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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3

Burma: Will nonviolence work?

A recent interview of Mark Kurlansky, author of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, by Francis Wade was published by the Democratic Voice of Burma. Excerpts follow. See the entire article here.

Like Gandhi before, Aung San Suu Kyi has stubbornly refused to take up arms against her oppressors, and her vow not to fight fire with fire has gained her a legion of admirers, from U.S. first ladies to celebrities to world leaders. But after nearly 50 years of military rule in Burma, any tangible results are hard to find, and observers have said that her cause may be lost against a military government that openly shuns respect for human rights. Mark Kurlansky claims that it is “precisely in the context of Burma where nonviolence will eventually win.”

He says: “There’s this mistaken idea, voiced by George Orwell and others, that Gandhism and nonviolent activism is great against relatively benign opponents, but not against someone who’s ruthless and violent. But it’s the opposite of this; if you have a really ruthless opponent you have absolutely no option but nonviolence, because you’re not going to beat them at their own game….

“The thing that people don’t understand about nonviolence is that it’s not a dreamy, moralistic argument, but a very pragmatic one. Gandhi was a pragmatic man, and despite having deeply religious convictions, he was doing this as a political activist. It’s the same as Martin Luther King, another pragmatic man who is now portrayed as a sort of holy dreamer. Nonviolence is based on very pragmatic thinking about what would work in political activism if you are unarmed people facing an armed repressive regime. History teaches that tyrants will fall sooner or later, so the question for political activists is how to make this sooner, and I think violence would cause just the opposite of that. Burma is a paranoid regime, and the one thing you don’t want to provide a paranoid regime with is enemies for them to fire at….

“One of the reasons that nonviolence is not more popular is that it takes a tremendous amount of patience. We opposed the Vietnam war for 10 years, for example, while people were complaining after only a year about the lack of results from Iraq war protests. Therefore, in a place like Burma, it’s difficult to gauge the progress that is made. But the elections this year, as far as I know, are attempt by the junta to try and give them some legitimacy, and this tells us that they recognize they have none, so some progress has been made.…

“My argument is that violence doesn’t work. There have been cases in history where rulers are overthrown by violence, but that violence leaves a legacy. World War II got us the Cold War, and a series of other wars that came with the Cold War. The American Civil War did not free blacks in the south; it preceded a hundred more years of oppression, and it was the nonviolent civil rights movement that changed that.….

“It’s interesting that the political establishment still doesn’t give nonviolence its due credit – nobody in the U.S. talks about the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet Union; the Republicans try to claim Reagan did it. How many monuments and statues are there to nonviolence as opposed to violence and war? Likewise how many books and films exist that celebrate nonviolence, as opposed to war? ‘Avatar,’ for instance, tried to promote itself as an anti-war movie, but it glorifies war and says violence is the solution. Culture is just loaded with that message….

“I want to be clear to the people of Burma that I’m not saying don’t resist. Gandhi, using a Hindu teaching, used to say that the greatest sin is not the use of violence, but not resisting at all. If you can’t figure out how to use nonviolence effectively, then use violence. So, it’s not enough to just say that you won’t be violent – which is pacifism – but that you will use not being violent to achieve your goals….

“The most important component of nonviolence and political activism is non-cooperation: you can’t govern people who refuse to be governed. This is what happened in Czechoslovakia: after the 1968 Soviet invasion, the Czechs realized they couldn’t fight and drive them out, so they found ways to refuse to participate. The terrible truth is that the worse things get, the better the chance of overthrowing the government is. You don’t want to make things work. The Burmese government is a tough force because they’re so paranoid, and having countries like the U.S. boycott them is completely ineffective because they want to be boycotted….

“The interesting thing about Obama is that, while he is pretty involved in warfare, he has a tendency to believe that the way to win people over is to not be aggressive with them, and this drives a lot of Democrats crazy. He seems to have the belief that if you corner people, rogue regimes, it’s not going to make them act well, and I think there’s truth to that….

“On the other hand, I’m not sure how I feel about Obama’s change in policy. Like I said before, the best thing to do is to let things fall apart – you don’t really want to do anything to help these regimes or make them appear legitimate….”

For additional opinion on U.S. Burma policy, see this new Asia Society Report entitled Current Realities and Future Directions in Burma/Myanmar.

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