Beyond nonviolence: Lessons from Myanmar's insurgent society

Gandhian nonviolence may not be effective in all contexts.

On 7 September, Myanmar's parallel government made up of lawmakers deposed by the military, National Unity Government (NUG), issued a nationwide call to arms against the coup regime, referring to it as a “people’s defensive war”. It came just a day after the ASEAN Special Envoy to Myanmar, Erywan Yosuf, called on all parties to cease fire for four months to allow humanitarian access.

The NUG has asked armed groups, including ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), to attack the military wherever they can. And a majority of the Burmese people support the NUG and it's insurrectionist methods of resistance. This is the revolution for them. Nonviolence isn't an option.

Not after the military regime deployed battle-hardened infantry units in Yangon and Mandalay to kill peaceful protestors. Not after it tortured to death dozens of young activists who had lived barely a quarter of their lives. Not after it pounded ethnic areas with artillery and airstrikes, causing widespread civilian casualty and displacement.

There is also a #CivilDisobedienceMovement going on, but people don't see it as antithetical to the popular armed movement that has emerged since March. Rather, they see both as working together to resist the Tatmadaw's brutal rule — a peculiar case where nonviolence and violence have come together under one single revolutionary umbrella to mount a resistance on all fronts.

While the nonviolent pushback dilutes the junta's civil legitimacy and governability, the violent insurrection degrades its tactical strike capacity and strategic paramountcy — a comprehensive resistance movement, in many ways.

With the military regime already stretched thin on both its administrative mandate (thanks to widespread civil strikes and general boycotts) and it's strategic capabilities on the frontlines (thanks to a multi-front armed resistance mounted by EAOs and local civil defence groups), an NUG-led call for a nationwide insurrection could cripple it further. Add to this the unprecedented levels of defections that the Tatmadaw has suffered recently from its disaffected rank and file.

The timing of NUG’s call – one day after the ASEAN Special Envoy’s ceasefire proposal (which the military seems to have accepted) – sends a crystal clear message to third parties trying to mediate the crisis: peace will come to Myanmar only on the terms of the common people, and not military Generals hiding in their fortified barracks or diplomats sitting in other countries.

Here's the bigger point that the situation in Myanmar drives – Gandhian methods of nonviolent resistance don't work well in the face of an ultra-violent authority that isn't willing to listen to the people. Doesn’t matter if it is in a country that has a Nobel peace laureate – who has consistently avoided lending active support to an armed struggle – for a political lighthouse. In today’s context, a solely nonviolent struggle would only end up empowering the military regime, which remains pathologically averse to dialogue, deliberations and democracy, and exploits ceasefires to continuously boost its own position.

In fact, Myanmar is a profound reminder that violence can be as ideological as nonviolence; that one isn't morally superior to the other — something that non-stakeholders and privileged observers often fail to acknowledge.

An all-out war is a heavy gamble for everyone, including those lending moral support to the cause. War isn’t pretty and can be all-consuming, after all. Yet, it is a gamble that most people in Myanmar, including the ethnic majority, are willing to take today for a better tomorrow. They know that the military is already at war with its own people, and has been since the last six decades. Very clearly, the Burmese people don’t want to fight this war on the backfoot. Understandable, I say.