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No One-size-fits-all Approach to Myanmar’s Anti-military Coup Protests

2021/5/15 — 16:52

Protesters throw water in an effort to control tear gas fired by police during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 2, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Protesters throw water in an effort to control tear gas fired by police during a demonstration against the military coup in Yangon on March 2, 2021. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

For years, political nonviolence versus violence has been an important topic of debate in political philosophy, with revisionist scholars illustrating their views through a number of hypothetical examples in an attempt to avoid the partisanship of orthodox interpretation in real-world cases [1]. However, in the case of Myanmar, there is no single way for the people to react to the coup d’état, which began on 1 February 2021.

Political nonviolence fails to show its merits in Myanmar’s protests

To recap the main arguments in favour of nonviolent protest, some suggest that nonviolent resistance is the only means of protest that preserves the moral high ground and gains the sympathy or even support of the international community. In contrast, violence allows the political authorities to infiltrate the protesters and then launch indiscriminate attacks, thereby undermining the purity of the protests. Moreover, some supporters of nonviolence argue that violent protests encourage the government to suppress the protests through force, rather than to make concessions. Adherents to nonviolent civil disobedience emphasise the importance of upholding the principle of publicity, i.e., the main organisers of protests should disclose their identities and announce their actions publicly, so as to fairly notify the political authorities and uphold the principle of being willing to accept legal punishment. This would, they argue, illustrate protesters’ fulfilment of moral responsibility and their respect for the legal system. 

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However, the aforementioned principles and merits of political nonviolence are not applicable in the case of Myanmar’s anti-military coup protests. The armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power through an illegitimate military coup. Consequently, the political legitimacy of restoring military rule has been called into question and overthrowing it by violent means has become justifiable. While it is perhaps true that nonviolent protesters can gain the sympathy of the international community, especially when brutal regimes oppress peaceful protests, it would be hypocritical for the international community to insist that Myanmar’s protesters remain nonviolent, given that the armed forces repeatedly suppress peaceful demonstrations brutally and without any hesitation. Under these circumstances, it would also be ridiculous to ask protesters to disclose their identities and the details of their actions in advance, surrender themselves to the military or the police, or show willingness to accept legal punishment. On the contrary, concealing their identities and escaping arrest is morally justifiable.

It is worth noting that John Rawls, who is famous for developing the philosophical framework of civil disobedience in his “A Theory of Justice”, specified that the ethical rules of civil disobedience only apply to protesters who live in a polity of constitutional democracy, in which the overall legal system is nearly just. For dissidents confronted by authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, Rawls believes that the use of political violence is morally justifiable, though he states that he does not intend to elaborate on this part in detail.

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Neither violence nor strategic surrender can guarantee success

The adherents of political violence highlight that escalating violence is the only answer when nonviolent protests repeatedly fail to facilitate any fruitful dialogue with the political authorities. Some go further, arguing that maintaining nonviolent protests against authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar’s military government would be akin to throwing the protestors to the wolves. Yet, due to the huge inequality in firepower between the protesters and the Tatmadaw, and the fact that the latter has no intention of restraining from bloody suppression, neither violent nor nonviolent protests have a reasonable chance of success if there is no humanitarian intervention from foreign powers.

Apart from maintaining nonviolent protests and escalating protest violence, the third option is to adopt strategic patience by temporarily surrendering in response to military oppression. At first glance, surrendering without resistance sounds cowardly; however, it is sometimes a necessary last resort to avoid tragic loss of life. Luxembourg’s response towards the military aggression of Nazi Germany during WWII is a perfect example. The entire population chose not to resist, with the Luxembourg government even fleeing to England to escape coercion and control by Nazi Germany [2]. Succinctly speaking, Luxembourg had just cause to declare a war of self-defence against the military aggression of Nazi Germany. Instead, they chose to abandon this right, because it had little chance of success, and wait to be rescued by the Allied Powers. With hindsight, we know that the Nazi occupation lasted only a few years, but for the people of Luxembourg, waiting for liberation was a very long and arduous ordeal.

While some may suggest that Luxembourg’s strategic patience is a good example from which the National League for Democracy and the protestors of Myanmar can learn, the crux of the problem is that all forms of support from the international community are limited to verbal condemnation and sanctions. Worse, the attention of the international community towards Myanmar may diminish if the deadlock remains. For the people of Myanmar, effective foreign assistance is nowhere in sight, prompting them to feel that going “all out” is the only way to achieve their objectives. From a realist’s perspective, violent confrontation with the Tatmadaw is not a good strategy because it is likely to result in even greater tragedy [3]. Nevertheless, it would be preposterous to deny their right to self-defence, just as one would not deny the right to resist sexual violence.

 

Notes:
[1] The problems of liberal moralism and revisionist paradigm have been illustrated by Mathias Thaler’s “Naming Violence: A Critical Theory of Genocide, Torture, and Terrorism” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018) in detail.
[2] Fotion, Nick & Coppieters, Bruno. “Likelihood of Success”, in Coppieters, Bruno & Fotion, Nick (eds.). Moral Constraints on War: Principles and Cases (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2002), p. 80.
[3] Kausikan, Bilahari. “Hard truths about Myanmar and the military coup”, The Straits Times (Singapore), 02 March 2021.

The Chinese version of this article was published in Apple Daily on 22 April 2021. The English version first appeared in faith100.media.

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