Saturday, March 1, 2008

Remembering Burma: Overturning the bowl ( Click Here for Full Text)

Can Burma’s generals maintain their strength against a sustained effort on the part of the clergy and continuing international approbrium?

Picture by Htein Lin_Saffronrevolution

By : May Ng

General Ne Win, the founder of military authoritarianism in Burma, was secretly trained during World War II by the fascist-allied military regime of Japan. Four decades later, during the 1988 popular uprising in Burma, the general warned that when Burma’s army shoots, it shoots to kill. That year, thousands of protesters were killed on the streets of Burma. Little has changed in the country during the intervening two decades. As such, it was not particularly surprising this past September when, during the massive public uprising that has since been dubbed the ‘Saffron Revolution’, Burmese soldiers shot and killed over 100 citizens. That number included members of the country’s venerated clergy.

Although public demonstrations had been ramping up for weeks, the Saffron Revolution can be thought of as beginning on 5 September 2007, when thugs thought to be connected to the junta government attacked a group of monks in Pakokku. Doing so was in direct violation of Buddhist teachings, something of which the military had long been cognisant, largely due to the massive public support that the clergy holds in Burma. Urging the military leaders to reflect on their action, Burma’s Sangha, the national council representing the country’s Buddhist monks, demanded an apology from the military within 12 days. When the junta refused to do so, the clerical leaders began a religious boycott, dubbed the “overturning of the alms bowls”. This was an act of severe moral rebuke, in which monks refused to accept alms from military families, thereby denying them important religious merit. This had only happened a few times before –when the Burmese people rebelled against British colonialism and, more recently, following the country’s nullified 1990 elections.

Six month after the Saffron Revolution began, the All-Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) continues to boycott Burma’s military families, all the while urging the Burmese people to continue resistance against military domination. This resistance has taken several forms. On 17 January, 200 demonstrators in Taungkok, including a handful of monks, attempted to gather near a local market, where they were met with a large number of armed personnel and forced to disperse. At that time, one resident of Taungkok warned that local people continued to “boil with anger”, and that the next time they would not be stopped.

Since the September uprising, student unions, activist groups, bloggers and youth wings belonging to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) have continued spreading underground pamphlets and posters. In late December, the NLD’s detained leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, told followers to “prepare for the worst while hoping for the best”. In a particularly creative form of protest, the poet Saw Wai wrote a short poem that included a series of hidden letters spelling out the words for ‘power hungry Than Shwe’, referring to the junta’s senior leader. The poem was published in a government-backed publication and, following his arrest on 22 January, Saw Wai’s poem became an instant sensation.

Meanwhile, the sustained international interest since the 2007 uprisings have also allowed for the monks’ calls to be heard with greater strength around the world. Over the past couple of months, the Sasana Moli, the International Burmese Monks Organisation, has opened 14 new international branches, including in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as several countries in the West and throughout Southeast Asia. In January, the Thai branch of the International Burmese Monks Organisation in Thailand declared that the crimes committed against Burma’s clergy, in particular, had laid bare the junta’s “false piety”, and warned of “far-reaching consequences”.

Tatmadaw’s stranglehold
According to military scholar Mary P Callahan, immediately following independence from Britain, World War II-era politics made violence the “currency of power” in Burma. The country’s postcolonial operational failure included army mutiny, ethnic rebellion, communist insurgency, warlordism and economic chaos. This near-anarchy subsequently paved the way for the creation of the Myanmar Tatmadaw, an army modelled after the 1950s Yugoslav and Israeli militaries. Callahan has written that the Tatmadaw came to use violence – “the once despised coercive tools of colonials” – not only to pacify but also to mould the Burmese citizenry into dependable defenders of the army state. It is this ‘dependability’ on which the junta regime has attempted to balance for the past half century, and which has led the military leaders to attempt frantically to eliminate any perceived crack in the façade.

The military moved quickly to establish pre-eminence in the Burmese state. In 1956, the army’s Directorate of Psychological Warfare presented the first draft of what eventually became the official ideology of the post-1962 socialist government, as well as the present-day military regime. Entitled “Some Reflections on Our Constitution”, the paper recommended a review of constitutional flaws and the adoption of a draconian Anti-Subversion Ordinance, which essentially allowed the government and army to treat all critics of the regime as enemies of the state.

Callahan writes that, by 1958, the Burmese Union’s Constitution was no longer considered sacrosanct, as the army circulated a critique of the document’s fundamental tenets. With this, the Tatmadaw successfully created a chokehold on political power in Burma. Under such conditions, citizens came to be seen as ‘barriers’ to the military’s consolidation of power. It was in this context that an onerous British law, a section of the Public Order Preservation Act, was resurrected and used to arrest as many as 400 government critics. During 1958, the Press Registration Act of 1876 was also amended, and the ‘Psywar’ Directorate shut down a half-dozen newspapers, imprisoning numerous editors and publishers in the process. Today, 50 years later, nearly the exact same scenes are again being repeated in Burma.

After more than 45 years of army rule, political power in Burma remains in the hands of what Callahan has termed “specialists in violence”. This catchphrase actually includes members of the Tatmadaw, anti-government armed forces, criminal gangs and paramilitaries, though the first of these maintains by far the most significant hold over power. “More menacing than the records of murderous militaries in Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines,” Callahan has noted, “is the comparative ‘durability’ of the Tatmadaw’s command relationship with its society.” Since the 1962 military coup, the Tatmadaw have come to dominate all levels of government, civil administration and commerce in Burma.

Military sovereignty

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