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Burma's Uprising: People Power, Not Political Puppetry

By Cynthia Boaz, t r u t h o u t | Report, November 1, 2007

New York, USA -- In the past month, amid the flurry of reports and commentary in international media about the events in Burma, a disturbing theme has emerged among some media commentators. Ranging from the Asia Times and the South China Morning Post to a collection of skeptical Western bloggers, they make the claim that various Washington DC-based agencies and a few key political actors are actually pulling the strings in the Burmese uprising.

The rationale behind this "foreign interference," as it has been termed by both the Burmese and Chinese governments, has been given as (take your pick): interests in oil and/or gas reserves, heroin, methamphetamines, geopolitical advantage, and power projection by the United States. While I am among the first to question the motives of the American administration when it comes to foreign policy, I find these claims absurdly cynical to the point of being delusional.

To wit: in an article that appeared in the Asia Times on October 18, 2007 titled "The Geopolitical Stakes of the Saffron Revolution," the author states that "Myanmar's 'Saffron Revolution', like the various color revolutions instigated in recent years against strategic states surrounding Russia, is a well-orchestrated exercise in Washington-run regime change."

The author then goes on to cite the role of the NED, George Soros's OSI, Freedom House, The Albert Einstein Institute's Gene Sharp, retired Colonel Bob Helvey, the Serbs involved in the nonviolent overthrow of Milosevic, or some combination of the above, as the "puppet-masters" in the series of events in Burma over the past two months.

These statements, which amount to nothing more than conspiracy theories supported by a cherry-picking of mostly unrelated factoids about links between the NLD and US actors, are both irresponsible and potentially dangerous. In fact, when it comes to the mostly well-meaning leftist bloggers, these claims signal that those who should be most encouraged by mass displays of civilian resistance to tyranny may have bought into the propaganda of the Burmese junta and its backers in China. Thus, those who should know better (many of the progressive web sites who have reported on these 'theories') are actually doing the movement in Burma a great disservice by strengthening the hand of the junta there, and potentially undermining the momentum of the resistance.

As Stephen Zunes notes in an essay published on the Asia Times web site in early August (in response to similar claims made about Iran), many self-identified progressives who promote these conspiracy theories ironically "strengthen the argument of US neo-conservatives that only military force from the outside - and not non-violent struggle by the people themselves - is capable of freeing [Burma] from repressive rule."

If we have learned any lessons from the past century about how real democratization comes about, it is that the most effective and enduring means of long-term change is through broad-based nonviolent indigenous coalitions. The list of examples is long, but includes countries from every region of the world, including such divergent places as the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Chile, Mali and Lebanon.

The first misconception in the conspiracy theories stems from the coincidence that in the Burma case, US foreign policy and the interests of the Burmese movement are the same on at least one point: Both entities would like to see an end to military rule in that country. This does not, however, constitute proof the Bush administration is behind the uprising. One of the key criteria for the success of broad-based nonviolent resistance is that it be indigenous. And if the thesis that nonviolent struggle was simply another method for the projection of US power, how do these conspiracy theorists explain the successes of broad-based civilian movements in places like Chile (where the US had supported Pinochet) and the Philippines (whose ousted dictator Marcos had been a close friend of Ronald Reagan)? Are these cases simply anomalies?

By the same token, NED and OSI's support for the resistance in Burma has been common knowledge for decades. However, according to leadership inside the country, this support has primarily taken the form of the sharing of generalized knowledge in the field of nonviolent action (a body of cases and scholarship available to anyone who takes the initiative to investigate it). The actual struggle in Burma - the strategizing, the implementation of tactics, and perhaps most importantly, the will actively to resist injustice - are at the volition of the Burmese people, just as they should be.

Another misconception comes from a degree of ignorance about how nonviolent struggle works. To claim nonviolent protests of the scale we witnessed in late September in Burma can be manufactured abroad is to grossly overestimate the influence of US agents and agencies. How could US agencies organize broad-based protests and manage to get hundreds of thousands to maintain nonviolent discipline half a world away, while these same agencies have, for 50 years, been unable to remove the now 81-year-old, and reportedly invalid, Fidel Castro from his perch only 90 miles from the US border and with a population one-fifth the size of Burma's?

These kinds of claims show contempt for what the people of Burma are doing, which is to assert control of their own destiny. They have had enough of repression, fear and poverty. This is their struggle, and they deserve, like all people who are struggling for justice, respect for having sovereignty over their own lives and credit for their courage and sacrifice in the face of oppression.

One of the key concerns on the part of many of those perpetuating this propaganda is US agencies are responsible for the bloodshed of the past month because they are the instigators of the uprising. Setting aside the fact no one has produced any actual evidence for this, it is critical to remember the responsibility for repressive bloodletting always lies in the hands of the oppressors, not those who are fighting the injustice.

In "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. (who was accused of provoking violence against the civil rights movement by encouraging non-cooperation with the unjust system of racism) wrote to his accusers "... You assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn't this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? ... Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber." A few years later, in reflecting on the success of the Nashville sit-ins, one of the members of the civil rights movement there noted, "You cannot wait for someone else to do it, you cannot wait for government to do it, you must make it happen, through your own efforts and action and vision."

Regardless of our ideological lenses or propensity for (sometimes justified) suspicion, we have both an individual and collective responsibility - as humans and citizens of a global world - to acknowledge that now in Burma thousands are living up this sentiment. To question the Burmese peoples' authorship of their own struggle serves the interests of a brutal dictatorship, and risks undermining global support for what is, at its heart and its force, an indigenous people's movement.

Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science and international studies at the State University of New York at Brockport, and is on the academic advisory committee of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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