Burmese Groundhog Day

Moegyo explores the recurring pattern of protest in Burma.

This week’s posts on Tea Circle represent the start of our forum on the “Saffron Revolution,” during which we will feature submissions by those analyzing, debating, and reflecting upon the impact of Myanmar’s 2007 demonstrations, at its 10th anniversary. We will continue to accept submissions through the coming weeks. Please see our Call for Submissions or write to our editors at: editor@teacircleoxford.com.

In the 1993 US movie Groundhog Day, a man, whose speech and behavior was not skillful (in the Buddhist sense of having been both mindful and appropriate to the situation), was forced to relive everyday until his speech and behavior became skillful. The Saffron Revolution was another Groundhog Day – “days of unskillful actions” by pro-democracy actors. Here is the model Groundhog Day script that the pro-democracy actors and the Tatmadaw have followed since 1962:

Some incident in Yangon or Mandalay sparks protests and demonstrations initially by students and/or young monks. The demands and slogans focus upon some aspect of the incident – students or monks wronged, demonetization, price increases, or a similar legitimate grievance.

Local authorities warn the students and monks to stop their protest. Some protesters are then arrested. The protests grow and then spread to other cities and towns. More students and monks join the demonstrators. At this point, the demands and slogans escalate to political themes, typically democracy, free the political activists in jail or under house arrest, or eliminate the ruling regime. The ruling regime then issues warnings to the students and monks to halt the protests, and begins to move Tatmadaw units into strategic positions, but holds them in place. They are waiting for the leaders of the demonstrations to publicly emerge. However, the Tatmadaw must act quickly to put down the protests once the key protest leaders are identified because of the fear that the protests will widen to include the active participation of the general public.

The leaders of the protests are identified and arrested. Tatmadaw units move in to break-up the protests – arresting, beating, and shooting people. After a few days, the protests and demonstrations are over. The initial grievance is not resolved; another generation of political activists is dead, in prisons, in hiding, or has escaped to Thailand.  There are the usual official protests, and maybe sanctions, by Western countries, a nonbinding condemnation by the United Nations, and a call by neighboring Asian countries (all with economic and political interests in Burma) for non-interference in the internal affairs of Burma. With decades of experience, the Tatmadaw leaders pretty well have the routine down to a fine science of effectively dealing with protests and demonstrations. Also, they know that the threats by Western countries will have little impact upon the country, since its main supporters – China, Thailand, Singapore, and other Asian countries – will take up the economic slack.

The protesters are generally Burmans, Buddhists, and from the cities and towns. Noticeably absent, in any great numbers, are people from the ethnic groups; the Muslims, Christians, and Hindus; or the religious leaders from these communities. These are no coordinated actions by the ethnic armed organizations or by significant numbers of Buddhists or students in neighboring countries.

It is now 15 August 2007 and time for another Burmese Groundhog Day.  This time it is the Saffron Revolution and they begin to follow the model script:

The State Peace and Development Council suddenly removes the state subsidies on fuel, causing a rapid and unannounced increase in prices. The fuel prices of government-supplied diesel and gasoline increase by almost 66% and the price of compressed natural gas for buses increases fivefold, all in less than a week. The reason, finally given by the government, is that it could no longer afford the subsidies, given the rising global prices and constricted supply of oil. As a result, bus and taxi fares double almost immediately in the major cities. The impact upon the common people is disastrous, with many of them unable to afford to take the bus to work. In line with these higher transportation costs, the prices for food and basic commodities also increase – the price for rice goes up by almost 10%, edible oils by 20%, and prices for other foodstuffs increase by 10-50%. There has already been public dissatisfaction over rising food prices in the recent past.

While the prices for food and other commodities rise, wages have not increased. People begin to experience great difficulties in buying food, clothes, and transportation. It is estimated that, overnight, the purchasing power of the average person declines by more than 25%.

In the background are the 88 Generation Students Group and the All Burma Monks Union. Over the past few years, they have met in small groups in the major cities, and across the border in Thailand, to ready themselves for an auspicious spark to again light the fire of protests and demonstrations for democracy and the removal of the military regime. The spark that sets things into motion is these price increases.

On 19 August, groups of people, led by the 88 Generation Students Group, stage a peaceful march in Yangon to protest the price increases. The government arrests and beats the demonstrators. Buddhist monks begin to protest the price increases in the streets of the major cities. The protests escalate and are soon joined by pro-democracy activists and local residents. In a matter of a few days, thousands of demonstrators are pouring into the streets across the country.

Then on 5 September, monks in Pakokku march and chant the “Metta Sutta” in sympathy with the plight of the people who are suffering from effects of the price increases. Local Tatmadaw soldiers attack and beat the monks. It is reported that at least three monks are arrested and one monk is killed.

The next day, some monks in Pakokku briefly hold a group of government officials hostage to secure the release of the monks who were arrested during the previous day. They also demand an apology from the government by 17 September. Should the government refuse to meet these demands, the monks would begin boycotting alms from Tatmadaw personnel.  The act of turning over the alms bowls, prohibiting the Tatmadaw from making donations to the monks, is an act of defiance by the monks that surfaced during the protests in 1990.

A few days later, an alliance of monks makes its own demands on the government:

  • Apologize to the Pakokku monks by midnight of September 17;
  • Reduce the prices of fuel oil and basic commodities;
  • Unconditionally release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners; and
  • Hold a dialogue with the democratic political opposition representatives in order to begin a national reconciliation process.

The monks say that if their demands are not met by the deadline, monks all across Burma will protest against the government. Now there is the escalation from the initial grievances of the price increases and the affront to the Pakokku monks to political demands for the release of political prisoners and the initiation of a national reconciliation process. So far, we are still following the Burmese “Groundhog Day” script from the past.

The deadline comes and goes without any apology from the military regime. The monks commence to march on 18 September and refuse alms from Tatmadaw personnel. This date is also the 19th anniversary of the military coup in 1988 which brought the military regime to power. Additionally, the numbers of the date form a series of “nines” – “1+8”, “09”, and “2+0+0+7” – and are considered as an auspicious sign.

Over the next week, the demonstrations grow in size and scope across the country. Western countries voice their support. The demonstrations are now dubbed by the international press as the “Saffron Revolution” because of the concentration of Buddhist monks in the movement and the likeness of the protests to the “color revolutions” that earlier swept Serbia, the Ukraine, and Georgia.

Many local and international onlookers become convinced that the Saffron Revolution is different from the unsuccessful protests in the past because of the involvement of the vast number of monks.  It was further felt that since it is considered as an extremely grave sin for a Buddhist to assault, let alone kill, a monk, the Buddhist military leaders of the country would not dare to assault or kill monks. As noted earlier, this is an incorrect assumption that is not based upon the evidence of the past where the Tatmadaw, with little hesitation or apparent guilt, has arrested, beaten, and killed monks. While the people and some Tatmadaw personnel do get upset about such actions against the monks, they are always unable to do much about it.

The key protest leaders finally emerge and the protests begin to widen to include the general public. The government now positions Tatmadaw units at strategic locations around the key centers of protest. So far there are no surprises; the unfolding of events still fits the past scripts.

Then on 26 September, the Tatmadaw moves to arrest the protest leaders.  Students, monks, and others are arrested, beaten and shot, and monasteries are raided. The crackdown by the Tatmadaw has begun. Over the ensuing days, the Tatamdaw methodically and brutally puts down the protest. Access to the Internet and cell phones is curtailed. Activists are hunted down, arrested, or killed; they try to hide or escape to Thailand. Within a few weeks, it is all over. The Western countries and the United Nations make their usual statements deploring the Tatmadaw repression of the demonstrators; some additional sanctions are imposed by the United States and the European Community. ASEAN and China urge dialogue.

Burmese Groundhog Day finishes another “day”.  Thus, the lessons from 1962 forward have yet to be learned and the “day” will repeat itself again…and again. Moreover, the key success factors of the various successful color revolutions in the early part of this century were not applied, nor were the results of the nonviolent struggle seminars held on the Thai-Burma border by OTPOR/CANVAS and the Einstein Institute. Also, young people in Hong Kong have followed the Burmese Groundhog Day script with their 2014 “Umbrella Revolution’” with similar negative results.

The failed Saffron Revolution continues to be celebrated.  However, it has still not been critically examined to note its failures and successes so that the next time, which will surely come, can result in a higher probability of more favorable outcomes against the Tatmadaw. Perhaps, some Oxford fellow will do a paper in this respect; but will the pro-democracy actors learn from it? History says, ‘No’’. Consequently, the model script will play itself out again in the future with the same expected adverse outcomes.  Oh, yes, Happy Burmese Groundhog Day!

Moegyo is a political consultant and strategist working on the Thai-Burma border.