Burmese Tragedy

2 October 2007

Burmese Tragedy

By Gwynne Dyer

Empty monasteries, severed telecommunications, and a sullen, beaten silence that seems to envelop the whole country. It doesn’t just feel like a defeat for the Burmese people; it feels like the end of an era. It was an era that began at the other end of South-East Asia two decades ago, with the non-violent overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines by “people power” in 1986.

For a while, non-violent revolutions seemed almost unstoppable: Bangladesh, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia all followed the Filipino example, overthrowing military rule and moving to open democratic systems after decades of oppression. China itself almost managed to follow their example in the Tienanmen episode of 1989, and then the contagion spread to Europe.

The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe melted away with scarcely a shot fired, and by 1991 the Soviet Union itself had gone into liquidation. It was the threat of similar non-violent action that finally brought the apartheid regime in South Africa to the negotiating table in the early 1990s. Right into the 21st century the trend continued, with undemocratic regimes being forced to yield power by unarmed protestors from Serbia to Georgia to Nepal. But there were always the exceptions, and exceptions are always instructive.

The greatest exception, in the early days, was Burma itself. Entranced by the seeming ease with which their South-East Asian neighbours were dumping their dictators and emboldened by the transfer of power from General Ne Win (who had been in power for a quarter-century) to a junta of lesser generals, Burmese civilians ventured out on the streets to demand democracy. The army slaughtered three thousand of them in the streets of Rangoon, whisking the bodies away to be burned, and the protestors went very quiet.

It was this success for repression in Burma that gave the Chinese Communist regime the confidence to do the same thing on Tienanmen Square the following year, and it worked there too. People went very quiet after the massacre on the Square, and the regime is still firmly in power eighteen years later. Non-violent protest is a powerful tactic, but no tactic works in every contingency. To be specific, non-violent protest does not work against a regime that is willing to commit a massacre, and can persuade its troops to carry out its orders.

The emotion that non-violence works on is shame. Most people feel that murdering large numbers of their fellow citizens on the streets in broad daylight is a shameful action, and even if the privileged people at the top of a regime can smother that emotion, their soldiers, who have to do the actual killing, may not be able to.

If you cannot be sure your soldiers will obey that order, then it is wise not to give it, since you present them with a dilemma that can only be resolved by turning their weapons against the regime. Better to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from power. So non-violent revolution often succeeds — but not if the army is sufficiently isolated from the public.

The isolation can be achieved by indoctrination, but physical separation helps too. Before the Chinese regime ordered the attack on Tienanmen Square, it withdrew the entire Beijing garrison (which it believed to be contaminated by close contact with the public), and replaced it with divisions brought in from the deep interior of the country. The killing was carried out by country boys to whom the sophisticated residents of Beijing looked like alien beings, people about whom almost any lie seemed credible.

The Burmese army is profoundly isolated from the civilian public. Its officers, over the decades of military rule, have become a separate, self-recruiting caste that enjoys great privileges, and its soldiers are country boys — not one in a hundred is from Rangoon or Mandalay. The regime has even moved the capital from Rangoon to the preposterous jungle “city” of Naypyidaw, a newly built place whose only business is government,  in order to increase the social isolation of its soldiers and servants.

So when the protestors came out on the streets again in the bigger Burmese cities after nineteen years, led this time by monks whose prestige made many believe the army would not dare touch them, the regime simply started killing again. The death toll this time is probably no more than a tenth of that in 1988, for people got the message very quickly: nobody who defies the regime is safe. Not even monks.

The Burmese are now pinning their hopes on foreign intervention, but that was never going to happen. It never played a decisive role in the non-violent revolutions that succeeded, either. Sooner or later the extreme corruption of the army’s senior officers will destroy its discipline, but meanwhile it is probably more years of tyranny for Burma, with only Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic symbol of Burmese democracy who lives under semi-permanent house arrest, to bear witness against it.

It is not the end of an era, however. In other places, against other repressive regimes, non-violence still has a reasonable chance of succeeding. It never did work in Burma.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“It was…orders”; and “The isolation…credible”)

NOTE: Some papers may be compelled to substitute Myanmar for Burma, and Yangon for Rangoon, but those terms were introduced by the current regime after the 1988 massacre in an attempt to wrap itself in the flag, and are not used by the Burmese democratic movement.