Monday, May 10, 2021

The Revolution in Burma and the Burmese Ethnic Identity Crisis

Beginning in 1962, when General Ne Win led a military coup that overthrew the fledgling democracy in Burma, there has been a long history of attempts to topple the Burmese military dictatorship and restore democracy through nonviolent resistance.  In 1962, Tin Maung Win and other students at Rangoon University went into the streets to protest the military coup.  They hoped that a Gandhi-style nonviolent resistance movement could restore democracy.  This has never succeeded in Burma, however, because the nonviolent movements have turned to violent rebellions that have failed to bring down the military dictators.

In 1962, Ne Win and the military established what was called "The Burmese Way to Socialism," which became a one-party socialist state under a military dictatorship.  Thousands of private businesses were nationalized.  Burma became one of the poorest, most dictatorial, and most isolated nations in the world.

We have to ask whether a nonviolent revolution can ever work in Burma (or elsewhere).  Or whether there must be a violent revolution instead, if we think successful revolutions are usually violent.  Or is it possible to combine the two, so that mostly nonviolent protesters are protected by armed defenders?  

These questions have become urgent over the past three months in Burma with the new popular protest movement against the military dictatorship that was declared on February 1.  The protesters have been nonviolent.  But in recent weeks, some have engaged in unarmed violence.  And now some of the ethnic armed insurgents who have fought against the government for decades are becoming allies of the protest movement, offering to provide protection against the government's brutal attacks on the nonviolent protesters.

There are also some more expansive questions here about whether the Burmese revolution can be rightly seen as an expression of a world-wide movement rooted in a natural desire for and a historical trend towards liberty.  I will take up these larger questions in a subsequent post.


In Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution (2020), Ruaridh Arrow has provided a good history of how Gene Sharp and his associates tried to teach some of the soldiers in the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) how to launch a nonviolent revolution against the Burmese military dictatorship.  

The Karen are the third largest ethnic group in Burma.  In 1949, after achieving independence from British rule, Burma saw conflict between the majority Bamar ethnic group and minorities like the Karen.  The Karen began an armed rebellion seeking independence from Burma.  In 1976, the Karen National Union changed its position to ask for a federal form of government in which the Karen would have their own regional government within Burma.  Most of the Karen live in the Kayin state of Burma along the border with Thailand.  This armed conflict between the Bamar-dominated government of Burma and the KNLA has become one of the longest running civil wars in the world. 

                                              Kayin State in Burma, On the Border with Thailand

From 1976 to 2000, the KNLA was led by General Saw Bo Mya, who had begun his battlefield experience fighting with the British against the Japanese in World War Two.  He was known for his toughness and wild temper.  So when Bob Helvey went to Burma to meet Bo Mya and to try to persuade him to adopt Gene Sharp's methods of nonviolence, Helvey knew he had a hard job.  Helvey could hope, however, that his own military experience might impress Bo Mya.  Helvey had been a decorated U.S. platoon commander in the Vietnam War in 1968, who had risen in the ranks to become a Colonel and a Defense Attache to Burma in 1983.  When the military sent him to Harvard University for a year as a senior fellow, he heard Sharp lecture on nonviolence, and he was converted.  He has said that his experience in Vietnam convinced him that there had to be an alternative to killing people.  And after hearing Sharp, he decided that he could combine a military style strategic planning with Sharp's nonviolent methods to bring down the military dictatorship in Burma through a plan of strategic nonviolence.

Helvey and Sharp wanted to teach the Burmese resistance movement to avoid the mistakes of the uprising in 1988.  In March of that year, a student was killed by riot police.  When more students took to the streets to protest the killing, the security forces killed hundreds of them.  Thousands of people were arrested, and the universities were closed.

On June 21 of that year, the nonviolent protesters turned violent.  The students killed 20 riot police, and the police killed 80 students.  The government responded with repressive measures, but protests continued to spread throughout the country.  As the military junta began to fear that they were losing control of the country, General Ne Win resigned as socialist party chairman and called for a referendum on establishing a multi-party democracy.

The protesters called for a general strike on August 8, 1988.  Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.  Some began to march towards the City Hall of Rangoon.  Soldiers opened fire on them, killing hundreds.  The nonviolent protesters responded with violence and attacked the police and soldiers, even beheading some of them.  Over the next three days, over a thousand people died on both sides of the uprising.  The military dictatorship prevailed, under the command of General Ne Win, but it did announce that there would be a general election in 1990.

In January 1989, two leaders of the failed uprising--Tin Maung Win and Ye Kyaw Thu--traveled to Boston to see Gene Sharp and ask for his advice.  They agreed with him that one of the reasons the uprising had failed was that they had not imposed enough nonviolent discipline, and that their brutal violence (such as the beheading of soldiers) had justified the police in firing into the crowds of protesters.

In May of 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi, who had called for a nonviolent transition to democracy, led her party--the National League for Democracy--to victory in the general election.  But then the military annulled the election and put her under house arrest.  She would be under house arrest for 15 of the next 21 years.  She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her efforts in the nonviolent struggle for democracy.

Drawing lessons from this history, Helvey in 1991 explained to Bo Mya how a new strategy for nonviolent struggle could finally overturn the dictatorship.  But after Helvey gave his first briefing on nonviolent resistance to Bo Mya, the general walked out of the room without saying anything.  Helvey talked with one of the general's political officers, who suggested requesting another meeting with the general.  "But this time," he said, "don't use the word nonviolent!"

The next morning, Helvey repeated his briefing for the general, but he replaced the word "nonviolent" with the word "political defiance."  This time, Bo Mya was impressed, and he asked Helvey to give this course to some of his soldiers--as long as he never used the word "nonviolence."  Within a few weeks, new recruits joining the Karen National Liberation Army were being taught not only military instruction but also "political defiance."

In 1992 and 1993, Sharp travelled twice to Manerplaw--the village on the Moei River that was the headquarters of KNLA and proposed capital for an independent Karen state.  He explained his new curriculum for teaching a strategic nonviolent action.  He proposed a "Political Defiance Committee" (PDC) with a grand strategy for a nonviolent revolution in Burma to overthrow the military regime.

The strategy document for the PDC planned three phases of action.  In the first phase, the national and regional political defiance committees would provide courses for teaching political defiance; and they would report on the regime's human rights violations.  There would be planning for how to respond to contingent events that would create the conditions for revolution: "The national command is responsible for developing contingency plans for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, her death at the hands of SLORC [the "State Law and Order Restoration Council," the name for the ruling government], the death of Ne Win, or a spontaneous uprising" (Arrow 2020, 163).

For the second phase, there were plans for how to lead the nonviolent revolution through protests, strikes, and efforts to recruit people in the government to defect.  These plans included organizing a parallel government in liberated areas of the country and holding elections.

The third phase would be responding to the collapse of the government, including installing Aung San Suu Kyi and establishing democratic government.  

Here was the most blatant weakness in their plan: they simply assumed that if Aung San Suu Kyi took power through popular elections that would automatically bring democracy to Burma.  They didn't explain how this was to happen.  And they don't show any knowledge of the history of Burma or of the current cultural and political circumstances in Burma that might hinder the success of democracy there.  Most importantly, they did not think about how a country with over 100 distinct ethnic groups that were often in violent conflicts with one another could achieve a conception of democratic citizenship in which all citizens have equal rights.  This problem should have been clear to them from the simple fact that they were working with the Karen National Liberation Army, which had been at war for over 40 years in fighting for the Karen ethnic group.

To reach final agreement on putting their plans into effect, Bo Mya flew to Boston to meet with Sharp and Helvey.  At their first meeting, Bo Mya made a shocking announcement: he had decided that he could not give up his military actions, and so the nonviolent strategy would have to be combined with military force.  Sharp and Helvey tried to persuade him that nonviolence could not work if it was combined with violence--that this was like putting water into the gas tank of a gasoline engine.

In his guide for political defiance instructors, Sharp had written:

"Violence is the most serious contaminant to the success of political defiance (nonviolent struggle). . . . violence by the political defiance organization may give the oppressor the public justification it needs to commit additional atrocities against the public. . . . political defiance attempts to move the struggle away from the oppressor's strong points to areas where he is weak.  We should never seek to fight on his terms."

This is what Sharp and Helvey called "political jujitsu."

Bo Mya disagreed:

"The general argued back that the regime was intent on genocide in the minority areas.  There was no possibility that they could lay down their arms and risk total annihilation.  Instead, he agreed to give up plans for bombings and assassinations in the cities and keep the military forces in a purely defensive posture to protect the ethnic minority areas from government attack.  The military forces would hold onto the territory and buy time for the Political Defiance Committee to move enough trained nonviolent resistance operators into the cities to start the uprisings and overthrow the regime" (Arrow 2020, 165).

Sharp responded to this by arguing that the experience of the Palestinians in the "intifada" of 1987-1990 showed that nonviolent resistance could not succeed if it was combined with violent actions.  Sharp had advised some Palestinians who wanted to apply his methods in a nonviolent campaign to overthrow the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.  They wrote manuals of nonviolent actions based on Sharp's ideas that were widely distributed among Palestinians, although the Israelis made these manuals illegal.  Sharp met with Yasir Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), in Tunisia; and he tried, but failed, to persuade Arafat to adopt a purely nonviolent strategy.  When the first intifada began in 1987, it was understood to mean an aggressive but nonviolent struggle against the Israeli occupation.  But while most of the intifada was nonviolent, there was some violence--particularly, rock-throwing by young men.  Sharp had warned against this:

"Although stone-throwing is very limited violence in comparison with other options and expresses Palestinian rage and pain, it is almost guaranteed to produce--as it has done--high Palestinian casualties and to alienate Israeli public opinion among the population and soldiers. . . . I have found it extremely difficult to find a Palestinian justification for this heavy price in terms of instrumental effectiveness of that type of action. . . . If you want to alienate Israelis and have them not listen to your demands, then all you have to do is threaten them.  Even if it is with stones, because stones hurt badly" (Arrow 2020, 99).l

And, indeed, the rock-throwing was used by the Israeli propaganda campaign to portray the intifada movement as violent and to argue that it would have been even more violent if the protesters had had access to lethal weapons.  Eventually, the intifada was suppressed.

Sharp's arguments were not persuasive with Bo Mya, however.  And Sharp finally conceded by accepting some combination of nonviolent and violence in the planning for the Burmese resistance movement, although he hoped that over time there would be less recourse to violence. 

Helvey and Sharp knew that their Burmese students of nonviolence would need a textbook, a clear and concise manual on how to move from dictatorship to democracy through nonviolent struggle.  So, in the summer and fall of 1993, Sharp wrote From Dictatorship to Democracy, which was a 90-page distillation of his 900-page Politics of Nonviolent Action.  It was translated into Burmese and into the minority languages of Karen, Mon, Chin, and Jingh Paw.  It was widely distributed to Burmese activists.

When the Burmese intelligence services recognized the influence of this book, they made the penalty for possessing this book imprisonment for up to 7 years.  Foreign Minister U Ohn Gyaw called a press conference to denounce this book and to charge that Aung Sang Suu Kyi was under the influence of subversive Americans such a Bob Helvey and Gene Sharp.  In fact, Suu Kyi had read the book, and she endorsed it as a good statement of her own nonviolent strategy.

The book shows both the strength and the weakness of Sharp's teaching.  It's strength is that it is written in generic terms so that it appeals to nonviolent resistance to oppression as a propensity of a universal human nature.  As Arrow says, "by omitting any reference to particular countries, religions, or cultures, it would become applicable anywhere, by anyone in the world" (168).  

But this is also its weakness, because it does not consider how this universal propensity to resist oppression must be diversely expressed in different historical conditions.  So that any attempt to move from dictatorship to democracy through nonviolent action in Burma will have to be adapted to the peculiar cultural and political circumstances of Burma.  We need to understand not only the human nature of nonviolent resistance but also its human history.

We also need to understand how the success of any revolution--nonviolent or violent--depends on the actions of human individuals.  So, for example, in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the one person most likely to lead a revolution in Burma; and thus a lot has depended on the peculiarities of her character, her judgment, and her circumstances.  (I have written about "biopolitical science" as moving through three levels of analysis: natural history, cultural history, and individual history.)

After a few years of waiting for those unpredictable historical events or individual actions that might create the conditions for revolution, Helvey and Sharp finally decided to end their involvement in Burma at the end of 1998.  Their biggest setback had come early in 1995 when the Burmese army gathered for their final attack on Manerplaw, and Bo Mya was forced to retreat across the river to Thailand.  Then, in 1997, the Thai government turned against the resistance movement in Burma; and so Helvey and Sharp were no longer safe to travel through Thailand.


In contrast to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, who hoped for a revolutionary transformation that would establish a democracy, some Burmese political thinkers--like Thant Myint-U (2021)--have thought that while a revolution was unlikely, the Constitution of 2008 offered the possibility of a gradual evolution of liberalizing reforms that might eventually bring full democracy.  The prospects for this looked good, particularly when Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and allowed to lead her party in campaigning for seats in the new parliament, and then when her party won a majority in parliament in the free elections of 2015.  But now it seems that this progress towards liberal democracy under the new constitution has been suddenly reversed by the military coup of February 1.

The Constitution combined a semi-elected parliament with military rule.  The army remained autonomous under its own commander-in-chief, who appointed 25 percent of the seats in a two-chamber parliament.  The other 75 percent of the parliamentary seats were filled by elections.  The parliament appointed the president, and the president appointed ministers.  But the ministers of defense, border affairs, and home affairs (in charge of the police and local administration) would be military men nominated by the commander-in-chief.  The president appointed the chief ministers in charge of the country's fourteen states and regions.  Anyone with family members with foreign citizenship were prohibited from being president, which disqualified Aung San Suu Kyi, because her husband and two children were foreign citizens.

In many ways, this Constitution of 2008 resembles the United States Constitution.  There is a separation of powers between the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary.  The selection of the president is made by a "Presidential Electoral College."  The "Fundamental Rights and Duties of the Citizens" (Chapter VIII) include many of the rights protected in the United States Constitution.  The "Basic Principles of the Union" (Chapter I) include "the eternal principles of Justice, Liberty, and Equality in the Union" (sec. 6).

On November 7, 2010, the first elections under the Constitution were held.  Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy boycotted the election because they refused to accept the Constitution.  This made it easy for the military's Union Solidarity and Development Party to win the election by a landslide, which was probably helped by some vote rigging.  One week after the election, Suu Kyi was released from house arrest.

In the history of this period by Thant Myint-U, Than Shwe, the head of the military forces (called the Tatmadaw), is portrayed as the statesman who planned a transition from oppressive military strongman rule to a divided and balanced structure of power that would be more popularly acceptable (Thant Myint-U 2021, 67-68, 78-80, 109-10, 126, 133, 135, 221).  In 2010, Than Shwe was 78 years old, and he was planning for his retirement, so that he would not be replaced by another military dictator.  He retired many of the older generals and put in their place a new generation of younger officers who would be loyal to him; and he told them that they were to be the guardians of the new constitution.  

In the first few months of 2011, Than Shwe promoted the selection of Thein Sein as President.  Thein Sein had chaired the Constitutional Convention that wrote the Constitution of 2008.  Then Than Shwe abolished the military junta, formally retired, and appointed General Min Aung Hlaing as the new head of the military.

President Thein Sein promoted some liberal reforms that moved towards greater economic and political freedom.  The United States and other countries began to open up to Burma.  In December of 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Burma since John Foster Dulles in 1955. 

Thein Sein approved a bill amending the party registration law that allowed the National League for Democracy to become a legal political party.  Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders agreed to register under the law, which meant that they had accepted the new constitution.  On April 1, 2012, the first by-elections were held, and the NLD won their first seats in the parliament.  In response to these changes, the United States and European countries began to lift the economic and political sanctions on Burma that had been imposed to punish the military rulers.

In 2015, in the first fully free and fair election since 1960, the NLD won 86 percent of the seats being contested.  Although Suu Kyi could not constitutionally become president, she selected Htin Kyaw to be the president, while making it clear that she would be the true leader of the country.  The parliament passed a law to create the new position of State Counsellor for Suu Kyi.  She took other positions as well, becoming minister for foreign affairs, education, electric power, and energy.

In June of 2012, two months after the NLD had won the by-elections, Suu Kyi launched a world tour--her first trip outside of Burma since 1987--that became a worldwide celebration of her triumph.  She flew to Oslo to finally accept in person her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.  She flew to London to give a speech to both houses of Parliament.  She flew to Washington to meet President Obama at the White House and then to accept the Congressional Gold Medal in the Rotunda of the Capitol, packed with political leaders who cheered her.  In her speech, she acknowledged "the reform measures instituted by President U Thein Sein."  After she had returned home, in November, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma.  Two years later, he visited a second time.

But then, beginning in 2017, the Western world's adulation of Suu Kyi was replaced by dismay and shock in response to the Burmese army's brutal attacks on the Rohingya and Suu Kyi's refusal to criticize those attacks.  The Rohingya are a Muslim people who live in the Arakan state of western Burma on the border of Bangladesh.  There is a long history of violent conflict between these people and the Burmese Buddhist people who live near them.  Many Burmese say that the Rohingya are a foreign "Bengali" people and not one of the "national races" (taingyintha) of Burma.  

There have been many Muslim insurgencies in Arakan, the first one in 1948.  After rioting between Muslims and Buddhists in 2012, and a harsh operation by the Burmese army to put down the rioting, some Rohingya exiles in Saudi Arabia formed the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which recruited young men for an armed insurrection.  In 2016, ARSA led some Rohingya men in an attack on some police posts in an Arakan township near the Bangladesh border.  In the following months, the Burmese army attacked the insurgents, which forced as many as 70,000 Rohingya to flee the violence and seek refuge in Bangladesh.  As ARSA continued its attacks on Buddhist villages, the army responded with merciless massacres.  By the end of 2017, there were over 700,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.  The conflict continued into 2018.  Western leaders and human rights agencies condemned the Burmese military for "genocide" or "ethnic cleansing."  In 2019, the government of Burma was charged with genocide before the International Court of Justice in the Hague.  Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to the Hague to lead the defense of Burma against the charges.  Many of her supporters were stunned that she was apparently defending the atrocities committed by the Burmese army.

This conflict between Muslim and Buddhist groups in Arakan is only one of hundreds of ethnic conflicts in Burma, which arise from a continuing dispute over the ethnic, racial, or cultural identity of Burma--the question being who belongs to the Burmese nation, and who is an alien?  This question runs deep through the history of Burma.  When the British ruled Burma as a colony, they called the country "a zone of racial instability."

The Burmese state recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups, but this list is confusing because the distinctions are not really fixed: based on their diverse ancestry, intermarriage, and migration, people can belong to different ethnic groups as defined by race, culture, or language (Cheesman 2017; International Crisis Group 2020).  For example, even Aung San Suu Kyi, who identifies herself as belonging to the Bamar majority, is part Karen.

Insofar as these ethnic groups see themselves as competing for resources and power within Burma, they are thrown into political and military conflict.  Of the almost 100 registered political parties, the majority seek to represent the interests of a specific ethnic group.  Much of the political system is organized around diverse ethnic interests.  The Constitution provides that the most politically and dominant ethnic groups have their own eponymous states: the seven states of Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan.  The Constitution also recognizes six other ethnic groups with geographically concentrated populations their own self-administered areas.  There are also a small number of elected seats in state and regional parliaments that are reserved for ethnic groups.

Burma has some of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world, some of which began over 70 years ago, and most of these conflicts arise from ethnicity.  These ethnic military groups include some twenty "ethnic armed groups," such as the Karen National Liberation Army, some hundreds or even thousands of armed militias, and twenty-three "Border Guard Forces" who operate under Tatmadaw control in areas close to Burma's international borders.

Some ethno-nationalists would say that what we see here is an expression of a natural human desire for ethnic identity that leads to unremitting conflict in an ethnically diverse country like Burma.  To achieve some harmony, they would say, Burma needs to establish a homogeneous Burmese ethnic identity that would exclude all foreign ethnic groups as aliens.  But it's not clear how this could be done.

In previous post, I have disagreed with the ethno-nationalists by arguing that while our evolved human nature is inclined to tribalism, in that we naturally look for cues of coalitional affiliation by which we set "us" against "them," the content of those cues depends on social learning and cultural history.  And consequently people in multi-racial/multi-ethnic societies can be taught to be cooperative.  A country as culturally and ethnically diverse as Burma could achieve this if it were to become a fully liberal open society, in which people would see themselves as equal in their political rights as citizens while being diverse in their social identities as belonging to different ethnic groups.

The Burmese Constitution actually affirms the principle of equal citizenship, but this seems to be contradicted by the Constitution's affirmation of the multiplicity of ethnic identities.  The "Basic Principles of the Union" include the declaration that "the State is where multi-National races [taingyintha] collectively reside" (sec. 3).  But this is immediately followed by the declaration that "the Sovereign power of the Union is derived from the citizens and is in force in the entire country" (sec. 4).  Is Burma a community of equal citizens?  Or is it an amalgamation of "multi-National races"?

The Constitution's "Fundamental Rights and Duties" are said to belong not to "national races" but to "the citizens."  All citizens "enjoy equal rights before the law" (sec. 347).  And "the Union shall not discriminate against any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex, and wealth" (sec. 348).   The equal rights of all citizens include the right "to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs, without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths" (sec. 354).

The Constitution does recognize the "special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union" (sec. 361).  But it also recognizes "Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union" (sec. 362).  This affirms religious liberty and religious pluralism, by which all citizens are free to profess and practice their religion in any way that does not infringe on the religious liberty of others.

The Constitution declares: "The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden.  Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity, or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution" (sec. 364).

According to these constitutional principles, the Rohingya Muslims should have the same equal rights as citizens as the Arakanese Buddhists.  In fact, President Thein Sein suggested this in 2012 when he said that the Rohingya Muslims were entitled to equal Burmese citizenship, except for those who had illegally entered the country since 1948.  And some Burmese ministers had said that less than 20 percent of the Rohingya were illegal immigrants (Thant Myint-U 2021, 183).


Despite this history of conflict between Burma's diverse ethnic, racial, and religious groups, all of these groups are now united in opposition to the military junta that seized power 100 days ago on February 1.  One of the favorite slogans for the protesting crowds has been: "We won't let you govern us at all."  People cannot be governed if they do not consent to government.  But then people must decide the best way to express their withdrawal of consent--either through nonviolent resistance or violent retaliation or some mixture of nonviolent and violent actions.

Sometimes a government can be overthrown by a nonviolent revolution before the revolutionaries engage in any violence.  That's what happened in the American Revolution.  In a letter to Thomas Jefferson (August 24, 1815), John Adams wrote:  "What do We mean by the Revolution?  The War?  That was no part of the Revolution.  It was only an Effect and Consequence of it.  The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington."  Adams elaborated that idea in two other letters to Jedidiah Morse (November 29, 1815) and Hezekiah Niles (February 13, 1818).

The American colonists' methods of nonviolent resistance included boycotts of British goods, refusal to export American raw materials to Britain, refusing to serve on juries under Crown-appointed judges, and creating their own parallel economic, judicial, and political institutions (such as the Continental Congress).  Before the bloody violence at Lexington in 1775 and the authorization of a Continental Army in 1776, the American colonies were already independent of the British Government.  Gene Sharp helped to edit a history of this nonviolent American Revolution (Conser et al. 1986).

Similar methods of nonviolent resistance are now being used by the "Civil Disobedience Movement" in Burma, which is attempting to overthrow the military junta that took power on February 1.  In addition to the massive street protests across Burma, people have launched nation-wide economic boycotts, and they have refused to do any work for the government or pay their taxes.  Bureaucrats, teachers, doctors, and other professionals have refused to work.  There are reports that many government agencies cannot operate because so few people are working for them.  Some police and military people are defecting from the government.  The National Unity Government (NUG) of Myanmar was formed on April 16 claiming that it is the legitimate government of Myanmar, which creates a parallel government similar to the American Continental Congress.

The military junta has responded to this with violent repression--killing as many as 770 people, arresting at least 5,000 people, and brutally attacking and torturing many people.  It's natural for people who have suffered such violence to want to defend themselves with retaliatory violence.  But the proponents of nonviolent resistance--like Maria Stephan (2021)--are arguing that this would be a mistake because it plays into the hands of the military dictators: violent resistance against dictators strikes them where they are strongest; nonviolent resistance strikes them where they are weakest.  Dictators like to point to the violence of anti-government protesters because this justifies their own violence--weakening public support for the protesters and making it less likely that police and soldiers will defect from the government.  Stephan cites the quantitative evidence supporting this argument.  Over the past 120 years, nonviolent revolutions have succeeded about 50% of the time, while violent revolutions have succeeded only about 25% of the time.  Successful nonviolent campaigns have taken on average about three years to prevail, while successful violent campaigns have lasted about nine years.

Such arguments have not been persuasive with those many protesters in Burma who have begun using whatever weapons they have, such as slingshots and homemade air guns (Paddock 2021).   In recent weeks, many protesters from the cities have gone into the forests for training in warfare and sabotage (Beech 2021a).  Now the "ethnic armed organizations" (EAOs) that have been fighting the government for decades are now supporting the protest movement (The Irrawaddy 2021).  They do this in two ways.  By attacking the Burmese military in the border areas, they force the government to deploy more troops to the frontlines, which leaves fewer troops for attacking urban protesters.  They also provide a refuge for protesters fleeing the cities and going underground, while being trained in guerrilla warfare by the EAOs.

Remarkably, perhaps for the first time in the history of Burma, all of the ethnic groups in Burma are united in cooperating to resist the military junta.  More than a third of Burma's population is composed of hundreds of ethnic minorities, many of whom have fought insurgencies against the Burmese military, without any support from the Bamar ethnic majority.  But now many people in the Bamar majority see themselves fighting alongside the ethnic minorities against the military.  One Bamar elementary-school teacher was quoted as saying that she now understands the suffering of the Rohingya:  "After the coup, I saw soldiers and police killing and torturing people in the cities.  Then I started to feel empathy for Rohingya and ethnic people who have been suffering worse than us for many years" (Beech 2021b).  

The National Unity Government has proposed a new constitution that will establish a federal system in which regions with large minority ethnic groups--the Karen, the Kachin, and others--will have some political autonomy.  This has been the major demand of the EAOs for decades.

This conception of Burma as a multi-ethnic state, in which all citizens have equal rights under the law regardless of their ethnic identity, could eliminate the governmental persecution of minority groups like the Rohingya, which would break away from the policies of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.  Aung San Suu Kyi's government has persecuted minority ethnic groups.  In the 2020 election, for example, many polls in Burma's frontier lands where the ethnic minorities are concentrated were closed before election day.  Out of an electorate of about 37 million people, 1.5 million registered voters were disenfranchised.  And this is not counting the one million Rohingya now living in refugee camps in Bangladesh because they were forced to leave Burma (Beech and Nang 2021aBeech and Nang 2021b).

For now, we must wait to see whether the resistance movement can succeed in overthrowing the military dictatorship, and whether a successful movement is nonviolent or violent.


Arrow, Ruaridh. 2020. Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution. London: Big Indy Books.

Beech, Hannah. 2021a. "'I Will Die Protecting My Country': In Myanmar, a New Resistance Rises." The New York Times, March 24.

Beech, Hannah. 2021b. "'Now We Are United': Myanmar's Ethnic Divisions Soften After Coup." The New York Times, April 30.

Beech, Hannah, and Saw Nang. 2020a. "'This Is Not a Democracy':  Myanmar Prepares for a Troubled Election."  The New York Times, November 6.

Beech, Hannah, and Saw Nang. 2020b. "Myanmar Election Delivers Another Decisive Win for Aung San Suu Kyi." The New York Times, November 11.

Cheesman, Nick. 2017. "How in Myanmar 'National Races' Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya." Journal of Contemporary Asia 47: 461-483.

Conser, Walter H., Ronald McCarthy, David Toscano, and Gene Sharp, eds. 1986. Resistance, Politics, and the American Struggle for Independence, 1765-1775. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

International Crisis Group. 2020. "Identity Crisis: Ethnicity and Conflict in Myanmar." Asia Report Number 312. August 28.

The Irrawaddy. "Ethnic Armed Groups Unite With Anti-Coup Protesters Against Myanmar Junta." April 30.

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Stephan, Maria J. 2021. "Myanmar's Protesters Have Achieved Significant Victories--Now Is the Time to Double Down on Nonviolent Resistance." Waging Nonviolence, March 24.

Thant Myint-U. 2021. The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. New York: W. W. Norton.

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