Over the past few weeks, the continued and intensified protests in Myanmar despite the intensification of state repression is representative of a more general trend of resistance movements to gain international support when state violence backfires. Inspired by other resistance movements around the world, the protest campaign against the coup d’état that toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar emulates many strategies of nonviolent resistance that have borne fruit in increasing sufficient domestic and international pressure on a repressive government to overthrow it or at least force it to make certain concessions.
Canada and other allied countries have condemned the use of violence by Myanmar’s armed forces against nonviolent protesters. The US Treasury Department said last March that it would impose sanctions on members of the junta, including the police chief who coordinates with the military to suppress protesters. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also called on the international community to engage in a stronger condemnation of the junta’s repressive acts against the population. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd even called for Security Council intervention. If the protest movement in Myanmar continues to gain momentum and maintains nonviolent discipline, we can expect a more sustained commitment from democratic states, including Canada, to end the violence and ensure the restoration of a democratically elected government, in particular by resorting to economic sanctions against the military junta.
International outrage over violence against protesters, however, usually depends on the nonviolent nature of a campaign of resistance. Through the terror it arouses, the intensification of state repression of protests in Myanmar risks breaking the nonviolent discipline of the movement and reducing the number of protesters willing to brave state violence. How then, can the resistance movement ensure that sufficient pressure is maintained against the repressive government while maintaining a strategy of nonviolent resistance that is more likely to convince international audiences of the legitimacy of the claims and of the need to intervene?
A Constantly Adapting Resistance Strategy
The protest movement in Myanmar has used a wide range of nonviolent tactics, the objectives of which are inter alia to encourage local populations to join the streets as well as to draw international attention to the conflict while increasing the pressure on the military regime in place.
To prevent police raids and mass arrests, the protesters have notably set up a network of civilian vigilantes whose role is to alert the arrival of the military using pots that are knocked together to signal the danger. The use of pots and pans as a tool to challenge political authority is part of the repertoire of actions generally mobilized by nonviolent movements, a method tested during the student spring of 2012 in Quebec and whose ability to bring together a wider public within the mobilization had previously been demonstrated during demonstrations against the political repression of the Pinochet regime in Chile. The protest movement in Myanmar has also shown ingenuity in using local cultural codes designed both to broaden the protest to other sections of society and to push members of police forces to defect. Women’s clothes, for example, were hung over the streets to protect demonstrators from police charges, since walking beneath them is traditionally considered bad luck for men – a strategy which, however, did not prevent the military from using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrators.
The strength of the protest movement in Myanmar lies in its ability to be flexible by adapting its tactics of resistance to the repressive actions that are put in place to counter dissent, thereby exerting complex and diffuse pressure on the regime. The movement has also succeeded in integrating several social groups into its ranks whose interests and demands usually diverge, a diversity in mobilization which is generally a crucial element in the success of nonviolent resistance campaigns. Several groups within the resistance movement have come together in a General Strike Committee of Nationalities which has made it possible to better coordinate militant actions throughout the country.
By limiting its resistance tactics to nonviolent actions, the movement also restricts the regime’s ability to legitimize the repressive measures it implements in the eyes of the international community. The objective of the protesters is therefore to impose a reputational cost on the junta if it decides to use violence against an opposition that is nonviolent and whose political demands echo the international norms, which are most likely to engage foreign actors. The academic literature on the subject has indeed exposed the advantage that nonviolence implies with regard to the perceptions of international audiences, in particular, because nonviolence would be perceived as a less extreme form of resistance and thus facilitate political concessions. In addition, the opposition movement has sought to appeal to the UN’s responsibility to protect when a state fails to protect its population. Protesters have even used banners and shields marked “R2P”. The demonstrators thus used references to the international normative regime so that the violent actions of the junta backfired by weakening the military and stimulating popular mobilization.
Canada’s Position on the Protests
The case of Myanmar illustrates the influence of the international system on the practices of resistance movements. The establishment of a global network of activists advocating nonviolent methods of resistance has allowed the success of some nonviolent campaigns to spread globally. Several states, including Canada, have demonstrated particular sensitivity to nonviolent resistance movements, and have often declined support for social movements when they have resorted to violent tactics. In its statements condemning the coup and the regime’s crackdown, Canada has emphasized the use of nonviolence by protesters. Justin Trudeau has personally criticized the repressive actions of the military junta. Ottawa does participate in the framing of the conflict, which affects the subsequent capacity of the junta to legitimize the repression. Canada is thereby exerting normative pressure on protest movements to use certain resistance tactics to the detriment of others.
The protests against the coup that toppled the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi have so far demonstrated remarkable resilience and a strong ability to maintain nonviolent discipline despite numerous restrictions and increasingly extreme responses from the military. However, several media outlets have reported recent cases of escalating violence between protesters and police. Protesters also announced their intention to abandon nonviolent tactics and arm themselves to counter the regime’s increasingly brutal crackdown. Several studies have shown that civil resistance movements that combine nonviolent tactics with violent actions, such as the street clashes with the police currently observed, tend to diminish their ability to achieve their goals of political change. The potential radicalization of the movement towards violence also risks intensifying state repression, and even setting the stage for an even more catastrophic situation as seen in Syria where suppressed nonviolent protests have ultimately resulted in civil war.
In short, the radicalization of the opposition movement to the military junta could complicate Canada’s position. In the case of violent protests, Canada will have to distance itself from the movement, so as to reaffirm Canada’s emphasis on the importance of peaceful conflict resolution and the return of a democratically elected government. On the other hand, Canada’s support for the protest movement has opened the door to further engagement. Thus, the Burmese Canadian Action Network (BCAN) sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau urging them to send material resources in support of the people of Myanmar in addition to officially recognizing the Committee representing the Union Assembly, which brings together the representatives elected in the November 2020 elections.