Note: This comment appeared in Jurist on November 7
The renewal of small protests in Burma during recent days should come as no surprise to anyone other than those persons who have written foolish articles making out that what happened in September was somehow not the doing of the people there themselves but rather a consequence of covert American foreign policy.
Every society has its threshold, the point after which it will no longer tolerate things going on as before. The threshold for people in Burma is much higher than that of many other societies today, and thus they have put up with a lot more for a lot longer than might otherwise have been expected. This does not mean that they have not fought back, but rather that their forms of resistance have not attracted much outside interest, nor seriously threatened the army’s hold on power. Rather, many have served to keep the country back from the threshold for so long.
But it is no longer possible for people there to use ordinary methods of defiance to alleviate their problems. The conditions under which they are being forced to live have become intolerable. The protests are a consequence of the threshold being reached, not engineering from the outside. The struggle that is on now in Burma is ultimately a struggle for survival.
Once this is understood, it is also not surprising to find that monks have come out to play a lead role. In the past a Burmese pun ran that “school students eat well, monastic students are beggars” (as they go to collect alms with the monks). In recent years, that pun has been ironically inverted: now monastic students eat well; school students are beggars. The monks get their food and living needs from the general population. When they see that others are going without in order to feed them, this is not something they can ignore: they must protect their adherents, as they have done for centuries.
The struggle for survival of Burma’s people is by corollary a struggle for survival of its dictators, whose response to the protests has throughout been characterised by lawlessness: the complete departure from not only international law but also from those domestic standards to which they pretend to subscribe.
Although the international media have referred to thousands of persons being “arrested,” according to the authorities themselves they have only “called, investigated and interrogated” them [no “arrest”], without regard to criminal procedure or any other established regulations. People are still being taken from their houses with no warning or explanation. Others are being pulled off the streets. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have not been located and must be treated as forcibly disappeared until proven otherwise. The inability of the International Committee of the Red Cross to access prisons and other places of confinement, despite its best efforts, has greatly hampered attempts to account for the missing.
Against this backdrop, the struggle for survival of Burma’s people can also be seen as a struggle against the un-rule of law. Their demands are for both rice and rationality: each depends upon an end to the arbitrary rule under which they have been needlessly obliged to subsist for over four decades. And justice – both in the legal and social sense – will come to their country no other way.
See also: Burma’s Uprising: People power, not political puppetry, by Cynthia Boaz