It seems that the Burmese nonviolent uprising has failed. The monks have been jailed or killed. There are still spotty demonstrations by angry people on the streets of Rangoon, but the army seems to be breaking them up quickly. One must feel discouraged.
Yet every failure should be studied as a lesson, taken as an incentive for change. My worry is chiefly that this failure will be regarded as proof that nonviolence is only for dreamers, not practical people. So the challenge is to consider seriously what went wrong and what should have been attempted instead.
When I return to Toronto from Ottawa (I’m here for the Group of 78 annual conference) I will phone Colonel Robert Helvey, an American expert on nonviolent resistance who tried hard to help the Burmese people count an opposition movement when he was posted to the US Embassy in Rangoon. He did not get very far, since the people were too demoralized by the history of their previous failure, in 1988, when some 3,000 civilians (mostly students) were killed by the dictatorship for trying to get democracy into their country.
Helvey found that most Burmese would listen skeptically to his suggestions but never really own it themselves. I will be interested in determining what he thinks of this recent uprising. But I think I can guess part of what he will say, based on my previous conversations with him and with Gene Sharp, whose ideas he has strongly promoted.
The key thing is to realize that nonviolent actions cannot usually be carried out spontaneously, for they require strategy. Impulsive action is a way of expressing oneself, but it is not a good way to win a war – including a nonviolent war. Instead, there needs to be analysis, strategizing, and planning.
The monks who started this resistance movement knew, no doubt, that they were risking death. One can hardly criticize them, since they had been so courageous, but it is still worth asking now: what might have succeeded?
Helvey takes a group of opposition leaders together for a few days to discuss, first of all, the pillars of power on which the dictators rely. In each country, the answers are specific. The controlled press? Businesses? Labor? The police? The army? Usually the army is crucial, as it was in Burma. Strategizing consists of figuring out ways to undermine the power of those forces propping up the dictators.
One example of this was in Ukraine before the Orange Revolution. The youthful opposition leaders realized that the army would be likely to fire on them, so they took two full years to overcome them through behind-the-scenes persuasion. They succeeded in winning over the wives of the officers, so that when the demonstrations began, these women were in the front row of the protesters. Naturally, their husbands were not about to fire on them.
In general, it is a bad idea to try to stand in front of a tank. Too often, the tank will run over you. Don’t march down the street into the line of fire of the army. Instead, fine alternative means of resistance, such as calling a general strike so that people simply stay home instead of going to work for a few days. That makes it harder for the army to come to your home and drag you off to jail.
The main difficulty in such an alternative approach is that in Burma it is hard to coordinate a general strike because the press is censored. So an earlier phase of resistance consists of finding methods of communicating that the regime cannot cut off. They quickly cut off the Internet, but the broadcasts from Norway have continued – though I have no idea how many people own radios that can pick up the signal from Norway. Maybe the thing that has to be done first is just to distribute ten million wind-up radios, so people will be able to pick up the news and hear the instructions from leaders about each day’s tactics. Today, don’t march. Stay home.
Certain leaders should be assigned the business of talking to the troops who may be expected to repress the demonstrations. Show them another way of refusing safely from firing on the citizens. Surely most of them don’t want to do that.
Tomorrow Murray Thomson and I will offer a motion to the general meeting of the Group of 78 about what to do to help Burma. It’s probably too late to find success this time, but what we plan is to suggest that the Canadian government expel the Burmese ambassador and the embassy staff, since they represent a government that is not legitimate. We should look into the mechanism for calling upon the International Criminal Court to indict the junta leaders. Then we’ll ask the Canadian government to order, as the US is going, an exclusion of 20 top Burmese leaders from entry to the US, and impound any money or property of theirs now in Canada. And finally, we will ask for new legislation curtailing the business charters of any Canadian corporations operating in Burma. That idea was attempted about a decade ago against an African regime, but it never was enacted, whereas the US has done so for quite a while.
I mentioned today another proposal that has been on my mind for a long time: to mandate the Montreal organization Rights and Democracy to support nonviolent democratic opposition movements inside any dictatorship. I hope this shows up in the report the fellows are writing tonight.
None of this will help much at this point, but there will always be a next time, and with planning we may be able to forestall the worst of the effects that are so visible tonight.