The Effects of the use of Fear and Violence in Civil Military Interactions in the State of Burma
The brutal use of violence and fear by Burma’s military dictatorship against its own citizens has created a unique pattern of interactions between the people of Burma and the Burmese military government. Burma’s military government is one of the most oppressive in the world and has violently held power since 1962. The military government is swift and meticulous in its actions and few moves are uncalculated quickly crushing all opposition. The brutality of the military government in Burma has changed the Burmese people and the Burmese way of life. How the Burmese people think, how they speak and how they act, all are in responses to acts violence perpetrated by the military government.
The history of Burma is long and complex. Buddhism, the religion of the country, was introduced in the sixth century Common Era and has been intertwined ever since into the history of the nation. The ancient kingdoms of Burma tried to create a Buddhist utopia, a stated goal/achievement of the current regime (Charnery 2006: 51). The past royal governments of Burma had no permanent bureaucracy making the power of the kings absolute and without question. An execution could happen with the slightest offense and many times did. The cultural construct of an absolute government, king, or general is something that up until very recently was never questioned. The idea of questioning and opposing the government is a new social construct that was adopted by pro-democracy groups relatively recently (Fink 2001: 14-15). This new idea to question the government came to Burma via colonialism through a process called satrapism. This is the process of applying foreign cultural values to ones own culture with a view that the new values are superior. This usually happens when a colonial power ingrains the idea, that its values are superior, into a dominated people. Such measures taken by the British Empire occurred frequently in Burma (May et al 1997:115).
The arrival of British merchants began in the 1600’s. The British took control of the colony of Burma using British Indian troops, who implemented severe policies in response to the escalating rebellions. The British army took to executing anyone that was pillaging and anyone who had a firearm (Callahan 2003:2-3). Under British rule, Burma became one of the richest colonies in the world by exporting huge amounts of rice and seventy five percent of the world’s teak; economic success however was short lived.
In 1948, the newly independent government tried to create a welfare state in Burma. The Two-Year Economic Development plan implanted to install this policy was a complete failure. Then on March, 2 1962, a military coup d’etatof Ne Wintook control over the government and installed a new government lead by the military. “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” Ne Win’s economic policy: isolated, dismantled and stagnated the Burmese economy. This takeover was marked by the complete elimination of all political rivals and opposition. The “new order” as it was called, closed the country to the outside world. In 1974, a new constitution was created in Burma, which sanctioned the State Law and Order Restoration Council to enable governing the country (May 2000:4-5). This became the country’s de facto governing body up until 1990 when a new military coup toppled the government.
Throughout the mid 80’s various anti-government protests were put down by the government, which eventually culminated and lead to the killing of student activist Phone Maw, touching off massive protests. The 8888 uprising started on August 8th 1988, by university students in Yangon Burma’s former capital. Before the crackdown on dissidence in the 8888 uprising the military while not having a completely spotless record it was not fully associated with the oppressive authoritarian government (May et al 2000:22-24). Demonstrations by students demanding democracy quickly spread throughout the country. The uprising only ended by a military coup by general Saw Maung in 1990 and with the creation of the State Peace and Development Council forming a new government. The new government was know as the State Law and Order Restoration Council up until 1997 when it was changed to the State Peace and Development Counsel, changing the official name of the governing junta to SPDC (May et al 2000:4-5).
During the uprising there were rumors that some military units were actually supporting the pro-democracy demonstrators. These were not the only rumors that people heard about military units during the uprising. There were also rumors that the leaders of the military government were orchestrating the pro-democracy demonstrations in order to use the instability as a pretext for reasserting control over the state. In the final stages of the uprising, as many as 3,000 people, mostly monks and students, were said to have been killed by government troops known as the tatmadaw, official government numbers are much lower (May 2000:23-26). The effects of the 1988 uprising on the entire nation of Burma were long lasting and profound.
With the installment of Saw Maung, the country appeared as if it was on its way toward national reconciliation and democratic developments. Saw Maung even called for a constitutional assembly in 1989 and in1990 Burma held democratic elections. The elections were a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy commonly known as the NLD (Fink 2001:28). Once clear, who the winner of the election was, the military government refused to recognize the results of the election and put the leaders of theNLD under house arrest. One of the leaders Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of independence era general Aung San who was instrumental in securing Burma’s independence from Britain. Throughout the late nineteen nineties and into the early twenty first century little progress was made in terms of recognizing the election results of 1990. Aung San Suu Kyi was put in and out of house arrest under various charges and sometimes not charges at all. In 1991, Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the noble peace prize for her calls for non-violence when the junta refused to recognize the results of the election (Fink 2001:34).
In 1992, Saw Maung was replaced by the junta with general Than Shwe. General Than Shwe at first appeared to be more progressive than his predecessor. In 1993, he allowed for a national convention to draft a new constitution. He did this with the conditions that the military must have a place of power in the new government. In 1995, he lifted the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, but still kept her confined within the city limits of Yangon. In 1996, the national convention was dismissed without drafting a constitution. (May et al 2000:95). In 2005, the national convention reconvened but was dissolved again in 2006 without any progress.
Mid-August 2007, a second major uprising began. Monks protesting a rise in fuel costs that affected the prices of consumer goods marched through the streets of the country (Associated Press 2007). The fact that it was monks protesting and not normal people was significant in Burma. The reason for such significance stems from the highly religious and traditional aspects of society monks. They are highly revered and moving against themcreated a risk of inciting more protests because of the highly religious Burmese people.
In Burma, there are about half a million monks with about eighty to ninety percent of the country estimated to be Buddhist. The large portion of Buddhists in Burma served as monks for a short period in their lives (Skidmore 2004:112). The protests eventually culminated in an estimated four hundred thousand people protesting in the streets of Yangon and a violent government crackdown leaving anywhere from eight up to three thousand people dead (Associated Press 2007). Throughout these events since her parties victory in the 1990 election opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has been in and out of house arrest for the past eighteen years. She is a symbol of hope for many Burmese people. Her Gandhi like non-violent protesting has inspired the people of her country to protest that was consequently exemplified in the events of the summer of 2007.
In some countries, events like those that occurred in the summer of 2007 would spark a revolution because the government does not know what it is getting into. The government of Burma may have allowed the monks and some other civilian to protest for a few months but only to get everything in place to not botch the crackdown. The military in very calculated successive operations: closed the borders, cut off internet and phone access in and out of the country and shut down all but state run media organizations. During this media blackout, shots were reportedly fired at crowds and all of the remainingleaders of the pro-democracy movement were arrested. Also, foreign powers and the U.N were given reassurances that the country was now moving toward national reconciliation. After nine days of little to no communication with the outside world, the lines were opened again. Soon reports of the atrocities leaked out to the world through smuggled videos and dissident blogs, but the government had regained control. In the immediate aftermath, the most chilling report was about the eerie calm that held grip over the country (U.S. Policy World, Burma).
When speaking in small private conversations, the Burmese refer to different parts of the military in different ways. Before the domination of the country by the military, the word tatmadaw was a neutral term used to describe the armed forces. In the past forty-nine years the use of the word has changed from a neutral and objective word to a word that is stigmatized with negative violent associations. In Burma today when referring to ‘the military,’ the people use the word tatmadaw. Specifically the word refers to the small group of military elite that makes up the junta and the SPDC. The unique situation of seemingly perpetual military rule has led people to change and modify their normal linguistic patterns. The use of tatmadaw to describe the junta exemplifies how the daily lives of the Burmese have been affected; changing the word’s conditions to quantify changing situations. The actual soldiers are not thought of with the same amount of hostility or hatred, relatively the least out of any part of the regime. The actual institution of the military is seen somewhere in the middle between the soldiers and the junta (May et al 2000:49-51). This shows how the people of Burma are able to differentiate betweenthe people giving the orders and the people following the orders.
There are other words that have been given a meaning specific to the situation in Burma. Sei’ htounde,refers to the state of numbness felt by the Burmese people. It literally means ‘the mind wonders,’ referring to the withdrawn state that many Burmese people have as a result of the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty (Skidmore 2004:189).
The use of Sei’ htounde before this current situation was applicable in a variety of applications in language. Now the word is limited to descriptions of the specific state of peoples being.Language is a huge part of culture and has a significant role in defining the context that something is being perceived. Language frames the context that you can understand and comprehend events that are significant and meaningful. When language changes, it changes how we understand what is being said and what it implies. The negative stigma given to the world that means ‘military’and its association with violence is a new sociolinguistic definition. The changing sociolinguistic definitions in Burmese change the way that Burmese people frame and contextualize the world and their worldview.
Burma’s tradition of authoritarian government has placed it into a seemingly endless cycle of authoritarianism. Burmese past traditions of absolute monarchy have made the actions taken by the military government more acceptable than it would be in more historically democratic governments such as in Europe or the North America. Burma, compared to western societies has very little tradition of civil service or candid political debate. The concept of loyaltyto the king, fused with strong Confucian ideas about social order, provides no basis for public opposition to the regime. The idea of this ridged social structure does not allow for peasants to have any right to voice concern over their conditions.
The military regime in Burma is not universally detested as it is portrayed by the western media. The military junta enjoys strong support from the rural sector of society. The military government has done little to provide a better life for the isolated rural Burmese present than did the monarchy or the British. The Burmese present life is no different then it was four hundred years ago, they do not know anything different than the status quo making them complacent. The urban centers of population though have a quiet resentment for the regime, having more exposure to the outside world and, at times, third party news sources.
The idea of infinite power in the hands of the government is not a new idea and is not totally unacceptable to Burmese standards. Depending on whom you talk to, you will get different responses to questions about the government and what the Burmese people think about it. In the cities there is fear and worry that the government will never allow the election results to be honored and that evenmore opposition leaders will be arrested or killed. In the countryside, extreme poverty puts politics on the back burner of peoples minds making ends meat is the main priority for most people. Poor rural farmers are much more complacent to the government polices toward them. Since the rural peasants are complacent there is very little violence perpetrated against them. Also in the rural parts of Burma there is strict adherence to Confucian ideas about social order (Callahan 2003:75).
The military government of Burma has created an atmosphere of a perpetual state of emergency. The military is seeking to justify its attempt to create, in other words a ‘Buddhist utopia,’ through force. Under the pretext of the ‘greater good,’ violence and intimidation are practiced throughout the country. According to an ethnography on political military violence in Burma and its affects on its people, Monique Skidmore states, “the régime claims to be the ultimate arbiter of what must be preserved in Burma and what must be given to the way of dystopian, authoritarian view of “progress”. The government’s official documents claim to have jurisprudence over what is good and what is bad, what people must do and not do, what the people should believe and what they should not.
Skidmore (2004:38) contests that living in astate of emergency continuously brings forth emotions such as “suspicion, distrust, and fear.” The most common emotion felt from this is fear. Fear being relative to time, distorts what one thinks will happen in the future. Fear is the preconceived notion that something in the future is going to go wrong or get worse. Fear presents infinite possibilities of something negative happening. According to Skidmore (2004:38), the “Burmese government confuses and controls and distorts time with the aims of stopping the Burmese people from imaging futures other then the one maintaining their incorporation into to the Burmese authoritarian state.” This is a serious and profound ideology that the military government is in fact distorting its own people’s perception of time and to look to the future in order to gain control of them.It is a physiological brain washing of an entire population in order to retain control over the state. The disorientation of time is at its pinnacle during large showings of strength by the military, particularly during mass arrests and violence against civilians.
Skidmore (2004:54) also contests that normal body language has changed in Burma due to the military junta. In Burmese society, expressing emotion is considered distasteful. Thus when people for example from western culture would express for example anger perhaps at a government action they would do so in a more noticeable way than someone from Burma. Most Burmese use blank expressions in order to hide their displeasure with the military junta.Fear is heightened by the continuous presence of military personnel on many street comers. Also it is common knowledge in Burma that many traffic officers are in fact military personal in disguise. The military junta also includes the Department of Psychological Warfare and a huge propaganda machine within its government structure. During times of heightened unrest or times of heightened media dissent, internet access and phone access is cut off, stopping all information from flowing in and out off the country. Logistically, this prevents opposition leaders from organizing from abroad as well as trying to hide as well as human rights abuses that would be criticized in the western media. The limit on the flow of information is also part of the psychological warfare being waged on the Burmese people by their own government. All the while the free flow of people across the Burmese borders is halted during times of unrest. Skidmore’s (2004:60), account becomes more telling of the efficiency of the psychological conditioning of the Burmese government on the people of Burma when she describes how she started to experience the effects first hand. Even as a foreigner she still felt the effects of the fear that grips the country. Towards the end of her fieldwork, she begins to double check trucks to make sure they were not riot police because of similar paint jobs on the trucks. She describes experiencing fear even when encountering an institution that supported the military regime. The effects were so severe that she continued to have nightmares of violence weeks after her departure from Burma and then again while writing her book.
The effects of the Burmese psychological warfare affected Skidmore differently from a Burmese citizen because she was not raised in that environment.Skidmore had something to fear because she had never been in a situation like this before that was so overwhelmingly uncertain what would happen next. The people of Burma live everyday of their lives under these conditions of uncertainty plunging many of the people of Burmainto Sei’ htoude (Skidmore 2004:43-46).
The psychological warfare works both ways affecting both the citizens of Burma as well as employees of the government. Government officials are constantly being told that there is descendent activity and that they are in a state of emergency and must be vigilant. Many times local politicians or police forces become so over zealous that they become suspicious of every action taken by any citizen. Looking for an underlying motive by any group or person, a motive that may or my not be there, creates fear and instability within the government leads to more authoritarianism.
The MI or Ministry of Information routinely canvases shops in Yangon thought to be used by dissident activists. Shops that sell microphones, paper for banners or paper for leaflets are watched by agents (Skidmore 2004:76). This type of activity is intimidation by the government. It is common knowledge that the government practices this by intimidating its own population from doing something as simple as buying paper. Penalizing people for doing something that could possibly be used for subversive actions is a common place.
Manyof the students at the universities or the pro-western leaning peopleof the urban centers believe that there are Ministry of Information Agents everywhere: in tea shops, on street corners, and any public place that people might congregate. The idea that anyone you talk to could be a government informer is an idea that puts most people on edge. The military junta has such a firm grip over the country that the majority of the people of Burma censor themselves, but for their own protection, not out of loyalty other state. Whether they work in the Burmese government or are just ordinary city dwellers, the population of Burma has changed its behavioral patterns in as a reaction to the military junta.Politics is something thatyou rarely will ever hear spoken about in a public place. Only in the safety of ones home and in the company of close trusting friends would a Burmese person discuss their political viewpoints; this is not true for the teashops of Burma.
Urban centers such as Yangon teashops are popular and visited frequently by students and intellectuals. Teashops become a breeding ground for dissident ideology. In order to stem the congregation of political dissidents, laws were enacted to punish shop owners if anti-government politics were being discussed in their shop. They can face fines and even jail time for owners who even allow people to talk negatively about the government in their shop. In order to enforce these new laws, Ministry of Information agents in plain clothing frequently visit the shops to try and overhear what is being said about the government and to arrest anyone who speaks negatively about it. Again, the people of Burma have modified their behavior in order to accommodate the military junta. This change in behavior has economic implications as well, teashop owners being forced to use less tables then they would if they could space them closer together. Owners of tea shops have taken to spacing their tables so far apart that it is not possible to hear what is being said at the next table unless they are talking loudly, something a political dissident would never do (Skidmore 2004:100).
The Government of Burma has many methods of intimidating its own citizen’s through the use of fear, violence and manipulation. Its citizens are under a constant barrage of pro-government propaganda and pro-government state run media. The nation of Burma has never beforein its history seen a government that has made its own people act so peculiarly. The people of Burma do not talk about their government because they are not allowed. Their government, which is such an overbearing, integral part of their everyday life, whose actions and dissensions affect them directly. The Burmese have changed their behavior, use of language and thought process in order to adjust their lives to living under the brutal rule of a military dictator.