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Non-violent resistance in Burma
has history - but not all of it -
on its side



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

October 5, 2007

LONDON - The kind of non-violent protest we are now witnessing in Burma/Myanmar doesn’t always bear edible fruit - see Ukraine where last weekend’s election has just confirmed the country’s inherent instability. Neither does this holier-than-thou approach always politically disarm the enemy. It did often enough for Gandhi and for Martin Luther King but it certainly didn’t for the students of Tiananmen Square who were brutally and unsparingly crushed, despite their success in opening up immense fissures in the ruling Communist Party elite.

In Czechoslovakia in 1968 the unarmed demonstrators certainly demoralised the local Soviet soldiers and the satraps in the Czech administration. They also succeeded in bringing the economy almost to a halt but they did not undermine the hard men in Moscow who simply piled on the pressure until the resistance cracked.

But we should be sanguine about the chances of the saffron protestors. They don’t have an invincible force to overcome - or at least one of the muscle of the Soviet Union or China. Differences of opinion have already appeared among the military leaders. Moreover, external pressure has been piling up for years and has succeeded in isolating Myanmar in many important ways. The recent decision of Washington to go for the leaders’ private foreign bank accounts was long overdue.

Not least, the Burmese protestors have the non-violent traditions of Buddhism to draw upon. This may be scorned by the generals, indeed by many ordinary Burmese too, just as the early Christian non-violent teachings have been put on one side in the West since the days of Constantine, but in Burma they ring many bells at all sorts of levels, especially so since the clergy appear to be united and are out on the streets en masse.

One must contrast this with the Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka who have been at the forefront of the military attempt to turn back the Tamil insurgency. Buddhism, 1,600 years after its founder’s death, has gone in all sorts of directions, but one influence has continued - the power of the clergy, both for good and ill.

We are constantly told that the twentieth century was the “bloodiest century in history”. So it was in many ways. But it was also the greatest century for non-violent activism. “Strength”, wrote Gandhi, the century’s most successful practitioner, “does not come from physical capacity, it comes from an indomitable will.”

Detractors have always maintained that Gandhi had a civilized enemy. But if you talk to the old men among the Pathans on either side of the strategic Khyber Pass you will hear a different story. They too, from 1930 on, practised non-violence against the British but the British shot thousands of them, tortured, flogged and hung them.

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The Danes also showed what could be done against an uncivilized enemy. At first the Danes, realizing they stood no chance, reacted passively to the German invasion. But by stealth they undermined the German war effort - go slows, sabotage and transport delays were the weapons at hand. When in October 1943 the Germans announced their decision to deport the Jews, the Danes hid almost the entire Jewish population and smuggled them in small boats to Sweden. The 400 or so Jews that the Germans managed to deport were not forgotten - the Danish government relentlessly pressed inquiries on their behalf. Because of this not one Danish Jew ended up in Auschwitz.

Non-violence like violence sometimes works; sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps a lot depends on leadership - the students made a bad mistake in Tiananmen Square by refusing to link up with workers and businessmen who offered their help, mainly out of a sense of old Chinese intellectual snobbism. In Chicago, when Martin Luther King moved his campaign north, he was outwitted by Mayor Richard Daley who refused to fall into the trap of his southern colleagues and repress King’s activities on prime time television.

But against this one has Hannah Arendt’s shrewd observation: “The practice of violence changes the world, but the most probably change is a more violent world”. At the very least one can say of China and Hungary that the situation, after the clampdowns, didn’t worsen for long. Most of the protestors and reformers were able to live to work for reform another day. Massive bloodshed did not work to block their future progress.

The Palestinians need to take a hard look at non-violence as a tactic. The Intifada and its offshoots have merely reinforced Israeli resentment and bloody mindedness. A Gandhian campaign might not bring instant change, but if persisted with it it might lower the guard of the Israelis and make negotiated change again a possibility.

The Palestinians should take a good look at Burma; they might over the coming days learn a thing or two, although nothing is guaranteed.


Copyright © 2007 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International




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