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 between people.”

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 in Burma.

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.


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 assemblies.

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 ethnic domination”.

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.


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 and conflict.

•  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 citizensas an individual citizens and collective members of ethnic communitiesto 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 are:
• 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 federal system).

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 achieved.

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 and venue)?
(ii) How to choose the representatives: that is, who will participate in the process, and what shall be the method of representation?
(iii) Agreeing on basic rules and procedures;
(iv) Dealing with preconditions for negotiation and barriers to dialogue;
– 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 Kyi.
(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 Convention”.

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 basic principles:

1. A peaceful resolution of the crisis in the Union,
2. The resolution of political problems through political dialogue,
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 “ultimate goal”.

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.


Tactics: Non-violent Actions (Internal Pressures, People’s Power), Armed Resistance Movement, and International Pressures, etc.

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 step forward.

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 disintegrated.

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 intact.”  

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 all.

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 together.

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
Uppsala, 2003-10-23

Share it on

Leave a Comment

To protect and promote human rights and democratic principles