By Roland Watson
December 3, 2004


This past January Dictator Watch issued a press release about ethnic cleansing by the Burma Army in Karen and Karenni areas, which had the subtitle: Democracy in Burma: It’s Now or Never! The announcement made three basic points: Burma is ruled by a gang of mass murderers; the people of the country can no longer stand this; and, we must have democracy this year.

It is now approaching the end of the year, so we should evaluate our progress. The purge of Khin Nyunt and his subordinates in Military Intelligence was a very significant development, the most important event in the country since the Depayin massacre. The prisoner release was also significant, because of the freedom for Min Ko Naing and other political prisoners. Were this to be followed up by the release of all remaining political prisoners, and a sincere willingness by the regime to allow a true democratic transition, it would be extremely positive. However, we now understand, particularly in light of the extended house arrest of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, that the release was merely a diversionary tactic. It provided ammunition for the SPDC’s supporters in Asean and elsewhere, and it also redirected the Burma democracy movement away from the opportunity that has been presented by the end of MI.

Prisoner release or no prisoner release, the country is still ruled by a gang of thieves and murderers. The Free Burma Rangers reported last week that on November 14th, the Burma Army sent four battalions into Hsaw Htee Township, Naunglybin District, Karen State, and that the soldiers burned houses, field huts and rice paddy in the villages in the township. In such an offensive villagers are subject to being shot on sight, and the trails around the villages are mined.

As of November 27th, 800 people had been forced to flee for their lives, with only a little food and clothing. Further, on November 30th, two other battalions attacked ten villages in Tantabin Township, Toungoo District, Karen State, and displaced an estimated 3,000 people. There are also reports, from individuals who were forced to porter for the Burma Army, that a similar attack is imminent in Ler Doh (Kyauk Kyi) Township, Naunglybin District, which is just to the north of Hsaw Htee. Lastly, two additional battalions are now active in the Mawchi area of Southern Karenni State, attacking sites there that are occupied by over 2,000 IDPs, and also laying new landmines. A full scale Burma Army ethnic cleansing offensive against at least 6,000 people is now underway in Northern Karen and Southern Karenni States.

The villagers, literally, cannot stand this – day-by-day and week-by-week they are being killed, but we still have some way to go to achieve democracy. This article will describe a strategy by which we can attain our goal (and the villagers’ suffering can end).

The purge of MI is a major opportunity, which we cannot afford to ignore. There are actually many derivative opportunities now, which are revealed in the excellent October policy brief by the Burma Fund: Breaking the Curse: The Rise and fall of Military Strongmen and their impact on Democracy in Burma (see

The Burma government’s – any government’s – domination by the military is inherently unstable. For Burma this instability is exacerbated by many factors:

- The purge of MI has left a power vacuum. The functions that Khin Nyunt and MI satisfied for the SPDC are now unfulfilled. It is likely that other elements of Burma’s power structure will compete for these responsibilities (e.g., to oversee the ceasefire groups), including for the economic spoils that they enable. This has the potential to lead to serious divisions within the SPDC, beginning with increased factionalization in the Army’s command structure.

- Military Intelligence cannot yet be ruled out. It would be surprising if such a significant and powerful apparatus gave up without a fight. Therefore, some form of retaliation should be expected in the coming months.

Both of these factors could propel assassinations or a follow-on coup, such as by Maung Aye against Than Shwe.

The power instability is also leading to economic instability, including through disruptions to trade and such steps as the issuance of new currency notes. Further, it has created democratic space. For the moment, democracy activists inside the country have less to fear, because the surveillance to which they are subject has been reduced.

The purge of MI has also had numerous diplomatic consequences. Khin Nyunt was responsible for the SPDC’s relationships with the ethnic ceasefire groups, and he was also the point man for the support the dictatorship receives from China and Thailand. Similarly, he was the “soft face” of the SPDC that encouraged international proponents of engagement and dialogue. (He was the primary contact for United Nations Special Envoy Razali Ismail.)

In addition, because of the purge, the prisoner release, and Daw Suu’s extended detention, the international mass media is finally beginning to pay attention to Burma.

What all of the above implies is that for the Burma democracy movement having a clear and effective strategy is now more important than ever. There are many different opportunities: to encourage increased division within the SPDC; to launch new resistance; to change the policy of engagement by China, Thailand, India, Japan and Asean; to end the diplomatic inertia of the United Nations and the European Union; and to attract increased media interest. We must keep our eye on the prize. Possible endgames to remove the SPDC and to install democracy include:

- Using reason and appeals to the Tatmadaw to do what is best for the country, to convince the junta to permit a real democratic transition.

Barring this, to:

- Create pressure on the generals so great that they choose to go into exile (e.g., in China).

- Accomplish the direct defeat of the SPDC through reinvigorated resistance, including renewed and strengthened armed resistance, or via a new popular uprising.

- Encourage internal divisions and conflict within the SPDC, including assassinations and a follow-on coup.


An effective strategy must be consistent with the ways in which social change – the defeat of dictatorship – can be accomplished. The following premises must be satisfied if our efforts are to succeed.

1. Dictatorship is a “global system.” In Burma, the SPDC dominates all aspects of the country. The generals are able to do this because their system of control is in equilibrium. They have power sources or structures that guarantee the stability of their rule.

The basic implication of this is that we must attack and weaken these power structures.

2. Because dictatorship is a global system, you cannot change it part by part. You must change it in its entirety. You must build pressure sufficient to cause the system to break, to in one way or another force the dictators to yield. This break is termed a phase transition, and it is necessarily characterized by chaos.

As an example of this, the system in Burma is changing right now, with the elimination of one part – Military Intelligence. However, the dictatorship itself – the SPDC – remains.

In addition, chaos is not equivalent to violence. It is conceivable that sufficient pressure could be created through non-violent means, e.g., a widespread popular uprising, combined with an appeal to the Burma Army not to fire on demonstrators. (This is what happened in Serbia, where such an appeal was successful. The Serb student group Otpur led a popular uprising; the army did not fire on the demonstrators; coal miners subsequently joined the movement by launching a national strike; and Dictator Milosevic’s regime collapsed.)

3. You also cannot change the system part way. There has to be a complete break.

An important implication of this is that power sharing with the SPDC will not work. If the military retains power in any way, e.g., through a rubber-stamped constitution from the National Convention that grants them a perpetual role in the government, the country will continue to be a military dictatorship and the people will not be free.

4. The breaking or “tipping” point, the beginning of the phase transition, is an unknown. You have to keep pushing until it is reached.

One implication of this is that if something significant occurs, we shouldn’t get our hopes up and sit back and wait to see what happens next. For example, in 2001, when Daw Suu engaged in confidence-building discussions with the SPDC as a prelude to dialogue, the international community, particularly the U.N. and the E.U., eased its pressure because “they were talking.” The correct response would have been to find ways to increase the pressure on the SPDC, to force them to negotiate with sincerity.

At the present time, the purge of Khin Nyunt and MI has also created pressure. We must now find ways to add to this. We should not sit back and wait. It was a mistake by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Special Envoy Razali to comment without qualification that the prisoner release was a positive development, particularly since it had not yet been completed. The announcement, we now realize, was SPDC disinformation, “positive” news designed to relieve the pressure. Annan and Razali fell right into the SPDC’s trap.

5. The best way to create sufficient pressure (perhaps the only way for Burma) is through the use of “feedback.” We need a cycle of events from inside the country and from the outside, and which reinforce each other. We need to respond to the purge of MI by creating pressure on the outside, and also communicate into the country to stimulate additional pressure-building activities inside.


A final premise has to do with unity. The more unified we are in our opposition, the more effective it will be.

On the other hand, freedom of expression is fundamental in a democracy, and one thing that should be cultivated is a diversity of perspective. Regarding democratic change in Burma, two different perspectives in recent years have come to the fore:

1. The SPDC is a gang of criminals, and if anything the problems in Burma are a question of international law enforcement as much as a fight for democracy. You do not negotiate with criminals. You apprehend them and subject them to a judicial system, with trial and incarceration.

Similarly, regarding diplomacy and business relationships, there should be none. The regime should be completely isolated. You do not do business with murderers.

2. Power grants legitimacy. Since the SPDC rules, regardless of the foundation or nature of its rule it is still the government of the country. And governments can be successfully reformed through negotiation and dialogue. Further, because of this diplomatic and business engagement is acceptable.

Many parties who take an interest in Burma have held the second view, and for a variety of reasons. Some, such as the academic David Steinberg and the analysts at the International Crisis Group, undoubtedly believe it to be true. Others, for example, China and the nations of Asean, have supported it because it serves their own selfish interests. These include to profit from the repression in Burma including through the plunder of the nation’s natural resources, and also to reduce the glare on their own dictatorial behavior. Still others, such as the U.N. and the E.U., also seemingly believe this view, although their sincerity is undermined by the fact that having this position enables them to appear supportive while requiring nothing in the way of concrete action. And lastly, some parties who promote engagement are likely doing so because they have made secret arrangements with the SPDC or its financial surrogates. They are effectively spies and agent provocateurs.

As we have commented before, the great benefit of the purge of MI is that it stripped away the “moderate” veneer of the SPDC to reveal the hard, brutal reality underneath. Now there can be no confusion about whom we are dealing with. It is clear that dialogue, on its own, without the backing of the strongest possible pressure, will never work.

Proponents of engagement obviously have no idea of the conditions on the ground. They do not understand what it is like to be tortured and to see your life evaporate in prison, or to be driven from your home, repeatedly and systematically, with the result that millions of families have been displaced and broken. The prescriptions of engagement are akin to putting a band-aid (plaster) on a severed artery. For the ethnic nationalities of Burma, the Tatmadaw’s invasion of their states is no different than Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

In other words, engagement has completely and utterly failed. Years of effort have achieved nothing, and during this time the suffering, death and destruction in the country have continued.

This has been recognized. There is now great unity around the first position. The achievement of democracy will take more than talk. Everything the SPDC says and does should be treated as a ruse, and with outright skepticism if not cynicism.

As mentioned above, though, the SPDC is now implementing its own strategy to reverse our hard-won unity. It is offering tantalizing signs that it is reasonable, and these signs will inevitably be seized upon by the most outspoken supporters of engagement, including Asean, Steinberg and the ICG. We must do our best to preserve our unity in the face of these attempts to disrupt it. In particular, we need to ensure that the U.N. and the E.U. do not continue to take the easy way out (for them, certainly not for the people of Burma).

The Burma democracy movement and the issue of coordination

Many, many different individuals, groups and other parties now work on or follow the events in Burma. In general, they can be divided into the democracy movement; the SPDC and its allies; and other interested parties.

Such distinctions, though, are not always clear. This article is a strategic analysis for the democracy movement, but who is actually part of the movement? Probably the easiest way to understand this is to consider who is not in the movement, and why.

The enemy, of course, is the SPDC. Further, I would argue that the ethnic groups that have signed ceasefire agreements have effectively sided with the SPDC. Their actions have destroyed any opportunity for a nation-wide armed resistance, which is the means by which the greatest pressure of all could be imposed, and which has also enabled the Burma Army to redirect its forces in a concentrated fashion against the groups that continue to fight.

There are many other parties that take an interest in Burma, and most of these support – directly or implicitly – either freedom or dictatorship. For the latter, the SPDC has many national backers, the most obvious of which are China, Thailand under the current government, and the other nations of Asean and the grouping itself. Other countries that are giving support to the SPDC include Japan; Burma’s western neighbors, India and Bangladesh; and also, through their arms manufacturers and dealers, which have governmental links, Russia and the Ukraine.

The SPDC also benefits from its relationships with multinational corporations, and probably the most egregious examples of these are the natural resource companies. Resource exploitation in Burma is a form of armed robbery. There is a criminal conspiracy between the resource companies and the SPDC. The SPDC provides the guns, the companies steal the resources, and together they split the loot. Such resources, including the oil and gas stolen by Unocal and Total, the Petroleum Authority of Thailand (PTT), South Korea’s Korean Gas (KOGAS) and Daewoo, and India’s Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) and ONGC Videsh, and also the timber stolen by Thai and Chinese timber companies, actually belong to the people of Burma. There should be no resource extraction until Burma is free, and even then only in a way in which the country’s biodiversity is preserved.

Those parties that incline towards freedom and democracy include: the world’s media; and also certain state and multi-state actors – the U.N., the E.U., its member states, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Such parties are not actually members of the democracy movement, since, for the media, if they do not cover Burma, and for the rest, if they do not actively and on a regular basis support the establishment of democracy, then they are effectively complicit with the regime.

(Note: While the U.S. – through its sanctions on new investment and trade – has taken the strongest international steps in support of democracy, on a daily basis it is more an observer of the situation than an active participant; and, it continues to allow Unocal, Halliburton, Caltex and others domestic companies to conspire with the SPDC.)

This leaves the rest of us, the actual participants in the movement: the people of Burma; their leaders, including the various political and resistance organizations based inside the country; all of the groups that are active outside the country, both in the border areas and in other nations; the various alliances of such groups and organizations; the Burma diaspora; border-based media groups; and the various foundations and other providers of funding who help support the democracy effort.

A further distinction is if such organizations are primarily humanitarian or if they have a political focus. All humanitarian groups certainly support democracy, but the impetus for change derives for the most part only from those groups that have a political agenda. Dictator Watch has long argued that the humanitarian groups would be well served to devote at least a small portion of their time to political activities (e.g., through participating in demonstrations).

One other factor is that the movement, in recent years, has grown dramatically. There are more than one hundred groups that are now active, and which are spread all around the world. This is very positive, but it also raises one of the most important strategic issues of all. How can such a massive effort be organized to achieve its maximum effectiveness? Indeed, is coordination even possible?

There is a war in Burma. It is a civil war, by the Army against the people, and which the Army has largely won. Only pockets of resistance remain, but such groups continue to fight, in self-defense and with the longer-term goal of freedom such that their need for defense becomes moot.

In a war, a central command structure is the most effective. For example, in World War II the United States military did not allow its various divisions and fleets to act on their own. There was a headquarters command, which was responsible for developing a clear understanding of the overall conflict and for assigning all such units.

Similarly, a central command for the Burma democracy movement would arguably be the best form of organization. Such a structure would improve our professionalism, management, division of responsibilities, and accountability. Unfortunately, it is not feasible. The logical candidate for the command would be the NLD together with the government in exile, the NCGUB, and the leading resistance alliance, the NCUB. But these organizations do not have sufficient operating freedom, funding and staff to fulfill such a responsibility.

We therefore must make do with a much looser form of organization, and on a consensus basis. I don’t mean to be too negative, though. We have numerous channels of communication, including email and through travel, in particular to conferences and seminars, since this provides the invaluable benefit of being able to meet one another, form personal bonds, and plan initiatives. And through these channels we have established good cooperation, which is the prerequisite of coordination.

The challenge of effective coordination remains severe, though, and probably the best way to facilitate this is to try to agree on a strategy, not only the main points but the detail as well. This way different individuals and groups operating for the most part on their own or in small coalitions can use their ingenuity to satisfy the various aspects of the plan, such that the overall strategy is implemented and without the need for a central command and hierarchy.

Movement strategy

A strategy is a long-term plan to achieve a goal. Further, this strategy must be implemented step-by step, through the use of both short and long-term tactics.

The movement’s strategy to date, to achieve the goal of a free and democratic Burma, has been to push for economic sanctions and other forms of diplomatic pressure from the interested parties, to force the SPDC to engage in a sincere, tripartite dialogue. There has been no real effort to launch a new popular revolution – no issuance of a call to the people of Burma to rise up, nor has there been any significant attempt to renew, strengthen and expand the armed resistance.

This strategy has failed because the sanctions that have been imposed have not been strong enough or uniform, and because the diplomatic pressure has been weak.

Another implication of the fact that the tipping point for the phase transition is an unknown is that infrequent and reactive actions will never create sufficient pressure. We cannot just oppose the SPDC according to a set schedule and through reactions to unanticipated events. This is not a strategy. A real strategy is proactive: it comprises a plan for what we intend to do, in a coordinated and orchestrated fashion, to achieve our goal.

Also, if we try a strategy, and it fails, we should change our approach and try something new. We should not resist change within our own ranks, because “that’s not the way we have done it in the past.” What we have tried in the past has not worked. Burma is still enslaved.

And, we should expect the unexpected. There will be more “news” out of Burma. We should not be surprised when this happens. Instead, we should be prepared.

1. The strategy of the Burma democracy movement begins with media relations. We must document the situation in the country and then use this documentation to raise international awareness and to generate interest and support.

2. Media coverage feeds into diplomatic relations. If we can get enough coverage from the newspapers, magazines, television stations and websites of the world, this will force diplomats to overcome their inertia and to take strong steps to force the SPDC out and to establish democracy.

3. Media and diplomatic relations in turn support funding. Democracy does not come free. Even popular uprisings require leadership, and such leaders need funding to organize a mass-mobilization. The higher the profile an issue has, the easier is to attract financial support from governments, foundations and other sources (foremost the public, through charitable donations).

(Note: The U.S. and the E.U. provided millions of dollars in funding to Otpur in Serbia, and the U.S. is also backing the Ukrainian Pora youth movement. In addition, on October 18th, President Bush signed the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004. Important provisions of this act include:

Section 102 - $2 million each year from 2005-2008 to support pro-democracy programs by private NGOs.
Section 104 - $2 million each year from 2005-2008 to increase the availability of non-government-controlled sources of information, such as radios capable of receiving outside broadcasts.
Section 202 – an amount of not less than $100 million per year for humanitarian assistance inside North Korea.
Section 203 - $20 million each year from 2005-2008 for assistance to refugees.

In summary, Burma is receiving only a fraction of the funding that the United States has made available for North Korea.)

4. With sufficient funding, the movement can then provide humanitarian aid to the many different groups that are suffering, including refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrant workers.

5. And finally, and most importantly, we can organize and expand the democracy resistance such that we create a real threat to the regime.

(Of course, funding is required even for the first step, documentation of abuses in Burma and their international publicity through the media. At this point in the struggle, though, significant financing for the task has been secured and the documentation effort is well underway.)

Media relations

A basic approach to organizing is the issue of centralization. Is it best to delegate a task to a specific group, or offer it to everyone in the movement in the hopes that there will be a larger and more widespread response?

For media relations, both approaches have merit and should – and are – being pursued. Central responsibility for media relations lies with the NLD, the NCGUB and the NCUB (and, when it becomes more secure and established, the CRPP). These organizations have the legitimacy to speak for the movement, and the people of Burma, and they have good intelligence-gathering networks.

They are responsible for setting the basic message of the movement, in general and regarding specific issues. Further, they issue statements both to secure support for the cause of democracy, and in reaction to (including in advance of) all significant events, internal and external, including those involving state actors and multi-state meetings.

This system is already in place and it is functioning, but as a constructive comment I would suggest that such statements should be issued on a more frequent and regular basis (weekly?). Many events that are significant have occurred without a response. For example, in October the opposition party in Malaysia said that Burma should be suspended from Asean. We should have reacted to this, immediately, with widely publicized statements in support of the position. Further, since this issue is not going to go away, we should periodically issue new statements saying that Burma should be expelled from the group. For instance, we should now release denunciations of the fact that the issue was not discussed at the Asean summit in Vientiene (and that the SPDC was not even publicly criticized); and expressions of support for the United States’ prospective boycott of Asean if in 2006 Burma becomes its head.

As another example, Philippines PM Gloria Arroyo said in response to the purge of Khin Nyunt that Asean would continue its policy of constructive engagement. We needed an immediate rejection of this as well. (Also, as an answer to the question posed in Dictator Watch’s last press release, Arroyo apparently was the first democrat to shake Lt. General Soe Win’s hand. We should denounce her rapprochement with the architect of the attempted assassination of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.)

One way to address this issue, which is really one of capacity building for the movement, would be to establish a quick reaction media team, in either or all of these organizations, to respond to new events and to reinforce advances and minimize setbacks. Such teams could formulate and then immediately release a standard response to all such events. (The NCUB and NCGUB already have a combined Information Unit, which is an excellent start.)

A final responsibility for the centralized media effort should be to research, coordinate and expand the movement’s list of journalist contacts, and then make this available to other pro-democracy groups that are also issuing statements. For Burma to achieve a higher international profile, we must do a better job of demanding attention.

One of the strengths of the democracy movement is that in addition to this centralized effort we also have a large, decentralized documentation and advocacy ability. Many different individuals and groups collect information about what is happening in Burma, and also release statements (and reports) about this documentation and other significant events. If we can improve our ability to communicate on point and in chorus, we will be impossible to ignore.

However, there are two other issues that we need to consider if we are to maximize our impact. The first is that we need to improve our coverage on television news programs. Burma is rarely mentioned on TV, on such stations as CNN, the BBC, and the American networks. And, when it is, the coverage is largely motivated by the SPDC’s own actions, both bad and (seemingly) good. In recent years Depayin, the roadmap and national convention, the purge of Khin Nyunt, the continued detention of Daw Suu, and the prisoner release, were what attracted the media’s attention. We must find ways to set the agenda and to draw television to our cause.

One means to this end is the aforementioned increased frequency and regularity of our statements. We should also make stronger, more aggressive statements, and even demands. It is arguable that we have been too timid. While there are risks with this approach, such as to the non-imprisoned members of the NLD, there are also solutions. Strong statements can be issued by “unidentified spokespersons,” and also through the many NLD-LA branches outside Burma.

Of course, we need more than words: TV requires images. To date, coverage of the problems in Burma has focused mostly on Daw Suu and the other political prisoners, which does not lend itself to visual description. We cannot get cameras inside the prisons, and Daw Suu can only be a subject when she is free. In any case, the suffering is worst, and this is what makes strong TV, in the ethnic nationality areas, where the Burma Army has conducted a decades long campaign of ethnic cleansing. I believe we are doing a disservice to ourselves, and to the ethnic nationalities, by not focusing more on their suffering. We need to attract the world’s ranks of combat reporters to such areas (this should be an objective of the media teams), and also where we are able to provide such footage ourselves. As an example of the latter, BBC World News on November 18th ran a segment about Burmese refugees and IDPs, which used in-country video provided by the Free Burma Rangers.

Burma Army offensives are underway right now, in Karen and Karenni areas, and also in the northwest against the Naga. Abuses are also being committed against the Shan, the Mon, Rohingya refugees, and other groups. We need to obtain video images of as much of this as possible and then work to get it on TV.

To do this, to attract such reporters, we need to make it widely known that large numbers of people are dying, and that this is inevitably going to continue. As another suggestion, then, the member news agencies of Burma News International ( could work together to compile a periodic nation-wide report of SPDC crimes, including deaths (from Burma Army soldier attacks and landmines, and also including IDPs who die from disease and starvation while on the run), rapes, and burned homes and villages. Such a report could contain as much information as possible about all such events, including photos or video where available (of the victims, crime scenes, etc.). This “Monthly Burma War Crimes Report” could then be distributed to the entire press corps that covers Burma.

Similarly, we should improve out documentation of environmental destruction (a “Monthly Burma Environmental Devastation Report”). Indeed, more people and advocacy organizations around the world are concerned about the environment than are actively opposed to political dictatorship. They effectively constitute a second audience, and one that we for the most part have ignored. To correct this failing, we should strive to provide real-time documentation of environmental destruction in Burma, e.g., what forests are being cut down right now, and by whom (and with accompanying photography and maps).

To continue, the second point is simply that we need to stay on message. When contacted by the media for interviews (even by friendly media, e.g., DVB, VOA, RFA and the BBC), we should have a carefully prepared response. In particular, we should be very wary of suggesting that events, foremost SPDC-initiated events, are in any way positive.

Diplomatic relations

The Burma democracy movement has also expended a lot of time and effort on diplomatic initiatives, but with mixed results. There are a number of reasons for this. First, and as was just described, we do not have enough in-country documentation and because of this major-media interest. Also, in even the best of circumstances diplomacy is extremely challenging. Diplomats are confronted with many different issues. It is difficult to attract their attention to your cause, much less their involvement and commitment. In addition, there are problems with our approach, including that we do not have enough funding (lobbying is expensive!), but also with our organization and tactics.

A further challenge derives from the fact that we have multiple objectives. We want support not only for democracy, but also financial aid for refugees and other assistance programs. And, we need this from many different parties, including supranational organizations (the U.N., the E.U. and Asean) and upwards of twenty separate nations. This is a monumental diplomatic initiative, which even a well financed and free to operate organization would find difficult to achieve.

We therefore must prioritize our objectives, and focus our resources where they will have the greatest effect. In reviewing the current situation, we can say that only the United States has taken a strong stand for Burma. We require a similar level of support from the U.N. and Europe, and at the same time we must undermine the support that the SPDC receives from Asean, Thailand, Japan, India and China.

Regarding the behavior of all of these parties, one underlying factor is present: China. Burma is not actively considered in the U.N. Security Council, not because it is not a threat to international security and peace, but because China would inevitably veto Council resolutions. The E.U. will not take a stronger stand against Burma, because the country lies in China’s sphere of influence. (Europe and China are each other’s largest trading partners.) Similarly, Asean fears the imperial designs of its neighbor to the north, and would never oppose it on an important issue. India, as is well recognized, has improved its relations with the SPDC as a means to offset the extension of Chinese power in the region. And even the United States’ commitment is fragile, because of U.S. business interests in China, including President Bush’s family investments through the Carlyle Group. (The Bush administration has already signaled that in its second term its support for Taiwan will be weaker.)

A very enlightening comparison is that of Sudan versus Burma. In both countries specific groups are suffering genocidal repression. However, in Burma there is a large democracy and human rights effort, while in Sudan such an effort is, or has been, quite small. It is therefore surprising that Sudan is receiving great international attention, including in the Security Council, whereas Burma is not. The difference is China. While it is true that China is also supporting Sudan’s dictators, it has not been willing to use its political influence to shut down the debate. Also, the Sudan’s neighbors are not beholden to China like the countries of Asean, hence they have been willing to form a peacekeeping force to enter the country and protect the local population.

In effect, the people of Burma, and the country’s natural environment, have been sacrificed by the rest of the world. Burma has been sacrificed to China, in the name of geopolitics.

Dictator Watch has argued previously that as long as China is a dictatorship, Burma will remain one as well. While this may be overly pessimistic, there is little doubt that to pressure the SPDC we must find a way to reduce its backing from Beijing. Fortunately, there are a number of opportunities available here. The SPDC undermined the support it receives from China by purging Khin Nyunt. It will take time to rebuild a strong relationship. And, the policy of engagement that the U.N. and the E.U. preached, and which had Chinese links as well, is now thoroughly discredited.

To take advantage of these opportunities, we must review and where necessary revise our tactics. The Burma democracy movement also uses a centralized/decentralized approach to diplomacy. In addition, there are two basic types of tactics: political lobbying (including through letter-writing campaigns and petitions), and demonstrations.

The centralized approach is almost entirely direct lobbying (meetings, and letter and email communications), and it is also severely restricted. The NLD in Rangoon has only periodic contact with country missions and diplomatic delegations. Top NLD officials are under arrest; visits by diplomats to the NLD office (when it is open), or by NLD staff to local consulates, are problematic; and phone lines are tapped.

The diplomatic effort thereby defaults to organizations based outside Burma, foremost the NCGUB, which maintains diplomatic liaison with the U.N., the U.S., Canada, and certain countries in Europe. This effort is also constrained due to the movement’s limited funding. For example, we are not able to hire a specialist lobbying firm to enhance the profile of our cause (as the SPDC attempted, when it hired DCI in Washington).

The rest of the lobbying effort is essentially decentralized, with nation-specific campaigns conducted by domestic Burma groups (e.g., USCB’s lobbying of the U.S. government), and also through periodic letters and petitions, either movement-wide or initiated by other groups. The second tactic, though, to demonstrate in public, is used only infrequently and unsystematically. Protests at Burma’s embassy in Bangkok have been curtailed because of Thai repression. Demonstrations at other Burma embassies and consulates, other than in Washington, are rare. And, there has been no concerted effort to protest at the facilities of the SPDC’s leading supporters (China, Thailand, Japan and now India). Nor are there regular or even infrequent demonstrations at U.N. headquarters in New York.

We obviously can’t be everywhere at once, but a stronger and more coordinated protest campaign would certainly seem possible. Indeed, I would suggest that we change our target from Burma missions to those of the SPDC’s supporters. Like letters to Than Shwe, demos at Burma missions have little effect. We should concentrate where our efforts will have an impact, on China, Thailand, India, Japan and the U.N.

One way to increase our impact would be to have worldwide, coordinated, and secretly planned protests (not publicized international days of actions). The many national Burma groups should consider forming a task force to organize secret strike demos (Dictator Watch, while not a national group, would be happy to assist with this), with groups of demonstrators simultaneously taking to the streets in front of embassies, etc., at ten or more locations around the world. The demos could also have a single, coordinated and translated, press release.

For China, we should call for a boycott of the nation’s consumer products, and also of the 2008 Olympics. Further, in this effort we will not be alone. We can join the Free Tibet movement, which already has a boycott in progress (see, and even the Falun Gong, which has been running protest camps at China’s consulates in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere. (They had a demo in New York on November 24th, with over 5,000 people – see We should be able to attract environmental groups to such protests as well. Chinese President Hu Jintao recently completed a trip to South America, where he asked the government of Brazil for access to the nation’s natural resources. China wants to cut down the Amazon, just as it does Burma’s forests, to fuel its economic machine (which is also based on sweatshop labor). We should have little difficulty attracting environmental (and labor rights) organizations to a coordinated and multi-pronged protest campaign against the country.

While we certainly want to keep the heat on all of the other interested parties as well (particularly the E.U., Asean and Thailand), I would argue that the United Nations should be our second primary protest target. Special Envoy Razali is a dismal failure, and he recently said that the U.N. has no clear strategy for Burma. Since he is the person responsible for the U.N. strategy, and since he has just admitted that he has failed, he should resign. If not, we must pressure the U.N. for a change. (If the U.N. were a business, he would have been fired a long time ago.) I further believe that we should demonstrate for the resignation of Kofi Annan, since he has also failed Burma. Human Rights Special Rapporteur Sergio Paolo Pinhiero has repeatedly documented the SPDC’s atrocities, but there has been no response to this from the U.N.’s political side (which, though headed by Razali is ultimately Annan’s responsibility). It is as if they are purposely ignoring Pinheiro’s findings.

Neither Razali nor Annan have publicly admitted that there are humanitarian crises in both Eastern and Western Burma, and which must be resolved. Instead, they have focused on the imprisonment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s political prisoners. The reason for this is clear. They understand that while the imprisonment of political prisoners, including a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is reprehensible, it is not enough to motivate strong international action. Action for Sudan was only precipitated by global attention on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.

U.N. evasion of the severity of the situation in Burma must end. We should issue a widespread call for Razali and Annan’s resignations, for allowing crimes against humanity to continue to be committed in Burma, and we should back this call up with protests. Further, at these protests we should carry signs not only with photos of Daw Suu, but with images of the SPDC’s reign of terror against the ethnic nationalities, including of burned villages and murder victims. (These are available on the Dictator Watch website, and the websites of many other organizations as well.)

As a final comment, we have also let our corporate activism lapse. Our reduction in public protest also underlies the movement’s sorry state of opposition to the SPDC’s corporate cronies. For example, after forcing Premier Oil out, we did not follow this up with reinvigorated initiatives against Total and Unocal (other than ERI’s on-going lawsuit against Unocal).

Before the U.S. imposed import sanctions, American activists had an extremely effective boycott campaign. A corporate target was selected, carefully orchestrated pressure was imposed, and the company inevitably folded. Also, the Burma Campaign U.K. has had great success with its “Dirty List” campaign. It would be excellent if other national Burma groups would extend these approaches against their own domestic companies that are active in Burma.

Funding, and humanitarian assistance

Funding can also be addressed relative to whether the money is for humanitarian purposes or for the fight for democracy. For the first, humanitarian aid tends to be centralized. This is because the relief effort is itself centralized (e.g., for refugees under the Burmese Border Consortium) and also because the providers of the aid prefer it this way. For the democracy effort, though, since there is no central command, there is no requirement for a centralized funding system. We will have to continue to attract funds for the most part independently, for our respective organizations. (This holds for the smaller relief groups as well.)

We should also carefully consider where the money for the democracy struggle is spent. While I earlier expressed support for conferences and seminars, they are expensive. Every time such an event is suggested, we should evaluate whether such funds might be better spent on direct resistance activities, including in-country documentation, mass media campaigns, and border and in-country organizing, communications and defense.

Regarding humanitarian assistance, in addition to helping the refugees there is also a push underway for aid for internally displaced persons, and which we should do our best to further. Refugees who have fled Burma are in a very bad situation. The refugees in Bangladesh and Thailand are regularly threatened with deportation. (Some groups of newly arrived refugees have been deported – turned over to the SPDC and an uncertain fate.) The refugee camps can also more accurately be described as containment or concentration camps. Many only have one access road, with numerous army and police checkpoints, and visitors are prohibited. In addition, in Thailand local officials have even tried to cut the food rations, seemingly in a crude attempt to starve the refugees out.

As bad as it is for the refugees, though, it is far worse for IDPs, who have fled their homes, have little food or medicine, and are subject to being shot on sight by the Burma Army. In other words, there is an assistance gap for IDPs. They require greatly increased assistance including clothing and shelter, sustenance, medicine, and security, and we, lobbying and protesting on their behalf, must try to secure it.

Democracy resistance

There is a related funding issue for the democracy resistance, which is simply that the international community does not put its money where its mouth is. The parties that we are lobbying repeatedly state that they want to see democracy in Burma, but they do not support the groups who are fighting the hardest. There is a morbid irony here. As long as the known number of people who are dying is small, and for the most part out of the media’s eye, the only funding we can get is for small-scale political activities and not the self-defense of the groups who are under attack by the Burma Army. It is as if the international community is saying that more people – many more people – must die before it will truly help.

This is outrageous. Are Kofi Annan, Razali Ismail, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Shroeder, and even George Bush really saying that they will only give the type of assistance the movement needs (and which they have already provided in other parts of the world including the Balkans, Sudan and the Ivory Coast), if the slaughter in Burma reaches Holocaust standards? These “leaders” are stuck in “wait and see” mode, knowing full well that if they do not help more Burma will never be free.

For Burma to be free, the most important strategic objectives for the movement are as follows. However, for these actions to be organized we require greater financial (and other) assistance.

1. We need to encourage disunity in the SPDC. One way to do this would be to launch a disinformation campaign, to spread rumors inside Burma that the Than Shwe and Maung Aye factions are in conflict and that a follow-on coup of Than Shwe by Maung Aye is likely. (This is likely not even disinformation.)

2. We should approach all of the groups that have signed ceasefire agreements with the SPDC and convince them not to attend the National Convention when it is resumed (to join the NLD boycott), and more generally to renew their resistance, armed or otherwise.

3. We should support the Karen National Union and similar resistance groups in their self-defense against the Burma Army. Here it is worth considering that a rebellion generally succeeds by establishing and then expanding a liberated area beyond the dictatorship’s control, and in which the local population can be free of abuse. The Karen followed this strategy until the fall of Manerplaw. It may be time for them to try it again (and also to heal the internal Karen split with the DKBA). However, the prerequisite of a successful resistance movement is adequate sponsorship. The Karen, and also the Karenni, Shan, Chin and Arakanese resistance forces require much greater sponsorship if their defense against the Burma Army is to succeed.

4. Regarding the NLD, from the outside it appears that the organization has been attempting to function within SPDC-imposed limits (as have we all). There have been few attempts to break out. Now is the time to break out.

The NLD must find ways to increase its effectiveness, and it also needs to implement a succession plan to groom a new generation of leaders. I want to repeat an idea I presented earlier. Even with the repression to which the NLD is subject, it can issue stronger statements, and demands (We, the elected government of the people of Burma …), for example to the U.N. and the E.U. This can be done through unidentified spokespersons, in the name of the NLD Executive Committee, or through officials based outside Burma.

The elected voice of the people of Burma needs to be heard, with authority, and on a more frequent basis.

(Note: congratulations to Dr. Sein Win for his statement in Canada this week that the West should set a timetable of 2005 or 2006 – 2005! – for the transition to democracy in Burma. This demand should become the movement’s mantra!)

As part of this, the entire democracy movement must strive to find ways to assist the people of Burma with their political defiance. A new popular uprising is within our grasp. We must identify leaders who are willing to take risks, and then give them all the help that we can.

In closing, there are a multitude of courageous, intelligent and highly motivated people who are dedicated to freedom for Burma. Working together, and pushing just a little bit harder, we can counter the strategy of the SPDC, reduce its regional support, and draw the international fence-sitters to our side. There is change in Burma now, and change means opportunity: the opportunity to clear the final hurdles and to at long last bring the country’s nightmare to an end.