POLITICS, OPPOSITION AND DISSENT IN MYANMAR

POLITICAL ORGANIZATIONS IN MYANMAR

Political organizations in Myanmar: National League for Democracy (NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party), 88 Generation Students Group (pro-democracy movement. Burma-Myanmar-related political, human rights and media groups located outside of Myanmar:Burma Campaign UK, Free Burma Coalition, U.S. Campaign for Burma, Generation Wave, All Burma Students' Democratic Front, The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima News.

Political pressure groups and leaders based in Thailand near the Thai-Myanmar border: Ethnic Nationalities Council or ENC; Federation of Trade Unions-Burma or FTUB (exile trade union and labor advocates); National Council-Union of Burma or NCUB (exile coalition of opposition groups working for democracy in Myanmar); United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC)

The National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma or NCGUB is a self-proclaimed government in exile. Based in Thailand and led by "Prime Minister" Dr. Sein Win, it consists of individuals, some legitimately elected to the People's Assembly in 1990. The group fled to a border area and joined insurgents in December 1990 to form a parallel government in exile.

Ethnic-related political groups inside Burma: Kachin Independence Organization (KIO); Karen National Union (KNU); Karenni National People's Party (KNPP); United Wa State Army (UWSA). There are several other Chin, Karen, Mon, and Shan factions. See Minorities.

Until recently freedom of expression was highly restricted in Burma. The restrictions are being relaxed by the government. Political groups, other than parties approved by the government, are limited in number.

Politics in Myanmar

Issues that concern the people of Myanmar include rice quotas, hardships brought about by inflation, forced labor and involuntary "donations." Ordinary people have been reluctant to fight the government out of fear and the daily struggle to survive.

Until recently freedom of expression was highly restricted in Burma. Although the regime officially recognizes the NLD, political rights are limited. There is virtually no right of assembly or association. Intimidation of NLD supporters forced the party to close its offices throughout the country. Opponents of the regime have disappeared and been arrested. The restrictions are being relaxed by the government. Political groups, other than parties approved by the government, are limited in number.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine: “Politics has a way of disappointing Burma. During the recent campaign season, political candidates and NLD boycotters alike talked and talked, but they rarely touched on actual policies to fix Burma's woes. Instead, some members of Burma's intellectual elite focused on personal political feuds, some of which date back generations. Yet in Burma today, 10 percent of children don't live to be 5, and half never finish school. Health care and education spending are among the lowest in the world. "Since the early 20th century in Burma, one could argue that the problem hasn't been too little politics, but too much," says Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian. "There has been an enormous focus on high-level politics and far too little on the specifics of government, like health care or education or the economy itself." [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 29, 2010]

The Washington Post reported: “The disparate networks of the opposition have tried in vain to forge a united strategy, and their attempts to prompt a mass movement have fizzled in a society frozen by decades of oppression and poverty. Faith in the NLD's ability to bring the country closer to democracy has waned under its octogenarian caretakers. A few smaller groups have emerged from among groups of Buddhist monks, students or the aging leaders of the 1988 protests, with a shared goal of bringing change through nonviolent resistance to the one of the world's most repressive governments. But with many of their leaders arrested after the failed, monk-steered uprising in September 2007, the remaining activists operate illegally and from the shadows. All the organizations, they should be united. Some want to make strikes, some do not," said the deputy of a leading opposition network, a former political detainee who faces retaliation from authorities if his name is published. "We need more people; 100 to 200 people is not enough to make the whole country strike." ^^ [Source: Washington Post, August 9, 2009 ^^]

Democratic Values and the Burmese Personality

Dr. Nyi Win Hman wrote in the Myanmar Times: Now we come to issues more to do with modern democratic government and civil society, which are described here in no particular order. Of course, existence of the “rule of law” is one of the most fundamental and basic tenets for a democratic society. Another is ‘transparency” in relation to both the state and private sectors in all decisions and activities. Transparency often allows citizens of a democracy to exert control over their government, reducing government corruption, bribery and other malfeasance. These are often very difficult principles and values to put into practice and as a result we need to educate ourselves and learn to practice these values. Related to these issues is “openness” and “trust”, with the latter following from the former. [Source: Dr Nyi Win Hman, Myanmar Times, December 10, 2012 **]

“Another issue is “accountability”, which has many meanings in terms of ethics and governance. It is also used to mean answerability, blameworthiness and liability. In terms of governance, it is concerned with the problems in the state as well as private sectors. Accountability is also the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies in regard to administration, governance, and implementation. **

“The other important principle is “egalitarianism”, which maintains that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or social status. This principle can be extremely difficult to acquire and practice unless a particular society has such a social ideology or tradition. This means that one should treat any and every individual with respect and dignity irrespective of gender, socioeconomic and ethnic status, and so on. There should be no discrimination based on race, gender and religion and everyone should be treated equally as human beings. It is emphasised again that those of us who understand such principles should educate and impart them to those who are unaware or uninitiated in these values and practices. **

Similarly, “equity”, or “fairness”, is also another important principle that should exist in a civil society. Equity should apply in all sectors of society and in every human and social service. These principles are of course more relevant to those in authority, as it is they who are in charge and in a position of responsibility in policy making, implementation and provision of services. Another principle is “inclusiveness”, which means that we should not exclude other people and discriminate or harbour prejudice based on ethnic, religious or cultural background. This is especially important in a country like ours, as we are said to be one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. There is great diversity in our country in terms of ethnicity, language, cultural practices and so on so we should be inclusive in our thinking and act accordingly with regard to our diverse circumstances. **

Politics and Ethnic Groups in Myanmar

According to Countries and Their Cultures: “There is an ethnic dimension to political office holding and leadership. The 1948 and 1962 governments were predominantly Burmese in composition and pursued pro-Burmese policies. Those policies sparked ethnic insurgencies led by ethnic elites, and the situation deteriorated when the regime passed a law in 1983 that created three tiers of citizenship rights based largely on ethnicity. At the bottom was a category of "other races" that included naturalized immigrants, mainly from India and China, whose ancestors arrived during the colonial period. Those assigned to this tier cannot run for political office or hold senior government posts. The 1988 regime signed peace accords with most of the insurgent groups, but national leadership has remained in the hands of the Burmese. [Source: Countries and Their Cultures everyculture.com ]

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine: “Burma faces another profound complication as it tries to move forward: the fact that it is not a truly unified nation at all. Ethnic minorities — the Shan, the Karen, the Kachin, the Mon, the Rakhine and the Chin, among many others — make up more than 40 percent of the population. Ever since the British quit their colony in 1948, the country has been riven by ethnic conflict in its vast borderlands. The generals who now rule Burma forced a sort of unity on the country, but at a terrible cost to its ethnic peoples. Burmese soldiers regularly use rape as a weapon against ethnic women, and forced labor is common. An estimated 2 million people are internally displaced, largely because of ethnic fighting and forced relocations. Although most of Burma's lucrative natural resources are located in ethnic-minority areas, the people living there get little profit from this bounty. Ethnically, the junta is entirely Bamar (also known as Burman), and minorities are barred from most civil service jobs as well as the upper echelons of the military. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 29, 2010]

Suu Ky’s National League of Democracy supports a union of federated states. The are worries that if the military regime does completely fall there could be a massive civil war and a refugee crises. People on the streets told National Geographic in the 1990s, "One day, maybe explode." Asian countries have even run drills to prepare for the refugee crisis that could result if civil war broke out in Myanmar.

Rohingya Violence, Social Media and Freedom to Hate in Myanmar

Hanna Hindstrom wrote in Foreign Policy, “The brutal religious violence in Burma's western Arakan state has cast a shadow on the country's democratic progress....Even more shocking than the violence itself has been the public outpour of vitriol aimed at the Rohingya....Anti-Rohingya views have swept both social and mainstream media, seemingly uniting politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and civil society from across Burma's myriad ethnic groups. "The so-called Rohingya are liars," tweeted one pro-democracy group. "We must kill all the kalar," said another social media user. (Kalar is a racial slur applied to dark-skinned people from the Indian subcontinent.) Burmese refugees, who themselves have fled persecution, gathered at embassies across the world to protest the "terrorist" Rohingya invading their homeland. Even the prominent student leader Ko Ko Gyi, who played a key role in the 1988 democratic uprising, lambasted them as imposters and frauds. [Source: Hanna Hindstrom, Foreign Policy, June 14, 2012 <<]

“No doubt Burma's nascent media freedom has played a key role in stirring religious tensions. Vast swathes of inflammatory misinformation are circulating inside Burma -- with mainstream media largely accusing Al Qaeda and "illegal Bengali terrorists" for staging the violence in a bid to spread Islam in Asia. Many allege that the Rohingya are burning their own houses in a bid for attention. One paper published a graphic photo of the corpse of Thida Htwe, the Buddhist woman whose rape and murder allegedly by three Muslim men instigated the violence, prompting President Thein Sein to suspend the publication under Burma's censorship laws. These are the same papers that in recent months have openly criticized the government for the first time since a nominally civilian administration took over last year. <<

“Ironically, this freedom has also led to a virulent backlash against foreign and exile media, who have reported on the plight of the Rohingya -- described by the U.N. as one of the most persecuted groups in the world. A leading national paper, The Weekly Eleven News Journal, has launched a campaign against exile media for their coverage of the crisis. "Foreign media are now presenting bias [sic] reports on the clashes between Rakhine people and Bengali Rohingyas to destroy the image of Myanmar [Burma's official name -- ed.] and its people," warned Eleven Media Group in a statement. "Only Rohingyas killed Rakhine people and burned down their houses." Earlier this week they denounced New York Times reporter Thomas Fuller for citing hateful comments made against Rohingyas on their website. <<

“While anti-Rohingya sentiments are not new to Burma, the attacks have taken on a more urgent and egregious nature with greater access to information. In November last year, a social media campaign whipped up a tirade of animosity against the BBC for a report (published one year earlier) that had identified the Rohingya as residents of Arakan state. In the wake of the latest violence, a number of online campaigns have been set up to coordinate attacks against news outlets that dare to report on their plight. Angry protesters rallied in Rangoon this week, brandishing signs reading "Bengali Broadcast Corporation" and "Desperate Voice of Bengali." The latter was a reference to my employer, the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Norway-based broadcaster that has made a name for itself among many Burmese as one of the most reliable sources of information about their country. This weekend DVB faced the biggest cyber-attack on its website in the organization's history, while its Facebook page is still under constant assault from people issuing threats and posting racist material. It is not without irony that an organization once hailed as a vehicle for free speech has become the target of censorship by the very people it sought to give a voice. <<

“As International Crisis Group explains, the violence is both a consequence of, and threat to, Burma's political transition. However, what they wrongly assume is that the "irresponsible, racist, and inflammatory language" circulating on the internet is likely to be resolved through discussion in the national media. The few balanced voices -- let alone those representing the stateless minority -- are vastly outnumbered by news outlets spouting simplistic, anti-Muslim rhetoric. The ongoing crisis illustrates the need for Burma to embrace not only independent, but also responsible and inclusive journalism. In order to facilitate this transition, the government must take concrete steps to address the underlying dispute surrounding the Rohingya. The sheer level of racism against them in Burmese society -- enforced by a government policy of discrimination and abuse -- lies at the core of the matter. <<

Pro-Government Thugs

The vigilantes and thugs that are part of a pro-government “community groups” such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association played a big part under the military junta in enforcing their draconian policies. Thugs with these groups attacked Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003, when she was touring in the north of the country. The use of such tactics shows a lack of interest in democracy as well as a lack of self-confidence.

Burma Campaign UK reported:“The dictatorship began using members of the Union Solidarity and Development Association to harass and attack NLD meetings. This political militia was set up and organised by the military, with Than Shwe, dictator of Burma, as its President. It later transformed as the Union Solidarity and Development Party, the political party front for the military in the elections held on 7th November 2010. [Source: Burma Campaign UK |||]

After her release then, Aung San Suu Kyi was largely confined to her house. Her attempts to leave were thwarted in various ways. Once the train carriage she was traveling on was unhooked from the rest of train. On another occasion, her car was blocked and after she refused to get out. Some thugs then literally picked up the car and turned it around.

Government thugs are also believed to have been involved in attacks on Rohingya Muslim minority.

Government Thugs Attack Aung San Suu Kyi’s Convoy in 2003

Richard Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In 2003, during a period of freedom, Suu Kyi traveled in northern Myanmar, where large numbers of people gathered to see her. Government-backed thugs armed with clubs and sharpened bamboo sticks attacked her motorcade outside the village of Dipeyin. Some believe the assault was an assassination attempt. Suu Kyi's bodyguards and supporters fended off the attackers and saved her by shielding her with their bodies. The government says four people died in the attack; the opposition says the toll may have reached 200.[Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2005]

Burma Campaign UK reported:“On May 30th 2003 members of the USDA attacked a convoy of vehicles Aung San Suu Kyi was travelling in. It was an attempt by the dictatorship to assassinate Aung San Suu Kyi, using a civilian front so as not to take the blame. Aung San Suu Kyi’s driver managed to drive her to safety, but more than 70 of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters were beaten to death. The attack became known at the Depayin Massacre. The dictatorship claimed it was a riot between two political groups, incited by the NLD. The United Nations General Assembly called for the incident to be investigated, but it never was.” |||

In what is sometimes referred to as the "Black Friday," Aung San Suu Kyi’s convoy was attacked by thugs backed by the military regime near the town of Dipeyan in northern Myanmar, where she had been meeting with members of her party there and representatives of ethnic minorities. The government claims four people were killed and 50 were injured. The NLP said that at least 70 people were killed, perhaps scores, including five NLP members. Many were injured. People were beaten with bamboo sticks and rods and shot at with slingshots and perhaps firearms. More than a hundred were arrested.

According to government sources Aung San Suu Kyi was driving in a convoy of 15 cars and 100 motorbikes and the convoy was confronted by a mob of 5,000 people. They said a scuffle grew into a larger fight that lasted for about two hours and was finally put down by police. Aung San Suu Kyi told Razali Ismail, she heard a “commotion” from behind. “They tried to smash the windows of her car,” he said. “She was protected by her people.” The attackers threw stones at her four-wheel-drive vehicle which was able to speed off “ U.S. diplomats found bamboo staves and iron bars at the scene. A U.S. State Department report found that the attack was premeditated and the thugs that were involved had connections with the military regime.

For about three months Aung San Suu Kyi’s whereabouts was unknown. She was finally discovered at a Yangon hospital in September. There were rumors that Aung San Suu Kyi been seriously injured or even killed. As it turned out she was unhurt. U.N. envoy Razili Ismail met with her a couple of weeks and said: “I can assure you she is well and in good spirits...no injury on the face, no broken arm. No injury. No scratch. No nothings.” He said Suu Kyi’s car managed to speed off when the violence began. [Source: Richard Paddock, Los Angeles Times, June 18, 2005]

In April 2012, The Bangkok Post newspaper published a recording of a conversation with Myanmar intelligence chief Khin Nyunt. In it, according to The Irrawaddy, he claims to have personally intervened to save the life of Aung San Suu Kyi when a pro-junta mob attacked her motorcade in Sagaing Division in 2003, killing at least 70 of her supporters. “I sent my men to snatch her from the mob that night and they brought her to safety to a nearby army cantonment,” he was quoted as saying. Later, however, Khin Nyunt denied that he had made the claim and the Special Branch, a Burmese security unit, put out a statement that rejected The Bangkok Post article. [Source: The Irrawaddy, March 20, 2013]

Thugs Break Up Fuel Price Protests Before the Saffron Revolution Protests in 2007

A few days after the first high-fuel-cost protests began launched the Saffron revolution protests in 2007 Associated Press reported: “Myanmar's military government broke up a peaceful protest march for a second straight day, beating and arresting participants in an attempt to tame street rallies led by democracy activists against fuel price increases. Plainclothes officers and some civilian supporters of the junta stopped about 40 people marching quietly two miles toward their party headquarters in the capital. Authorities ordered bystanders, especially journalists, out of the area after a 30-minute standoff. Protesters sat on the pavement and formed a human chain, but about a dozen were dragged and shoved into trucks and buses, where some were slapped around, said witnesses, who asked not to be identified for fear of being called in by police. Reporters were also roughed up by security personnel, who shouted abusive language. [Source: AP, August 23, 2007 ++]

“The protest march was the third this week against the government's doubling of fuel prices last week in the impoverished country. Government supporters with sticks attacked some of the 300 protesters who marched the day before, seizing eight who were accused of being agitators. The eight were interrogated and released. A similar protest was held three days before. Most demonstrators in the most recent protest were from the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. ++

Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “A tense stand-off ensued before the marchers, who had been walking towards the offices of the opposition National League for Democracy, were manhandled into trucks belonging to the junta's feared Union Solidarity and Development Association A Reuters reporter at the scene was told not to take photographs. For a second day, armed police and truckloads of USDA men armed with spades and brooms took up positions in the center of the former capital. However, in an apparent effort to stop to the widespread public anger at last week's shock fuel price rises, bus fares for the shortest journeys were halved. However, the junta's coordinated action, starting with midnight swoops on the student leaders, had probably ensured the series of small but persistent social protests did not snowball into something larger. "These people have vowed to continue the struggle at all costs. They have vowed to go all the way, and so for sure they will continue to protest," said Aung Naing Oo, a 1988 protester who fled to Thailand to escape the bloody military crackdown. "But I doubt a large majority of people will participate. Small gatherings of 100 here, 200 there, will go on but the emphasis is on the word small," he said. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, August 23, 2007]

Two days later Associated Press reported: “Yangon was quiet with pro-junta supporters and plainclothes police deployed throughout the city to prevent further protests. Trucks stood ready to take demonstrators away. [Source: AP, August 25, 2007]

Opposition Politics in Myanmar

Many Burmese dissidents live in exile in Thailand. Many of those who have remained in Myanmar have endured long prison terms. “Never Forget” is a protest song. One soft-spoken but charismatic pro-democracy leader told National Geographic, "I am not afraid to die." Tin Maung Win, vice chairman of the opposition party Democratic Alliance of Burma told Time after he got out of prison in the 1990s: "Our struggle is not finished. There are 45 million still in prison.

Joshua Hammer wrote in The New Yorker, “Thant Myint-U told me that the democracy movement under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership had made miscalculations in its dealings with the dictatorship during the past two decades. In the mid-nineteen-nineties, after releasing Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time, the regime indicated a willingness to negotiate, but Thant Myint-U believes that the N.L.D.’s insistence on the full implementation of the annulled 1990 election results doomed any hope of progress. “It was entirely unrealistic,” he said. After that, the regime became less and less willing to compromise. The opposition’s biggest mistake, he said, was its belief that “help from the West—through a mix of sanctions and diplomacy—would somehow force the regime to bargain.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, The New Yorker, January 24, 2011 **]

“Aung San Suu Kyi’s critics fear that she and the rest of the N.L.D.’s Old Guard remain wedded to traditional forms of protest—hunger strikes, demonstrations, election boycotts, calls for more sanctions—that are ineffective in a world where China is happy to do business with countries that manifest little or no concern for human rights. “There is a huge overreliance and overestimation of how much the outside world can help,” Thant Myint-U said. “I wouldn’t say the regime is afraid of her.” They would be scared of “any movement that would consolidate a grassroots following,” he said. “But the N.L.D. is not that anymore.” **

Richard Lloyd Parry of The Times wrote: “Opposition in Burma is forced to operate underground. A streak of anti-government graffiti appears overnight on a wall, to be whitewashed over in minutes. Subversive pamphlets are scattered in a market by young men who vanish on motorcycles. Opposition manifestos are e-mailed between friends...In Rangoon, there have been reports of stray dogs with labels attached to them bearing the name and likeness of Than Shwe—a grave insult.” [Source: Richard Lloyd Parry, The Times, August 12, 2009]

Protests and Demonstrations in Myanmar

Some have claimed that the Burmese are too passive. Rather than protesting they accept their situation. It can be argued that Burmese have good reason not to protests as the costs can be very high. In the past they have been afraid to mount demonstrations out of fear of being arrested, beat up or even killed by heavily-armed security forces or vigilante groups. Successive military governments since 1962 have clamped down on civil society and forbade associations of more than five people. If there was the potential for demonstrations police with assault rifles and machine guns were deployed at main interjections and bridges and offices of the NLP.

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “During years of military rule, Myanmar's generals drilled fear and suspicion so deeply into the minds of their people that when their opponents tried to harness the rage seething on the streets, no one knew whom to trust.” When the need arose “the generals quickly took advantage, crushing the pro-democracy demonstrations, killing people and jailing thousands. It was a brutally simple strategy. "People have not given up," said Soe Aung, a spokesman for a coalition of opposition groups in exile based in the Thai border city of Mae Sot. "They are just backing off because of the junta's strong onslaught. But if the junta's security slackens, then they will come out on the streets again."[Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, January 07, 2008]

There were calls for protests on the day of the four nines—September 9th, 1999 (9/9/99), a day regarded as auspicious in Burma. Students demonstrations that shook Myanmar occurred on the day of the four eights—August 8th, 1988 (8/8/88). The 9999 demonstrations never materialized.

In 2001, 33 high school students in southern town of Mengui were arrested and detained for staging an hour-long demonstration. The students, aged 14 to 18, protested the inadequate supplies of textbooks, high student fees and the expressed a desire to form a union.

Hannah Beech wrote in Time in the midst of the Saffron Revolution protests in 2007: “Burma's underground activists are calling for continued resistance. The latest effort, scheduled for three evenings this month, requires Burmese to bang on pots, pans and other metal objects at 7:02 p.m., 8:01 p.m. and 9 p.m.--propitious times that each add up to the number 9, so beloved by Burma's military brass. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, September 17, 2007]

See Saffron Revolution protests in 2007 and 8888 Protests, History.

Foreigners and Myanmar’s Pro-Democracy Movement

In 1995, James L. Nichols, an honorary council for several European countries and godfather of Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested for using telephones and fax machines without permission. He died in a Yangon hospital after serving 2½ months of his three-year prison term.

In the summer 1998, 18 foreign students, including six Americans, were arrested for passing out "8888" pro-democracy leaflets on the 10th anniversary of military government's crackdown on the 1988 pro-democracy protests. The foreign students were tried, sentenced to five years of hard labor and then pardoned and deported.

In 1999, a UK activist, James Mawdsley, was sentenced to a 17-year jail sentence for illegally entering the country and trying to smuggle anti-government literature into the country. He spent a year in prison. The year before he was caught illegally entering the country and was given a five-year jail sentence and then released after three months. The year before that he was arrested and deported after he chained himself to a fence and shouted anti-government slogans.

Mawdsley wrote a book about his experience called The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma (Northpoint Press, 2002). He said he was once beaten so badly his nose was broken. While in solitary confinement he said he was forced to stand for 15 hours with a bag over his head and was beaten with bamboo sticks every time he fell down. A few weeks after Mawdsley was arrested in 1998 a young British woman sentenced to seven years of hard labor for chaining herself to a lamppost and singing revolutionary songs.

Kyaw Zaw Kwin, who uses the alias Nyi Nyi Aung, was one of the leading organizers of demonstrations against the junta in 1988 and fled the country after a violent crackdown, eventually settling in the United States as a political refugee in 1993. He became a U.S. citizen in 2002 and earned a college degree in computer science, but he also remained deeply involved in Burmese democracy efforts. His girlfriend Wa Wa said he managed to often travel to Burma to visit his family and work with the Burmese underground because his U.S. passport is in his legal name, Kyaw Zaw Lwin. In his professional and personal lives in the United States, he has used Nyi Nyi Aung — an amalgam of a childhood nickname and his father’s first name — and for years the Burmese government never made the connection. But last summer Nyi Nyi’s profile was raised when he helped deliver a petition to senior United Nations officials with 680,000 signatures calling for the release of all political prisoners in Burma.Wa Wa, who has lived with Nyi Nyi since 2005, also has secretly traveled back to Burma even though she is a political refugee. “We have taken the risk because we want to organize and train the new generation for democracy and freedom,” she said. [Source: Glenn Kessler, Washington Post , December 26, 2009 :::]

NGO and Charity Activism in Myanmar

In August 2009, the Washington Post reported: “Call it the evolutionary school of revolution. After years of brutally suppressed street protests, many Burmese have adopted a new strategy that they say takes advantage of small political openings to push for greater freedoms. They are distributing aid, teaching courses on civic engagement and quietly learning to govern."We are trying to mobilize people by changing their thought process," said an entrepreneur in the city of Mandalay who is setting up classes on leadership. He added half in jest, "Civil society is a guerrilla movement." [Source: Washington Post, August 24, 2009 ||||]

“A"community-based organizations," finding outlets for entrepreneurship and room to maneuver politically in a country with one of the world's most repressive governments. At first light on a recent Sunday, a dozen doctors piled into two old vans, stopped for a hearty breakfast of fish stew and sticky rice, then headed out to dispatch free medicine and consult villagers an hour outside Rangoon. The group first came together to care for demonstrators beaten by security forces during monk-led protests in 2007 and joined countless Burmese in collecting emergency supplies for survivors when Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008, killing an estimated 140,000 people. ||||

“Like many of those ad hoc groups, the doctors have since developed an informal nonprofit organization, meeting regularly and volunteering at an orphanage and in villages near Rangoon. The group's leader secured funding from a foreign nonprofit agency and named his team "Volunteers for the Vulnerable," or V4V. But to avoid having their activities labeled as activism, the leader negotiates weekly with the authorities for access to the villages under cover of an anodyne Burmese fixture -- the abbot of a local Buddhist monastery. For their own safety, the V4V founder said, "not even all our members know the name of the group." ||||

"There is still room to change at the small scale," said an AIDS activist, sipping juice in a teashop. "Many people say civil society is dead. But it never dies. Sometimes it takes different forms, under pretext of religion, under pretext of medicine." Some members of the groups reject any political motive in their activities, describing them as purely humanitarian. But others say that in Burma the two are intrinsically linked. ||||

"At every meeting of nonprofits, the solution is always, in the end, political," said a Rangoon scholar who works with a foreign development organization. The scholar is associated with a loose circle of influential academics, writers, negotiators between the junta and restive ethnic minorities, and businessmen at home and abroad who share a goal of finding a way through the political impasse. "It's not that we oppose the NLD, but at least we take advantage of the opening space. . . . The NLD can't set a course. We have to find an alternative," said the scholar, who served 15 years in prison for writing about human rights.” ||||

Learning about Community-Based Activism in Myanmar

The Washington Post reported: “A 32-year-old writer, whose father was involved in dissident politics, said his life was transformed after he took a three-month course at a Rangoon nonprofit agency called Myanmar Egress, which runs classes for Burmese interested in development. Like many of the people interviewed for this story, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. He then quit his job at a business journal to freelance opinion columns under a pseudonym and has co-founded a nonprofit with other Egress alumni.[Source: Washington Post, August 24, 2009 ||||]

"I came to realize my daily life is being involved in politics, in the political economy," he said, a resolve triggered by the scenes of poverty he witnessed along his daily commute on a creaking, overcrowded bus through Rangoon. "My belief is that without political knowledge . . . people will just go around town and get shot. I am doing what I can as an educator and a journalist." ||||

“Many people in Rangoon expressed feeling a similar sense of duty as they have watched their military rulers decimate the education system and deepen poverty through mismanagement of the economy. In the past 50 years, Burma has fallen from among the richest countries in Asia to the bottom of regional development rankings. "In Burma, the middle class is very thin," said a 38-year-old graphic designer who in 2004 helped found an undercover nonprofit group that recruits potential political leaders. "We need to grow, strengthen that. Most democratic countries have a broader middle class. It is the only way to go forward." Such groups have also allowed urbanites to network in ways previously inconceivable. ||||

“On a recent afternoon, students crowded into a musty hotel conference room for a three-hour lecture on civil society sponsored by Myanmar Egress. Ten minutes before the class was to begin, barely a seat was vacant and still the students poured in, laughing, chatting or rifling through notes that curled at the edges in the damp heat. "They have a thirst for knowledge. They want to know. . . . They don't even take a break," said a 28-year-old Egress teacher, observing the 105 young adults from the back of the room. "This place is quite free, the only place we can talk about these things." ||||

Digitally-Based Opposition Given a Lift by the Saffron Revolution Protests in 2007

After the Saffron Revolution protests in 2007, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, An information revolution has come slowly to this poor, isolated country, and the military government may have inadvertently handed its enemies the keys to organizing a more effective underground movement. Opposition activists and exiled leaders had tried before to tap into the growing discontent, but constant surveillance kept them off balance and on the run. There seemed little chance of getting organized until more than 2,000 protesters, arrested and jammed into crowded jail cells, met one another and overcame their distrust. Now, most of them are on the streets again, carefully building a network for what they call a new revolution. Their digital tools are e-mail and text messages, which are more powerful than a megaphone, and cellphone cameras that are so common that thousands of people are potential journalists. Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, January 07, 2008]

Most spent only a few days in jail, long enough to overcome distrust, make new contacts with the underground, and organize more cells that now communicate through coded messages, Internet drop boxes and old-fashioned couriers. "Nobody knew what they were doing in the revolution. There was no organization," said a small businessman who joined the street protests out of frustration with mismanagement of the economy. "But when people were in jail, they got to meet each other. They could exchange e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and make plans," added the entrepreneur. They walked out of jail with a new determination to tap into the growing sense that the generals are losing their grip, pro-democracy activists and their leaders inside and outside Myanmar said in interviews.

During the uprising, video, photographs and blog reports posted on the Internet played a key role in breaking the wall of silence surrounding Myanmar. In the aftermath of the September protests, the businessman said, he took charge of a cell of young pro-democracy activists who are trying to keep information on the movement flowing to the outside world. Though access to some popular e-mail services is still blocked, many people here are savvy enough to breach the Web barricades, using proxy servers and other devices. Secret couriers, who already run messages between exiled opposition leaders and supporters in Myanmar, could smuggle video and photos into Thailand to be sent across the Internet from there. Despite the chinks in the government's defenses, it still has a vast army of spies and routinely taps telephones. Speaking at dinner on the edge of a quiet, dark restaurant, the activist businessman frequently looked over his shoulder to make sure no one was eavesdropping.

Myanmar Resistance Operates Carefully in the Shadows

In August 2009, the Washington Post reported: “Under cover of night, on a wet, deserted strip of jetty, a young opposition activist gazed toward the ragged lights on the opposite bank of the Rangoon River. "I am not afraid, but I do not want to be arrested, not at this time," said the activist, 27, who had fled Rangoon days earlier, trailed by an intelligence agent. "If I'm arrested, I cannot take part in demonstrations or campaigns."[Source: Washington Post, August 9, 2009 ^^]

“In the past two months, dozens have defied barriers and a heavy police presence to hold a vigil outside Insein Prison. Others have distributed pamphlets or photos, and some have tried to trigger spontaneous marches with what they call "flash strikes" -- unfurling banners in crowded markets in the hope that people will follow. Many opposition leaders say they see themselves as urban intellectuals with a duty to educate the wider population about civic engagement. An opposition leader who poses as both teacher and student talked of his members melting into villages and factories, dressed as laborers and workers. "We talk to them about democracy. We talk to them about globalization, about human rights," he said. ^^

“An elder activist, 48, said he had spent the better part of 20 years posing as a fish farmer or rice-paddy laborer. All the while, he has been recruiting opposition activists, spreading ideas about political rights and, in recent months, encouraging a signature campaign against the junta. "I go to where the people are oppressed," he said. "It is impossible for them to express themselves." The older man's patience is now growing thin. In next year's elections, he said, "we need to use an armed struggle. . . . They use violence, and they don't care about international pressure." ^^

“On another day, the young activist and three others from separate youth networks talked about sources of inspiration -- Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, the anti-Slobodan Milosevic student movement in Serbia, South Africa's Nelson Mandela and India's Mahatma Gandhi. The conversation, which took place at a restaurant, quieted whenever a waiter hovered. "To face a very powerful enemy, we need to be clever, we need to be peaceful and we need international support," said one, who introduced himself with a pseudonym. Two weeks later, the activist returned to Rangoon smuggled in the cargo hold of a truck. He hoped to help coordinate the launch of a "yellow campaign," which aims to encourage Burmese to wear a color favored by Suu Kyi. ^^

Running Myanmar Opposition Underground Group from Thailand

The Washington Post reported: “Moe Thway, 28, is a founder of Generation Wave, one of the most shadowy of the country's underground opposition networks. He has largely run the group's operations out of Mae Sot, a Thai border town. Two of his co-founders are behind bars. Another is in exile. Members still in Burma are subject to arrest at any moment. Authorities raided Thway's house in March 2008, arresting his younger brother and sentencing him to six months for charges that included illegal possession of "Rambo IV," a film that depicts Sylvester Stallone mowing down Burmese soldiers. [Source: Washington Post, August 9, 2009 ^^]

“But working from Mae Sot allows Thway to coordinate operations in ways impossible inside Burma, also called Myanmar, where potential informers swarm, news is heavily curtailed and Internet cafes are ridden with spy software. Even with the widespread use of proxy servers to bypass censors, electricity regularly cuts out or the government shuts down the country's main Internet server as a tool of control. Land-line telephones are often tapped, and cellphones are used to track activists' movements. ^^

“Members of Generation Wave have encouraged friends and neighbors to head to workshops held on the Thai border that address issues such as human rights. The workshops, sponsored by foreign human rights groups or Burmese exiles, have yielded 1,000 graduates in the past five years, Moe Thway said. The challenge, he said, is getting graduates to overcome their fear and act back home on the lessons learned. ^^

Generation 88 Student’s Group

The 88 Generation Students' Group was formed in 2006 by former student leaders such as Min Ko Naing who were involved in the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and were subjected to lengthy prison terms and torture after the rebellion was brutally suppressed by the military. The group led a march of 100 people in August 2007 that grew into the monk-led Saffron Revolution protests that brought tens of thousands of Burmese citizens into the streets and ended with a crackdown that left dozens dead and hundreds arrested.

In October 2006 some of the "88 generation" students organized a nationwide campaign, “White Expression” to pressure the military government to release Min Ko Naing him and all of political prisoners. Participants wore white clothing in a show of support for the release of all political prisoners. They also organized the signature campaign to pressure the junta to release him and all political prisoners. It was started a week after Min Ko Naing and four colleagues were arrested. Many well-known artists from Myanmar (such as Ludu Daw Amar and Zarganar) signed the petition.

In January 2007, the 88 Generation Students organized the "Open Heart Campaign". Min Ko Naing told the Irrawaddy Magazine that the campaign was to encourage the people to exercise freedom of expression. People could write to State Peace and Development Council leader senior general Than Shwe about their feelings under the military government. The 88 Generation Students Group also conducted a “White Sunday” campaign from 11 March 2007 to 20 May 2007 to express support for family members of political prisoners. They visited the families of political prisoners in Yangon every Sunday during this period.

Generation 88 Activists

In July 2008, the Washington Post reported: “They operate in the shadows, slipping by moonlight from safe house to safe house, changing their cellphones to hide their tracks and meeting under cover of monasteries or clinics to plot changes that have eluded their country for 46 years. If one gets arrested, another steps forward. "I feel like the last man standing. All the responsibility is on my shoulders. . . . There is no turning back. If I turn back, I betray all my comrades," said a Burmese activist who heads a leading dissident group, the 88 Generation Students, named for a failed uprising in 1988. He took command after the arrest last August of its five most prominent leaders. [Source: Washington Post, July 20, 2008 )(]

“The security apparatus of Burma's military junta was thought to have largely shattered the opposition last August and September in 2007. But a new generation of democracy activists fights on, its ranks strengthened both by revulsion over last year's bloodletting and the government's inept response after a cyclone that killed an estimated 130,000 people two months ago. Largely clandestine, these activists make up a diffuse network of students, militant Buddhist monks, social service workers and leaders of the 1988 uprising. )(

“Because of what it sees as an absence of clear direction from the NLD's leaders, the 88 Generation has acted on its own, issuing statements with the All Burma Monks Alliance and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. Since its founding in late 2006 by newly freed political prisoners, including legendary student leader Min Ko Naing, the group has launched a series of creative civil disobedience campaigns. Last year, people were invited to dress in white as a symbol of openness; to head to monasteries, Hindu temples or mosques for prayer meetings; and to sign letters and petitions calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners. That effort resonated with so many that the group had to extend its closing date. )(

“The group was at the forefront of the protests in August 2007 and reached out to monks, the 88 leader said. "The struggle is still on," said a young lawyer who was sentenced to seven years in jail for starting a student union at a university. Since his release, four years early, he said, he has resumed regular contact with several groups of politically active current and former students. "Students will fight if they think it's just," he said, continuing a tradition among young people here that dates to the era of British colonial rule. One group of young people, whose members gathered as a book club...created hundreds of stickers and T-shirts bearing the word "no" and scattered them on buses, in university lecture halls and in the country's ubiquitous tea shops.” )(

88 Generation Politicians

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker, “One afternoon, I visited leaders of the ’88 Generation, the activists who have been in and out of jail since the uprising that took place that year. They now work from a two-story house previously occupied by a brothel. When I arrived, they were in the back yard, in a concrete shed, crowded around a Power- Point presentation on the environment, as they tried to make sense of SO. and NOx and heavy metals. The shack held a pantheon of Burmese heroes—the charismatic poet Min Ko Naing, the strategist Ko Ko Gyi— all comically wedged into school chairs with plastic desks on the arms. Jailed as college students, they are now pushing fifty, and they pose an uncertain new political force: not in the street, and not in Parliament. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, August 6, 2012 *-*]

“After the presentation broke up, Ko Ko Gyi said, “We’re ready to cooperate with the new government.” He thought for a moment, and revised his sentence: “cooperate and compete .” Former prisoners drifted back into the house to smoke and eat in a kitchen cluttered with sacks of rice and shallots. After eighteen years of being away, Ko Ko Gyi is gaunt but healthy, with a receding wave of black curls. “I don’t count the years of prison life, so I’m twentyeight years old,” he said with a smile. When he was released, on January 13th, he was in solitary confinement, in a cell that measured seven paces across, serving a sixtyfive- year sentence. He left behind everything except a few books: two volumes by Barack Obama, one by Nelson Mandela, and a textbook called “Learn French in Three Months.” *-*

“Ko Ko Gyi is considered one of the former prisoners who have the greatest potential in politics, but for him, and for many others in Burma, the path from dissident to politician is fraught; for every Nelson Mandela, there is a Lech Walesa, whose fiery persistence, the very quality that allowed him to survive, failed him in government. But Ko Ko Gyi thinks that the focus on individuals is precisely the problem: “People here don’t know they can stand up themselves. Again and again, we must say it: Politics is your job; it’s not only for the politicians.” He went on, “For such a long time under dictatorship, each and every citizen lost a role in society. Trust disappeared. They tried to escape the crisis, to find their own way. They couldn’t care who suffers or who loses. They had to focus only on themselves.” If Burma is to recover, he said, people will need to begin to trust the system again. “The most important thing is institutionalization,” he said. “We cannot depend on any one person.” *-*

Self-Immolation in Myanmar

Kenneth Denby wrote in The Times, “He wore the traditional Burmese man’s skirt, spoke with an out-of-town accent and, right up until the moment of horror, there was no suggestion that the young man was anything out of the ordinary. It was Friday evening and thousands of people were praying at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the golden monument that towers above Rangoon. Before the plain-clothes police could react, the young man whipped out a placard denouncing the junta and placed it round his neck. Then he produced a bottle of petrol, shook it over his clothes and set himself alight. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Times, March 27, 2008 ***]

“He was still standing and he was trying to shout something but I couldn’t hear it,” a young Buddhist monk who witnessed the immolation said. “He was trying to speak but the flames were round his face. And then the police jumped on him....the stirring spectacle of the “Saffron Revolution” has been reduced to this – the agonising suffering of a nameless man. He is reported to be in hospital but with 70 per cent burns his prospects for survival are poor. ***

Monks and “Pro-Democracy” Activists Behind Mob Violence Against Muslims

Buddhist monks here have led the campaign to deport Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar, including some who have threatened to abandon their monasteries and join the army to "protect" the country by force if Muslims gain more rights. Tony Cartalucci of Global Research wrote: “People don’t just come out into the streets and begin murdering each other. There are always instigators on one side, perhaps both, leading the anger and violence. In the case of targeted Muslim Rohingya refugees in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, those leading the violence against them, which most recently involved 26 killed and 2,000 Rohingya homes destroyed, have been identified. [Source: Tony Cartalucci, Global Research, October 29, 2012 \=/]

“While the Associated Press (AP) features grainy photos of monks outside the city hall in Yangon, Myanmar, claiming that it is a rally “against violence,” the signs themselves tell a different tale. One enumerates, in English, the demands of the “monks.” The sign includes: 1) Protect Rakhine People from the Dangers of Islamic Extremism. 2) Army Must stop Shooting the Ethnic People. 3) We Arakanese Don’t Want to Live With Extreme Bengalis Anymore. 4) Mr. President Should be Decisive on the Issue of Arakan. ). Drive all illegal Bengalis out of the Land of Myanmar. 6) All Ethnic People of Myanmar Should be United. \=/

“By “Army Must stop Shooting the Ethnic People,” the protesters mean the army should stop firing on their vigilantes for attempting to eradicate the refugees, as the points on the sign enumerate clearly they are the united ethnic people of Myanmar, and the refugees are “illegal Bengalis.” All of the news stories featuring the picture do not mention any of the enumerated points on the sign, and instead claim, “Myanmar Buddhist monks offer prayers Thursday during a rally of more than 100 people protesting recent violence.” \=/

“AFP, in a grave lapse of professional journalism, refers to the leader of this movement as merely “a monk named Wirathu.” However, this isn’t merely “a monk named Wirathu,” but “Sayadaw” (venerable teacher) Wirathu who has led many of “democratic champion” Aung San Suu Kyi’s political street campaigns and is often referred to by the Western media as an “activist monk.” Wirathu had led a rally calling for the release of so-called “political prisoners.” Wirathu himself was in prison, according to AFP, for inciting hatred against Muslims, until recently released as part of an amnesty. Human Rights Watch said that Wirathu was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to 25 years in prison along with other “monks” for their role in violent clashes between “Buddhists and Muslims.” \=/

“While Western news agencies have attempted to spin the recent violence as a new phenomenon implicating Aung San Suu Kyi’s political foot soldiers as genocidal bigots, in reality, the sectarian nature of her support base has been back page news for years. AFP’s recent but uncharacteristically honest portrayal of Wirathu, with an attempt to conceal his identity and role in Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Saffron” political machine, illustrates the quandary now faced by Western propagandists as the violence flares up again, this time in front of a better informed public. \=/

“During 2007s “Saffron Revolution,” these same so-called “monks” took to the streets in a series of bloody anti-government protests, in support of Aung San Suu Kyi and her Western-contrived political movement. HRW would specifically enumerate support provided to Aung San Suu Kyi’s movement by these organizations, including the Young Monks Union (Association), now leading violence and calls for ethnic cleansing across Myanmar. The UK Independent in their article, “Burma’s monks call for Muslim community to be shunned,” mentions the Young Monks Association by name as involved in distributing flyers recently, demanding people not to associate with ethnic Rohingya, and attempting to block humanitarian aid from reaching Rohingya camps. \=/

“The Independent also notes calls for ethnic cleansing made by leaders of the 88 Generation Students group (BBC profile here) – who also played a pivotal role in the pro-Suu Kyi 2007 protests. “Ashin” Htawara, another “monk activist” who considers Aung San Suu Kyi, his “special leader” and greeted her with flowers for her Oslo Noble Peace Prize address earlier this year, stated at an event in London that the Rohingya should be sent “back to their native land.” \=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.