STRATEGY FOR DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT IN BURMA
By Lian H. Sakhong
"Dialogue" in popular usage simply means "conversation
or talk". The original Greek word for "dialogue"
meant "a form of literally _expression in the form of
a conversion between two or more people". In Greek culture,
dialogue was usually expressed in a "literary or philosophical
work, written in the form of conversation". One of such
examples is the "Platonic Dialogue" which revealed
the "antiquity, dignity and seriousness of the term dialogue
and what it implied." In fact, the word dialogue was
one of the fundamental terms at the root of Greco-Roman world,
Judeo-Christian traditions and Western cultures. Sakowicz,
therefore, claims, "at the start of civilization there
was conversation, and there was dialogue"
In today's world, the concept of dialogue is no longer contained
within Western civilization; it has become a global phenomenon
within the civilization of humanity, a civilization without
any boundaries between East and West, North and South. Dialogue
challenged "religions and cultures to come out of security
of their yards" in order to overcome distrust and to
attain liberation from fear. It has challenged all kind of
political doctrines which built "walls of prejudice"
and created a culture of "monologue". The task of
dialogue in such context is to "oppose any form of injustice"
imposed upon society by dictators. In a democratic open society,
on the other hand, dialogue between political powers is necessary
for the normal functioning of a nation, since it keeps government
from abusing its powers.
As Pope John Paul II teaches us, "society cannot give
its citizens happiness which they expected from it, unless
it is based on dialogue." Dialogue also enables one
to understand the past as well as the future marked by a spirit
of openness, and the "fruit of dialogue always is reconciliation
Dialogue in Burmese Political Context
In a new Burmese political culture, the term "dialogue"
becomes the key word to express the nature of the democracy
movement and the meaning of the freedom struggle, especially
after 1994 when the United Nations General Assembly passed
a resolution, which called for a "Tripartite Dialogue".
"Tripartite Dialogue" in Burmese political context
means a negotiation amongst three parties: the military government
known as "State Peace and Development Council" (SPDC),
the 1990 election winning party, the National League for Democracy
(NLD), and ethnic nationalities, the founding nations or national
groups of the Union.
The essence of tripartite dialogue is "inclusiveness"
and "recognition" which, in concepts, includes all
the major political stakeholders, or conflict parties in Burma:
military junta, democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi, and ethnic nationalities. Moreover, the UN's tripartite
dialogue resolution recognizes the 1990 election results which
have been denied by the military government for 14 years,
and recognizes the indispensable participation of ethnic nationalities
in the political transition and national reconciliation process
The UN resolution also acknowledges the very nature of political
crisis in Burma which, in conceptually speaking, is a "constitutional
problem" rather than solely an ideological confrontation
between democracy and military rule or totalitarianism. It
is not a "minority" problem, or even an ethnic problem
which some Burman or Myanmar politicians argue can be solved
later, once democracy is established. The question of democracy,
military rule and the constitutional arrangement with special
reference to the non-Myanmar (non-Burman) ethnic nationalities-comprising
close to 40 percent of the total population-are intrinsically
intertwined and cannot be solved one without the other. This
is the meaning behind the call for a "tripartite dialogue".
Ever since the United Nations General Assembly passed the
resolution calling for a "tripartite dialogue" in
1994, "dialogue" has become the grand strategy of
the democracy movement in Burma. However, this also raises
the question of how does Burma's "armed resistance movement"
fit within the call for dialogue? Armed resistance has been
the main strategy-a self-defence response, and in reaction
to repression and atrocities-of ethnic nationalities of Burma
in their struggle for self-determination and political equality
which began some fifty years ago.
In this paper, I will argue that adopting dialogue as a "grand
strategy" does not mean the rejection of armed struggle
or "people's power", the latter being advocated
so dearly by some elements of Burman/Myanmar politicians in
exile. Both armed resistance and "people's power"
are still important but they now play different roles. The
crucial point, however, is this: strategy may change as the
changing situation demands, and the tactics may change in
accordance with the changing internal and external politics
but the ultimate goal shall not be changed until and unless
the goal itself is achieved. A strategy is adopted in order
to achieve a goal, and tactics are applied in order that the
strategy works; but the changing strategy and tactics shall
not affect the ultimate goal.
PART ONE: ULTIMATE GOAL
The Ultimate Goal of the Democracy Movement in Burma
What is the ultimate goal of democracy movement in Burma?
The answer to this question depends on how we analyse the
nature of political crisis in Burma. How do we perceive and
analyse the nature of Burma's political crisis, and how do
we intend to solve its problems? Should Burma be a unitary
state or a federal union? How shall we deal with the problem
of power sharing and division of powers between the central
government and states? In short, how do we avoid the Burman/Myanmar
domination and ethnic separation-which are two very crucial
issues that has dominated and shaped politics in Burma, especially
1962? Are there any means to live peacefully together in this
Union? If the answer is yes, then the next question is: how
are we going to build a peaceful nation together?
Different actors answer this question differently, for their
goals are fundamentally different in nature. For the military
junta, the answer is "total domination", even "ethnic
Myanmar domination of Burma". For them, politics is nothing
but power-i.e. power as a means of "domination".
In their attempt to achieve their goal, they have opted for
a strictly centralised government based on a unitary constitution,
where the Armed Forces-dominated by the Burman segment- can
play a central role in governing the state by, as they proposed
at the National Convention in 1995, controlling 20 percent
of the national parliament and as well state and divisional
The politics of "ethnic domination" actually is
not a new phenomenon in Burmese political culture; it has
long been associated with Myanmar ethnic nationalism that
emerged from within the Myanmar nationalist movements in the
colonial period. As U Maung Maung observes in his book From
Sangha to Laity: Nationalist Movement in Burma, 1920-1940,
a main source of inspiration for the early Burman/Myanmar
nationalist movement were religion oriented as illuminated
in the creeds, such as, "Buda-Bata Myanmar-lu-myo"
(To be a Myanmar is to be a Buddhist), in which Myanmar ethnicity
and Buddhism were inseparably blended together. When Dobamaa
Asi-Azone, one of the earliest anti-British national organization,
was founded, ethnicity (Myanmar identity), religion (Buddhism)
and language (Myanmar-sa, the language of the Myanmar or Burman)
played the central role: Nationalism was conceived in terms
of race and religion.
Aung San, however, challenged such ethno-religious brand
of nationalism when he became Secretary General of Dobama
Asi-Azone in 1938. He criticized the notion of religious-oriented
traditional Burmese nationalism of "our race, our religion,
our language", which he said "have gone obsolete
now". And he clearly states "religion is a matter
of individual conscience, while politics is social science.
We must see to it that the individual enjoys his rights, including
the right to freedom of religious belief and worship. We must
draw clear lines between politics and religion because the
two are not the same thing. If we mix religion with politics,
then we offend the spirit of religion itself."
Although Aung San claimed that the Dobama Asi-Azone was the
"only non-racial, non-religious movement that has ever
existed in Burma", some elements of traditional nationalism,
which blended Myanmar (Burman) ethno-nationalism with Buddhism
remained, it being the founding principles of the organization
when it was established in the 1930s, and this stream was
represented by such prominent figures as Tun Ok and Ba Sein.
Thus, while Aung San's policy, defined by an inclusive radical
secular approach, allowed a certain level of inclusiveness
towards the non-Burman nationalities, this very same policy
caused Dobama Asi-Azone to split into two factions in March
1938. A group opposed to Aung San's policy of inclusion and
secularism was led by Tun Ok and Ba Sein, and was thus known
as the "Tun Ok-Ba Sein" faction. The remaining majority
faction was led by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and Aung San. Although
each claimed to be Dobama Asi-Azone, "they were in reality
two separate parties".
While Kodaw Hmaing and Aung San opted for a "non-racial,
non-religious secular approach", Tun Ok and Ba Sein's
political convictions were centred on ethnicity and religion,
namely the Myanmar ethnicity and the religion of Buddhism.
Moreover, while the former pair advocated democracy and a
Federal Union, Ba Sein and Tun Ok were in "favour of
a totalitarian form of national polity," and declared
that "totalitarianism would benefit Burma".
They also "favoured the restoration of the monarchy",
an institution which was inseparably associated with the state
religion of Buddhism. Buddhism for them was not just a
religion but a political ideology as well. Thus, they could
not conceive of religion without a defender of the faith,
i.e. the "king who appointed and ruled the Buddhist hierarchy".
They proposed the revival of the monarchy as the best means
of achieving independence.
As Tun Ok and Ba Sein had opted for the exclusion of non-Buddhists
and non-Burman/Myanmar ethnicities, under such slogans as
"one race, one blood, one voice," and "a purer
race, a purer religion and a purer language," they
not only excluded non-Burman nationalities, such as the Chin,
Kachin and Shan, they even ignored the existence of these
nationalities and peoples. That was the reason why Ba Sein
and his fellow U Saw refused to sign the "Aung San -
Attlee Agreement" and rejected the result of the 1947
Panglong Agreement. And U Saw killed Aung San, who invited
Chin, Kachin, Shan and other ethnic nationalities to join
the Union of Burma as equal partners.
After Aung San's assassination, Ba Sein and Tun Oke buried
Aung San's policy of pluralism, ethnic equality and the secular
state. The legacy of "Ba Sien - Tun Oke" which advocates
the ethno-religious oriented Myanmar domination in Burma politics
was kept alive by Ne Win and Aung Gyi in the 1950s and 1960s.
It continues with the current military junta. In addition
to General Ne Win and his military successors, there are elements
who even now maintain that non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities
claim for self-determination should be considered only after
democracy is restored. For them "democracy is first,
democracy is second, and democracy is third": so, the
non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities must "keep silent, follow
the leaders, and obey the order".
It seems that history is repeating itself. During the independence
movement, the "Tun Oke - Ba Sein" faction of Myanmar
nationalists claimed that "independence is first, independence
is second, and independence is third" and they ignored
non-Burman issues completely. In contrast, Aung San came to
Panglong in 1947, and invited Chin, Kachin, Shan and other
ethnic nationalities to jointly form the Union, a year prior
to independence. In this way, Aung San created a political
atmosphere in which all of Burma's nationalities could feel
that they were the founding members of the Union of Burma.
During the 1988 democracy uprising, while Aung Gyi and other
leaders rejected ethnic nationalities demands for self-determination
and federalism, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, like her father, met
with non-Myanmar ethnic leaders, and a meeting at the UNLD
office, on 15 July 1989, they agreed to work together for
"democracy and to resolve the ethnic issues". Thus,
the position of Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic nationalities
was that the questions of "democracy and the ethnic issues"
- which are inseparably linked with the "constitutional
problems" - must be addressed together in order for democracy
to be restored. They cannot be separated, for they hold the
same value like the two sides of the same coin.
Currently, Myanmar ethnic politicians in exile say that "to
solve these two problems [democracy and ethnic issues], we
need different approaches." Accordingly, they say: "we
need to establish democracy in the country first." They
impatiently asks, "Why [can't we] wait until we have
democratic government? Why do we have to insist on addressing
the ethnic issue under a repressive military regime rather
than waiting to do so under a democratic [government]? Do
the ethnic nationalities believe that demanding their rights
under military rule is easier than under a democratic government?"
The main problem with such an argument is that they cannot
definitely proclaim their ultimate goal, and the sort of democracy
that they want to restore is unclear. For example, a former
Burman student leader has said, "We already have the
1947 constitution, which guarantees democratic rights".
A counter question that may be posed in response is: do they
want to restore the semi-unitary arrangement of the parliamentary
democracy system of the 1950s? Democracy can be, as Tocqueville
warned us a century ago, a "tyranny of majority"
which only encourages the politics of "ethnicity and
For the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities, though they want
democracy, the typical Westminster-style majoritarian system
of governance is simply not an option. They have had enough
negative experiences of the tyranny of Westminster-style majoritarian
rule during the so-called parliamentary democracy era of the
1950s and early 1960s under the 1947 Constitution, especially
when the central government promulgated Buddhism as a state
religion in 1961. For them, the only option is federalism
with strong emphasis on self-determination, decentralization,
and inclusive representative system of all the people at local,
state and federal levels.
Similar to ethnic nationalities' position, Daw Aung San Suu
Kyi stand is that the current democracy movement is "the
struggle for second independence". In this way, she links
current struggle for democracy with the first struggle for
self-determination-for both of them are rooted in the "Spirit
of Panglong" upon which the Union of Burma was founded
at the first place. Under her leadership, the NLD (National
League for Democracy) and UNLD (United Nationalities league
for Democracy, an umbrella political organization of all the
non-Myanmar or non-Burman political parties in Burma), issued
a statement which read:
All nationalities shall have full rights of equality, racially
as well as politically, and, in addition to having the full
rights of self-determination, it is necessary to build a Union
with a unity of all the nationalities which guarantees democracy
and basic human rights.
Thus, we can conclude by saying that for the NLD under the
leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic nationalities,
as represented by the UNLD, the ultimate goal of democracy
movement is to establish a genuine federal union based on
the principles of political equality for all member states
of the union, the right of self-determination for all ethnic
nationalities, and democratic rights for all citizens of the
union. This policy has been adopted also by the ENSCC (Ethnic
Nationalities Solidarity and Cooperation Committee) when they
launched the policy of "The New Panglong Initiative:
Re-building the Union of Burma" in 2001.
PART TWO: THE GRAND STRATEGY
Dialogue: Grand Strategy for Democracy Movement
As mentioned above, dialogue has become the grand strategy
for Burma's democracy movement since 1994. However, we must
remember that "dialogue strategy" is derived from
the notion of a non-violent struggle for democratic change,
a concept advanced by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988. "Dialogue
strategy" cannot be separated from "non-violent
movement" - for the two holds the same value together.
The purpose of "dialogue strategy" is not only
to achieve the ultimate goal of the democracy movement, that
is, to establish a genuine democratic federal union through
a peaceful transition without bloodshed. It is believed that
through dialogue competing interests can interact in a non-adversarial
way. In countries like Burma that are or have been engaged
in serious conflicts, dialogue can also act as a mechanism
to help prevent, manage and resolve conflict:
As a mechanism for the prevention of conflict. By bringing
various actors together for structured, critical and constructive
discussions on the state of the nation, dialogue can result
in a consensus on the reforms that are needed to avoid confrontation
As a mechanism for the management of conflict. Dialogue
can help put in place democratic institutions and procedures
that can structure and set the limits of political conflicts.
Democratic institutions and procedures provide mechanisms
for political consultation and joint action that can peacefully
manage potential conflicts.
As a mechanism for the resolution of conflict. Furthermore,
political dialogue can defuse potential crises by proposing
appropriate peaceful solutions. Democratic institutions and
procedures provide a framework to sustain peace settlements
and prevent the recurrence of conflict.
Likewise, the UNLD also adopted the non-violent strategy
when it was formed in 1988, and they declared that "democracy
is the only form of sustainable governance which guarantees
for all members of various nationalities, both individually
and collectively, the rights of full participation in their
social, economic, and cultural development and as well the
ownership of resources available to all citizens of the Union."
Stable and enduring democracy therefore requires an active
participation of all the citizens¾as an individual
citizens and collective members of ethnic communities¾to
build and renovate not only the democratic institutions but
also the structure of the Union itself, which shall balance
the different interests of nationalities for the common good
of all member states of the Union.
Since they believe in democratic principles and the rights
of full participation of all nationalities in the process
of nation rebuilding, both ethnic nationalities and democratic
forces in Burma demand dialogue as an integral part of political
transition, not only in the process of power transformation
(from a military-controlled and monopolized kind of power
to a democratically ordered one), but which also includes
the restructuring of the Union into a federal system. Therefore,
in the processes of both power transformation and democratisation,
dialogue must be the main instrument for bringing all individual
citizens and collective members of ethnic nationalities of
the Union together at all levels.
After the general election in 1990, it was generally accepted
that at least three levels of dialogue might be necessary
to achieve the goal of the creation of a democratic open society
and the establishment of a genuine federal union.
The first step of dialogue is for a "breakthrough"
which will break the stagnant political deadlock; and the
second step, which is more important than the first level,
will be not only for power transformation but also to find
a solution to the entire political crisis and to end the civil
war in Burma; and the third step will be concerned with the
entire process of democratisation and the restructuring of
the Union as a federal system.
Three levels of dialogue that will, in concepts, be needed
. Pre-negotiation Talk or Talk about Talk.
. Tripartite Dialogue (for power transformation/power sharing,
and to lay the foundation of the future federal union).
. National Consultative Convention (for consolidating democratic
The First Level: Pre-negotiation Talk
At the first level, Pre-negotiation Talk is needed for the
first contact between opposite parties (directly or through
negotiator/mediator) to discuss the "process" of
negotiation, without mentioning the "substance"
or the "out comes".
In any kind of negotiation for transition plan, there are
always two components: the "process" and the "substance".
The "substance" is concerned with what the conflicting
parties want to achieve? What kind of outcome do they want
to see through this negotiation? What sort of political structure
should be negotiated for during the "process"? In
short this is the substance of the solution itself, or the
goal of the struggle. "Process", on the other hand,
is the business of negotiation and dialogue, which focuses
on the element of the solution, that is, how to reach a solution?
Both are important: without the substance, process is worth
nothing and without a good process the substance cannot be
Pre-negotiation Talk, therefore, is needed to set up the
framework within which the "process of negotiation"
is going to be designed. Thus, the "Pre-negotiation Talk"
should be chiefly concerned with:
(i) Where and when the negotiation will take place (time
(ii) How to choose the representatives: that is, who will
participate in the process, and what shall be the method of
(iii) Agreeing on basic rules and procedures;
(iv) Dealing with preconditions for negotiation and barriers
- A nation-wide ceasefire
- Freedom of assembly and meeting
- Free passage for non-ceasefire groups (for example!)
- Re-instatement of banned political parties
- Release political prisoners, especially Daw Aung San Suu
(v) Communication and information exchange;
(vi) Managing the proceeding;
(vii) Time frames;
(viii) Decision-making procedures;
(ix) The possible assistance of a third part;
(x) Resource and financial assistance that will be needed
during the negotiation, etc.
The Second Level: Tripartite Dialogue
As mentioned above, political crisis in Burma today is not
just a conflict between totalitarianism and democracy. It
involves a protracted civil war that has consumed many lives
and much of the resources of the country for five decades.
The root of civil war in Burma is the conflict over power
arrangement between the central government, which so far has
been controlled by one ethnic group called Myanmar or Burman,
and all the non-Myanmar (or non-Burmman) ethnic groups in
the Union. In other words, it is, as mentioned, a problem
of constitution, or more specifically, the rights of self-determination
for non-Burman nationalities who joined the Union as equal
partners in 1947. Indeed, most nationalities in Burma are
now fighting against the military monopolized central government
for self-determination and autonomous status of their respective
National States within the Union.
In order to avoid further bloodshed and violence during the
political transition, the second level of dialogue must start
almost simultaneously with the first level of dialogue. Dialogue
at the second level shall be concerned not only with power
transformation and sharing but also with solving the entire
political crisis in Burma. It should end the five long decades
of civil war by laying down the foundation of a genuine Federal
Union. The non-Myanmar (non-Burman) ethnic nationalities'
position is that without a genuine Federal Union there is
no means of ending the civil war in Burma. Without ending
the civil war, there is no means of establishing a democratic
system. Thus, the participation of all ethnic nationalities
in the political transition is the most important element
in the entire process of democratisation and restructuring
of the Union into a federal system. Alternatively, it could
be said that the tripartite dialogue will serve not only as
a platform for power transformation but also as a means to
end the civil war, which has consumed so many lives and national
resources over the last five decades.
Thus, dialogue at that level must be a three ways negotiation,
or a tri-partite dialogue, which shall include three forces,
namely the forces composed of the non-Myanmar nationalities,
the democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and the
military junta. To fulfil the demand for a tripartite dialogue,
as called for by successive United Nations General Assembly
resolutions since 1994, the participants must include in equal
proportions the representatives of the 1990 election winning
parties, representatives of the SPDC, and representatives
of ethnic nationalities.
The Third Level: National Consultative Convention
As a tripartite dialogue is needed for power transformation
during the process of democratisation, another level of dialogue
is needed for "consolidating" a democratic federal
system and "ensuring" peace in Burma. That stage
of dialogue can be called the "National Consultative
In regards to this, the UNLD had adopted a policy of national
convention at the conference held in Rangoon, on June 29 to
July 2, 1990. At that conference, all the members of the UNLD
unanimously adopted a policy of national convention that stated
"in order to lay down the general guidelines of a federal
constitution which will serve as the foundation on which to
build a new democratic society for the future Federal Union,
a National Consultative Convention shall be convened, similar
to the Panglong Conference."
The UNLD consulted the issue of the National Consultative
Convention with the NLD, the winner of the 1990 general election.
On August 29, 1990, the UNLD and the NLD made a joint declaration
known as Bo Aung Kyaw Street Declaration, which called for
a "National Consultative Convention".
Similar to the Bo Aung Kyaw Street Declaration (but within
different political context due to fourteen years of political
deadlock), the ENSCC called for the "Congress of National
Unity" which will produce the "Government of National
Unity", when they produced the "Road Map for Re-building
the Union of Burma" in the beginning of September 2003.
The ENSCC's political "Road Map" stated: "in
the spirit of Panglong, we are committed to national reconciliation
and to the rebuilding of the Union as equal partners in the
process. We believe that in order to establish a stable, peaceful
and prosperous nation, the process of rebuilding the Union
must be based on a democratic process which includes the following
1. A peaceful resolution of the crisis in the Union,
2. The resolution of political problems through political
3. Respect for the will of the people,
4. The recognition and protection of the rights of all citizens
of the Union,
5. The recognition and protection of the identity, language,
religion, and cultural rights of all nationalities,
6. The recognition and protection of the rights of the constituent
states of the Union through a federal arrangement."
In lines with above principles, the ENSCC's political "road
map" recommends "a two-stage process to generate
confidence in the transition to democracy": A Congress
for National Unity (two year term) and Government of National
Unity (four year term). The Congress for National Unity, which
in fact is a "Tripartite Dialogue", will draft a
"National Accord", according to which, the "Independent
Constitution Drafting Commissions" (for the Federal Constitution
and State Constitutions) and the "Government for National
Unity" will be formed.
At a second stage of third level, the "Government of
National Unity" will conduct "a referendum",
to be monitored by the international community to ensure that
the will of the people is reflected in the new National Constitution.
Following a successful referendum on the new National Constitution,
"general elections" monitored by the international
community will be held to establish a democratic federal government
at the end of the four years.
Some Obstacles to Negotiation and Dialogue Strategy
Since Burma's democracy movement, under the leadership of
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has chosen dialogue as the main strategy;
negotiation and compromise will become the methods that are
employed to achieve the objectives of the struggle. It is
clear from the onset that negotiations will undoubtedly require
to compromise on many issues in order to achieve a peaceful
settlement. Actually, in democratic culture, politics itself
is a "process of compromise". However, a successful
negotiation can be defined as "compromise" without
losing one's position, compromise without sacrificing the
The leaders of both democratic forces and ethnic nationalities
should, therefore, mentally prepare for difficult and painful
compromises at tripartite negotiation, in order to solve the
political crisis in Burma in a sustainable manner. At Tripartite
Dialogue, at least three challenges can be foreseen:
(i) The role of Armed Forces in future democratic Union of
Burma: The SPDC's Generals are demanding, as they have proposed
at the National Convention in 1995, that they should control
at least 25% of parliamentary seats, and also in state and
division assemblies. Can such undemocratic demand be accepted?
(ii) The 1990 election result: Can the NLD compromise their
hard won victory in order to form a Transitional Authority,
in which they need to include military and ethnic nationalities?
(iii) Federalism: The establishment of Federal Union is the
ultimate goal, especially for ethnic nationalities. But, the
SPDC Generals maintain that Federalism equals "disintegration
of the Union", which they oppose. How could agreement
be reached on this particular issue? Is there any compromise
possible with such opposing views?
In addition to the challenges that will be faced at the dialogue
table, there are a number of obstacles, partly because of
the misconception of dialogue itself. Some people think that
a dialogue strategy means only a "tripartite dialogue",
which for the Myanmar ethnic group in exile is too complicated
and should therefore be bypassed altogether. Htun Aung Kyaw,
for example, said "tripartite dialogue at this point
in time will not offer the solution. Instead it will complicate
a situation." On the other hand, most ethnic nationalities
leaders envision the "tripartite dialogue" as similar
to the negotiation at the 1947 Panglong conference. It might
be suggested that dialogue as a strategy should not be seen
as a "One Time Event", but rather should be seen
as a long term process, in which "tripartite dialogue"
is only one step in a very long process.
A single main obstacle to dialogue, of course, is the SPDC's
unwillingness to engage in dialogue with democratic forces
and ethnic nationalities. Since they first came to power in
1962, General Ne Win and his successors have never believed
in a peaceful political settlement. Their strategy has always
been one of violent suppression, for they only believe in
power that comes from the barrel of a rifle. The most effective
tactics they employ are those of violent confrontations, including
civil war and urban killings. And they want their opponents
to play along accordingly, as they are masters of violence.
In fact, violent confrontation is the name of their game which
they want to deploy at any cost. On the other end, they refuse
to engage dialogue because they know and think that they are
going to lose if they do.
One of the most disturbing excuses for the unwillingness
among some in the movement to accept the dialogue strategy
is that "SPDC is not sincere, and they are not going
to enter into a dialogue". Sincerity seems an inappropriate
word in this regard, because one cannot expect "sincerity"
from one's opponent. It is obvious that the Generals are going
to use every brutal means that they can in order to keep their
power intact. Holding on to power at any cost is their ultimate
goal, and ethnic Myanmar domination through Tatmadaw is their
dream; violent suppression is the strategy they employ to
achieve their goal, torture and killing are the tactics they
use, deception is the method they apply, and avoiding dialogue
is their escape. Surely, the junta is buying time and weapons
to keep their power. However, democratic forces and ethnic
leaders should know that therein lay their strengths and weaknesses.
Thus, it is essential to study their strength and weaknesses,
and analyze why they refuse to engage dialogue. What is needed
to do, therefore, is to create a situation-through coordinated
local, national and international efforts-whereby the junta
will have to come to the negotiating table, to see dialogue
not as a danger but as a way to resolve the conflict in Burma
that has plunged the country into crisis.
PART THREE: TACTICS
Tactics: Non-violent Actions (Internal Pressures, People's
Power), Armed Resistance Movement, and International Pressures,
The term "tactic" is seldom used in this movement.
Instead, "strategies" is used interchangeably with
"tactic". The misuse of terminology can cause a
lot of confusion and misunderstanding, as observed by a Shan
politician and leader, "A lot of time has been wasted
in the meeting debating which strategy to recognize and support
and which to discard or abandon, without a practical acceptable
outcome for all the groups because each group has its own
strategies [tactics?] based on its own political role, status
and space which are different from one another."
As a matter of fact, terms like "strategy" and
"tactic" are dynamic words, not static or rigid,
in terms of both theory and practice. Armed Struggle, for
example, can be the main "strategy" of certain ethnic
armed groups, but it has become a "tactic" for the
entire movement. Likewise, "economic sanction against
the regime" can be the main "strategy" of certain
international Burma support groups, but they should be only
one of the "tactics" in terms of the entire democracy
movement in Burma. It is essential to look at the big picture
of the entire movement, in which all "strategies"
and "tactics" are integrated in to a "Grand
Strategy". As has been pointed out, "the strategies
of ENSCC, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD, UNA and other democratic
forces should be considered as part of the Grand Strategy
of the movement." The understanding of "the
Grand Strategy will create cohesion among the groups, who
could independently carry out their own strategy [tactic?],
having in mind that one's strategy is complimentary to others
in the integrated GRAND STRATEGY form, because all are striving
towards the same accepted aims."
1. Non-violent Actions (Internal Pressures and People's Power)
Since the 1988 popular uprising for democracy, the struggle
for freedom in Burma has usually been described as "non-violent
movement". The notion of "non-violent movement"
was strengthen when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded Nobel
Peace Prize in 1991. Indeed, the non-violent actions in 1988
represented the finest hours of Burma's democracy movement,
which remains today its greatest strength for the struggle.
Moreover, "non-violent action" is the most relevant
tactic which can easily translate into the grand strategy
in order to produce a final victory.
Some leaders and activists in the movement now criticize
"non-violent movement" as "passivity, submissiveness,
and cowardice." However, non-violent action, as Gene
Sharp asserts, is "not to be equated with verbal or purely
psychological persuasion, although it may use action to induce
psychological pressures for attitude change; non-violent action,
instead of words, is a sanction and a technique of struggle
involving the use of social, economic and political power,
and the matching of forces in conflict." It is not
submission or cowardice, as Pundit Nehru once wrote,
In spite of its negative name it was a dynamic method, the
very opposite of a meek submission to a tyrant's will. It
was not a coward's refuge from action, but a brave man's defiance
of evil and national subjection.
The basic theory of non-violent action is that the "political
power of governments or dictators disintegrates when the people
withdraw their obedience and support". Based on this
simple theory that the political power of governments may
in fact be very fragile, Mahatma Gandhi challenged British
colonial power, saying that:
You have great military resources. Your naval power is matchless.
If we wanted to fight with you on your own ground, we should
be unable to do so, but if the above submissions be not accepted
to you, we cease to play the part of the ruled. You, if you
like, cut us to pieces. You may shatter us at the cannon's
mouth. If you act contrary to our will, we shall not help
you; and without our help, we know that you cannot move one
Gandhi's theory of non-violent action is based on the fact
that "if the maintenance of an unjust or undemocratic
regime depends on the cooperation, submission and obedience
of the populace, then the means for changing or abolishing
it lies in the non-cooperation, defiance and disobedience
of the populace." Applying Gandhi's theory of non-violent
action, Gene Sharp out lines the main characteristics of non-violent
action as follow:
In political terms non-violent action is based on a very
simple postulate: people do not always do what they are told
to do, and sometimes they do things which have been forbidden
to them. Subjects may disobey laws they reject. Workers may
halt work, which may paralyze the economy. The bureaucracy
may refuse to carry out instructions. Soldiers and police
may become lax in inflicting repression; they may even mutiny.
When all these events happen simultaneously, the man who has
been "ruler" becomes just another man.
And he concludes, by saying that:
The human assistance which created and supported the regime's
political power has been withdrawn. Therefore, its power has
Since 1988, non-violent actions have applied in various means
and ways and it will continue to do so. The important factor,
however, is that the tactics of non-violent actions need to
be able to translate into a grand strategy, which will bring
the final victory for the movement. During the 1988 uprising,
the movement employed the best tactic of non-violent actions
but did not have a grand strategy. The movement, therefore,
needs to learn lessons from both its successes and failures.
2. Armed Resistance Movement (A.R.M)
Carl von Clausewitz, in his classic work On War, wrote, "War
is the continuation of politics by other means". His
famous quote leads to the discussions of those of "other
means", that is, the military strategy of winning war
through force, but "it does not say how to achieve the
state's goal without war." In contrast to the Western
concept of war, ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu in his
The Art of War suggested that military strategy should be
integrated into domestic policy and foreign policy in a form
of "state craft", which includes "looking beyond
conflict to its resolution, ensuring peace and system of interstate
relationships more profitable to one's nation."
The Armed Resistance Movement (A.R.M) that all the non-Myanmar
ethnic nationalities in Burma engage is, in essence, different
from waging offensive war. The difference is that in offensive
war, military strategy is deployed in order to win the war
by force. The A.R.M. of Burma's ethnic nationalities has never
applied such a strategy, but holds arms only for defensive
purpose. The similarity, however, is that ethnic nationalities
in Burma engage in civil war only because they are unable
to resolve the conflict through peaceful means. The A.R.M,
therefore, is, like any war, "the continuation of politics
by other means".
None of non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities in Burma believe
that the armed struggle or A.R.M. is the end game. It is only
for self-defence. However, "as long as SPDC wages war
on us", as one of CNF (Chin National Front) leaders said,
"killing our children in order to wipe out our future
generations, using rape as weapon of war against ethnic minorities
in the country, and applying religious persecution as the
method of destroying ethnic identities, especially against
the Chin Christians; our hands will be forced to hold arms
in order to protect our children, to defend our mothers, our
sisters and our homeland, and to uphold our dignity and identity
It is, therefore, very clear that the dialogue strategy does
not reject A.R.M. altogether. It encourages A.R.M as an important
"tactical means" for the movement, as part and parcel
of the pressures that should be put on military junta to bring
it to the dialogue table. It is essential to build unity among
ethnic armed groups, and support the efforts of the NDF (National
Democratic Front), the largest alliance of Ethnic Armed Groups
in Burma, and "Five Nations Military Alliance".
However, as Sun Tzu suggested, the long term goal of A.R.M
should be "to subdue the enemy without fighting",
which he said is "the acme of skill". The best military
"strategy is not only to achieve the nation's aims through
controlling or influencing its sphere of influence, but to
do so without resorting to fighting."
According to Sun Tzu, the best military strategy is the one
that can subdue the enemy through negotiation and talk without
fighting; that is what we call in our context "dialogue"
which will bring a "win-win" solution to the establishment
of a democratic government in Burma. A stable and peaceful
democratic Union of Burma will ensure regional stability and
world peace; it will no longer be a country that produces
all kind of narcotic drugs, HIV-AIDS disease, refugees, migrant
workers, etc., which cause many problems for our neighbouring
countries and international community as a whole.
War, including A.R.M, may sometimes be a necessary evil.
But, as Jimmy Carter said, "no matter how necessary,
it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how
to live together in peace by killing each other's children."
That's the reason why dialogue, not war, is calling for by
3. International Pressures
As mentioned above, "dialogue" was adopted by the
democracy movement as a grand strategy, and it was based on
the United Nations General Assembly resolution of 1994. This
indicates the fact that international pressure is view as
a very important strategic and tactical factor. In the ENSCC's
Road Map, the role of international community has been strongly
emphasized as follow:
We welcome and appreciate the concern of the international
community over the crisis in our country. We specifically
appreciate the leading role played by the United Nations,
and the efforts of the Government of Thailand to bring about
national reconciliation. We also appreciate the concern expressed
by the international community, in particular ASEM, ASEAN,
Canada, China, Japan, the European Union, Norway and the USA.
From the very beginning, the movement has adopted at least
three international pressure tracks, to put strong pressures
on the military junta to get it to the dialogue table. They
are, One, lobbying the UN, governments, regional blocs, neighboring
countries such as China, India, Japan, to bring about diplomatic
pressure for dialogue; Two, undertaking international campaigns,
calling for sanctions, exposing and condemning human rights
abuses by the regime, exposing forced labor practices, highlighting
the plight of political prisoners, and so on; and Three, calling
for international mediation..
The role of International Mediation has been highlighted
by the ENSSC's Road Map, saying that "to ensure that
the transition progresses smoothly and on schedule, we request
that the international community under the leadership of the
UN, Thailand, and ASEAN continue to assist in the transition
process". It is, therefore, very clear that the "third
party" involvement in this process is more than welcomed.
However, the exact role of third party intervention or involvement
still needs to be clarified, that is what kind of third party
involvement will be needed: Arbitration? Facilitation? Pure
Mediation? Or Power Mediation?
In this paper, I have explored: What is the ultimate goal
of democracy movement in Burma? What is the grand strategy
that the movement has adopted to achieve its goal? And what
are tactics that the movement has applied? I have argued that
the strategy and tactics may change in accordance with the
changing political situation has demanded, but the changing
strategy and tactics shall not affect the ultimate goal.
The central argument in this paper is that the fundamental
issues of political crisis in Burma is not only ideological
confrontation between democracy and totalitarianism, but a
constitutional problem rooted in the question of self-determination
for non-Myanmar (non-Burman) ethnic nationalities who joined
the Union as equal partners in 1947 at Panglong. The ultimate
goal of democracy movement in Burma, therefore, is not just
changing the government in Rangoon but to establish a genuine
democratic federal union, where various ethnic nationalities
from different backgrounds (ethnically, culturally, religiously,
linguistically, and historically, etc.,) can live peacefully
I have highlighted in this paper that since 1994, the movement
has adopted "dialogue" as the main strategy based
on the United Nation General Assembly's resolution which called
for a "tripartite dialogue". The main source of
"dialogue strategy", however, is derived from non-violent
actions which the movement has taken since 1988, under the
leadership of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. As such, non-violent actions
and international pressures become the most important tactics
in this movement, which put the pressures on the military
junta to bring it to a dialogue table.
I also argued that adopting "dialogue" as a "grand
strategy" does not undermine the "Armed Resistance
Movement" which most of the non-Myanmar ethnic groups
are engaging in order to defend themselves for more than five
decades. As a matter of fact, the armed resistance that all
the non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities in Burma engage in is
a defensive war. Moreover, they carry arms and waged an armed
struggle only because they are unable to resolve the conflict
through peaceful means. None of non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities
in Burma believe that the armed struggle or armed resistance
is the end game. It is only for self-defence.
Strategically speaking, armed resistance or struggle constitutes
only a tactical means, a part and parcel of the pressures
that should be put on the military junta in order to bring
them to a negotiating table.
Since the military junta is refusing to engage in dialogue,
it is essential to employ several tactics at once, to make
sure that the strategy works properly. All kind of tactics,
such as, Non-violent Actions (including Internal Pressures
and the so-called "People's Power"), Armed Resistance
Movement (A.R.M.) and International Pressures, etc., should
be integrated into the Grand Strategy of the entire movement
in order to produce a final victory.
Lian H. Sakhong
Dr. Lian H. Sakhong is the Advisor of National
Reconciliation Program and Secretary General of United Nationalities
League for Democracy - Liberated Areas (UNLD-LA). He received
a PhD from Uppsala University, Sweden.