If sheer sacrifice of body, mind and soul for a noble cause were convertible into hard currency Burma’s legions of pro-democracy warriors would be among the richest citizens in the world.
And yet, for all their great sacrifices the saga of the Burmese struggle for democracy seems to run like an old horror movie one has seen too many times before. The recent round of nationwide protests in Burma that had raised hopes of major political change for example once again ended in bloodshed and tears.
Why aren’t the Burmese people winning in their battle for democracy and managing to bring about regime change despite all their valiant efforts?
The record is so dismal that some Burma watchers have glibly predicted that it is difficult to think of the country’s future without the military handling the levers of power in one way or the other.
Without denying the huge obstacles facing the Burmese pro-democracy movement I think the pessimism of those who have a grim prognosis for the future of the country quite off the mark.
They are misled, among other reasons, by their simplistic equation of democracy with parliamentary elections and a handful of its associated institutions. A better understanding of the Burmese experience also lies in going beyond short-term, media-driven notions of success and failure of mass movements.
In fact the good news that is crying out to be recognised today is that Burma’s brave activists- despite repeated setbacks- are forging, through their struggles, the foundations of a democratic society that may well go on to become Asia’s finest. A more nuanced view of the history of democracy around the world shows that long-term prospects of building a genuinely democratic Burma appear extremely promising for a variety of reasons.
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The first and foremost one is simply the participation of more and more ordinary Burmese in the fight for democratic rights even if the price means certain imprisonment, injury or even worse - brutal murder.
The recent demonstrations in Burma against the military regime, that saw several hundred thousand people hit the streets in towns and cities across the country, were carried out under some of the most politically repressive conditions in the world.
In contrast, when in the thirties and forties while Burma’s legendary ‘thirty comrades’, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San, steered their nation to independence from both British and Japanese rule, all this was done with little participation from the bulk of the population.
In 1945 when Burma became a free nation, the deeply authoritarian structures of both feudal, traditional society as well as the newly imported machinery of the nation state remained unchallenged by both leadership and ordinary citizens alike.
This combined with the weakness of the anti-colonial struggle and the resulting absence of a democratic political culture meant that despite adoption of multi- party elections Burmese democracy and the institutions it spawned were on shaky, slippery ground.
By 1962, using the excuse of ‘preserving national unity’, following demands by Burma’s ethnic minorities for greater autonomy, the Burmese military managed to take over the young nation. Since then it has tightly held on to power through a mix of high intrigue and naked force.
The military dictatorship has not had an easy time all these years though. Apart from inheriting the armed insurgencies led by the Burmese Communist Party and various ethnic rebel groups in the hills and forests the junta has faced wave after wave of protests from student activists in the urban areas.
The biggest uprising till date was of course the one in 1988 that, for all its intensity, unfortunately failed to dislodge the regime from power. The dictatorship was however forced to hold national elections in 1990, which they lost by massive margins, underlining their complete lack of legitimacy forever.
It is true the military rulers managed to claw their way back and recoup some losses since then, thanks mostly to external support from the ASEAN group of nations, China and oil companies interested in the loot of Burma’s treasure trove of natural resources. The ceasefire agreements signed with various ethnic rebel armies following the break up of the Burmese Communist Party also brought some respite to the regime.
But all this while opponents of the Burmese junta were not sitting idle. While the latest round of demonstrations in Burma has been dubbed as ‘spontaneous’ by the media in reality preparations for the showdown have been on for months if not a few years.
Under very difficult circumstances thousands of young and old activists have been carrying out propaganda and organisational work within the belly of the beast in myriad ways helping achieve – bit by bit- what Aung San Suu Kyi famously called ‘Freedom from Fear’.
There has been of course the clever use of new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet but some of the methods used- like invocation of cultural symbols or spreading of subversive jokes about the junta – are difficult to understand as ‘political activity’ by many outsiders. Within Burma though they find resonance among ordinary folk and manage to rattle the highly superstitious and image-conscious military rulers.
Last year in October for example, the 88 Generation Students led by the legendary Min Ko Naing launched the ‘White Expression’ and called for ‘national reconciliation’ and the freedom of all political prisoners.
As part of the campaign students urged the Burmese people to show their support by wearing white clothes, or, at least, white handkerchiefs, white triangular brooches or badges.‘Whiteness’ represents purity, sincerity, honesty and altruism in Burmese culture.
‘‘Burmese students have been at the forefront of the democratic struggle generation after generation. We have been sincere, honest and altruistic in our struggle on behalf of all the ethnic peoples of Burma. With this ‘whiteness’ that we urge the people of Burma to work for national reconciliation.’’ declared the group.
As the blog site ‘Burma Digest’ noted, the adoption of the colour white was tactically significant since schoolboys and girls wear white shirts and blouses in Burma. The members of the junta’s political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, also favour white. The laymen who dwell in Buddhist monasteries are clad in white robes. The campaign in that respect was nothing short of ‘the re-appropriation of whiteness’ by the students for their good cause.
The call for ‘national reconciliation’ – aimed at factions within the military unhappy with the situation- showed the political astuteness of the former student activists. The same activists were also at the forefront of the agitation against hikes in fuel prices that triggered off the massive protests in September this year.
Outside Burma the thousands of Burmese political exiles spread to different corners of the globe have also been working tirelessly towards the liberation of their country. Apart from contributing funds for the upkeep of their families back home many of them are instrumental in funnelling information, ideas and innovative means of dissent within the isolated Burmese population.
Their activities and presence overseas has popularised the Burmese struggle for democracy among ordinary people everywhere and made it one of the globe’s topmost causes today.
On another front, one more great achievement of the Burmese pro-democracy movement has probably been the coming together of mainstream ethnic Burman activists with those from ethnic minorities fighting against the centralised nation state created after independence from colonialism. In countries like India, with an even larger ethnic and cultural diversity, some semblance of national unity was possible only because of the popular and widespread mass movements against British rule- a trend missing in pre-colonial Burma.
Both in 1988, when ethnic rebel groups welcomed and sheltered Burmese student activists, and in the September 2007 uprising when they extended full support to the cause of Burmese protestors there has been a valuable strengthening of ties. While differences do remain in their visions of what a future Burma will exactly look like the process of shared participation in struggle against the military regime is creating spaces for dialogue quite unimaginable a couple of decades ago.
But of all the achievements of the Burmese struggle listed so far the most valuable one has been a deeper and richer understanding of the concept of democracy itself.
Today when an average Burmese activist talks of democracy he or she does not simply refer to the replacement of an unelected regime by an elected one. They understand – from bitter experience- it is not so much about who wields state power but how and on whose behalf it is exercised.
Democracy to them is not a one dimensional, monochrome animal to be admired in a glorified zoo but a multi-coloured bird set to fly free for all to savour and see. It is not just elections but also environment, also gender, also race, also cultural diversity and very importantly also the unchecked, authoritarian power of global corporations.
That is why there is no one overarching Burmese pro-democracy movement but thousands of them walking, talking, fighting, declaring little republics of freedom wherever, whenever the opportunity arises. If there are no larger than life leaders at the head of the Burmese protests it is because the men and women on the streets are learning to become leaders all on their own.
And that is why those who are fixated with finding the climax of this long running saga should consider getting a new pair of eyes to witness the birth of Burmese democracy – cell by cell, nerve by nerve, blood-drop by blood-drop. We can already hear the baby cry, its smile can’t be far behind.
Satya Sagar is a writer, journalist, video maker based in New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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