Roland Watson
October 2006

Dictator Watch regularly issues an end of the year statement, to sum up the current situation for Freedom and Democracy in Burma, which is the primary cause for which we have been active. This month, though, the website has been online for five years, so we are issuing the analysis early. It begins with a brief review of our organization.

Dictator Watch

Our recent statement in support of the coup in Thailand was used as a feature editorial in the Nation newspaper. This prompted a letter to the paper that criticized the statement’s position. It also included a personal attack against me, and which described DW as a “one man NGO.” I have no problem with this type of response. In a democracy everyone has a right to be heard, and I respect the ability of the newspaper’s readers to discriminate between the positions, and also to understand that such attacks reveal more about the source than the target. However, we are not a one-person operation. While it is true that I run the website and write most of its content, we have many private initiatives, in which numerous other people are involved, but which for the purposes of security and confidentiality are never publicly revealed. The website has many words, and images, but the bulk of our effort is action: organizing and participating in acts that are designed to increase the pressure on Burma’s military junta, the SPDC, and drive it from power.

I am curious, though, why it would be logical to disparage an individual’s efforts. Individual action is the essence of democracy, and activism. Many organizations, Amnesty International comes to mind, began with one person’s vision.

Our assumption is that the victims of dictatorship want to be free. Our objective, therefore, is to work to help them achieve this goal. We are a pro-democracy organization. Our efforts are designed to help drive dictators from power. This distinguishes us from humanitarian and environmental organizations, which work to relieve the specific problems that dictators create. They address the symptoms; we go after the cause.

(In a few cases, though, to save lives, we have worked on humanitarian initiatives. We have given, and also helped organize, medical supplies for internally displaced persons in Eastern Burma.)

Dictator Watch was established to spread, and implement, two basic ideas.

1. Dictatorship is not only a political phenomenon. Any social institution or structure that is opposed to equality, that supports the oppression of the many by the few, is a form of dictatorship. Further, to achieve a fair and just society, and harmony between humans and all other species of life, all forms of dictatorship must be defeated.

This is a long-term initiative. It envisions not only the transformation of all extant social architecture; it requires the personal education and enlightenment of a critical mass of the entire human population. Its achievement will constitute nothing less than the evolution of our species.

We have never had the opportunity to present the idea on radio or TV, but we do get a lot of website traffic. DW, and its sister site, Activism 101, consistently approach 20,000 hits a month.

2. Most efforts at social change are doomed to fail, because they are based on a flawed understanding of change. Dictatorship is a global system. It must be changed in its entirety: the dictators must be overthrown. Nothing less will do. Any efforts that are not dedicated to this end, for example, which envision that the dictators will retain some of their power, i.e., that the system will be changed, but only in part, will fail. The victims of the dictatorship will never be free.

For Burma, we were an originator of the idea that the military junta had to be pressured. It is hard to imagine now, but years ago people believed that you could talk to the junta, without any additional pressure. This was like using the carrot, but no stick, or the good cop, but no bad. People, even diplomats, now commonly call for more pressure, although there are still a few recidivists. The latter want the Burma pro-democracy movement to surrender. They argue that since the SPDC remains in power, we might as well give up. Such people are either idiots, or cowards. They either do not recognize that we have had real successes, on which we can build, and that the SPDC remains extremely vulnerable, or they are afraid to make the type of commitment that the struggle for freedom demands, and instead cover up their cowardice by denigrating anyone who has this commitment.

It is also noteworthy, and a disgrace, that journalists – including the BBC’s current coverage of the National Convention – repeat this view. They argue that the only way forward for Burma is to accept the SPDC’s roadmap, as if this is really a way forward.

Our position is actually much stronger than simply calling for more pressure. We believe that all attempts at dialogue, without or even with pressure, are a waste of time. Talk is a waste of time. The only thing that is of any use whatsoever is to act.

Many Burma pro-democracy groups retain the hope, at least publicly, that dialogue will yield change. They work with diplomats, whose whole raison d’etre is to talk. One wonders how either, these groups or the diplomats, can continue with this position, given the imprisonment of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing, in other words, of all the people who were trying to reason with the dictator of Burma, Senior General Than Shwe.

Burma, a legacy of missed opportunities

In reviewing the struggle for freedom in Burma, one factor stands out: Missed Opportunities. There have been many missed opportunities, and other critical turning points, which the pro-democracy movement either did not grasp or which it failed to respond to correctly.

The first of these was in 1990, when large numbers of Tatmadaw soldiers voted for the NLD. There should have been a sustained, public call to these soldiers to abandon the leaders of SLORC and to join the Burmese people and rise up and drive them from power. We have seen many countries achieve freedom this way. The opportunity existed for Burma as well, but it was not taken.

A critical turning point occurred in 1997, when Burma joined Asean. I argued in the run-up to this event that it had to be stopped, at all costs: that someone inside the country had to do something dramatic to stop Asean in its tracks. No one acted, with the result that SLORC secured a formal treaty with its main group of allies, who could now justify their support by saying that they were legally obliged to do so. Subsequently, there were dramatic actions inside Burma, including the standoff at the bridge, but it was too late. We now had to fight not only the Junta, but Asean as well.

The next missed opportunity was the lawsuit with Unocal. The democracy movement expected a huge boost from this action, but instead we got nothing. The lawyers settled out of court, and agreed to Unocal’s demand for secrecy. It is rumored that the settlement was approximately $20 million, which if true is peanuts to Unocal. For the crimes the company committed along the pipeline route, the settlement should have been in excess of $100 million. A further rumor is that the settlement includes a clause that the plaintiffs, the Karen villagers, cannot use their share of the proceeds for political activities. If this is true, did the villagers agree to it? One thing is certain, they won't be able to go home - until Burma is free, but how is that supposed to occur if there are no political actions? The whole transaction was a complete sellout. All that happened was that a clever group of lawyers, ERI, reinvented ambulance chasing for their own personal enrichment.

Another turning point, and missed opportunity, was Black Friday, the massacre at Depayin, and also the events leading up to it. The massive turnouts for Daw Suu afforded the opportunity to call, either publicly or privately, for widespread political defiance. This call was not made. Further, Black Friday illustrated conclusively that the movement has been abandoned by the international diplomatic community, which responded to the attempted assassination of a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the mass murder of her supporters, with toothless words and gestures. People who are hoping for strong action from the United Nations Security Council should remember this key precedent. We are unlikely to get any real help.

The next event was the purging of Khin Nyunt, which created democratic space, following the roll-up of the military intelligence apparatus, and an opportunity for a coup at the top, by Khin Nyunt’s subordinates and cronies. Renewed political defiance and underground activities again did not materialize, the opportunity was not grasped, and the purge was successfully implemented. There was no backlash from Khin Nyunt and his clique at all.

This brings us to the present day, and the reaction to the arrests of Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Htay Kywe, Min Zeya, Pyone Cho and Aye Myint. Again, there has been no response from the international community. However, and surprisingly, a large-scale popular movement has been organized to protest the arrests. In Burma, signing your name and wearing a white shirt are political acts.

There is another, extremely positive event that supports the new popular movement in Burma as well: the massive demonstrations that occurred in Thailand, followed by the coup against Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand is a model that Burma should follow, both the people in the streets, to organize a new mass movement, and the officers in the Burma Army, to depose the SPDC. The end of Thaksin and his replacement by Surayud also raises the possibility that Thai repression of Burma democracy activists resident along the border, and armed resistance groups, and also refugees and migrant workers, will come to an end.

It is essential that this new popular movement in Burma not end with the signature campaign. If it does, it would be akin to the appeal for freedom and democracy embodied in the 1990 election, which the junta readily ignored. The new campaign is only useful to the extent that it triggers other, widespread activities. This is the only way to properly punish the SPDC for the arrests. Otherwise, the generals will win again: the arrests will have been a successful tactic.

Min Ko Naing and his colleagues were heroes for staying in Burma when they could have fled. Our response should be similarly heroic, not merely impotent complaints.

The signature campaign provides an ideal opportunity for the NLD to conduct an aggressive recruiting drive, and also the motivation for the formation of innumerable new underground groups.

Popular Revolution in Burma

The people of Burma have been conditioned not to resist. However, this conditioning has a breaking point, which apparently has been reached with the arrest of the 88 Generation leaders. The people now need to build on this new enlightenment, that they are not slaves and that they can speak out, and as a large group. They need to learn to think like revolutionaries. In other words: “The signature campaign was a good first step. What can we do next?

This process, becoming a revolutionary, involves three steps. First, while it is of course possible to do political acts on your own, having a small group of two to four people can improve your effectiveness and also your safety. For example, with a group of two, one person can act as a lookout while the second paints a slogan on a wall. Forming such groups, though, which are variously known as affinity groups, underground groups, underground networks, secret societies, and revolutionary cells, is hazardous. It involves a two-step process: the approach, and agreement. If you personally would like to form a group, you have to decide whom to ask to be its other members. As a rule, you should only ask individuals that you have known for a very long time, and whom you trust completely, i.e., with whom you have affinity. Once you identify such an individual, the approach is simply to initiate a “general” conversation, e.g., “What do you think of the signature campaign?” If the response is positive, e.g., if the person actually signed, and is even wearing a white shirt, you then continue the discussion, potentially over many meetings, until you reach the point where you ask: “Do you want to do something together, something more than just sign our names?” If the answer is affirmative, you are now a group.

The second step is to recognize that what you are embarking on is dangerous – you may well be risking your life – and that because of this you have to be extremely safety conscious. Fortunately, there is a long history of this type of action in other countries, and very good reference materials are available. One of the best is the Guide to Underground Work by the African National Congress, which everyone should study. As a starter, some of its primary security guidelines are as follows:

Secret methods are based on common sense and experience. But they must be mastered like an art. Discipline, vigilance and self-control are required. A resistance organizer in Nazi-occupied France who was never captured said this was because he ‘never used the telephone and never went to public places like bars, restaurants and post offices’. He was living a totally underground life. But even those members of a secret movement who have a legal existence must display the qualities we have referred to.

Only serious and reliable people can be included in the secret network. The leaders must study the potential recruits very carefully. They are looking for people who are politically clean, determined, disciplined, honest and sober. People who can keep a secret. People who are brave and capable of defying the enemy even if captured.

A rule of secret work is that members must know only that which is necessary to fulfill their tasks. Everyone, from top to bottom, must have good cover stories to protect them. This is a legend or story which hides or camouflages the real work being done. For example: a secret meeting in a park is made to look like a chance meeting between friends. If they are ever questioned they give the legend that they simply bumped into each other and had a discussion about football.

All members of the network are given code names. These conceal their real identities. They must have good identification documents. Especially those living an illegal life. A lot of time and effort must be given to creating good legends to protect our people. There is nothing that arouses suspicion as much as a stranger who has no good reason for being around.”

All illegal documents, literature, reports and weapons (when not in use) must be carefully hidden. Special hiding places must be built. Codes must be used in reports to conceal sensitive names and information.”

Know your town, its streets, parks, shops, etc., like the palm of your hand! This will help you find secret places and enable you to check whether you are being followed.”

To expand on the importance of “need to know,” individual members of the group should only know the specific information that they must have to carry out their part of the mission. Further, tasks are compartmentalized. One individual, or even group, performs the initial task, such as preparing revolutionary material. A second individual or group then accomplishes its distribution. Also, these groups have no contact with or even specific knowledge of each other. The material changes hands at a drop site, called a dead letter box. There is no need for a personal exchange.

In this type of network structure, the only person who sees the whole picture is the coordinator, and even he or she may have limited knowledge, i.e., of each group’s membership. Also, members use their personal discipline not to seek greater information about the action. Overly curious people are a security risk, and may even be enemy spies.

The third and final step is to decide what to do. A good starting point is the Fighting Peacock. The image of the Fighting Peacock should start appearing all over Burma, and the easiest way to do this is to make a stencil. What you do is draw an image of the peacock on a piece of cardboard – the drawing does not have to be of artistic quality, anyone can do it – and then cut it out. You then press the stencil against a wall and paint the cut out opening, leaving the image of the peacock on the wall. A can of spray paint works best, because it is fastest, but any other paint or pigment, even charcoal, will do. This is also a good time to write a revolutionary slogan, next to the peacock.

When you are done with the stencil, just crumple it up and throw it and the paint away. Wear gloves, so you don’t leave any fingerprints. If you don’t use gloves, have some paint thinner at home ready to clean your hands.

Another type of action is psychological warfare, or PSYOPS. Again, there is abundant source material about this on the Internet. Further, the SPDC regularly uses psychological warfare against us. We need to fight back and use it against them as well.

A psychological warfare campaign also has three basic elements:

- Deciding on your objective.
- Preparing the messages you need to communicate to achieve this objective.
- Making the communications, including organizing the appropriate media.

For example, if your objective is to encourage the people of Burma to rise up, you can achieve this by writing appropriate slogans on the walls of your hometown or village. Similarly, you can write and then distribute revolutionary pamphlets and fliers. Another communication medium would be to broadcast such messages over radio into the country, although the obvious problems with this is that the available radio services, DVB, BBC, VOA and RFA, are generally unwilling to broadcast such calls. They view themselves as journalists, not activists. They believe that allowing such transmissions would compromise their “journalistic integrity” (yet they repeat the lies of the SPDC as if they were truth).

Another objective would be to split the SPDC, although this might include to split the Than Shwe and Maung Aye camps; to split mid-level officers from the ruling generals; to encourage desertions from the lower ranks; and other ideas as well. Each of these specific objectives would have their own messages and communications media. For example, if you have contacts with mid-level officers, you could make personal appeals to them, to launch a coup. You could base your argument on the massive corruption being committed by the generals, and how this is robbing the nation blind. To encourage desertions, fliers and painted slogans are again natural choices.

Another communication technique is to spread rumors, although it is important to think them through carefully. What are all of the possible consequences of a particular rumor?

For other political defiance suggestions, from techniques of non-compliance through to aggressive political acts, the CIA guide that was printed for the Contra rebels in Nicaragua has a laundry list of possibilities.

It is also essential to consider how the growing political defiance will culminate, in an action of sufficient scale to trigger the collapse of the SPDC. One logical option, which has been used in Burma before, and many other countries, is to call for a General Strike. When the public opposition to the junta is so widespread that there are pockets of resistance in villages and townships, places where the police and even the army are afraid to go, this is the time to call for a nationwide strike.

Armed Resistance in Burma

The other internal element that would drive such a revolution is the armed resistance of the various groups active in the border areas. It is extremely significant – another great opportunity – that the SPDC has walked away from the Gentleman’s Agreement with the Karen National Union. If there are not two sides to an agreement, then there is no agreement. While it is true that new discussions may be initiated, until a new agreement is reached the KNU is free to engage in military operations without restraint, which operations are certainly called for given the massive and growing offensives underway against Karen villagers. It is arguable that to the best of its ability the KNU should move from defensive to offensive operations.

This should also be the position of all other active armed groups, and further, their coordination, through the Military Alliance, should be improved. Ceasefire groups, particularly the elements of such groups that are in opposition to their respective ceasefires (e.g., the individuals in the New Mon State Party who oppose the Mon ceasefire), should be encouraged to return to the struggle for freedom, i.e., to the “armed fold,” as opposed to staying in the SPDC’s “legal fold.”

The basic problem with this element of the struggle is not the strength of the Burma Army; rather, it is that the resistance groups have limited funding. They need guns, ammunition, uniforms, boots, food, medicine, and communications gear. This costs money, and there is not enough available. The main reason for this is that the primary funding sources for Burma, the NED, meaning the United States, and Canada, the nations of Northern Europe, and OSI, have an almost pathological fear of violence (at least in Burma). They will not fund any decisive initiatives. Dictator Watch also abhors violence, but we recognize that if your people are being killed, you have to fight back. Pacifism doesn’t work, probably anywhere, but certainly with Than Shwe. Instead, such groups have actually been criticized, and on any pretext.

The concentration of the movement’s funding from so few sources is a serious problem, and it extends from the weakness of the armed resistance to the self-censorship of the radio stations and also other organizations that receive money from these sources. The only alternative is to have widespread grassroots funding, from the large Burmese exile communities, and the many foreigners predisposed to help, with this money then channeled to where it is needed most, to the groups that are actually fighting Than Shwe.

Other parties and issues

Burma is formally on the Security Council agenda, which is good news, as this does pressure the junta. However, for a variety of reasons the Council will never act with force sufficient to expel the SPDC. Indeed, although the change in Thailand is positive, many other international factors are allied against us. India’s supply of weapons to the SPDC, and Australia’s provision of anti-terrorist training – to terrorists! – are appalling. These programs need to be opposed, and ended, through concerted activist responses, largely from groups in India and Australia, but with support from other international activists wherever and whenever possible.

The appointment of Ban Ki-Moon is a disaster, although if fulfills my prediction that the next Secretary General would be a weak, compromise candidate. Ban Ki-Moon is yet another career diplomat, who only supports engagement, i.e., talk, and nothing stronger (witness South Korea’s failed “Sunshine” policy towards North Korea). His appointment ensures, at least regarding the Secretariat, that the United Nations will continue to be a do-nothing organization. Even worse, he is on record as being against freedom for Burma, as evidenced by his support for Daewoo, and hence the SPDC. We should expect the weakest of reports from Undersecretary Gambari’s upcoming mission to the country, including with no hard briefing on the ethnic cleansing campaign being conducted by the Tatmadaw against the Karen.

For other international players, as the funding point above illustrates, and also the lack of action regarding nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran (there has only been a surfeit of talk), the member nations of the European Union have and will continue to fail the people of Burma. Europe only cares for Europe, and the rest of the world be dammed.

The U.S. is distracted, including by North Korea and Iran, and also the upcoming elections, after which George Bush may well be a lame-duck President. U.S. policy supports freedom for Burma, which support I believe is sincere (as opposed to the E.U.), but Washington is so disturbed now, that to get a clear and sustained focus on Burma is very unlikely.

The SPDC also has the backing of China and Russia. The latter, under Putin, is reverting to a dictatorship, not to mention an openly racist society (e.g., the current campaign against Georgians). It is difficult to see how Russian support for the SPDC can be changed. China, on the other hand, is vulnerable. It is the leading supporter of the two most reviled regimes on the planet, North Korea and Burma, and it has also been the primary source of nuclear proliferation to Iran. This is not without cost. China needs to be punished, and another opportunity presents itself here. Were American shoppers to boycott Chinese goods in the upcoming holiday shopping season, this would have a huge impact on the Chinese economy, which would resonate with the Chinese leaders.

The SPDC also retains substantial support from international corporations, such as Daewoo, and it is worth noting that the corporate activism arm of the pro-democracy movement has for the most part died. The Free Burma Coalition led the corporate drive, and achieved many great successes. One company after another was forced to leave the country.

The need for corporate activism for Burma is still paramount. For example, the problem with Unocal was that the company sold most of its gas stations. It was difficult to target with a consumer boycott. But Unocal has been acquired by Chevron, one of the largest retailers of gasoline in the world.

FBC’s successor, USCB, dropped corporate activism. It has effectively become a lobby group. It is inconceivable why they have not initiated a campaign against Chevron. We need victories, and Chevron would be an easy target. One almost wonders if there is a hands-off policy regarding the company.

Any group in the movement that fails in its mission is a serious candidate for new leadership. Alternatively, we need a real activist group for Burma to be formed in the United States, with renewed corporate activism, and a boycott of China, at the top of its agenda.


Dictator Watch has consistently said that 2006 is the year for freedom in Burma. Even this late in the year, it is still possible. Anyone who disagrees with this is wrong, and probably against freedom in the first place. The reason for this is that no one knows. As Thailand illustrates, the tipping point can happen at any time. The steps described in this article do not take a long time to organize, and the people of Burma are fed up. When they cast off their defeatism and rise up, which they are now beginning to do, Than Shwe and his gang are finished.

Postscript: 2006 was not the year for freedom in Burma