Burma (Myanmar) is a land of poets. Eleven published poets won seats in the 2015 election, which gave the country a limited form of democracy after decades of military rule. In the popular resistance that has spread since the soldiers seized power again on February 1, the slogans are often in what are called ‘climbing rhymes.’ And, of course, the regime is now killing the poets.
The best-known to be killed so far, Khet Thi, was taken from his home in Shwebo last month, and returned to his wife dead the following day with his internal organs removed. “They shoot in the head, but they don’t know revolution dwells in the heart, “ he wrote. But the resistance to the military usurpers is now taking the wrong road.
For five months outraged Burmese civilians came out into the streets almost every day in non-violent protest, even though after the first few weeks the soldiers were killing them at random. The civilian death toll is now more than 800, and it’s understandable that desperate and grieving protesters might resort to violence. It is nonetheless a dreadful mistake.
Younger urban people, better educated and media-savvy, overwhelmingly support the democratic resistance. Thousands of them are now moving to ethnic minority areas near the country’s borders where rebel militias have long defied the national army. They hope to build a joint military force strong enough to overthrow the dictator, General Min Aung Hlaing.
This is lunacy. The ethnic minority militias, Karen, Chin, Shan and half a dozen more, have managed to hang on in their own rugged terrain for decades, but they never got close to defeating the well-armed ‘Tatmadaw,’ the eleventh-largest army in the world. A few thousand untrained city boys are not going to change that.
Instead, they will enable the Burmese army, drawn almost exclusively from the Bamar ethnic group that includes two-thirds of Burma’s people, to claim that it is defending Burma from traitors and secessionists. (‘Burma’ is just an English corruption of the word ‘Bamar’, and ‘Myanmar’ is an archaic literary version of the same word.)
The youths who believe they are building an armed resistance to tyranny are actually laying the foundations for a civil war. It will range the minorities and ‘radical’ young Burmese men and women against the army and the more conservative section of the Bamar population, who fear that ‘national unity’ is at stake. Guess who’s going to win that war?
But it could take five or ten years of killing for the army to crush that uprising utterly, and meanwhile the hopes of another generation of young Burmese will be blighted. There is no easy way, but there is a better way. All they have to do is look next door, to Thailand.
Thailand’s army has also ruled the country for most of the time since 1945, and it too was finally forced to hand over to an elected democratic government. It seized power again (in 2014), and it has faced non-violent, student-led resistance ever since. Both armies are profoundly corrupt and entirely self-interested.
The Burmese and Thai resistance movements also have similarities. Burmese protesters have adopted the three-fingered pro-democracy salute that Thai students borrowed from ‘The Hunger Games.’ They also copied a lot of the Thai pro-democracy activists’ tactics – but they really haven’t understood the strategy behind those tactics.
Quite a few of the Thai protesters have been killed by the army in the past seven years, but their friends haven’t said to themselves: ‘Well, non-violence didn’t work. Time to go to violence.’ They have listened to the experts and understood that resorting to armed force will actually reduce their chances of an eventual victory.
Violent attempted revolutions fail twice as often as non-violent ones. Resorting to violence means you are playing on the enemy’s turf, and he will probably eat you alive. Whereas no matter how many people the army kills, it cannot eliminate a determined non-violent opposition.
It takes great patience and huge courage to follow that strategy, but that is actually how non-violent movements win. In seven long years Thai democrats haven’t yet forced their army to yield power, but it certainly could happen and meanwhile few people are being killed.
After only six months, some of the Burmese democrats are already turning to violence. This is a strategic error that will cost them and Burma very dearly.
In defence of the Burmese protesters, the Tatmadaw is a far more ruthless and cruel organisation than the Thai army. In 1988 Burmese troops slaughtered 3,000 unarmed students in a single day to suppress an earlier attempt at democratization.
Going up against the Burmese army in peaceful protest is terrifying and potentially suicidal. Attacking it militarily, however, is both suicidal and futile.