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Burma's Saffron Revolution: Goodbye, Generals

By Cynthia Boaz and Shaazka Beyerle, t r u t h o u t | Perspective, October 7, 2007

New York, USA -- Just because we can't see protestors any longer doesn't mean they aren't there. The Burmese regime wants us to believe their claims that they have "restored normalcy" to the country. They want us to conclude that the repression was successful and that the resistance has been crushed. But that's not the real story from Burma.

No one should be surprised that the regime cracked down; after all, that's what regimes do when faced with dissent. The effects of the protests may be much deeper and longer lasting than the effects of the most recent round of terror against Burmese citizens. Exiled pro-democracy leaders, monks and students all claim that the movement survives and that, in the words of one refugee the people, "have committed themselves to victory in the struggle for Burma." There are some encouraging signs that this commitment is being translated into a systematic strategy to undermine the junta's sources of support and control.

For starters, the movement learned how to coordinate "lines" or layers of leadership, so that if one group of leaders was jailed or otherwise neutralized, another would quickly step up in its place. And that is exactly what happened after the first wave of arrests, then the second, and then the third. It is believed by some Burma observers that there still more - many more - ready to take their places.

Next, with monks in the vanguard, the movement has revealed the regime's utter lack of political legitimacy and moral authority. By cracking down on the most respected and revered part of its society, the regime has cracked down on the very soul of Burma. This has activated parts of the population that have up till now stayed on the sidelines, including teachers, villagers, and even government workers. A BBC World Asia correspondent recently said, "It is obvious that despite their best efforts to stifle any opposition, the question Burma's ruling generals need to ask themselves is not if the anti-government protests will return, but when."

It hasn't taken long. Already, news has broken that citizens in Rangoon were engaging in "silent protests" - such as turning off the state news reports en masse, or turning off their lights - to symbolize their rejection of the regime's propaganda. Ordinary people have withdrawn their consent to the regime, and are willing to take action - if creative, low risk options are presented to them. They will follow in the footsteps of courageous nonviolent resisters who battled against Pinochet's junta in Chile, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. They all faced repression yet devised nonviolent actions to disrupt their oppressive systems and mobilize people.

Rank-and-file members of the military and police are finding themselves in a dilemma. To disregard their orders might get them into trouble, but to obey will only put their souls in peril in this devoutly Buddhist country. If the movement can achieve a critical mass, some soldiers and police may hesitate to repress if they know that people from their own communities or extended families could be the ones being hurt. Such was the case in Serbia during the nonviolent uprising against Slobodan Milosevic, otherwise known as the "Butcher of the Balkans." When police were asked why they did not fully obey orders, some answered that they could not shoot into the crowd because they didn't know if their own children were in it.

A final sign of the strategic planning and strength of the movement is its ability to maintain "nonviolent discipline." Despite the horrors committed by the regime over the past days, there has not been a single report of protesters becoming violent. And why should they use violence? It would only give the regime more pretence to repress, and perhaps even allow many individual soldiers and police officers to rationalize doing something they otherwise could not bring themselves to do. The maintenance of nonviolent discipline - along with the growing size, diversity, and commitment of the resistance in Burma - has garnered more sympathy from the international community, and is a critical factor in building the movement's own legitimacy.

The latest rumor making its way through the streets and alleys of Rangoon is that the wife of General Than Shwe, the junta's alpha dog, is house-shopping in Dubai. Rather than debate whether or not the crackdown on the Saffron Revolution was successful, perhaps the more intriguing question we all should be asking is: who is more afraid of whom?

Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science and international studies at the State University of New York at Brockport. Shaazka Beyerle is senior advisor at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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