Empty monasteries, severed telecommunications, and a sullen, beaten silence that seems to envelop the whole country. It doesn’t just feel like a defeat for the Myanmarese people; it feels like the end of an era. It was an era that began at the other end of south-east Asia two decades ago, with the non-violent overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines by “people power” in 1986.
For a while, non-violent revolutions seemed almost unstoppable: Bangladesh, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia all followed the Filipino example, overthrowing military rule and moving to open democratic systems after decades of oppression. China itself almost managed to follow their example in the Tiananmen episode in 1989, and then the contagion spread to Europe. The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989, the communist regimes of eastern Europe melted away with scarcely a shot fired, and, by 1991, the Soviet Union itself had gone into liquidation. It was the threat of similar non-violent action that finally brought the apartheid regime in South Africa to the negotiating table in the early Nineties. The trend continued right into the 21st century with undemocratic regimes being forced to yield power by unarmed protesters from Serbia to Georgia to Nepal. But there were always the exceptions, and exceptions are always instructive.
The greatest exception, in the early days, was Myanmar itself. Entranced by the seeming ease with which their southeastern Asian neighbours were dumping their dictators and emboldened by the transfer of power from General Ne Win to a junta of lesser generals, Myanmarese civilians ventured out on the streets to demand democracy. The army slaughtered 3,000 of them in the streets of Yangon, whisking the bodies away to be burned, and the protesters went very quiet.
The long shadow
The emotion that non-violence works on is shame. Most people feel that murdering large numbers of their fellow citizens on the streets in broad daylight is a shameful act, and even if the privileged people at the top of a regime can smother that emotion, their soldiers, who have to do the actual killing, may not be able to. If you cannot be sure your soldiers will obey that order, then it is wise not to give it, since you present them with a dilemma that can only be resolved by turning their weapons against the regime. Better to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal from power. So non-violent revolution often succeeds — but not if the army is sufficiently isolated from the public.
The Myanmarese army is profoundly isolated from the civilian public. Its officers, over the decades of military rule, have become a separate, self-recruiting caste that enjoys great privileges, and its soldiers are country boys. The regime has even moved the capital from Yangon to the preposterous jungle “city” of Naypyidaw in order to increase the social isolation of its soldiers.
So when the protesters came out on the streets again after 19 years, led this time by monks whose prestige made many believe the army would not dare touch them, the regime simply started killing again. The death toll this time is probably no more than a tenth of that in 1988, for people got the message very quickly: nobody who defies the regime is safe. Not even monks.
The Myanmarese are now pinning their hopes on foreign intervention, but that was never going to happen. Sooner or later, the extreme corruption of the army’s senior officers will destroy its discipline. But, meanwhile, it is probably more years of tyranny for Myanmar, with only Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroic symbol of Myanmarese democracy, to bear witness against it.
It is not the end of an era, however. In other places, against other repressive regimes, non-violence still has a chance of succeeding. It never did work in Myanmar.