. The participants were from all walks of life and it was spontaneous and widespread. It was near to gain freedom. Before 8-8-88, there were relatively smaller nonviolent activities.
On 13 March, 1988, there was a students' uprising in the Rangoon Institute of Technology (RIT) campus On March 16, 1988, the Red Bridge Uprising

On 21 June the Myaynigone (Western Rangoon) Uprising But the military brutally crushed down. One of the methods the military used was implantation of violent doers among the demonstrators. Those implants mixed with genuine unarmed protesters and beheaded some protesters claiming as spies. That contamination disgraced the peaceful protest and general population went away. However it could bring down three successive presidents. Moreover the movement could give birth of a leader to lead the unfinished nonviolent struggle. It was nobody else Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The coup leaders announced that 8888 uprising won't happen again. Being the army, the generals laid out combat strategy and plan to defeat the peoples‟ nonviolent movement. As the students were at the forefront, the Universities and Colleges are divided into small school campuses. The teachers, administrators, even the traffic police are instructed not to annoy the students. So a student can violate traffic rule and will pass all exams. The quality of education went down. Then the highly respected monks are placed under the strict non-religious rules. All monks have to hold the IDs like all other civilians. All travelers have to report to local
authorities. Otherwise both the guest and the host will be punished.

The space for nonviolent movement is extremely unfavorable in Burma. There is no civil society of any sort at all. Even a library cannot be opened as a private manner. The tuition classes are used to enlighten the students and consequently tuition teachers have to go jail. Underdevelopment is not to the advantage of mass movement as communication and transportation are so poor. A couple of cities are only focal spots where organizers could set off the movement. So when all big towns are put under control, there is no chance of organizing any anti-government activities. The general population is purposely made poor so that they won't have time for thinking of politics because they are busy to work for petite dinner after a cheap lunch.

After abolishing of the constitution, the military regimes rule with martial law and decrees. The coup leader General Saw Maung deliberately admitted that martial law meant no law. Restricted laws check everything suspicious activities. The punishment measures are not corresponding with breach of laws and orders. E.g. the elected parliamentarians are imprisoned for 25 years, the student leaders are sentenced to 54 years and the ethnic Shan leaders are punished for 94 to 106 years in jail.

Monks and the Saffron Revolution
In September 2008, all TV screens around the world showed saffron-led Buddhist monks marching peacefully on the streets of Burma.
  • The sparkle of Current protest
  • 15-8-07: The military regime suddenly increased petrol prices to $105 per liter
  • 19-8-07: The '88 Generation Students walked down the streets in Rangoon

  • 21-8-07: The '88 Generation student leaders are detained
  • 22-8-07: Marching took place in Rangoon and many towns
  • 5-9-07: The regime made a mistake in Pakokku by manhandling the monks
  • 6-8-07: Police Emergency was declared 17-9-07: Ultimatum was given by monks and the authorities are given 8days to comply with
  • Official apology to the monks
  • Bringing down the fuel and commodity prices
  • Release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all detainees
  • National reconciliation

  • 18-9-07: Monks strike started and they chanted Metta Sutta (Unconditional kindness)
  • 21-9-07: Day 4 - Public joined Monks
  • 22-9-07: Day 5 - Bare-foot monks marched in the Monsoon flood
  • 23-9-07: Day 6 - Under curfew 20,000 monks marched
  • 24-9-07: Day 7 - The “D” Day 100,000 protesters marching through Rangoon
  • 25-9-07: Day 8 - International response British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, US, EU, His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • 26-9-07: Day 9 - The 1st day of killing 5 sons of Buddha were killed at the feet of Shwedagon Pagoda
  • 27-9-07: Day 10 – The 2nd day of killing
  • Monasteries were ransacked and monks' blood left - Blood for Metta

  • A Japanese photographer was shot dead trying to show the real picture of Burma - Kenji Nagai kept his camera rolling before he died - Life for true picture
  • But the monks didn't lose heart - The chant of Love
  • May all beings always well and happy!
  • May they be free from danger and enmity!
  • May they live peacefully

Despite the brutal and vicious crackdown that has resulted in the killing of an estimated 200 demonstrators and 3,000 arrests including about 1,400 monks and nuns, more than 200 NLD members including 15 MP-Elects, the undercurrent of dissent is still very much alive in Burma. That mass demonstrations will have a lasting impact on Burma.

The present days
Burmese people inside the country are assisted by those living outside. In exile there is Political Defiance Committee (PDC) in Thailand and the Committee for Nonviolent Action for Burma (CNAB) in India, which is a founding member of the Nonviolence Peace-force. We have series of trainings of nonviolence. They published materials and secretly imported into Burma. Their colleagues inside the country have to risk for distribution of materials.

Every day 60-80% of people are listening to Burmese language radios. Thanks to BBC from London, VOA from Washington, DC, Radio Free Asia (RFA) also from Washington, DC and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) from Norway. Nowadays, though radio interviews, the people are talking openly all unjust and unfair news exposing violations of rights, corruptions, maltreatments, wrong doings and etc.

The censorship is 100% in Burma. All newspapers, radio and TV are under total control of the regime. The private journals and magazines have to undergo a long process of censor clearance. When the American high level delegation visited and met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi last week, the regime instructed to print not only Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's photo but also the military PM's. Then all journals which printed her photo ran out of the copies.

Political prisoners
Those who tried nonviolent political activities and imprisoned are categorized as the political prisoners in Burma. The world seemed happy of the release of 7,114 prisoners in September this year. But there were only 126 political prisoners among them and remain a total of 2,168 political prisoners. This is an overall increase of 49 in comparison to last month's figure of 2,119. Since the 2007 September Saffron Revolution, a total of 1,156 activists have been arrested and are still in detention. These include:

  • Monks = 246
  • Members of Parliament = 12
  • Students = 284
  • Women = 179
  • NLD members = 435
  • Members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters network = 34
  • Ethnic nationalities = 207
  • Cyclone Nargis volunteers = 21
  • Teachers = 26
  • Media activists = 46
  • Lawyers = 12

NLD - The National League for Democracy
The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi is the sole focal point for all nonviolent activities. All activists whether NLD member or not work around NLD. They are:
  • The Human Rights Defenders and Promoters, which was founded in 2002 to raise awareness among the people about their rights and also help forced labor victims and child soldiers conspicuously recruited by the army

  • HIV-AIDS group (Phyu Phyu Thin is a Burmese HIV/AIDS woman activist and supporter of the National League for Democracy. On May 21, 2007, she was arrested and held for more than a month.)

  • Tuesday prayers group composed of NLD women members (Aung San Suu Kyi is Tuesday born)

  • The Committee Representing Peoples' Parliament (CRPP), which is a group of duly elected in 1990 election

  • The United Nationalities Association (UNA) which is composed of genuine ethnic parties of 1990 election

  • Monks formed entire country, upper and lower Burma and etc.

  • Students also formed as University-wide and upper and lower Burma and etc.

  • Funeral services

  • Cyclone relief volunteers and etc.

The NLD believes that national problems must and will be resolved through political negotiations. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday, July 16, 2000 in the Washington Post, wrote, “We are committed to nonviolent political activities that will lay a foundation for a healthy democratic state, and we take all possible measures to establish the necessity for the rule of law.”

Sadly it seems none of the nonviolent methods is effective in Burma. There is no visible anti-government activity inside Burma. But the people really want freedom and there are possibilities of movement based on nonviolence. The people though feeble to rise up or come out, have enough experiences and the regime is difficult to suppress them by use of force. The neighbors want, whether democratic or not, stable Burma. The western nations want to see Burma democratic and respect human rights. The generals desperately need sanctions lifted which will be possible when there is real progress with involvement of Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic peoples. Aung San Suu Kyi's role has been recognized even by the generals who spoke to the Americans recently.

Dr. Tint Swe
Burmese Member of Parliament (NLD)
F-15, Vikas Puri
New Delhi 110018
Email: drswe01 [at] gmail [dot] com


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