by Roland Watson
October 2001

There is a common perception that activism and diplomacy can resolve what is viewed to be the political problem in Burma, that they can motivate the dictatorship to leave or otherwise transform itself into a democracy.

This perception is wrong.

No amount of activism, be it students calling for company boycotts or otherwise; or diplomacy, apparent - such as “hard” talk, or real - e.g., sanctions, will be sufficient. Neither will negotiations by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, or anyone else for that matter.

This is not to say that all such efforts should be dropped (excepting, of course, the type of diplomacy which, appearances notwithstanding, is really designed to ensure the perpetuation of the status quo). It is just that they, in and of themselves, will not be enough to lead to such a change.

The reason for this is that dictatorship is a global system. It involves far more than mere politics. It underlies, penetrates and enervates every aspect of its subject society. Furthermore, it is a system in balance. It has established an equilibrium, in the case of Burma, a strong and enduring one.

A global system of such rigidity can never be overturned via activism, diplomacy and negotiation. Such efforts will never get the dictators to leave. They have too much power, and too much to lose. Their departure requires rebellion as a fundamental precondition: internal rebellion. There must be forces within the nation - various groups - which are willing and able to rebel, and with such energy that they - the dictators - stand a real possibility of losing everything, beginning with their lives. They cannot be persuaded to go; they must be compelled.

While it may not be in the public eye, with daily video footage on CNN of battles from such places as Karen State, Shanland, and the Chin and Naga hills, Burma, no less than Bosnia and Kosovo and Macedonia, and now the U.S. and the Taleban, is at war. It is experiencing a civil war.

You cannot reform yourself out of a war, bring about a continuous and gradual transition from a warlike state to one at peace. Such a change must be abrupt and it must be accomplished, at least in part, with force. Efforts at activism, diplomacy and negotiation are not irrelevant or purposeless. They do increase the pressure on the dictatorship. But they are not able to push it to the edge: to the breaking point. This final step requires rebellion.

Because of the lack of video footage, or because of the perceived lack of global geopolitical importance, the fact of the Burmese Civil War is being ignored - by all but those who have a vested interest in its continuation. This includes the dictators, their business partners, and regional autocracies and pseudodemocracies. For the rest of the world, the country is being treated as if it does not exist, as if within it such phrases as ethnic cleansing and genocide have no tangible application. And, of course, the sheer enormity and complexity of the challenge eases the path to this self-deception.

The prognosis for change in Burma is bleak. Significant opportunities to instigate change do periodically and unpredictably present themselves, but such opportunities are invariably missed. Due to a misapprehension of the processes of historical change, mistakes are made - by all of the different groups which comprise the opposition.

On the other hand, you do not have to wait for such a “stochastic” opportunity to occur. You can go out and create an opening, a real doorway to a brighter future, such as through these groups finding a way to coordinate and even orchestrate their efforts, starting with working together to further the internal rebellion. But, given the aforementioned misapprehension, which has already led to the failure to act properly in a number of cases (one might thinks of the steps - or lack thereof - that were taken in the runup to Burma joining ASEAN), the likelihood that such orchestration can be created is slim.


© Roland O. Watson 2001-3