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From Amritsar to Depayin, Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan offers a comparison between the experiences and methods of the Indian liberation struggle by the Congress Party and Mahatma Gandhi and the nonviolent campaign waged by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

Tyrants always fall. Always

Although not forseen by the political pundits of the time, the salt campaign launched by Mahatma Gandhi and the Congress Party in India became the key nonviolent direct action campaign to achieve freedom from British rule.

At the outset of the campaign, a New York Times correspondent asked Gandhi what he hoped to achieve by the campaign, and what would happen if he were arrested at the beginning of the campaign. Gandhi answered that it wasn't a matter of winning or losing that campaign because the freedom movement was already in control. Britain could only respond. The freedom movement would take actions to practise their freedom, and this in turn would bring one of two results: provoke a reaction by the British authorities, or bring about a change.

The situation in Burma today is at a very similar stage of the nonviolent campaign, and it is critical that the international community understand that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD compatriots are not victims. They are in control. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD party have been “practising democracy” by exercising their freedoms around the country, with the clear understanding that this will either provoke a response, or bring about change. Most likely it would bring both.

Forcing wisdom

The SPDC “freed” the NLD leadership, and its charismatic leader, in mid-2002, not because they suddenly became supporters of liberal democracy but because they were forced to for reasons of power. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi recounted this in a recent meeting with Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, who visited Burma's Peace Laureate in February 2003 at her Rangoon residence. She said that in 2000 the junta set out to completely destroy their movement, after they had provoked a similar response in a dramatic showdown when she and NLD party leaders were stopped in a motorcade leaving the capital. They had been exercising the freedom which the authorities said they had, but in reality denied.

In the end, the military junta failed to crush the NLD, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said, because of internal and external support for the movement. She made clear to Ms Williams that both internal support (the population of Burma, and the democracy activists who continue to be arrested on almost a daily basis) and the external support of those nations and international support groups who withdrew any recognition, combined, were what prevented the military junta from destroying them. Eventually, the military junta themselves were “forced to see the wisdom” of releasing the NLD leadership, some prisoners, and to proclaim that they would begin a dialogue on the future of the governance of the country. While the SPDC military junta has stated publicly that they will fully participate in such dialogue, their actions have yet to meet their rhetoric. They said the democracy movement and its leaders were free, but only mouthed the words.

Creating spaces

Gandhian style satyagraha campaigns are actions undertaken which reveal the truth. Upon release in mid-2002 the NLD leadership immediately set about holding the generals to their words by travelling to different provinces and states of Burma. These visits were ostensibly for party building, and while Daw Aung San Suu Kyi did make a few short public speeches, primarily she provided a venue for the people to speak for themselves, while she listened.

The people of Burma lost no time in taking advantage of the space she provided. They turned out in the hundreds, and then the thousands. Mostly young people - who had not taken part in the 1988 democracy uprising. They turned out not just to listen to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but to speak to her, sometimes until the very late hours of the night. Around the country, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the generals, were hearing the same message over and over again. Young people gathered and stated that in today's Burma, they had no educational opportunities. They wanted them, and they didn't believe they could get them under the current authorities. Therefore, for their future, they wanted regime change - as quickly as possible.

If you only have a hammer

The military leaders themselves are slaves to their own training. Military organisations do not run democratically. Multiplicity of opinions is interpreted as insubordination and an obstacle to achieving their mission. The toolbox of the military consists of a single tool to fix things, a hammer. As this unhappy message from the thousands of mouths of the people of Burma began to reach the ears of the generals, they attempted to shut them up by restricting the NLD's movements, which provided the venue for the people to speak.

However the generals also attempted to learn something from their last failed effort to repress the problem, and tried to disguise the hammer. Instead of soldiers, they used mass mobilisation organisations developed by, or controlled by, the military - like the Union Solidarity Alliance and the Myanmar Red Cross - to carry out their repression, which they tested in Rakhine State. When that failed, the military and police allegedly dressed themselves as workers and Buddhist monks and then attacked the NLD caravan in northern Burma in Depayin Township.

A hammer is still a hammer, no matter how much they might try to disguise it, and it has fooled no one. We need more tools than just hammers to build viable societies. The NLD has continued to act as though they are free, forcing the generals to respond or change. Just as Gandhi did with the British. The generals are now very scared, and they don't know what to do. They have run out of tools.

You will walk out

Some have mistakenly argued that the military junta controlling Burma is different from the British colonial rule in India (and formerly in Burma), and that nonviolence will be ineffective. It needs to be remembered that when Gandhi launched the main phase of the nonviolent freedom struggle, the Amritsar Massacre took place. In this event, General Dyer, using British troops, coldly executed a gathering of independence supporters, causing 1,516 casualties with 1,650 bullets according to the record. That premeditated atrocity was described by General Dyer as follows: “My intention was to inflict a lesson which would have an impact throughout all India.” That the crowd included women and children was irrelevant to the lesson he sought to inflict.

At later talks, Gandhi stated that the Amritsar Massacre was just the most extreme example of the lengths to which the British had to go in order to control Indians. He further stated at that meeting that it was time for the British to go. One surprised British official said “You don't simply expect us to walk out, do you?”, to which Gandhi replied “Yes. In the end, you will walk out, because 100,000 Englishmen cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate, and that is what we intend to do, until you, yourself, see the wisdom of leaving.”

The threat? The people

The Depayin incident in northern Burma which left at least nine people dead, many missing - of whom some are feared to have been killed - and hundreds imprisoned, is only the most recent example of the extreme measures that the military junta has taken in order to control Burma. Their intention was, undoubtedly, to have an impact throughout all Burma, and has brought exactly the same results as before, leaving the generals even more isolated.

They have imprisoned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership again because they feel this will contain the threat - the people of Burma. Sooner or later they will be forced to see the wisdom of releasing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues, because she has always, like Gandhi, left the door open for the generals to walk through and depart, as friends. She will not force them through. They must see the wisdom of doing so, for themselves, and walk through it. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi made clear in the February meeting that they must do this, “if the generals want to see a transition to democracy take place without massive violence, they have no other choice.”

The way of truth

The future is no longer up to the SPDC or to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi alone: it is now, more than ever, up to the people of Burma, and all the rest of the people of this world who believe that the people of Burma should have a say in who their leaders are.

All who believe in nonviolent change must withdraw any manner of legitimacy or recognition from the military regime. The generals will not see the wisdom of departing until forced to do so, as Gandhi so clearly demonstrated. Those nations who do not withdraw their recognition, either do not understand the dynamics of a nonviolent power struggle, or do not want to see a popular nonviolent change of government succeed.

“When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth ... has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always.” - MK Gandhi

Note: A tribunal found that General Dyer had commanded his troops to fire at the thickest part of the crowd to gain maximum casualties with their British-made 303 Lee-Enfield rifles. These same rifles can be seen held by Burmese troops in photographs from the 1988 Democracy uprising throughout Burma. A heritage of Burma's colonial rulers (as is Insein Prison, where democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was believed to have been held). A member of Burma's ruling military junta expressed surprise at the West's reaction to the crackdown in 1988 to a Singaporean diplomat, stating, "We used standard British military techniques, where after a warning shot, fired into the thickest part of the crowd".
Nonviolence International, Southeast Asia office, 104/20 Latprao Soi 124, Wangtonglang, Bangkok, 10310 Thailand (tel/fax +66 2934 3289; http://www.nonviolenceinternational.net/seasia ).

Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan is the Regional Representative of Nonviolence International (NI). NI seeks to empower people to bring about political change through nonviolent methods.