Burma: How Much Can Nonviolent Protest Achieve?

October 16, 2007 02:07 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
After the military suppression of the pro-democracy movement, analysts ponder whether nonviolent resistance can ever be effective in a totalitarian state.

30-Second Summary

In the army crackdown that swiftly followed Burma’s September protests, the nation’s Buddhist monks took the brunt of the state’s reprisals.

This was a startling development. The clergy are an integral and highly respected part of Burmese society, from whom many of the poorer communities receive social care and education.

The extent of the attacks on the monks distinguish recent events from the protests of 1988, when Burma last saw demonstrations on this scale.

In October, though the marchers had gone, the suppression of the clergy appears to have continued. Despite the censors and restrictions, citizen journalists and foreign correspondents leaked reports out of the country about midnight raids and abductions.

The Burmese government has put the figure for civilians fatalities arising from the recent demonstrations at 13. "But witness accounts range from several dozen deaths to as many as 200," according to British newspaper The Guardian.
Some analysts believe that the monks’ suffering will be a catalyst for further dissent. The BBC’s foreign correspondent Fergal Keane has reported of a nation “awakened to its own potential to change.”

How the country is to advance is another issue. Slate reports on a Burmese economist who argues that “if change is to come … it will come from within the military.” Peaceful protesters alone cannot succeed, asserts U Thaung.

Amid the commentary, there are echoes of what George Orwell once said about employing nonviolent resistance in the Soviet Union.

He wrote, “It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again.”

Headline Links: After the uprising

Background: The September protests and 8–8–88

History: Nonviolent resistance in India, the United States and China

Gandhi, non-cooperation and Orwell

Mohandas K. Gandhi emerged as the leader of India’s resistance to British rule shortly after World War I. He wore the white loincloth of a Hindu holy man, led an ascetic existence, and espoused a doctrine of peaceful “non-cooperation” against the British Raj.

Gandhi's pacifistic strategies have since influenced many political dissidents, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

India gained its independence in 1947, and Pakistan split from the rest of the subcontinent the same year to form a predominantly Islamic state.

In 1948, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu fanatic angered by the Indian leader's tolerance for Muslims.
The U.S. Civil Rights Movement

In the Civil Rights Movement, the dichotomy between violent and non-violent protest in the pursuit of human rights was embodied in the different approaches of two black leaders: Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. The stance of the former was expressed in the slogan “By any means necessary.” King disagreed with Malcolm X, saying that “urging Negroes to arm themselves and prepare to engage in violence, as he has done, can reap nothing but grief.”
Tiananmen Square

In 1989, students camped out in Tiananmen Square, in China’s capital Beijing, for seven weeks, calling for democratic reform and an end to government corruption. Millions of people joined the peaceful protests, and when the army finally moved in and opened fire, thousands may have died. A precise number for the fatalities has never been confirmed.

Opinion: What can be learned from the September protests?

Reference Material: More on Burma and nonviolent resistance


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