The lead article in last Sunday’s South China Morning Post breathlessly reported that some of those involved in recent protests throughout Burma had received training from the National Endowment for Democracy, a group funded by the United States government. Its editorial tut-tutted that Americans are yet again meddling where they shouldn’t be.
In a letter to the editor, Basil Fernando, director of the Asian Human Rights Commission, observed that hundreds of groups from around the world have been working openly along the Thai-Burma border for some two decades now, many engaged in this sort of training, which he likened to teaching grandma how to peel onions.
Anyone presuming to instruct people from Burma on how to defy military dictatorship, or planning to write about others doing so, should first take the time to learn a little history. Resistance to coercive rulers there goes back a long way.
In pre-colonial times, peasant rebellion and mass withdrawal were common. Buddhist monastic estates were places of refuge when times were tough, and if things got really bad people moved away completely.
Under the British Empire, many of these practices persisted, and indirect protest increasingly gave way to open conflict. “The people of this country have not, as was by some expected, welcomed us as deliverers from tyranny,” a senior bureaucrat lamented in 1886.
The colonial army was by then mired in warfare with a loose village-based insurgency that continued for years after the last indigenous king was exiled. And then as now, religion was important in motivating the discontent. “Wherever there was an appearance of organized resistance,” another civil servant later wrote, “Buddhist monks were among the chiefs.”
Ordinary people’s defiance of authority — as distinct from that of politicians’ parties or warlords’ armies — has evolved to the present day. The tactics of dissent vividly demonstrated throughout the streets and towns of Burma this August and September have been refined through countless small and mostly undocumented acts of resistance.
Among them, a few were some years ago depicted in a series of comic books published in Thailand (illustration above). In one, a group of villagers with insufficient rice to supply government purchasers indicate their inability to contribute by feeding the officials a sumptuous meal, but without rice — something unthinkable in Burma. In another, no one in a village affected by civil war wants to be chief because it means having to suffer the army’s abuses. They hit upon the idea of rotating the post daily. And when incompetent administrators at a new dam in the country’s heartland flood nearby crops, farmers descend on it and literally begin smashing it to pieces before the astonished officials rush to intervene.
Many such stories have been heard in the aftermath of the recent protests, although they too have attracted little outside notice.
Among those, some of the most remarkable are of pitched battles to defend monasteries and their occupants from marauding security forces. After soldiers looted the Ngwekyaryan monastery and detained over a hundred of its monks on the night of Sept. 26, outraged Rangoon residents the following day surrounded security vehicles that returned for more. Finding themselves under verbal and physical attack, the soldiers and riot police fell back [News: DVB].
That night, military units twice attempted to enter a monastery in another part of the city — once by road and once via a neighboring creek. Both times crowds armed with sticks, knives, slingshots and catapults broke a nighttime curfew to repel them. The following night they came back in greater force and successfully entered only after firing shots [News: Yoma 3].
Similar events were played out across the country [i.e. Mogok, Pakokku]. “We’ve prepared drums and pots to bang so that when people in the neighborhood hear they will take up whatever weapons they have available to repel this mob — this army government — from the monastery and monks,” a Mandalay resident said in a radio interview.
Meanwhile, contrary to the image portrayed in the state media, despite considerable danger the religious boycott of the military regime is still being enforced.
At Thayetdaw monastery in the former capital, a pile of government-donated rice sacks lay untouched for a week. On Oct. 15, in a crude attempt to force the monks to eat the rice, soldiers stopped them from going out for their morning alms round. An officer came to bribe the abbot with a new electricity generator, which was also rebuffed [News: Yoma 3; VOA].
Elsewhere, authorities in Magwe cancelled an annual alms-giving ceremony, apparently fearful that no monks would turn up [see update]. In parts of the delta, lists of participants in government-organized gangs have been distributed and monks are refusing to attend their houses to offer prayers or accept benefaction.
Civilians in many parts of the country also have continued to fight back. In Taunggok, locals have stopped frequenting shops and stalls owned by members of government bodies and their subordinates. Posters, signboards and graffiti keep springing up here and there. Small marches are continuing, and at some rallies organized to denounce the uprising, participants who have been forced to attend have shouted pro-democracy slogans rather than those of the government. On Oct. 16 two former schoolteachers who chastised those participating in one such event were arrested.
None of this has anything to do with some outsiders pretending that they can teach people in Burma a thing or two about resistance. Their defiance is born of necessity, of shared outrage at wanton injustice and of needless degradation. Its methods extend back thousands of years, not since the arrival of a few foreign experts on the country’s borders.
As for writers obsessed with finding the effects of U.S. imperialism everywhere, they might be disappointed to learn that people in Burma can think and plan for themselves. For the rest of us, this gives cause for optimism, even in the worst of times.
See also: Burma’s uprising: People power, not political puppetry, by Cynthia Boaz (Truth Out)
Further reading: The making of modern Burma, by Thant Myint-U
The moral economy of the peasant, James C. Scott
“From Avoidance to Confrontation: Peasant Protest in Precolonial and Colonial Southeast Asia”, by Michael Adas, in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 217-247.