Democracy for Burma:
The Missing Links
"We must change our attitude towards our democracy movement."
History As Our Guide
Our people, our culture, and our history are things that we should never forget. If we don't have a
strong sense of history, a strong sense of identity, there is a concern about what this means to the
future of our nation. If we love our country, we must always remember our heritage and preserve it dearly.
It is said that most people learn by their experiences. That experience can be divided into two forms,
direct and indirect experiences. What we have learnt through our own involvement in our democracy movement
can be an example of a direct experience. The world's history is the source of important information regarding
other people's experiences; in other words, this is an example of the indirect experience.
Bismarck was quoted saying "Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others' experiences."
Direct experiences are inherently too limited to form an adequate foundation, either for theory or for
application. The greater value of an indirect experience lies in its greater variety and extent. World history
is a universal experience'- the experience not of another, but of many others under various conditions. Thus,
it is one of the most important and rational justifications for military history as the basis of military
education. This is due to its preponderant practical value in the use of history that it factors a significant
part in the training and mental development of a soldier.
As we all know, we are also global citizens. That's another reason why we have to learn our world's history.
Our movement's strategy should be based not only on our own history, but also on the history of the world.
As it is widely known, Burma was under the British colonial rule that started in 1886 and ended in 1948.
During this time, all our people were united under the banner of freedom from colonial power. Our people never
stopped thinking about freedom, they had enjoyed life under our own kings and queens before the British
colonized our country. That's why they continuously carried out several revolts against the British rule
throughout the country-from Saya San's Peasant Revolution, to the National Liberation Movement led by our
beloved national hero General Aung San. There were strong links between the leaders and the whole populace
of Burma. Those leaders had clearly demonstrated the leadership's quality, such as how to correctly mobilize
our people based on the afore-mentioned direct and indirect experiences. That's the main reason why Burma
became an independence country in 1948.
For years and even centuries, world history has taught us about what other people all over the world have
done for their respective countries. No nation on earth is immune to hardships, sufferings or human
casualties when it comes to fighting for justice, freedom, and democracy or even the struggle for
However, we should not import revolutions from the outside; in other words, we cannot copy them blindly,
but we should learn history lessons from many countries from around the globe, and use their experiences as
good references for our movement. We also need to study the leadership qualities even from our enemies. To
only study the leadership qualities of people whose actions we admire or approve of would be to deny oneself
the examples of some of the world's most influential leaders. Just as Field Marshal Montgomery had kept a
framed photograph of Erwin Rommel in his caravan throughout the Desert campaign, we should try to study our
enemy's leadership techniques in order to be able to defeat him. The countries mentioned below are excellent
examples for us to learn from. The first is from Africa and the second is a neighboring country.
Democratic Republic of South Africa
The famous ANC (African National Congress) was founded on 8th January 1912. South African people have
done a lot and gone through all kinds of sacrifices, including losing their lives during the period between
1912 and 1994. They have also instituted several changes regarding the ANC's strategies and tactics during
that same period of time. In the 1940s, young men and women in their mid-twenties and early thirties, who
were mainly teachers or students of medicine or law, became dissatisfied with the manner in which how things
were being done by the ANC, and the pace at which they were getting done.
According to Francis Meli, the author of the book "South Africa Belongs To Us," the ANC Youth
League headed by Nelson Mandela was formed in 1943. The aim was simple and honest, a desire to remould
the ANC. They set about recruiting a broader membership organizing a permanent youth league within the ANC.
Also because of the grave situation, the ANC even introduced a new Strategy of Armed Resistance in 1961.
It declared that the people's patience is not endless. There is a time that comes in the life of any nation
when there remain only two choices, to submit or to fight. That time has come for South Africa. We too should
not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means within our power in the defense of our people,
our future and our freedom---we are striking out along a new road for the liberation of the people of this country.
The Government's policy of force, repression, and violence will no longer be met with non-violent resistance
alone. The ANC's leaders knew that they had to try something drastically different in order to save both the
country and themselves. That's why they have ended up with such great success. Nelson Mandela, President of
the ANC, became the first President of a newly established Democratic Republic of South Africa on 10th May 1994.
It took more than 80 years for the South African People to successfully establish their country as
"Democratic Republic of South Africa."
People's Republic of China (PRC)
Mao Tse-Tung and eleven other students formed the Chinese Communist party in 1921. In 1930, Mao and his
army dominated much of the Kiangsi province, but it was in that same year that Chiang Kai-Shek launched
the first of five " Final Extermination Campaigns" against them. Four years later, 90,000 of the defeated
Red forces found themselves embarked upon the 'Long March.' On October 20, 1935, a year after beginning its
incredible trek, Mao's section of the Red Army reached its goal -Shensi province in the far Northwest of
China. They had marched 368 days, crossed 18 mountains ranges, forded 24 rivers, fought a skirmish along
the line almost everyday of the trek, passed through 12 provinces and escaped, tricked, or defeated
Kumington armies numbering half a million men. By the time they emerged from the Great Grasslands, Mao's
forces had been reduced to a mere seven thousand men.
In our school days, we studied and learnt about famous heroes and warriors like Napoleon and Hannibal.
In a sense, Mao and his Red Army's achievement was a mighty accomplishment. Indeed, in many ways it made
Napoleon's retreat from Moscow seem like a picnic and Hannibal's crossing of the Alps a holiday excursion.
In 1949, Mao Tse-Tung's communists won control of China and drove Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers into
exile on the island of Formosa. On October 1, 1949, Mao Tse-Tung, Chairman of the Communist party, read a
proclamation: "In the name of the Consultative Political Assembly and the Chinese People, I proclaim the People's Republic of China." It took about 28 years for the Chinese Communist party to establish their
country as "People's Republic of China."
Second Burmese Independence Movement
Why are the Burmese people still unsuccessful in their struggle for the restoration of democracy in Burma
since 1962? Do we have books on the history of Burma's democracy movement covering the period starting from
1962? Our democracy movement has already gone through four decades, but we can't find reliable books on
the history of the NLD Party, the history of the ABSDF, the history of the ABFSU and many other organizations
that are fighting for democracy. There has been a great need for these types of books, for example, a book
was written by an ABSDF member(s) on the history of the ABSDF. We know that there are quite a lot of books
written by people looking in from the outside. But one disturbing fact is that not all of their theories
are acceptable or friendly to us. We need serious reviews or assessments, based on real facts, on our
Burmese democracy movement, so that we can take important lessons from our own history and keep away
from repeatedly committing similar mistakes.
Please remember that the Burmese military junta has tried very hard to distort and rewrite our history
in order for them to belittle our struggle for the restoration of democracy and freedom in our country.
We should not forget that Burma has been in the " Dark Ages" since 1962. The whole populace has been
isolated not only from the outside world but also brainwashed by the military junta's well-organized
propaganda institutions since 1962. But Students, workers, peasants, monks have demonstrated and have
shown their strongest determination, during U Thant's crisis and 8888 people's power uprising, to
restore freedom, justice and democracy in Burma. Many people have sacrificed their lives while the
rest of the fifty million people have gone through all kinds of hardships and sufferings since 1962.
Because of those efforts, the whole populace of Burma received one single opportunity in 1990 to restore
a democratic system of government, but they failed to grasp it.
It has proved relatively easy throughout history for leaders to find people willing to kill for them.
What has been far more difficult is to find people willing to die for them. This is the real situation for
Burma. The Burmese military junta has misused all kinds of resources for their survival, including bribery
with which they won over people to be their supporters. They have monopolized the mass media since 1962,
including newspapers and television and used it as powerful tools to brainwash the whole populace.
To understand the impact of their propaganda institutions, I would like to tell you about two famous
experiments undertaken in America some years ago. The first experiment was the Milgram experiment,
demonstrated beyond question that timid, kind decent souls' could become monsters if offered the chance.
According to the second experiment, the Asch's experiment, there were three participants who had to
look at three lines shown on a screen and were asked to say which line was the longest of the three.
One of the lines was obviously made longer than the other two. One of the participants was a volunteer,
but the volunteer didn't know that the other two participants were investigators. At first, all three
of them answered correctly. After some time, the two investigators/participants intentionally answered
incorrectly. At first the volunteer would protest and point out the truth, but astonishingly he very
quickly went along with the opinion of the other two and in the end chose the obviously wrong answers.
The Asch experiment illustrates quite easily it is for people to say yes, or conform to the majority's views.
This has very disturbing implications for the way we view the tractability of human nature and it shows
how easily people can be led into disbelieving or ignoring the evidence before their own eyes.
Our revolutionary party must draw upon the broad masses of people, they must enjoy their support,
must seek their protection and emerge from among them. The People's participation is the most important
factor among all our requirements for our democracy movement. Without the people's support and their
participation, our struggle for restoration of democracy in Burma can never be materialized. As we all
know, the military rule in Burma has already exceeded four decades. The whole populace has been
brainwashed by the military propaganda institutions, including the powerful military intelligence
department, the one million strong USDA, and the whole mass media, since 1988. Now we know how serious
our country's problem is.
Having understood the situation, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has determined to establish the strong link
between her party and the whole populace of Burma and has made several organized tours throughout the
country. Because of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's successful organized tours, the Burmese military has completely
destroyed the functions of the NLD since 30 May 2003. Now we should accept the reality that our democracy
movement has reached the crucial crossroads if not at it's dead-end.
Please remember Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's important message "Please use your liberty, to promote ours."
This message meant a lot to all of us including all the exile opposition groups and the international community.
Most of us are in Western democracies where we enjoy freedom, justice and equality. We, the exile opposition
groups, should seriously share the burden of our democracy movement, if we don't want to leave it to the mercy
of the Burmese military junta.
We know perfectly well that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is an excellent leader, she has already done her duty
for years while the rest of us, especially the majority of our exile opposition groups have wasted more
than 15 years. Now is the time for all of us, as a last chance, to seriously review what we have done since
1988 and to individually make an honest assessment on each opposition group. Due to the lack of reviews,
assessments, transparency and accountability, our exile opposition groups have missed all the opportunities
and ended up with nowhere to go. We should embrace the reality that wishful thinking cannot replace the real
facts of life. What we need is "Change."
We must change our attitude towards our democracy movement. We must introduce different approaches or
drastically different strategies before it is too late to save our country and our people.
"To improve is to change, to be perfect is to change often."
- Winston Churchill
We should strive to reestablish the following links if we really want to help the whole populace of Burma
reach their goal successfully:
- To establish strong links (reconciliation) among all exile opposition groups and ethnic opposition groups,
as a long-term objective, by striving to put aside all differences and find ways and means to work together.
It is rather too late to wait for the day of absolute unity among us, but we should immediately create
cooperation and coordination based on our common cause or common interest among our groups.
- To make honest assessments of all our groups and make them known among all exile groups, share experience
and learn lessons from our own mistakes.
- To refrain from putting blames on others, personal attacks, and to welcome all constructive
criticisms based on real facts from anybody. Please remember no individual or no organization is immune to
- To put more emphasis on producing important documentations like books on history of our movement, history
of the NLD, ABSDF, etc.
- To establish the strong link between the whole populace of Burma and all opposition groups (empowering of
our people inside Burma)
- To prepare for an all-out war on the SPDC (we are fighting against an illegal military government of Burma.
Our opposition groups should have an organization that has all the features of a government. It has a
responsibility to nurture the practice of democracy and to compete with the SPDC in every respect.
Lobbying foreign governments and the international community is not enough. It should act like a
- To establish a strong link between the NLD party headed by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the exile opposition
- To strive to work closely with the international community including the United Nations, foreign
governments and NGOs.
U Than Aung. With this article I would like to salute all the political prisoners inside Burma,
especially to our fearless student leader Minn Ko Naing.
This commentary is based on an article written by U Than Aung that appeared on
Mizzima.com on 2004-03-26. The article has been edited for inclusion on the Burma Watch
International Web site.