Burma: the struggle against militarism

Michael Beer

Militarism run amok. Massive unemployment, poverty wages, and huge gaps between rich and poor. Corruption and inflation out of control Failing literacy.

Human rights abuses are rampant - fake imprisonment, torture, rape, and many kinds of violence - in part because there is no law except arbitrary military decrees and actions. Each colonel operates like a war lord in his area. Forced labour is widespread. Conscription into the military is ubiquitous, but the wealthy simply buy their way out. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is out of control with at least 300,000 people infected.

There has been civil war m Burma since 1949. Many minority ethnic groups have waged armed struggle; most armed struggles are undemocratic and led by warlord; many have fled.

Nonviolence also has roots in Burma. The monk U Ottama fired up peasants early this century by calling on the British to leave. Buddhism, the major faith, has a long tradition of nonviolence. More recently Aung San Suu Kyi has led a nonviolent campaign to end military rule.

In 1988 millions of people, including all ethnic minorities, women, the first openly gay groups, and soldiers participated in ending one-party rule,

and a succession of dictators resigned. This people's power uprising has changed Burma forever. Before, it was an isolated country ruled by one political party. Because of the uprising, Burma has opened up to the world and even the military gives lip service to "multiparty democracy". Although the uprising was brutally crushed by shooting thousands of demonstrators, the Burmese have had a taste of freedom, of organising, of a free press. They will not ultimately be denied.

In 1990,1 first went to work with Burmese on nonviolent struggle. In six years, there has been little progress inside Burma. The armed groups have largely surrendered but find it difficult to switch to nonviolent struggle. The unarmed groups along the border have made some progress, organising themselves secretly, primarily to smuggle information in and out. They are producing magazines and books on nonviolence and civil disobedience such as the Monkey Master, an ancient Chinese story of monkeys removing oppression through non-cooperation with the slave master.

On the borders, Nonviolence International has provided dozens of workshops on nonviolent struggle for hundreds of Burmese. Nonviolent struggle has provided a common ground for all the ethnic groups to work more closely together. Co-trainers include Gene Sharp and Bob Helvey of the Einstein Institution who teach a pragmatic not-violence as the politically effective thing to do. As many workshops include soldiers, Bob Helvey - by talking former-soldier to soldier - has helped them see that their military struggle is doomed to failure, and maybe nonviolence can be more effective. Other workshop leaders, such as Richard Deats of US Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Burmese leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi, provide rationale for nonviolence as the right thing to do.

In 1995, Nonviolence International held seminars on political defiance for the Burmese in exile in India. These led to the first Burmese-Indian coalition, the Committee for Nonviolent Action in Burma.

There is perpetual unrest in Burma. Students in September demonstrated against police brutality and in August, labourers from a government railway carriage company went on strike for better wages. Aung San Suu Kyi and her National league for Democracy continue to defy the regime in small ways. Although people hate the militaries, there is no defined peace movement. Nonviolence International is talking with a handful of Burmese interested about promoting education on a military-free Burma.
Michael Beer is an organiser for Nonviolence International, PO Box 39127, Friendship Station NW, Washington DC 20016, USA