Roland Watson
February 3, 2008

(Note: An insurrection is a revolt against established authority.)

This article is based on the history and analytical model presented in Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias, the Warriors of Contemporary Combat, by Richard H. Shultz and Andrea J. Dew, Columbia University Press, 2006. Mr. Shultz and Ms. Dew specifically focused on the conflicts in Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq. I have endeavored both to extend their ideas and to apply them to Burma.

Their model evaluates six factors, with reference to the different cases:

1. The concept and place of warfare in a given culture.
2. The nature of the command and control organization for insurgent groups.
3. Their areas of operations.
4. Operation types and targets.
5. Self-imposed constraints: what the insurgents are not willing to do (if anything).
6. The role of outside actors.

Culture of violence

A basic cultural distinction exists between those groups that attempt to resolve problems using negotiation and those that resort to force. A bias in modern thinking is that rational groups will always choose the former, and only resort to violence when there is no other option. Shultz and Dew shatter this notion, by demonstrating that certain cultures have a tradition of accepting if not seeking out conflict. For them, the use of violence is a preferred choice when attempting to achieve their goals.

Such groups often reside in desert environments, where the resources needed to sustain life are scarce. This leads to an emphasis on family-based clans, which compete for the resources. (Note: a desert does not need to be arid. Any environment with scarce resources relative to group populations qualifies.)

In many such environments a certain pattern has emerged. The resident clans are fiercely territorial, and they enforce this with violence, both to preserve their current territory and also to expand it when the opportunity presents itself. In addition, clan based competition scales up to ethnically based tribes that are also mutually antagonistic. However, the clans and even the different larger tribes may evidence a cooperative spirit, if only temporarily, to confront outside invaders. For example, Afghanistan is a clan based society, but its different clans and tribes united to fight both British and Soviet colonialism. In the present day, the U.S. has attempted to disrupt this unity by turning the tribes against each other, specifically non-Pashtun against Pashtun – the latter is the source of the Taliban – while at the same time initiating a national democratic system in the hopes that it can eventually replace cultural tribalism.

In such cultures war is glorified and promoted. It is a part of life, and an acceptable means to certain ends, including both the resolution of disputes and the expansion of territory. These groups are martial. There is a warrior tradition, and over time this leads to a substantial accumulation of military knowledge, relative to the defense of one’s own territory and also in the conduct of raids on other groups.

Leaders are chosen on the basis of their mastery of this knowledge and also their actual combat skills. The ideal is effectively a Special Forces commando unit team leader.

For the general population, all citizens are soldiers: all men and in some cases women undergo military training, and participate in outstanding conflicts. In the most extreme cases, e.g., Somalia, society is completely militarized and the different clans comprise competing armed units that are perpetually at war. Social status is linked to military accomplishments and related personal characteristics, including ferocity and heroism.

Social conditioning is severe; in most of these cases it constitutes nothing less than brainwashing. Individuals resign all personal freedom to the group, which regularly imposes the demand for self-sacrifice. This demand is in turn supported by customs designed to reduce one’s fear of death. One such custom is the primacy of family honor, and which must be protected. This value is a substantial disincentive against cowardice, since it is better to die than to shame one’s family. Alternatively, if one does die in combat, family honor is increased.

The natural fear of death is counteracted by other mechanisms as well. These include the inculcation of a belief that one’s own group is supreme, and that this must be made manifest at any cost, and also a religious belief in an afterlife reward.

Regarding outside invaders, such oppression is viewed as intolerable, and the above values culminate in a willingness to die to the last man and woman. In such situations antagonistic clans and tribes also put their differences aside and cooperate against the invaders, although as mentioned with Afghanistan this cooperation ceases once the larger threat has been defeated.

An overall consequence of the conditioning is that these cultures have a warped set of ethics, at least when compared to the values of other societies. The raid, which constitutes nothing less than banditry and armed robbery, is celebrated. One’s enemy is hated, e.g., the Russians by the Chechens, and through this completely dehumanized. This in turn justifies any form of treatment, no matter how harsh, as well as collective punishment. Group leaders are also selected on the basis of their willingness to implement such ethics without restraint.

Cultural norms in Burma

Burma is a multi-cultural society, but the country has an abundance of resources. As such, the scarcity factor that has driven social evolution towards conflict in other places is absent. This is reflected in the fact that Burma’s distinct cultural groups are far less adversarial. The real problem in the country, the reason why it is wracked by violence, is the dedication to the above model by its rulers, the SPDC.

Burma is a schizophrenic society. The people of the nation want peace, and are dedicated to non-violence. Senior General Than Shwe and his fellow generals, though, want war. Further, this type of situation has arisen at other times in the nation’s history as well, when different Burmese kings engaged in repression of the general public and also external aggression, notably towards Thailand. This reflects a similar belief in supremacy that is held by some individuals from the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Burmans.

The leaders of the country’s pro-democracy movement include Buddhist monks and such individuals as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing (who are Burman, but who oppose their fascist ethnic counterparts). They are pacifist and in this sense also self-sacrificing. They further mirror the general population, which because of its foundation in Buddhism and related traditions is similarly non-violent.

The principal cultural groups that engage in violence do so because they have no choice. The threat posed to such groups as the Karen, Karenni and Shan is nothing less than extermination. The SPDC is conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing which over the long-term has grown to an attempt at genocide. These groups have had no alternative but to fight back in self-defense. It is notable, though, that since their struggle has continued for over half a century, they too are beginning to develop their own martial histories and traditions.

In the aftermath of the September uprising in the country, it is clear that the SPDC continues to hold the advantage. In the current circumstances, where the International Community refuses to offer any real assistance to the democrats, the junta’s grip on power seems secure. Its guns trump the non-violent tactics of the demonstrators. In other words, the use of violence, at least at present, is winning. This raises a profound question: should the pro-democracy movement as a whole, not only in the ethnic states, change its approach? Should it fight war with war?

This would represent a reversal in overall strategy, and as such it is not to be taken lightly. It also leads to derivative questions including: would such a strategic shift be successful; are such means justifiable; and, if the answer to both is yes, how should it be implemented?

Regarding success, the record in those societies where violence is viewed as a solution is mixed. Afghanistan did expel both the British and the Soviets, just as the American revolutionaries also expelled the British. Chechnya, on the other hand, is still occupied. For Iraq, Saddam Hussein was able to quell all internal opposition using a reign of terror. The SPDC is basically following his lead. For contemporary Iraq, and Afghanistan, the issue has yet to be decided. In Somalia, the conflict has degenerated into anarchy and a complete failure of the state.

For Burma, there is no way to know if an escalation of tactics would be successful. It is this writer’s view, though, that since the pacifist approach has failed, more aggressive measures much be tried.

This in turn raises the second question: would the people of Burma be justified in responding to the SPDC with violence? The answer is: certainly. The repression they suffer validates almost anything in self-defense, except the use of terrorism and other forms of engagement that target or otherwise involve non-combatants.

For the third question, then, a revision of strategy is the right choice. This does not imply, however, that everyone should pick up a sword. This remains an individual choice: no one should be compelled to fight. What seems more appropriate is a broadening of tactics. The monks and other individuals who are dedicated to non-violence should continue to follow this practice. But others, such as workers and students, may want to escalate to revolutionary tactics, focused on the regime and all of its supporting associations, cronies, structures and assets. For the armed groups, one would hope to see an expansion of their resistance, and a more pronounced shift from a defensive strategy to offensive. (Such a change has already been initiated: at least by the Karen.) Taken together, this would create a three-pronged popular insurrection, which the junta would find hard-pressed to defeat.

To date the SPDC has actively sought war, but this has always been on its terms: where it enjoys a clear advantage. Use of the above strategy would change the rules of the game, and make the conflict more costly to the junta. A favorable outcome for freedom would become much more likely.

Command and control

Insurgencies commonly have a decentralized command and control organization. This can result from a number of factors, including group mistrust (between different participants in the insurgency), the nature of the terrain (which often contributes to a territorial separation that underlies the mistrust), and also due to a shortage of communications gear. This makes it difficult to have an overall, operational strategy for the conflict, but it also reduces the possibility of a comprehensive defeat, through the destruction of the central command.

Decentralization has additional benefits and risk factors as well. While individual units may lack an overall plan and close contact with other units, they are well situated to be opportunistic. If they see an opening, they can take it. There is no need to seek approval for the action. The main risk factor associated with this is that the units may lose their restraint, and engage in criminal behavior. In extreme cases unit leaders become warlords, and, again using Somalia as an example, the society may undergo a complete breakdown.

The issue of command decentralization exists in Burma both for the ethnic resistance forces as well as the Burma Army and the armed groups with which it has signed ceasefires. For the latter, Burma Army field commanders regularly engage in a wide variety of criminal behavior, including extortion, theft, rape and murder. This is actually motivated by the central command, the SPDC, which views such behavior as an additional means of public repression. The ceasefire groups, notably the UWSA and DKBA, are similarly engaged, particularly in the narcotics trade. In addition, the commanders of both Burma Army field units and the ceasefire groups are often effectively warlords.

The main risk to the junta from this situation is the loyalty of the field commanders and such ceasefire groups. There is a possibility that the former will turn on the top officers, and more generally that they will refuse to follow orders. For the ceasefire groups, they could renounce their agreements and return to the resistance. The junta’s desire to mitigate these risks explains the frequency with which the commanders have been rotated, and the severe pressure that the ceasefire groups are now under to disarm.

Centralized control for the ethnic resistance forces is also restricted, because of the terrain but also due to a lack of resources. Such groups aspire to greater coordination, both internally (e.g., within the various brigades of the KNLA), and with allied groups, but do not have the financial means to accomplish it. Funding is so tight that all available resources must be devoted to weapons and food.

(Note: when I refer to the ethnic resistance forces, this includes their allies in the student army, the ABSDF.)

In some cases, again using the brigades of the KNLA as an example, individual commanders have abused their power and become corrupted. A notable case is General Htain Maung, former commander of the 7th Brigade, who has now betrayed the Karen people and joined the SPDC.

For the other levels of the popular insurrection, revolutionary cells (underground groups) are almost always decentralized, if not completely isolated from one another. This reduces the risk that the capture of one cell will lead to the elimination of others. Cell members further follow sophisticated communications and meeting procedures, to ensure that the entire cell is not compromised if one member is arrested.

For demonstrations and other actions, e.g., strikes, by the non-violent resistance, some centralization of planning is required. This is the only way to ensure that actions are publicized and through this that a large portion of the public joins in. In September, the 88 Generation Students, the NLD, the ABFSU, and the All Burma Monks Alliance accomplished this coordination. The SPDC’s widespread arrests following the demonstrations, coupled with the orders for the monks to return to their home villages, was intended to disrupt such centralized planning, which objective it has largely achieved. It is difficult to envision just how new large scale demonstrations will commence.

The tipping point for the demonstrations was the fuel price increases. As I have written previously, tipping points to chaos are unknown, both the exact moment when they occur and more generally the combination of factors required. We have all been waiting, for years, for the people of Burma to rise up, and the price increases were the final step that made their situation intolerable.

When the demonstrations began, they were small. Many people outside the country, for instance within the pro-democracy community in Thailand, expected the protests to build, but over an extended period of time. There was an emphasis on preparing for the long haul, to support the demonstrators however possible and for a period of months if not years. When the monks became involved, though, the situation changed, although not that many people realized it. It became apparent that the protests might grow very rapidly and spread throughout the country, which in fact they did. This caught a lot of people off guard, including the SPDC, but the junta was able to fight back by implementing a harsh crackdown, in particular in Rangoon. The crackdown worked, and the protests fizzled out.

Probably the most important reason why the protests were not successful, why they did not cause a split within the Burma Army leading to a coup against Than Shwe or some other form of collapse, is that the number of protestors only grew to about a hundred thousand people (although this occurred in at least four different cities). Millions of Burmese who might have joined, notably in Rangoon and Mandalay, did not.

The reason for this is that things happened so quickly that many people did not have the time they needed to overcome their fear of the regime. The Burmese have been cowed by decades of repression. I have also argued previously that the first step in rising up was for the people to become politicized: to throw off their hopelessness, to get angry, and to realize that they do have power and that they can use it to decide their destiny. Such politicization has been underway, motivated by the media broadcast into Burma from abroad, and by the seemingly never-ending decline in economic conditions and living standards. However, it is now apparent that it has not yet spread into the general population. Many people, particularly young men and women, are ready to fight, but the bulk of the population is still living in fear and unwilling to resist.

The first challenge to reinvigorate the uprising is to confront this fear. Revolutionary pamphlets should not only exhort the people to fight back: they need to focus first on overcoming the prevailing fear, by encouraging the people to be strong, e.g., in the manner of Daw Suu’s book, Freedom From Fear. If this can be achieved, then when the uprising begins again more people will be psychologically prepared to join.

How the uprising might restart, though, is another question. This may well require yet another triggering event, as well as acceptance of the fact that it will not take the same form as last September, i.e., with the leadership of columns of monks. The command structure that led those protests has been disrupted. What seems more advantageous is that those individuals who have not been arrested and who remain ready to act should organize underground groups and pursue a wide range of revolutionary activities. This has the potential to so unsettle the country that it will pave the way for a renewal of large-scale agitation by the general public, through noncompliance tactics, protests and strikes.

Areas of operation, targets, and tactics

In their book, Shultz and Dew argue that the main intermediate objective for insurgencies (the ultimate objective is victory) is to increase the cost of the war for their oppressors. Such conflicts are generally “asymmetric”: the rulers have far greater financial resources and troops. The only way to achieve an advantage is to exact a cost, both material and human. The primary way this is accomplished is to spread the enemy out, to expand the front-line in the conflict, and in the process to target its weaknesses. For example, in Afghanistan the Soviet’s principal weakness was its lines of communications and supply. The Afghani guerrillas conducted innumerable raids, including ambushes and sniper attacks on supply columns, and demolition raids on associated infrastructure such as bridges, rail lines, power lines, and machinery. This had the effect of narrowing the Soviet’s area of operations: they were not free to travel throughout the country. Furthermore, the entire Afghani population became militarized and joined the conflict, with the consequence that the front-line was everywhere. The Soviets were only able to control the main transportation corridors. Anytime they pushed into the countryside they were met with force. The net result of this was that their occupation became unsupportable. The cost, both financial and in soldier’s lives, became too much to bear.

For Burma, the SPDC has its own set of weaknesses. For instance, the junta has basically yielded power in significant areas of the country, to the largest and strongest of the ceasefire groups. It has intentionally circumscribed its own areas of operation. The reason for this is that it needs to budget its resources to ensure that it has enough to control the cities and also to fight those groups that refuse to surrender. In other words, the SPDC is not sufficiently powerful to exert absolute control over all of Burma, in contrast, for example, to the regime in North Korea.

The SPDC has many other weaknesses, not only a shortage of financial resources, and these can be targeted by the three different elements of the insurrection, and using different tactics. This in turn will both expand the front-line and increase the cost of the conflict to the junta.

The first such weakness is that in response to the September crackdown, the people of Burma now openly despise the generals. The junta has lost all of the legitimacy that it had attempted to create, and this state of affairs is permanent. It is now viewed as an occupying force, no different from an invading army.

The country is in stalemate. More and more people want to fight back, and they will never relent in their desire for freedom. This means that the junta can never let down its guard. It must keep its army out of the barracks and engaged, militarizing the cities and opposing the ethnic forces, and this is not without substantial cost.

Other weaknesses include that the junta’s top leadership is old, and few in number, and that there are known divisions; that some field commanders refused to follow orders to fire on the demonstrators, reflecting significant differences of opinion at the operational level; and more generally that morale within the Burma Army is low. The tipping point for open conflict within the SPDC is unknown, but it does not appear to be remote.

The SPDC is also a feudalistic patron-client system, with the top generals and their immediate family members as the main patrons and who in turn collect a substantial portion of the nation’s wealth. This is not a large group: probably less than one hundred people. Their immediate clients include the field commanders; the leaders of the ceasefire groups; the USDA and Swan Arr Shin; Chinese merchants; and international business profiteers, notably energy, oil field service and mining companies.

This structure has the appearance of stability, but it is actually quite weak, since loyalty is based solely on financial reward. Were the ability of the generals to provide this reward disrupted, such loyalty would collapse.

Additional weaknesses are linked to Burma’s mountainous terrain. As with Afghanistan it is difficult for the junta to maintain supply and communications lines. This weakness is exacerbated by the fact that the nation’s transport and communications infrastructure is extremely limited and in terrible condition.

All of these weaknesses represent opportunities, which should be exploited by the three different elements of the insurrection.

For the first element, the monks and other pacifist groups can work to politicize the public such that much larger numbers are willing to join protests once they re-ignite. For instance, the monks should maintain their alms boycott, and also continue to give public sermons, and at every monastery in the country. Anyone who is willing should also organize demonstrations, of whatever size, to convey the message that the movement for freedom is still alive.

This element of the insurrection can further work to split the different factions within the SPDC, e.g., by openly reviling Than Shwe while at the same time appealing to mid-level commanders and other government officials to change sides; even, potentially, through the offer of amnesty for anyone who launches a pro-democracy coup. All of these objectives can further be publicized through widespread use of posters, pamphlets, stickers and political graffiti.

For the revolutionary cells (which would have a primary operational focus on the cities), and the armed resistance (in the countryside), there are many possible tactics, and with a basic distinction between human and physical targets. It is also important to recall the core objectives – to spread the conflict out and to increase its cost to the junta. In addition, there is the question of securing supplies. In Afghanistan, guerrillas strove to capture weapons, not only for their own use, but to sell for money to give to the families of fallen comrades.

Anyone in the SPDC or Burma Army is a legitimate target, and the higher up in rank, the better. This would extend to the junta’s paramilitary forces as well, including the USDA and Swan Arr Shin, and also any troops in the country from foreign backers, such as Russian and North Korean officers and also the units of China’s PLA that are known to be at UWSA bases in Shan State. However, there should be no targeting of non-military crony personnel, including the employees of foreign corporations, Chinese merchants and traders, etc. It is essential to maintain the high ground. In addition to the actual conflict Burma has a propaganda war. We cannot give the junta any ammunition to say that the pro-democracy movement uses terrorism. THEY are the terrorists!

(Note: The recent bombings were almost certainly the work of the SPDC. This is supported by the fact that in at least one of the cases the local military presence was reinforced just before the explosion. It would also have made much greater sense, from a revolutionary perspective, to target a rail line than a train station toilet, which operation would further be safer to complete.)

Targeting the junta would generate extraordinary pressure for change. When the generals realize that they are living under death sentences, and that the risk of assassination is always present and anywhere in the country, the benefits of staying in power will be reduced. We must work to ensure that Than Shwe is not able to live out his life, like mass-murderer Suharto from Indonesia. He should be dispatched, and as soon as possible.

An associated tactic would be to offer a reward, say $10,000, to any Burma Army soldier (to anyone) who deposes Than Shwe, Maung Aye or Shwe Mann. (This could be in addition to an offer of amnesty.)

Together with this, and following the democratic principle of ostracism, the families of Tatmadaw soldiers, excluding those individuals who were forced to enlist, should be shunned. Similarly, crony interests such as Chinese merchants should be boycotted until they go out of business. The overall objective is to draw as clear as possible a line between the people of Burma and their enemy, the SPDC.

For property, the junta’s arms depots, columns transporting arms, minimally defended outposts, etc., are prime targets for ambushes and other types of raids. All types of infrastructure should be targeted as well. There are many poorly defended facilities throughout the country. For example, a number of people have asked me why no one ever attacks the Yadana pipeline. This pipeline is the SPDC’s primary source of revenue. Because of its length and the terrain through which it passes, it is an easy target. Its disruption would be a huge blow.

The pipeline, though, is a problematic target, which I cannot recommend. There would be a serious environmental impact; a high probability of SPDC revenge attacks against nearby villages; and also substantial political fallout. For the last, the U.S. could drop its support for Burma (even though this is really only public relations support) if U.S. corporate assets were destroyed. It has also been rumored that U.S. Defense Department personnel directly conveyed this message to the resistance forces. Any such attack would anger Thailand as well.

Still, it is revealing that the U.S. seems willing to put the interests of a few American corporations above those of fifty million Burmese, and also its stated foreign policy to support freedom.

In accomplishing the above actions a related tactic is the use of deception and infiltration. In Chechnya, for instance, guerrillas donned Russian uniforms to gain access to their intended targets. With sufficient courage, this could be done in Burma as well.

A related tactic is to bribe local SPDC commanders to surrender or at a minimum not to carry out orders. The problem with this, though, like the dead or alive bounty hunter idea, is that it requires money. An associated initiative is to encourage surrenders from front-line troops, which has been tried but again only in a limited fashion.

Lastly, the ethnic resistance forces must strive to strengthen their alliance. Notwithstanding the terrain, there are opportunities to cooperate. There should be joint training, campaigns, and the sharing of resources. These groups should not forget the adage: United we stand, divided we fall!

Operation constraints

In the insurgencies described in their book, Shultz and Dew note that the embrace of violence has over time led to a depiction of the enemy that justifies any conduct. The most extreme examples include employing weapons of mass destruction, such as poison gas, which was used by Saddam Hussein and also reportedly the Soviets in Afghanistan. Other examples include suicide terrorist attacks; the use of pillage and rape as weapons of war; employing civilians as human shields in firefights or as mine sweepers, including for the first even your own people; and the torture and execution of prisoners.

The SPDC’s reign of terror includes most of these actions. The generals have unquestionably bombed their own people, in the ethnic states with mortars and landmines – in Karenni State there was evidence of the use of poison gas; and in the cities, which they then claimed were terrorist acts committed by the resistance. The Burma Army is further known worldwide for its use of rape as a weapon of war and of human minesweepers. The torture and execution of prisoners is also well documented, for political prisoners as well as porters who can no longer carry their loads. In every way, the junta is the equal of the most violent and unethical cultures on earth.

If the pro-democracy movement embraces the strategy outlined in this article, its members, particularly in revolutionary cells and the ethnic resistance forces, can never allow themselves to forget that there is such a thing as an ethical war, and that certain types of actions, foremost those that endanger civilians, are completely unacceptable. In other words, if you act like the enemy, you become the enemy as well.

Maintaining such restraint is difficult, but it is not impossible. The fact that the conflict is just supports this. In the Revolutionary War, another just conflict, the early Americans maintained their behavior, in part because of the morality of their leaders such as George Washington. But in Iraq, a war based on a lie (many lies), U.S. troops have at times crossed the line, which in turn is a reflection of the immorality of their own supreme commander.

The role of outside actors

The failure of the demonstrations in September was a great disappointment, and for many different reasons. Not the least of these was the inaction on the part of the International Community. Freedom in Burma requires irresistible pressure against the SPDC, and the easiest way to create this is to generate a feedback cycle. Under this approach, actions by the people inside the country would be reciprocated by actions from outside. This would encourage the people to increase their agitation, which would in turn trigger even greater foreign support. This cycle would reverberate back and forth until the pressure became so great that feedback was created (akin to the squeal of audio feedback), chaos and turbulence erupted, and the SPDC failed. Unfortunately, if not amazingly, there was no international response. The widespread statements of concern did not constitute a response. The feedback cycle demands action, some form of tangible intervention, or at a minimum such a threat.

For the latter, options included a threat by President Bush that the slaughter of the demonstrators would provoke a response, potentially coupled with the repositioning of an aircraft carrier group towards Rangoon. (Such steps have been used in the past in response to Chinese belligerency against Taiwan. Why not Burma?) Similarly, the U.S. and also Europe could have organized or at least demanded, including in the United Nations Security Council, many different actions, ranging from military intervention, if only the provision of funding, intelligence sharing, materiel and training; the use of peacekeepers; expulsion from the General Assembly; a worldwide arms boycott; and the launching of a formal investigation into the SPDC’s crimes against humanity.

Nothing of the sort occurred. Instead, everyone just sat by and watched the drama unfold.

In Afghanistan during the conflict with the Soviet Union, the CIA reportedly supplied $3 billion in funding to the insurgents. (This was payback by Presidents Carter and Reagan for Soviet support of North Vietnam.) The insurgents also received large amounts of oil money from Arab states. The consequence of this is that they had all the financial resources they needed: they established over one hundred training camps. The U.S. provided Stinger missiles as well. This is the same type of help that Burma, particularly the ethnic resistance forces, requires.

Last month, during a visit to Israel, President Bush told Secretary Rice that the U.S. should have bombed the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, to halt the slaughter of Jews. However, the U.S. also just hailed Suharto as an historic figure, and in a positive sense, ignoring his crimes. In other words, America’s foreign policy is inconsistent and hypocritical. If it truly stood against oppression, it would help Burma. The U.S. apparently has learned nothing since World War II. It, and the International Community at large, simply will not intervene on a humanitarian basis. (The steps taken in Darfur do not yet constitute a real intervention.)

I have already described the reasons for this, relative to Burma, in the analysis of foreign policy realism in my article, Why the world won’t help. Still, it was shocking to see it in practice. There has been limited intervention in the past, although this did not have a humanitarian basis. For example, before Thaksin, Thailand had its buffer zone policy and basically supported the border-based resistance groups. There are also rumors that excess materiel from the Cobra Gold exercises was diverted to such groups, and with U.S. complicity. Following Thaksin’s rise to power, though, this policy changed, including by the U.S., and it has yet to be restored. (There is also word that the Shan have approached the U.S. for assistance in return for launching operations against the narcotics trade, which offer the DEA reportedly declined.) Neither can we expect such a policy change anytime soon now that Thaksin’s surrogate party has formed Thailand’s new government. (You have to wonder, what part of the Constitutional Tribunal ruling barring Thaksin from politics for five years the Thai Election Commission and Supreme Court didn’t understand?)

The consequences for Burma of the change in the Thai government have been compounded by the policies of the Bush Administration. Activists complained for years that French and through this E.U. policy towards Burma was hijacked by Jacques Chirac’s support for Total. The same situation appears to exist with Bush, Cheney and Rice, and Chevron. It is interesting that the JADE Act has not yet been signed into law. It was passed by the House on December 11th and the Senate on December 19th, but nothing has happened since then.

The Act includes a provision designed to exert pressure on Chevron, even force the divestment of its Burmese operations. Specifically, it denies tax deductions and credits on amounts Chevron pays to the SPDC – the company actually gets a tax break on its funding to the regime. One wonders if the law has been held up by Administration pressure, in an attempt to strip out this provision. After all, Chevron has donated millions of dollars to U.S. election campaigns, including to Bush. The Burma Democracy Movement, on the other hand, has made zero political contributions. The United States is a monetary democracy: you get what you pay for.

There is no likelihood of significant foreign assistance for Burma in the near future, and in this regard the developing situation with U.N. Envoy Gambari is also quite revealing. A recent edition of Burma Net (January 22nd) had two relevant articles, one after the other: China says no to more pressure on Burma, and China says send in Gambari. The math couldn’t be easier: sending in Gambari equals no pressure. His diplomatic junkets following September actually helped Than Shwe regain control. Secretary Rice and the foreign ministers for France and the U.K. are also calling for Gambari’s return. This implies that they don’t want more pressure, either.

I understand that some groups within the pro-democracy movement also prefer that Gambari return, but for this it is important to distinguish the motivation. Such groups believe that his involvement signifies that at least the world is paying attention. My response to this, though, is: so what? We need participants in the struggle, not spectators. The countries of the world support the involvement of Gambari because they know this means that nothing will change and that they won’t have to do anything tangible.

There is one way in which people outside Burma can help, and in a significant way. There is now a huge exile community. Its exact size is difficult to estimate, but excluding the migrant workers it would not be surprising if there were one million people with Burmese roots spread around the world. Many such individuals left the country decades ago, and have prospered. They represent a potentially huge source of funding for the insurrection.

The problems in tapping this resource are threefold. First, every single exiled Burmese, of whatever ethnicity, should be identified and appealed to for assistance. This extends even to the migrant workers in Thailand. Any donation, no matter how small, is helpful. There are well-established pro-democracy groups in at least a dozen countries, including of course Thailand, and this objective should be at the top of their agendas.

The related issues are the question of trust: will the donated funds actually make it to groups inside the country; and who specifically will make the deliveries. For the first, there is no easy answer, and this issue actually underlies the whole problem of unity that has dogged the movement for so long. Pro-democracy groups, inside because of the terrain, and outside because they are spread around the world, can never be closely knit. For the latter, even with the Internet, this simply cannot be achieved. Coordination and agreement require face-to-face contact. We can never have a fully centralized command and control operation.

This has implications for the current debate whether to form a new government in exile. While in principle there is no basis to exclude such reorganization, its proponents should make clear their reasons for the change, their specific plans, and most importantly what they intend to achieve. Also, since this will inevitably be controversial, there is a real concern that it will distract everyone from what is happening inside.

Returning to the issue of finances, most of the organizations that comprise the pro-democracy movement are reliable, certainly to their individual members. Every such group should initiate its own insurrection fund-raising campaign. If it personally does not have relationships with organizations inside, it can easily establish contacts with other groups that do. (As I have mentioned in the past, Dictator Watch is well positioned to assist with such an effort.)

The importance of this cannot be overestimated. For instance, Jewish people were decimated in the Holocaust during World War II. The survivors undertook an oath: Never Again! They realized that no one would help them, so they would have to help themselves. To this day they provide massive financial support to Israel and related Jewish causes (even though, with Israel, because of its treatment of the Palestinians such support is no longer justifiable – the fact that many Palestinian militants are terrorists does not excuse the collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza).

The Burmese diaspora bears a similar obligation. It too must rise up to help everyone who is still suffering inside. It must provide more and more assistance, to the non-violent students and monks, and to the revolutionary groups and ethnic resistance fighters.


Burma’s pro-democracy movement conceivably could rely exclusively on non-violent tactics, until, like water on granite, the SPDC finally crumbles. However, for the reasons described throughout this article, this is not a viable alternative. Most importantly, SPDC repression against the ethnic peoples in Eastern Burma is too great. The movement, unlike the International Community, does not have the luxury to sit and wait. Karen, Karenni and Shan people are Burmese, too. Their slaughter, the ethnic cleansing to which they are being subjected, has to stop.

Individuals evidence five levels of concern, that have the potential to motivate action. These include threats to yourself; your family; your people; your nation; and the world. The analogous levels with respect to nature are your property; your community; your regional environment; your national environment; and the global ecology. Unfortunately, but what we all know from experience, is that it is rare indeed for people to care about more than their own personal interests.

The people of Burma are suffering terribly, and the country’s natural environment is being destroyed. Everyone needs to rise to the fourth level of concern. The world won’t help; therefore, like the Jews, the Burmese have to help themselves. Only by getting everyone from Burma to care about the fate of all of Burma, and with everyone acting or at least contributing in support of this, can the country be freed.

Ultimately, large demonstrations, greater in scale than in September, will be required. While the specific tipping point for such an uprising might be unknown, there are clear timing opportunities, including Armed Forces Day (March 27th), Thingyan (Than Shwe wants Gambari to return in April as a defense against this possibility), and in the run up to the Olympics. For the last, President Bush plans to attend the Games, and this means U.S. and Chinese interests will coincide to ensure that there is no news-grabbing distraction. This will put great pressure on the SPDC not to use violence against demonstrators. Indeed, if the world economy does enter a pronounced recession, this will cause so much stress in China itself that a renewal of the Tiananmen uprising is not inconceivable. This would be a best-case scenario, freeing China and Burma (and perhaps even Tibet) at the same time under the international gaze on the Olympics, which would be roughly akin to the uprising in Indonesia that also paved the way for freedom for East Timor (but not West Papua and Aceh). Of course, it is a remote possibility, but it is not impossible, particularly if Chinese (and Tibet) pro-democracy activists also pursue their own organizing efforts.

In addition, there comes a time in any freedom movement when planning and concern for its sustainability has to yield to a push to achieve change – right now. It is fatal to allow the focus on the first to lead to timidity when the opportunity for the second arises. Chance favors the prepared mind, and it waits for no one!

In conclusion, if you are under the boot of dictators and you want to be free, the solution, at least in concept, is simple. You secure some weapons, you train, and you fight. In the short term, perhaps you will win and perhaps you will lose. But if you keep fighting, long enough and hard enough, you will win. The Burmese can, should, and are fighting, and some day, most likely this year, they too will be free.