Why Haven’t the Burmese Joined the Recent Wave of Pro-Democracy Protests?

Saffron Revolution(Pictured: Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution.)

Note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed Roland Watson’s quotes to David Tharckabaw.

At Dictator Watch, Roland Watson asks, “Why Are There No Protests in Burma?”

Thus far Burma’s military dictatorship has been immune to the uprisings to which the world has been witness to — or engaged in — elsewhere. Perhaps that’s because Burma comes in a close second to North Korea as the most merciless administration in the world. You think Bahrain and Libya have been barbaric in their responses to protests? One shudders to think how North Korea (where, actually, an opposition movement is unimaginable) and Burma’s ruling junta would react. Watson, though, sees a ray of hope.

He begins by citing all the nations where mass protests have been mounted and criticizing the United States both for supporting rulers such as Mubarak and failing to switch their support to the protesters in timely fashion. He then writes that

. . the generals of the SPDC military junta . . . are among the most repressive in the world [including] ethnic cleansing . . . committed against minority groups. The theft of Burma’s natural resources by the junta, its cronies, and their international partners, is also so severe that it is in the first tier, financially, of worldwide corruption. It is therefore a surprise that there have not been any demonstrations in the country.

. . . As a long-time Burma analyst and activist, I personally do not understand the popular inaction. Obviously, there is fear and a multitude of other factors. But still, one would expect some sort of response.

At first glance, sounds suicidal. Watson explains.

The crackdown on the Saffron [monks] Uprising in 2007 only occurred after the junta was able to bring troops from border areas to Rangoon. The local commanders did not want to fire on the protestors. It has also been revealed that some leading generals opposed the crackdown.

There is significant dissent and factionalism within the junta. Really, everyone is positioning for power in advance of the demise of the top general . . . Than Shwe.

In fact

There is good reason to believe that the regime’s response to renewed demonstrations would be muted, particularly in light of the precedent set by the Egyptian military.

Bear in mind that Watson wrote that before Gaddafi’s brutal suppression in Libya. He presents another reason, though, that the junta’s reaction to new protests might not be as harsh as we’ve come to expect from it.

In addition, a new crackdown would end the hesitancy to launch war crimes prosecution against the SPDC.

Perhaps more to the point, Watson suggests that a crackdown by the junta could meet with an armed resistance that was absent in previous protests.

Right now, the resistance groups in Burma are working to establish a federal army. The generals have already exhibited an inability to move against them singly. As a coordinated front, [the resistance groups] will become much more powerful.

As for specific tactics, he recommends that this time

. . . the Burmese should avoid marches. As the protestors in Egypt illustrated, it is better to choose a central location, with many access points and surrounded by buildings for video documentation to rally. In Rangoon, one such area is Bandoola Park/Square.

The generals can hide in Naypyidaw [the new capital], but their rule will be a sham once the people of Burma control Rangoon [the old capital]. There will then be a coup against Than Shwe, or he and his family will flee to China or Singapore. The people of Burma will be through with the likes of [them]! . . . Democracy has a cost as the adage says “No Pain, no Gain”. The secret is to know when to spend it. That time is now.

For her part, Aung San Suu Kyi has offered cautious support for the Egypt protests, while telling the Toronto Globe and Mail that she’d like to link up with pro-democracy activists via Facebook and Twitter. “I think we need to — what do you call it — raise the megabyte?”

Meanwhile in a piece for Irrawaddy, The Dictator’s Survival Guide, the Burmese exile publication’s managing editor Kya Zwa Moe ponders why the junta has lasted for almost 50 years.

What are some of the secrets to a dictator’s survival? Here are some that Than Shwe and the Burmese generals have practiced:

— Crush all protests as soon as possible
— Consolidate all security forces, especially the military, under one command
— Apply divide and rule techniques among dissidents and the public
— Show no sympathy toward any dissent (as Tunisian leader Ben Ali did for the street vendor.)
— Never negotiate with opponents
— Pay no attention to pressure or suggestions from the international community

Than Shwe has applied these techniques since taking power and they are still working well for him. His recent formation of a “civilian government,” following the convening of a “civilian parliament,” appears to be his attempt to plant his seed of power in Burma and watch it grow even from beyond the grave.

If you think that Burma sounds like a horror movie, you’re right. Perhaps, though, should mass protests re-occur there, the urge to keep from jeopardizing its developmental and commercial deals with China and India would be enough to keep the junta from responding to mass protests with killings, torture, and imprisonment as it has in the past.