Not since the days of Burma’s nationalist struggle against the British rule a century ago, has the world seen such a massive sea of saffron-robed Burmese monks with their shaven heads spearheading the political defiance again the country’s brutish military junta.
In Burmese politics since independence from Britain in 1948 soldiers, monks and student activists have been the three most important elite categories. Over the past 45 years monks and student activists have continued to enjoy respect and influence in Burmese society because they are seen as a collective conscience of society. The soldiers have become the object of popular, if concealed hatred, disgust and fear, owing to the latter’s deeply paternalistic, incompetent and corrupt rule.
Historically, in 1962 the soldiers came to power in a military coup against the democratic government of Prime Minister U Nu, and a year later crushed the campus rebellion and dynamited the Student Union Building, which had become, an important symbol of nationalist resistance against the British Raj.
Six years into their office, the soldiers then led by General Ne Win openly labeled university students and monks as two biggest challenges in their mission to establish the dominant role of the military in the country’s politics although in a civilian disguise.
It was the university students who initially spearheaded the greatest popular uprisings in 1988 against General Ne Win’s one party rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (1962-88), having teamed up with the country’s monks and subsequently supported by the public at large.
This peaceful mass revolt was only half-successful. It resulted in the utter regime collapse, but failed to usher in a new democratic era and rule of law. For the army, the single most important pillar of political power under Ne Win, bloodily crushed this popular challenge.
Almost 20 years on, as the current news headlines and televised images show the monks have apparently stepped up to the plate when their student brethrens have effectively been paralyzed by the country’s military junta, namely the State Peace and Development Council.
Similar conditions which precipitated continuous challenges and upheavals throughout the two-and-a-half decades of General Ne Win’s rule account for the current revolt on the streets of Burma against the equally incompetent, brutish and pauperizing military regime: poverty, downright oppression, institutionalized abuse of power, endemic corruption and related moral decay, loss of regional standing as a country, malnutrition, degradation of health and education, and last but not least rapid loss of natural resources such as teak, timber, oil and natural gas.
Similarly, the power dynamics amongst this elite trio remains more or less the same over the past 45 years – monks and students serving as the conscience of the predominantly Buddhist society against the increasingly corrupt, incompetent and abusive men on horseback. What has changed is the external geopolitical and economic equations that affect Burma’s domestic developments.
The previous military regime headed by General Ne Win enjoyed support from and legitimacy in the eyes of the West which, out of its Containment policies, befriended or neutralized any anti-Communist authoritarian regime. Because Ne Win was fighting the Beijing-backed, armed Burmese communist movement, he may have been a despot having crushed people’s rebellions led by monks and students, but he was a despot friendly to the West and welcome in both London and Washington.
How times have changed.
Post-Cold War, the West and China (and to a lesser extent, India) have switched sides or so it feels – if you are a Burmese. The once celebrated vanguards of ‘people’s power’ opposition to the military rule in Burma no longer enjoyed the “solidarity” of the People’s Republic of China. For Beijing’s nominal Communists deem natural gas, oil and strategic influence over the Burmese military worthier than the bogus ideals of Maoism. And the once cold-blooded West has suddenly discovered the virtuous ideals of Enlightenment – human rights, freedom, democracy, rule of law and reason.
Be that as it may, the single most important outcome of the external support – 25 years of Western support and 20 years of Chinese support - for the soldiers in Burma is the deeply entrenched militarized State and its constitutive organs which, in the final analysis, only serve the interests of the upper echelon of the officer corps. This deeply militarized State looks capable of crushing – and determined to do so - the current wave of popular resistance led this time by the Sons of Lord Buddha who are challenging the fear-ridden generals with prayers of Metta or Loving Kindness to come to their senses.
To be sure, the monk protestors have captured popular imagination around the world and elicited solidarity.
But until and unless the external factors are tweaked to help create the tipping point in favour of the monks and student activists in Burma, they will likely meet the fate of the previous waves of resistance against this externally supported military rule.
The West-led international community is in no position to either strong-arm or persuade Beijing’s Communists-cum-BMW-neo-imperialists or India’s “national security” Capitalists to modify their respective bi-lateral relations with the Burmese generals.
However, this may be changing. The junta has become progressively incompetent at keeping stability at home – even at gun point – and its consistently alienating behaviour towards even its original allies and friends in the ASEAN - the Association of South East Asian Nations.
The result is the successful push by France and UK on Wednesday to hold a special, if informal meeting of the Security Council , against the backdrop of the Sino-Russian double-veto earlier this year. While genuine institutional change in Burma involving the re-civilianization of the State can only come about over a long, evolutionary process the first step in that direction may have begun with this latest Security Council efforts, doubtlessly inspired by the Sons of Lord Buddha.
Zarni is founder of the Free Burma Coalition and Visiting Research Fellow (2006-09), Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford.