Roland Watson
January 2007

2006 was not the year for freedom in Burma. There were significant opportunities, but they were not realized. There was momentum for change, but it wasn’t enough. The tipping point remains beyond our grasp.

There was positive action both inside and outside the country. However, there is still a disproportionate focus on international assistance.

Freedom will come from – it will be won by – the people of Burma. International support will help, the pro-democracy movement actually deserves far greater assistance that it receives, but the real agent for change will be the Burmese public.

In every society on earth, power lies with the people. In many, it has been delegated via democratic systems to elected leaders. In others, though, the people have allowed their power to be expropriated by individuals or small groups and then turned against them. The public still has the power, but it has been deceived to believe that it does not.

If you are the subject of a dictatorship, freedom is first and foremost your responsibility. Then, when it is won, the credit is yours. You are not in a position where you have to accept that you have been saved; where you have to concede that you couldn’t do it on your own and that you needed someone more able and more powerful to intervene. You are therefore also not in a position where you have residual doubt and insecurity, and obligations, as you confront the next big step, that of fashioning a workable democratic system.

As this suggests, Iraq is an example of what the people of Burma want to avoid.

The question, then, is what will it take to get the people of the country moving, so that they demand their freedom and do not relent until it is achieved? Said another way, why aren’t they making this demand right now?

Many theories have been proposed, including inadequate leadership, and also a messiah complex. But this raises the question, how can any leader live up to the role of messiah?

Another explanation is that the conditions in Burma simply aren’t bad enough. People rise up when their survival is at stake, when they will die if they do not fight back. In the ethnic minority areas of the country, conditions are this bad, so the people there do fight back. They are just not strong enough to win.

In the cities and towns in Burma’s center, however, one’s life is generally not on the line. Certainly, everyone – except the select few, those people connected to the SPDC and also Chinese merchants – hates things as they are, but since they are not actually starving to death, or being shot at by Burma Army soldiers, they do not rise up. (I do not mean to imply that I want things to get worse.)

For example, the signature/White Expression campaign and now the Open Heart initiative are fantastic projects, but in a way they also illustrate my point. You sign petitions and write letters when you are unhappy. You fight back – you launch a revolution – when your conditions are unbearable. These campaigns are a good start, but they are not revolutionary acts. The question is, when, and how, will the new Burmese popular revolution begin?

(The huge number of migrant workers from the country, many of whom send money home, also relieves pressure.)

All of this reflects a careful strategy on the part of Than Shwe, and Ne Win before him. Moreover, it is a continuation of the nine hundred year old policy of the Burmese kings. Slaughter the ethnic groups, the Karen and the Karenni and the Shan now, and the Mon and the Arakan before them, but for your own people, oppress them, even brutalize them, but don’t quite push them over the edge into open revolt. However, if some of your own people do object, then imprison, torture and kill them as well.

Some people romanticize the kings of Burma, and talk of glories past. I doubt, though, that they would prefer to live during those times. Conquest and oppression is the same in any age; it is armed robbery and mass murder and dictatorship. It is unacceptable now, and it was unacceptable then.

When the Burmese kings raised an army they would forcibly recruit soldiers, just as the SPDC does now. And they would keep the soldiers’ wives hostage, and then kill them if the soldiers deserted.

The psychologist Carl Jung explored the idea of a culture’s collective unconscious. This is composed of the beliefs and traditions that are so ingrained that they go unrecognized. In recent years people subject to political dictatorship in many countries around the world have revolted and won their freedom. My theory is that the people of Burma are being held back by a nine hundred year old collective unconscious belief that they are and always will be imperial subjects: that they are powerless to change this and that their only option therefore is to try to make the best of it.

I of course could be wrong, but if I am what’s the alternative?

Than Shwe and his gang also benefit from the financial, military and diplomatic support of China, Russia, Japan, India, Asean, and multinational corporations.

It is here that the International Community can be of most use, by ending this support.

Even with such backing, though, the people of Burma are still strong enough to win their freedom. They need only wake up to this fact, that they do have the power.