Why non-violence has failed in Myanmar

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2007, 12:00am

Empty monasteries, severed telecommunications and a sullen, beaten silence; it doesn't just feel like a defeat for the Myanmese people - it feels like the end of an era. It was an era that began at the other end of Southeast Asia two decades ago, with the non-violent overthrow in 1986 of the Marcos regime in the Philippines by 'people power'.

For a while, non-violent revolutions seemed almost unstoppable: Bangladesh, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia all followed the Philippine example. The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989 and, by 1991, the Soviet Union itself had gone into liquidation. Right into the 21st century, the trend continued - with undemocratic regimes being forced to yield power by unarmed protesters from Serbia to Georgia and Nepal. But there were always the exceptions, and exceptions are always instructive.

The greatest exception, in the early days, was Myanmar itself. Entranced by the seeming ease with which their Southeast Asian neighbours were dumping their dictators - and emboldened by the transfer of power from general Ne Win to a junta of lesser generals - Myanmese ventured out on the streets to demand democracy. The army slaughtered 3,000 of them in the streets of Yangon, and the protesters went very quiet.

The emotion that non-violence works on is shame. Most people feel that murdering large numbers of their fellow citizens is a shameful action. And, even if those at the top of a regime can smother that emotion, their soldiers, who do the actual killing, may not be able to. If you cannot be sure your soldiers will obey that order, then it is wise not to give it, since you present them with a dilemma that can only be resolved by turning their weapons against the regime. Better to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from power. So non-violent revolution often succeeds - but not if the army is sufficiently isolated from the public.

The Myanmese army is profoundly isolated from the public. Its officers have become a separate, self-recruiting caste that enjoys great privileges, and its soldiers are country boys - not one in 100 is from Yangon or Mandalay. The regime has even moved the capital to the preposterous jungle 'city' of Naypyidaw, to increase the social isolation of its soldiers and servants.

So when the protesters came out on the streets again in the bigger cities after 19 years, led this time by monks, the regime simply started killing again. People got the message very quickly: nobody who defies the regime is safe. Not even monks.

The Myanmese are now pinning their hopes on foreign intervention, but that was never going to happen. It never played a decisive role in the non-violent revolutions that succeeded, either. Sooner or later the corruption of the army's senior officers will destroy its discipline, but meanwhile there will probably be more years of tyranny for Myanmar.

It is not the end of an era, however. In other places, against other repressive regimes, non-violence still has a reasonable chance of succeeding. But it never did work in Myanmar.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries