Burma crisis

The Burmese military regime - in power since 1962 - has started to crack down on protests and resistance led by Buddhist monks. Tom Fawthrop reports from Thailand

September 20, 2007
6 min read

The Burmese military regime – in power since 1962 – has started to crack down on protests and resistance led by Buddhist monks. Protesting monks have been baton-charged, beaten and tear-gassed. Some monks have been covered in blood.

On Wednesday night, 25 September, truckloads of the much-feared military took up strategic positions around the main city and former capital Rangoon. It was the ninth day of rolling protests against the hated junta.

Not since 1988 has the 45-year rule of the generals in Burma faced such a determined challenge. Daily processions of saffron-clad monks, a sit-in at a police station, a nationwide network of protesting bonzes calling for democratic change had taken the junta by surprise.

The tragedy of Burma

The snowballing demonstrations were triggered by the fivefold increase in fuel prices. The average citizen of Rangoon can no longer even afford a bus home. One third of the children under the age of five suffer malnutrition. Millions have been reduced to only one meal a day. The tragedy of Burma is fast approaching African dimensions of deprivation created by an oriental despotism..

After independence Burma, along with the Philippines, led south east Asia in literacy, education and development, far ahead of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand..

But since 1962 and the military coup staged by General Ne Win, a potentially wealthy country with abundant natural resources, including oil and natural gas, has slithered backwards under the guidance of a totally inept, kleptocratic and brutal junta.

The only chance for Burmese people to express their will – an election in 1990 – resulted in a landslide for the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of national hero and independence leader Aung San. The generals had miscalculated. They proceeded to dismiss the election results, and have carried on as an illegal regime ever since.

The snowballing protest has long overtaken the immediate concerns about the impossible cost of living. In towns across the country people have come out onto the streets, braving the dictatorship and challenging the state of fear that has ruled for decades.

In Rangoon, the capital, the monks fearlessly swept past the police barricades around the house of the perpetual hostage Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic leader of the nation, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been held under house arrest ever since her election victory in 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi. held an impromptu meeting with the monks and joined them in prayers.

‘The Lady’, as everyone calls her, still remains the great hope for a peaceful transition to a new Burma.

Nonviolent resistance

A potent feature of the protests has been the declaration by the monks union of ‘patam nikkujjana kamm’ – a boycott of alms from members of the military regime, or simply upturning their bowls instead of collecting food. This sanction includes a refusal to conduct funeral and weddings services and a ban on other Buddhist ceremonies for members of the military – an equivalent to excommunication in the Christian church.

Attempts by the generals to curry favour with temples to offer alms and donate handsome gifts to senior abbots has failed to win the blessing of the majority of monks.

Buddhism, as with other major religions, can concern itself with rather more than inner peace and spiritual paths to enlightenment and salvation. Although he shunned worldly affairs, Buddha stressed the need for good governance and good rulers. Nonviolent protest and resistance are their tools for change.

Monks were prominent against British colonial rule in this predominantly Buddhist nation. Two well-known monks, U Wisara and U Ottama, were imprisoned by the British for their nonviolent resistance; U Wisara died in jail after 166 days of a hunger strike

Monks versus the military

In Burma the chances of any so-called ‘velvet revolution’ appears to be highly unlikely. In 1988, besieged by massive popular protests, the generals ordered their troops to shoot unarmed demonstrators in their thousands.

Since the 1988 bloodbath the generals have massively expanded their army and security services, and switched the capital from Rangoon to the obscure, ultra-secure town of Naypyitaw, well-protected from the people that they rule. They have never deviated from their iron-fisted determination to cling onto power despite international lobbying for dialogue with the opposition – intimidated but never silenced.

Another ‘people-power’ uprising of the sort that ended the Asian tyrannies of former presidents Marcos in the Philippine and Suharto in Indonesia has been conjured up in the dreams and hopes of a despairing nation. But sadly the odds appear to be stacked against them. The Burmese military, the bulwark of the regime, has so far remained curiously immune from political factions and splits, indifferent to the misery of the people.

International pressure: can sanctions work?

The Burmese junta is a pariah regime sustained by routine torture of dissidents and the systematic use of forced labour that has been repeatedly condemned in reports of the International Labour Organisation.

There are sanctions from Washington and limited sanctions from the UK and the EU, which the UK Burma Campaign considers to be woefully inadequate. Pressure from pro-democracy groups has forced several British companies to withdraw their investment in the regime.

However, Asian countries have shown no such scruples. The junta’s chief supporter, China, has provided more than $2 billion of military aid to one of the largest armies

in south east Asia. In return, energy-hungry China has tapped into Burma’s rich natural resources – oil, natural gas, and minerals.

Burma is a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), with Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also engaged in profitable plunder of Burma’s resources – all in the name of a so-called ‘constructive engagement’ policy. ASEAN claims only quiet diplomacy can bring about democratic change in Burma, not sanctions.

ASEAN regional summits have politely asked Burma, to release Aung San Suu Kyi and move towards reconciliation and elections. Time and again the stonewalling of the generals has exposed this approach as futile.

If massive bloodshed is to be averted, the south east Asian nations, the EU and others all need to act now in putting human rights before trade and in support of the heroism of Buddhist monks in Burma.

Just as the Zimbabwean disaster should be on the conscience of Africa, so Burma is the special responsibility of ASEAN. The generals need to be told that more atrocities will result in real punishment: kicking them out of Asean and a suspension of all tourist links for starters. It is above all the voice of Asian countries – Asean members, India and China – that should be heading efforts to avert a looming disaster.

Note: Burma/Myanmar: Burma is no longer the official name but as it is still the popular name of the country I stick with it.

Tom Fawthrop is an author and journalist based in Thailand. Getting Away With Genocide, his recent book on the Khmer Rouge tribunal – about genocide and justice in Cambodia – is published by Pluto Books


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry