The determination and courage of the people of Myanmar since February 1 to regain their freedom lost to a military junta will indeed go down in the annals of freedom fighting as one of the greatest in recent times. People of all ages, particularly the youth, have been braving bullets, batons and the vicious kicking [...]

Sunday Times 2

Can non-violence bring down military thugs?


The determination and courage of the people of Myanmar since February 1 to regain their freedom lost to a military junta will indeed go down in the annals of freedom fighting as one of the greatest in recent times.

People of all ages, particularly the youth, have been braving bullets, batons and the vicious kicking of boots of their own so-called army in the streets of Yangon, other cities and towns unarmed, with only the picture of their leader Aung San Suu Kyi before them. She had been arrested after dealing a humiliating defeat recently at a parliamentary election on the puppet party of the army, making it clear that the people want the armed forces that had forcibly ruled them since 1962 to get out.

Most countries, the Western powers as well as developing countries, are shedding copious tears on Myanmar’s fate. Britain and the US have imposed sanctions on coup leaders while some foreign investors have halted their industrial development projects and pulled out. But the military junta carries on regardless.

The brutal slaughter of unarmed civilians has raised the question whether non-violence against the brutal military dictatorship can succeed. It is estimated that around 500 civilians have been shot dead and hundreds arrested and tortured during the last two months. Civilians are also reported to be fleeing to borders of North East India and Thailand.

Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership of Satyagraha (Non-Violence Movement) that led to the mightiest empire the world had known, giving up its most prized possession, is often cited as the power of non-violence held by the masses.

But some analysts point out that the opposition that Gandhi encountered markedly differed from those facing the lawless inhumane dictatorship of the Myanmar’s junta that has no tolerance of any opposition.

Gandhi’s satyagraha was possible, it is said, because of the British Colonial Government being bound by British criminal law in administering their colonies. Most of their Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code are still extant in some of their former colonies, including India and Sri Lanka. However, when interests of the British Crown were threatened, that the inborn British perfidy came into play and their laws were supposed to protect the people took a holiday.

The well-known Jallianwala Bagh Massacre that took place in Amritsar in April 13, 1919, close to the Golden Temple sacred to Sikhs, is an outstanding example.

The origin of this incident is traced to the proposal of the British colonial government to implement the 1919 Rowlett Act that extended measures in force during World War I in India even after the War ended. These measures included incarceration of suspects without trial, arrest of political leaders and political cases to be tried without juries.

It had enraged those Indians who had served in the British army and fought for them in their War. Even Gandhi had favoured the British in the War in the hope that after the War ended, India would be granted independence.

Reports say that about 10,000 unarmed people gathered in Amritsar on April 13, 1919 for a protest meeting against the laws when an Acting Brigadier General Reginald Dyer led some British troops and ordered troops to fire on the unarmed Indians. Troops fired into the crowd till their ammunition was exhausted, reports said. A near 400 Indians were estimated to have been killed.

This massacre caused not only an uproar in the Indian sub-continent but in the British political establishment as well. Reports say that Brig Gen Dyer received support in the House of Lords and the British poet of that time, Rudyard Kipling, who called Dyer, ‘the Man who Saved India’.

However, Winston Churchill who had been Secretary of State for War called the massacre, ‘monstrous’ and the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said it was: ‘One of the worst outrages in whole history’. Dyer was stripped of command and forced into retirement.

The Jallianwala Massacre showed the double-faced, ambiguous nature of British imperialism. Yet, it enabled the ‘half-naked fakir’ with his home spun rags draped around him and his walking stick to hobble into the mighty London edifices of the British Empire and discuss vital issues with the men that mattered.

This partial tolerance of the Opposition and also observation of the Rule of Law, except when British interests were threatened, helped Gandhi to proceed with his Satyagraha towards Indian independence. Numerous other factors too helped such as the impact of World War II on the British economy and the defeat of Churchill’s Conservative government by a left-leaning Labour Party.

Would civil disobedience work against rigid dictatorships that are not bound by civilised laws and care not about human rights and values?

In the Cold War years, it was argued that civil disobedience would not work against in Communist countries that were under the ‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’. In 1958, the Hungarian Revolution broke out students and workers took to streets protesting against the neo-Stalinism that was being imposed on them. A massive student demonstration attracted over a million protestors to Budapest demanding free elections and withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. As the protests gathered momentum, Yuri Andropov the Soviet Ambassador (later became the KGB Chairman) tricked the rebels into believing that the Soviet troops would be withdrawn and the demand of Hungarians to leave the Warsaw Pact that bound Eastern European states to Moscow was being considered.

The Hungarian Defence Minister’s delegation was being toasted by Soviet officials at talks on withdrawal of Soviet troops when troops broke into to the conference hall and arrested the revolutionary leaders. Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister who had broadcast to the nation that he was forming a multi- party democratic system and leaving the Warsaw Pact was kidnapped by Soviet officials, taken to neighbouring Romania and put on trial. On Being asked to ‘confess to his errors’ Nagy with his key officials refused. They were found guilty, executed and buried in unmarked graves.

The attempt by Czechoslovakians to transform their socialism to ‘socialism with a human face’ under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek (47) in 1968 was rejected by the Soviet Union though it was not to break away from the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact as the Hungarians had attempted to do. Western analysts believed that Moscow feared that ‘socialism with a human face’ would do irreparable damage to the leading role of the Communist Party globally.

Dubcek at the start was a favourite of Moscow as he had his early education in the Soviet Union and graduated from a Moscow School. His appointment as first Secretary of the Czechoslovakia replacing the veteran Antonin Novotny was welcomed by Moscow. But as Dubcek moved towards liberalising Communist rule, he was considered to be an agent of Western powers and moves were made to thwart his progress.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia took place on August 20, 1968 when the party congress meeting was to take place. It was suspected, this would democratise Czechoslovakia beyond repair. On that day the Soviet Air Force took control of the main airports and guided in thousands of Antonov air transport planes carrying troops, and tanks. Simultaneously Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces crossed into the country and sealed the border with West Germany.

Dubcek and the presidium were arrested and transported across the Soviet border and interned in KGB barracks. Later Dubcek was made to sign a treaty allowing a permanent stationary force of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring ended and a long winter began which lasted 20 years.

A defeat of a military junta through non-violence would be unique and is possible only if Myanmar’s army crumbles internally and the rank and file join the rebels. That, if it happens, would to take time and many-many, more lives.

(Gamini Weerakoon is the former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and
former consultant editor of
the Sunday Leader.)


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