I’ll begin with an obituary. The Burma pro-democracy movement is dead.


By Roland Watson August 3, 2013

The failure of the pro-democracy movement

I’ll begin with an obituary. The Burma pro-democracy movement is dead.

Of course, some people might disagree. Instead, they might say that it is
“over.” The Burma democracy movement isn’t dead, it’s just over, because
it succeeded. Burma is now free and democratic.

I know how ridiculous this sounds, but many people actually do hold this
view. The SPDC and Than Shwe are GONE, and the “progress” in the country
is irreversible. The “reform” will take some years to complete, of course,
but democracy is now established, there is a President and a Parliament,
and things will only get better.

Such people are either fools; or part of the regime, such as Shwe Mann,
Suu Kyi and Tayza; or corrupt cronies of the regime, including EBO’s Harn
Yawnghwe, the KNU’s General Mutu Sae Poe, General Johnny, and General
Secretary Kwe Htoo, the SSA-South’s General Yawd Serk, and of course all
of the corporate pirates now invading the country. In the third group I
would also include the international regime cheerleaders, including Ashley
South, who is now reaping the reward for his complicity through his
association with the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative; Derek Tonkin, of
Network Myanmar; and Georgetown’s illustrious David Steinberg.
Congratulations, gentlemen, you must be dancing in the streets. You won!
Burma is not free, and it won’t be for a long, long time to come. You got
what you wanted!!!

The movement has failed, and the first and foremost proof of this is that
the dictators are still in power. Some of them, such as SPDC supremo Than
Shwe, may have moved to the shadows, and others, including President Thein
Sein and the members of the USDP, have taken off their uniforms, but, they
are still absolutely in charge. And, with the 2008 Constitution as the
“Supreme Law” of Burma, and which Than Shwe will never allow to be
significantly altered, there is no way that they can be removed.

Secondly, repression in the country continues, without fail. This includes
the ongoing Burma Army offensives agains various ethnic nationality
groups; related repression of ethnic nationality people, including the
regime’s backing of a campaign of genocide targeting the Rohingya;
widespread land thefts, to assist the corporate pirates; and the
continuing arrests and detention of individuals who protest these abuses,
as well as the fact that any of the political prisoners who have been
released can instantly be re-imprisoned if they ever really speak out.

And thirdly, there has not been one iota of justice for the regime’s
literally millions of victims, of both past and on-going abuses, and which
justice Suu Kyi herself has declared shall never be permitted.

So, notwithstanding all of the supposed progress, nothing fundamental has

Now, some people might say that the movement hasn’t failed, merely – for
the moment – that it is dormant. There are still thousands of courageous
men and women dedicated to freedom and democracy, who have not given up in
any way. And, this is true, and I applaud them. Even though I am not from
Burma, I think of myself as being part of this group as well.

But, we have to face facts. The principal components of the movement have
ended their resistance, including: Suu Kyi and the NLD; the ethnic armies
that had continued to fight; and the student activists. Suu Kyi has joined
the regime. The ethnic leaders betrayed their peoples and signed one-sided
ceasefires, which only benefit them personally and the regime. And, the
students, notably 88 Generation, while they haven’t openly joined the
dictators, have adopted a wait and see attitude.

So, the “dormant” argument doesn’t hold water. The people who are still
dedicated to freedom are going to have to regroup and start an entirely
new movement. This might be like the White Mask movement in neighboring
Thailand, as a prelude to organizing a new popular uprising; or the
creation of renewed ethnic resistance as through the UNFC; or something
else entirely. Only time will tell. But, whatever happens, the resistance
will continue, and someday a new movement will be created, and it will
prevail, and Burma will be free. The people deserve, and will settle for,
nothing less.

History of the movement

In talking about the democracy movement, I should probably be clear about
what I mean.

The movement began in the 1940s, with General Aung San’s efforts to expel
the British. Then, in 1949, the ethnic resistance formally started, when
the Karen people launched their own revolution in response to General Ne
Win, comrade of Aung San but also future dictator of Burma, threatening to
exterminate them with his pocket army in Insein Township.

Next, student activism began in the 1950s, but interestingly, this was
encouraged by the British, who had already left, as a means for the people
to learn more about democracy. All such aspirations though came crashing
down on March 2, 1962, when Ne Win launched his coup.

The students then began to shift their focus from democracy education to
democracy activism, but not immediately, since they were preoccupied with
their exams at the time, something Ne Win no doubt took into account.
After completing their exams, the students went home, and then returned to
campus in May, at which time the movement really started. However, in
response to the developing resistance, Ne Win’s troops gunned down
protesting students from Rangoon University on July 7, 1962, and then blew
up their Student Union building the following day. The age of repression
had formally begun.

In the intervening decades, there have been many other significant events,
which can be included in the movement to free the country. These include:

A major student protest in 1974 following U Thant’s funeral, which year Ne
Win also imposed a new constitution.

Additional student protests in subsequent years.

The formation of the ethnic resistance National Democratic Front in 1975,
in response to the fact that after he seized power, Ne Win started wars
with the major ethnic nationality groups.

The murder by the regime of protesting students at Rangoon Institute of
Technology, in March 1988.

Massive demonstrations that developed in response to this, culminating in
the protests of that August, now exactly 25 years past, which Ne Win
suppressed mercilessly on August 8th, in a massacre.

The formation of the ABSDF, by students who moved to the border areas to
join forces with the ethnic armies.

And finally, continuing resistance by those students who remained in
Burma’s major cities.

You will note that I have not included in this list:

Any reference to Aung San Suu Kyi or the NLD as a whole, since following
the 1990 election they never took any significant action to actually
instigate democratic change.

Any later reference to the ethnic forces, since they became factionalized
and unable to act in unison; and with many signing ceasefires; and with
those that did not only engaging in defensive actions.

Any reference to the Buddhist monk uprising in 2007, since it did not have
freedom and democracy as its goal.

So, and once again, and in conclusion, this is an outline history of the
movement, which is now terminated. It failed. I am certainly not saying,
though, that everything that has been done, and all of the sacrifices that
have been made, have been in vain. They haven’t. I am just pointing out
that we need to accept, and act on, the basic fact that Burma is not yet
free, and that it no longer has any semblance of a functioning much less
effective democracy movement.

Why the failure?

There obviously needs to be a new movement, but so the same mistakes
aren’t repeated again, perhaps it is best to conduct an autopsy of one
that failed. Why did so much effort and sacrifice fail to achieve its

The obvious answer is that the dictators, meaning Ne Win and then Than
Shwe, were brilliant. How else could single individuals hold back an
entire nation?

Ne Win implemented a multi-pronged strategy to hold onto power, and which
Than Shwe then duplicated. First, he consolidated his base, the post-World
War II Burma Independence Army. His principle actions here were to achieve
dominance over his rival, communist Bo Zeya, and to purge the military of
non-Burman commanders, notably Karen General, Smith Dun. Following this,
he began to inculcate a sense of Burman superiority, and corresponding
racism against non-Burmans. This was accomplished with the aforementioned
wars, to which Ne Win appended the strategy of Divide and Conquer, leading
to the ceasefires of the early 1990s – notably the KIA in 1994, and also
the split of the KNU through the betrayal of the breakaway pro-regime
DKBA, and the loss of the organization’s Manerplaw headquarters.

Secondly, Ne Win isolated and impoverished the people of the country
through his socialist program, thereby initiating an era of want that
effectively reduced their ability to rise up.

Thirdly, he successfully maneuvered against students activists, through
the different crackdowns and also via arrests, torture and imprisonment.

Fourthly, although this development occurred largely behind the scenes, he
reached some sort of accord with the leaders of the Buddhist Sangha, such
that there was never any religious support for the democracy movement.

Fifthly, he maneuvered successfully relative to – and secured military
assistance from – the international community, principally the United
States, by promoting his regime as a bulwark against both Chinese and
broader regional communism.

And lastly, and just prior to, and no doubt in anticipation of – the 8888
massacre, he left the stage. He shielded himself from blame, and
disappeared into the background.

Now, turning to Than Shwe, he perpetuated – if not increased – the racism
and aggression against the ethnic nationalities; continued, through
stealing the proceeds of the country’s natural resource sales, the
impoverishment of the people; continued to successfully contain student
activists as well as Suu Kyi and the NLD, through arrests and
imprisonment, although they bear some of the blame for the success of this
strategy since in general their actions were symbolic, and never designed
to trigger great pressure much less a revolution for change; continued to
control the Buddhist leadership, which opposed the younger monks’ Saffron
uprising; continued to minimize support for democracy from the
international community, including by maintaining a secret relationship
with the U.S., through the guise of narcotics interdiction, which drug
smuggling, ironically, the regime oversees; and lastly, and once again
imitating Ne Win, disappeared from the stage,
leaving behind a political charade that Suu Kyi and the United States
were only too happy to embrace.

Leadership failure

As this last point suggests, the democracy movement failed not only
because of the brilliance of the dictators, but also due to the inept and
self-serving actions of the movement’s leadership, and supposed
international allies.

Only Suu Kyi herself knows what has happened in her heart, how someone who
was able to speak so strongly in 1989 transformed into a political animal
who now – and exclusively – lusts after power. Whatever motivated her,
though, be it the massacre at Depayin, her growing age, or her own racism,
this transformation amounts to one of the most significant falls from
grace of a pro-democracy leader in the history of humanity’s struggle for
freedom from tyranny and fear. This is her historical legacy.

The students in the cities, on the other hand, were imprisoned, so they
bear no blame for the movement’s failure; and the students who joined with
the ethnic forces continued to fight, so likewise they are blameless as
well. Certain ethnic nationality leaders, though, either became corrupted,
or made serious if not fatal mistakes, and are to be castigated just as
much as Suu Kyi.

Next, the role of Barack Obama and the U.S. cannot be underestimated. The
acceptance of the legitimacy of Burma’s dictatorship took two steps: Suu
Kyi’s surrender, and Obama’s policy reversal. Of course, the reversal was
only for public show, since behind the scenes America’s backing of the
dictatorship never really wavered, although the announcement of such a
public stance was enough to open the floodgates to commercial development,
and hence the financial strengthening of the regime that is now underway,
exactly as it was intended to do.

Lastly, Burma’s media share a large part of the blame. While the internal
media were either censored or openly pro-regime, external media outlets
presumably had freedom of speech. However, they too allowed themselves to
be censored, notably by their common funder, the National Endowment for
Democracy, which punishes any grantee that expresses sympathy for anything
other than the weakest pacifist actions. (This is additional evidence of
Washington’s pro-regime complicity.) Hence, Burma has never had a true
revolutionary media, capable of unifying the Burmans and the ethnic
nationalities around the need to create a country-wide revolutionary

The rise of a new movement

With all of this as background, those people of Burma, and their
international supporters, who still hunger for freedom, can see that
through the failure of the movement, and even with the supposed reform,
nothing has really changed. The country is still under the thumb of a
racist dictatorship. Their leaders are still weak, and corrupt. Where
formerly the wealth of their nation was being stolen piecemeal, now it is
occurring wholesale. What are they to do?

I’m not sure when or how it will happen, but the only option is to rise
up. The people should of course oppose all of the corporate pirate
pillage, including the theft of their land, and in the strongest possible
ways. But, even this won’t be enough. They need to rise up, unify around
the cause of freedom – not land thefts – and take to the streets. It is
possible. If the publics in literally one country after another can do it,
and successfully, the people of Burma can, too.

Barriers to a new movement

Once again, though, it’s not going to be easy. In addition to all of the
normal hurdles that exist for a democracy movement, there are a number of
other barriers specific to Burma.

The first of these is Suu Kyi. Her betrayal of the people and their
aspiration to be free is so severe that she is nothing less than a
traitor. The problem is, with her legacy, her anointing as a saint by the
international community, but much more importantly the fact that she is
Aung San’s daughter, it takes a huge psychological leap for an ordinary
person to oppose her. Nonetheless, this is what is required. The people
must turn against her. It might help to recognize that Aung San himself
would disown her for what she has done. Indeed, if she wasn’t family, his
penalty would be even more severe. Aung San, who was no racist, would
further recognize that the Burman dictatorship – through its record of
decades of murderous repression – is even worse – much worse – than the

A basic way to evaluate leaders is to look at their actions, and then
consider whose interests are being served. What has Suu Kyi actually done
(or failed to do), and who is benefitting in the “New” Burma? The answer
is: she personally is the one who is being rewarded, as well as the
generals who for decades have destroyed the country, their Burman and now
ethnic nationality cronies, and the international corporate pirates. This
is who she is working for: not the people.

I can add that a related issue here, counterintuitively, is the respect
that is commonly granted to the elderly in East Asia. In Burma’s case, and
also China and Thailand, a very positive social influence is having the
unintended consequence of working to the disadvantage of the people.
Because of this value, people in East Asia find it very difficult to
criticize, much less oppose, older generations. This hidden value is a
significant factor in the inability, even the unwillingness, of the people
of Burma to rise up.

Even more, it now extends to all of the different ethnic nationalities,
individually. Not only are the Burmans being misled through Suu Kyi, but
the Karen through General Mutu, the Shan through Yawd Serk, etc. Burma
needs ethnic nationality resistance movements not only against the
dictatorship, but against their own leaders as well.

In conclusion, other barriers to a new democratic movement include the
revelation that large numbers of Buddist monks, amazingly, are also openly
racist; that the U.S. and the rest of the international community have
cast pretense aside and – as with China – are now openly cheering for the
dictators; and, finally, that there is one other hidden factor as well.

To repeat the above point, the publics in many countries have achieved
their freedom; why not Burma? If you look at a number of these successful
resistance movements, though, another factor becomes clear, which is not
present in Burma. This is in fact probably the most important factor of

The people need someone to unify against. All of their frustration and
anger needs to be directed against one target, so that it can build and
coalesce and ultimately explode through a massive taking to the streets.
In Libya, the target was Gaddafi; in Tunisia, Abidine Ben Ali; in Serbia,
Slobodan Milosevic; in Syria, Assad; in Egypt, Mubarak and then Morsi; and
now, finally, in Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra.

All of these countries had – or, for Thailand, have – a hated dictator.
But, the dictators of Burma, and also China, have successfully eluded this
threat. Both Ne Win and Than Shwe were devout Buddhists. How could they be
all bad? And, as 1988 developed, Ne Win excused himself from the scene.
Now, Than Shwe has done the same thing, and who did he install in his
place – Thein Sein: mild-mannered, soft-spoken, balding Thein Sein. How
can you be angry with him? He’s not even part of the Sit-tut anymore. The
Army is rogue, outside of his power.

This fantastic deception has not only convinced many opportunistic people,
starting with Suu Kyi, that now is the time to give up and jump on board
the money train, more deeply it deprives the public, who will never be
invited on the train, of the focal point that they need to instigate a
rebellion. Again, Burma’s dictator – Than Shwe – is a genius.

The flip side, though, is that the rise of the new corrupt class, Burma’s
princelings, is sure to seed resentment, particularly as ordinary people
continue to have their land stolen. The anger will still be there. The
question is, what will set it off?

Triggers for new unrest

While, as Tunisia demonstrated, anything can trigger a rebellion, for
Burma, the only obvious upcoming events are the national census, that
supposedly will be conducted next year, and the election that is also
supposedly scheduled for the year after that.

For the first, there is a significant factor here that few people
recognize. Many Burmans, certainly the racists, believe that they are the
majority. It is not uncommon to hear the claim that Burmans constitute 70%
of the country’s population and everyone else 30%. This is no doubt
incorrect. Indeed, some people believe that non-Burmans, including mixed
ethnicities, may now be the majority. “Pure” Burmans may even be less than

Now, if this is true, it is certain to constitute a flash point. The
dictatorship will unquestionably conduct the census in a way that is
designed to minimize non-Burman registrations, but the blunt methods that
were used in the past, such as registering all Buddhists as Burmans, will
not be possible. Observation of the census will be too professional for
them to get away with this.

This means that there are two potential trigger points arising out of the
census. First, if the regime attempts to disenfranchise the ethnic
nationalities, either by denying them registration, or by undercounting
their numbers, there will be a popular reaction to this, and which the
corrupt ethnic leadership will not be able to control. Secondly, if a fair
count is held and which shows the end of Burman dominance, the racists
will not let this stand. In the “interests of national unity,” the
generals will step in and seize direct control, under the terms of “their”
Constitution, and Burma will be an incontestable military dictatorship
once again.

Secondly, assuming the hurdle of the census can somehow be overcome, there
is the issue of the election. Personally, I believe Than Shwe will
authorize amending the provision of the Constitution that is necessary to
allow his now ally, Suu Kyi, to become President. He understands that
giving her the corner office, so-to-speak, will be a strong deterrent
against popular unrest. So, barring a new uprising between now and 2015,
the stage will then be set. Reactionary and autocratic Suu Kyi will
replace Thein Sein as the public face of the military regime. (I wouldn’t
be surprised if she finds a way for her friends from China to resume the
Myitsone dam.) And, the people – to win their rights and stop the pillage
– will be forced to oppose her.

It’s good that these events, the census and the election, are getting
closer every day.


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