Burma and the Press

by Michael N. Nagler, CommonDreams, October 1, 2007

Berkeley, CA (USA) -- As of this writing a nonviolent movement is still in crisis in Burma, despite what the regime there would have us believe. In 1988 over 3,000 students were killed - massacred would not be too strong a word - when they protested the military takeover of their country.

Their courageous, charismatic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, though she had faced down rifle squads in at least one critical confrontation (superbly dramatized in Beyond Rangoon, with Patricia Arquette), and won an overwhelming electoral victory, was not able to prevail over the regime, which has kept her under house arrest and basically pillaged the country for these nineteen years.

Commentators are noting, correctly, several features of the uprising today: it is a massive, disciplined outpouring. It relies on the immense prestige of religious orders in Burma (renamed Myanmar by the regime), and - among other differences between now and 1988 - the world is watching.

But how closely? We who follow nonviolence have to point out what the mainstream media are missing in this “saffron revolution,” as in many of the nonviolent episodes that have been accumulating with increasing frequency:

1) They mis-characterize this movement as ‘spontaneous,’ while in reality it has been well-planned for months. Moreover, in an increasingly characteristic, and extremely hopeful development, many of today’s nonviolent leaders have studied literature and films about past movements and learned from their failures and successes. In this case, thousands of Burmese watched the Steve York documentary Bringing Down a Dictator about the overthrow of Serbian ‘President’ Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 (also mischaracterized as a spontaneous ‘mob’ despite its careful advance planning).

Ever since dozens of India’s freedom fighters came to the United States, and vice versa, to help shape the Civil Rights movement, civil-society leaders around the world are realizing that they are not alone and do not have to reinvent the wheel. This is making a qualitative difference in the growth of nonviolent consciousness around the world. And one result for this movement, as an eye-witness reports, is that “nothing that the regime has done was unexpected by the movement, but everything that the movement has done has come as a shock to the regime.”

2) While monks have been deliberately chosen to be the public face of the movement, the leaders organized multiple “lines” of student leadership (a Gandhian tactic, from the famous Salt Satyagraha of 1930) so that when the first group was arrested or otherwise neutralized, a new group would step up in its place - as is happening as I write.

3) The protestors, as a rule, are not only determined to go on to the finish, but they have learned the futility, or worse, the counter-productiveness, of violence. We in the field know that this decision, while it does not guarantee that no one will suffer (does violence?), is the key to longterm success. And finally,

4) The mainstream coverage is missing the key stories. Here is a lightly edited report from a former opposition leader now studying in the United States:

The whole night, the military regime blocked monasteries and arrested many monk leaders. Second line student leaders have to lead the demonstration while first line leaders are in the prisons and hiding places.

In Mandalay, Monks, students and people confront with soldiers and riot police. Soldiers requested to monks not to pass the line and choose another way. But people responded, “We don’t care even if you shoot us. We will go forward.”

The commanders sighed and kneeled down with respect in front of monks; people cry and cheer.

It is too early to say which side will prevail in this dramatic “nonviolent moment.” But in nonviolence, success has more to do with longterm change than ‘winning.’ And this much is sure: when people lay down their lives for democracy - for all of us - we owe it not just to them but to all of us to know their full story.

Michael Nagler is Professor Emeritus at UC, Berkeley, and lives in Tomales, CA