Friday, October 21, 2011

Is a Burmese anti-war movement possible?

Friday, 21 October 2011 18:38 Salai Z T Lian

(Commentary) – Since the hero of Burma’s independence, General Aung San, was assassinated on July 19, 1947, every successive Burmese government has failed to honor the Panglong Agreement of the same year, which promised self-determination, democracy, federalism and equality for Burma’s ethnic minorities. After ethnic minorities did not receive the rights promised in the Panglong Agreement, several groups instigated revolution against the Burmese government. More than six decades later the country remains mired in civil war. Yet, despite the duration of the conflicts, anti-war demonstrations have failed to materialize.

As the civil wars between ethnic rebel groups, particularly the Kachin Independence Army and Karen National Liberation Army, and Burmese government in the northern and eastern parts of the country intensify, a few questions need to be raised. Does it really matter to the Burmese people if the civil wars end? Are the country’s influential leaders not serious enough in demanding the cessation of hostilities? Or, are the conflicts really not that important to them as they happen in boundary, ethnic regions?

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in an open letter to President Thein Sein and leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization, Karen National Union, New Mon State Party and the Shan State Army, has said she is ready to become involved in efforts to resolve ongoing armed conflicts. Moreover, following Suu Kyi’s overture, the Chin National Party, All Mon Region Democracy Party, Phalon-Sawaw Democratic Party, Shan Nationalities Democratic Party and Rakhine Nationalities Development Party also called on the government and ethnic armed groups to stop fighting and declare a ceasefire.

Nevertheless, despite the verbal attestations for peace, there has not yet been significant action. No opposition group has organized mass protests against the violence, even as the country’s civil wars continue. An anti-war movement could in fact serve as another social movement, similar to what transpired regarding the Myitsone dam project, in which Burmese people leave their differences behind and stand united in common cause.

Thousands of Burmese government soldiers are killed and wounded in these conflicts. Likewise, ethnic rebels are killed and injured. But the worst thing is the ordinary people that become victims of the wars – killed, tortured, raped and seeing the loss of their property. All consequences of war are painful indeed. What Burma gets from the civil wars is death, disability, heartbreak, poverty and environmental damage. Haven’t we had enough? Burma’s influential leaders should do something more than verbal urgings, prayers or the occasional statement aimed at stopping the wars.

How Americans demanded their government put an end to the Vietnam War may serve as a good lesson for Burmese. The U.S. anti-war movement began mostly on college campuses, as members of leftist organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society began organized events expressing their opposition to the war. As a result, by the end of 1965 a small but outspoken liberal minority was making its voice heard. This minority included students as well as prominent artists and intellectuals and represented a growing number of people who rejected the government’s insistence on waging war in Southeast Asia.

On October 21, 1967, a prominent anti-war demonstration took place, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Washington, D.C. Also in 1967, the anti-war movement received a big boost when the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. went public with his opposition to the war on moral grounds, condemning the war's diversion of federal funds from domestic programs as well as the disproportionate number of African-American casualties.

In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President, promising during his campaign to restore "law and order,” including confronting the increasing political protests. The following year, he claimed in a famous speech that anti-war protesters should not be allowed to drown out the “silent majority” of Americans. Eventually, however, and partially in response to the political mood on the streets, Nixon in 1973 announced an end to offensive operations in Vietnam.

Looking back at the success of the American anti-war effort, if anti-war really matters to Burmese people they have a good chance at also being successful, as President Thein Sein’s government appears more willing to listen to the people compared to previous Burmese governments.

Just as President Thein Sein surprised the public when he suspended the Myitsone dam project, he is similarly capable of putting an end to the mindless civil wars if politicians, activists, artists, writers and the public demand he act in such a manner. If the “Save the Irrawaddy” campaign could meet with success in stopping the Myitsone dam project, why can’t a similar campaign like “Enough Civil War!,” “Stop Killing!” or “Peace is Our Cause” also emerge successful? It is an action responsible Burmese leaders and citizens can undertake today. And the movement can serve as a further reminder to parties involved in the conflict that Burma’s civil wars can only be solved through political dialogue, not through military action.

Burmese should not let their fellow citizens, including children and women, die in the country’s stupid civil wars. Before it is too late they should take action, initiate an anti-war movement, and write a new chapter of Burmese history. That is, if anti-war really matters.

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