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When "People Power" Fails

Filed under: Asia

In the past two weeks, the free world has simultaneously cheered on and mourned for the some 100,000 brave Burmese civilians who, spiritually guided by the country’s revered Buddhist monks, took to the streets in an unprecedented show of public protest unseen in nearly two decades. It has been compared to the great 1986 People Power revolution in the Philippines that overthrew the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power. Some have even drawn a comparison to the 1998 uprising in Indonesia that saw the toppling of General Suharto.

More recently, the past few years have seen a flurry of non-violent “colored revolutions” topple autocratic regimes in the post-Soviet space, from Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine. People power has since become something of a media phenomenon, as pictures and videos from the scene, shot by everyday citizens, flood the airwaves and the internet and capture the imagination of the world. “Democracy is on the march,” I remember, was a common motto of sorts back then. We believed anything was possible – that any authoritarian regime could be wiped off the face of the planet simply by showing up.

The same hopes were expressed for Burma. What began as a simple protest against economic conditions and prices turned into a massive outpour for democracy and end to military rule. They marched hand-in-hand, creating a line miles long at times, being a constant body barrier for the monks who passed through them.

Yet nearing the end of last week, the bullets started flying. Images continued to come out of Burma at lightspeed, but rather than people rallying in the streets, corpses and blood were everywhere. These same brave people were being beaten into submission – if not, then shot – and the supposedly untouchable spiritual core of society, the monks, have been rounded up by the thousands and sent to far away prison camps while their monasteries are destroyed. International outcry has been enormous, but no matter. Everything soon went black, and news has been a slow trickle since.

What we often forget is that while people power and colored revolutions have swept the globe, thrusting old political elites from their thrones, their more tyrannical counterparts have somehow managed to maintain their power for all of these years.

In the 2005 election (a word used loosely here), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe not only retained power but embarked on a campaign to crush the urban opposition by flattening the homes of an estimated 64,677 families. And who can forget the famous Andijon uprising in Uzbekistan, where Islam Karimov tightened his iron fist by murdering hundreds of people? Lastly, in Belarus, strongman Alexander Lukashenko not only gave himself an astounding 82.6% of the vote, but crushed pro-democracy protests with riot batons and the threat of repercussions for anyone caught participating. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Burma all make this list as well, employing some of the most brutal tactics known in modern human history to keep power.

The romantic notion of the people versus their oppressors is hard to overcome, but the world is never so kind with such simplicities. If this were actually the case most of the time, the people, faced with a solid and united regime, which generally has a monopoly on the use of massive force, would almost inevitably lose. This is what has been the case in nearly all the tyrannical governments listed above. Comparisons between the people power we saw in Burma and the people power we’ve seen elsewhere in Asia and the rest of the world are inherently wrongheaded in the sense that the conditions that allowed these other revolutions to succeed are completely different from those that caused Burma’s to fail.

The first factor one must look at is the internal unity of the regime itself. In the Philippines, Indonesia, Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, we saw major splits within the political and economic elites of these countries, thus creating rival centers of power to compete with the current powers that be. The big money, clout, ideas, and leadership of these alternative powers, backed by an overwhelming amount of people giving them street legitimacy, is what deposed these governments.

In Burma, the situation is completely different. After decades of socialist planning and race baiting, the new State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) – established in a 1988 military coup – pursued an aggressive form of crony capitalism. It is a powerful military autocracy, fitted with the latest weapons exported from China, mired in a symbiotic relationship with the ethnic Chinese residents of the country.

Comprising just 5% of the population, the ethnic Chinese control all major commerce and industry, from street vending to stores to hotels to gem mines and to opium fields. All major businesses are co-owned between Chinese billionaire businessmen and the military government. Teak, minerals, and drugs cross the border into China daily, while SLORC officials are paid off every step of the way. It has gotten to the point that the two – the military and the Chinese business community – cannot exist without one another. Their relationship is as solid as steel, which is why it is very unlikely to see the kind of split we saw in these other countries.

The second point I have identified is the willingness and motives of this regime to use force against the people that it represses. Are the powers that be truly inhumane enough to unleash a large, unthinkable massacre in the face of resistance? Yes, most definitely. These ruling elite have billions and billions of dollars to protect; they’re also thinking about their own lives. What started off as a protest against economic conditions must inherently have an anti-Chinese edge to it. Many in the Chinese community fear that all these years of plundering Burma will lead to a massive anti-Chinese backlash much greater than that which occurred in the 1998 revolution in Indonesia, where thousands of charred Chinese bodies laid in the street. Burma models Suharto’s Indonesia in many ways, especially with regards to Chinese cronyism, but to a much worse degree than was ever replicated there. The regime believes that should the opposition come to power, whether right or wrong, every Chinese person and military official will be sent down the river much like they have done to others. Because of this they will continue to shed blood.

The exceptional notion of people power is romanticized in the fact that these people were able to overthrow their oppressors without a shot being fired; but really, what is truly exceptional are the more pacifist actions taken by the governments rather than the people.

The people power and colored revolutions all featured more developed (though obviously still developing) countries where conditions were much different than in Burma or other tyrannies. In terms of a monopoly on force, the aforementioned elite splits gave soldiers a choice to switch sides, and this turned out to be that of the non-violent demonstrators. Furthermore, the crimes of these regimes were not so horrendous as to warrant a near-genocidal backlash or confiscations. They did not, as a general policy, threaten a soldier’s family with death and withhold food if he didn’t shoot at a crowd of people. They had a lot of room to move even without political power. Many of the elites in these regimes simply realized that they could relinquish power and still maintain their massive wealth and influence. They were both logical and, one would hope, at least a little right-headed in not wanting to shoot the demonstrators.

As we witnessed this week, there was very little hesitation on the part of the Burmese military junta to kill as many people as it took to put down the uprising. Whether life or wealth, they simply have too much at stake to give up power that easily.

Outside of the internal dynamics that have been discussed, the third most important thing to consider is the international dynamic. Short of an invasion, Western democracies have little to no influence over the Burmese government, while China practically owns the place. It has repeatedly vetoed resolution in the Security Council aimed at investigating and censuring human rights abuses in the country. Furthermore, the vast shipments of arms that goes to the junta is itself tacit support and a green light to remain in power. China is hungry for the natural resources crossing its borders at bargain basement prices. It wants these all to itself, while repressing the Burmese economy so that it can’t develop a powerful rival manufacturing center of its own. A free, democratic, prosperous Burma is nowhere on China’s agenda, and there is very little that Western democracies can do about it. On the other hand, the people power and colored revolutions all had significant Western and international support that was at least tangible politically and economically.

Unfortunately for the people of Burma, the comparisons between their demonstration and other people power movements just don’t hold. While both featured large amounts of people taking to the streets, the internal dynamics of Burma are completely different from these other, less tyrannical countries where the people prevailed. Rather than winning their freedom this time, another generation, like that of 1988, is being slaughtered like animals. There is simply no indication that this slaughter will end soon or that the Burmese people have the ability to overcome it at this time.

What is heartening, though, is that they were in fact able to muster the courage to demonstrate in such large numbers. Having seen each others’ faces in full view, knowing that they support each other even as their comrades fall due to the actions of an oppressive government they all hate, there is a public solidarity that can now only grow. If the brutality of their conditions makes them stronger, the fervor of their spirituality guides them, and the desire for freedom stays with them than I’m sure that there is at least a glimpse of a possibility that the democracy movement can overcome their obstacles.

I only hope that one day they can, so that I can one day eat my own words.

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