In Myanmar, students test the sincerity of democratic transition

Originally published at openDemocracy on 10 June 2015. Also available here.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

In Myanmar, as university students around the world begin to exalt their summer freedom, a national student movement continues to demand greater political freedom. At the end of May 2015 Myanmar’s parliament was still discussing proposed amendments to a National Education Law put forth by a coalition of student groups. The students have expressed their concern over the lack of academic freedom and the centralized control inherent in the law, which was passed in September 2014. Since its adoption, students and other activists have been campaigning around the country. In many ways, the struggle around education reform can be seen as a prism through which to assess the sincerity of democratic transition in Myanmar today.

It began in March 2014 with the release of the draft law. Later, a national coalition of student groups issued an 11 point manifesto. They demanded, among other things, student representation in enacting education legislation, teaching that ensures the freedom of thought, multilingual education for ethnic minorities, inclusion of children with disabilities, and the expansion of compulsory education from primary school to middle school. In November 2014, students in Yangon, the capital, issued a statement explaining that if the government failed to negotiate within 60 days there would be nationwide mobilization.

With little progress toward their demands, on January 20, 2015, they held true to their word. Several hundred students from Mandalay and elsewhere began marching the some 400 miles to the capital to demand negotiation. Less than a week later the government agreed to hold four-party talks. As a show of faith several of the groups marching on Yangon agreed to halt their processions. However, after only a few days the talks stalled. More than 250 civil society organizations pressed for their resumption and several protests were staged around the capital in solidarity with the marching students.

Sustained pressure appeared successful in mid-February when government negotiators surprisingly agreed to the students’ demands. A few days later a new version of the law was sent to parliament for discussion.

Throughout the months of demonstrations students overwhelmingly maintained nonviolent discipline with one noting: “we don’t have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”

A tradition of student activism

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

These students are following a long tradition of student-led nonviolent civil resistance dating back to pre-independence Myanmar. Not long after General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup, students at Yangon University began demonstrating against the military dictatorship and the sudden loss of academic freedom. In early July that year, the military cracked down savagely, massacring between 100 and 1000 students and dynamiting the student union building, the epicentre of student activism since the colonial period. There would be no student unions again until 2010.

In 1974, following the death of U Thant, the United Nations Secretary General from 1961 to 1971, the regime denied him a burial with honours. Thousands of students and monks seized his body and marched to Yangon University, where they buried him close to where the student union stood. The armed forces soon drove tanks onto the university campus and exhumed his body. Upwards of 4,500 students were arrested in the ensuing melee, and some 100 were killed.

Student mobilization was salient in the better-known 1988 pro-democracy movement from March to August. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock calls this period the “Rangoon Spring” — Rangoon is the former name for Yangon — in reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that ended with military intervention. Amnesty International even established a short-lived office in Yangon at this time. But by September the state responded with pure brutality. The military assumed control under General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). More than 3,000 were killed by the end of the month. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, has called the ongoing impunity for these mass killings an unaddressed wound challenging the rhetoric of reform.

The inspiration and guidance of what became known as the 88 Generation would inspire incremental episodes of resistance and repression that followed. And in 2007, scattered demonstrations that began in April spread around the country reaching around 100,000 demonstrators in Yangon on September 24. This episode is known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the overwhelming presence of bright orange and red-clad Buddhist monks among the demonstrators. The spread of images, made possible by social media, of police and military savagely beating monks contributed to the international outcry and condemnation of the regime. In addition to monks, students made up sizeable numbers, as new student organizations such as Generation Wave, inspired by the 88 generation, began to organize and innovate strategies of resistance.

The government loses patience

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Despite a long tradition of student-organized civil resistance, those who began in November 2014 exhibited a stark difference with their predecessors. They were engaging in collective action in an ostensibly democratizing Myanmar.

In November 2010 Myanmar held its first general election since 1990, although they took place amid concerns of intimidation and corruption, as well as laws that strongly favored the military. International election monitors and foreign journalists were banned. Anyone serving a prison sentence was barred from party membership, a questionable regulation in light of the more than 2,000 political prisoners. In April, Lieutenant General Thein Sein resigned from the military and formed the ‘civilian’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), absorbing several military organizations. USDP won vast Parliamentary representation. A week later Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, although she is still banned from running in the 2015 election. In the years following, Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and has presided over certain welcome legislative reforms. In response, the United States and European Union have restored diplomatic relations and lifted decades of economic sanctions.

In light of this narrative of political liberalization, one would have hoped that the negotiation of a National Education Law would comport with Thein Sein’s attempts to maintain legitimacy by appearing more sympathetic to political reform. Unfortunately, after the student’s preliminary successes at convincing the Parliament to review their demands, the trajectory began to take a familiar arc.

In February 2015, even as positive negotiations were under way in the capital, several hundred security personnel were being deployed along the route of those marching south from Mandalay. Kyaw Thet, a student from Pathein, about 60 miles from Yangon, told The Irrawaddy: “if they shoot, we will be hit… We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If the government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Despite the agreement at the four-party talk, it soon became clear that the Parliament would not welcome student representatives. A few days later the government warned that action would be taken and Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko cautioned the organizers that demonstrators would be considered a threat to national stability. On February 16 two foreign freelance journalists were expelled from the country for documenting protests. In early March, police in Letpadan, about 85 miles from Yangon, surrounded the students marching from Mandalay. A tense standoff ensued with students demanding to continue, and the police, who outnumbered them 5 to 1, refusing to abandon their blockade. In Yangon, police assaulted a small group of activists on March 5 who had gathered in solidarity with those at Letpadan. Then, despite the authorities and students appearing to have reached a consensus in Letpadan, violence erupted on March 10.

In a move that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments, police and hired thugs, armed with truncheons and riot gear, mercilessly beat back the some 200 assembled students. Some passed out and others were badly cut from barbed wire or suffered broken bones, some were dragged into trucks, chased into the fields, or later snatched from their homes at night. The police also chased away journalists from documenting the abuse but evidence quickly spread through traditional and social media, such as the “We Support Myanmar Students” Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has generated more than 25,000 likes. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Information claimed to have arrested 127 people.

By truncheon or by gavel, the law as a repressive tool

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The police violence at Letpadan, although thankfully low in casualties, bears a striking similarity to the state-sponsored violence of previous military governments. It is a disturbing return to past tactics of repression, says Human Rights Watch. But what seems equally, if not more troubling, is the instrumentalization of domestic law as a repressive tactic. This is part of what Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink call a tactical concession. Repressive regimes will make certain concessions such as signing international treaties, passing new legislation, or releasing a few political prisoners. They do so to attempt to gain a little standing in the international community, to get human rights organizations off their backs, while not necessarily fully implementing such reforms. What this often means is that repressive regimes favour political crimes and show trials over mass killings or disappearances. It is a midpoint between traditional state repression and rule-consistent behaviour.

Of the 127 people arrested over Letpadan some 70 were later charged, such as Po Po, who had evaded initial detention but was rounded up in the weeks following. After the crackdown, the 20-year-old history student Po Po had gone home, where she was arrested on April 8 and brought to the infamous Insein Prison, while many others were held at Tharrawaddy Prison. Most of them have been charged with violations of the Penal Code and Peaceful Assembly Law, some facing the possibility of 10 years in prison. Enraged by the audacity of the state, activists and students in 11 cities around the country carried out protests in solidarity with the detained, prompting further arrests and charges of violating the outdated Penal Code.

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for the abolition or amendment of the antiquated Penal Code, in many ways identical to when it was first enacted in 1860, to ensure that it complies with international human rights standards if there is to be a transition to democracy. Assessing Myanmar’s transition should be based on far more than the upcoming election. As we move closer to the November election we should remain cognizant of the growing numbers of activists behind bars who have done nothing more than engage in nonviolent civil resistance.

In testimony to premature talk of transition, the number of political prisoners since Thein Sein’s much touted amnesty at the end of 2013 has actually increased by nearly 600 percent, according to some figures – the vast majority of whom have been placed behind bars for their parts in various nonviolent campaigns, for violations of the Penal Code and the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law. This law requires, in Article 18, that organizers obtain permission from township police chiefs five days prior to any demonstration and for any slogans or signs they intend to display. Each violation is prosecutable based on township, which means the students marching from Mandalay could theoretically be charged with a violation for each township they passed through without prior permission. As an indicator of scale, there are 33 townships in Yangon alone. A coalition of more than 50 activists and civil society organizations have been campaigning for years to amend Article 18. The group includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Generation Wave.

“I would say that Article 18 is related to everything, every issue. Because when people are repressed, while people’s rights are violated, they must have the right to express themselves.” Over an avocado smoothie at a roadside café in Yangon I speak with Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, one of the more active student movements that came out of the Saffron Revolution, about the detrimental impact of the Peaceful Assembly Law. “My worry about Article 18 is the first rank. It is the most important thing because it is the freedom of expression.”

The freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 20 also recognizes the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Reform must come from below

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Students have been mobilizing around the country, seizing the right of free, peaceful expression and assembly by protesting, marching, sending open letters, engaging through social media, and negotiating with the state. Those who have been beaten and detained are engaged in active civil resistance to renegotiate the meaning of political participation in a changing Myanmar. In many ways, it is about more than just the National Education Law. In their expression of resentment toward the state, and in the level of national coordination unachieved in decades, the opportunity for civil society to influence social or political policy in Myanmar is great, even in the face of Thein Sein’s demonstrably thin commitment to democratization.

While much of the international attention regarding democracy in Myanmar remains focused on whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate in the elections in 2015 or who will be the next president, the real hope for transition in Myanmar arguably rests with the burgeoning civil society seizing every political opening to demand accountability. The movement around the National Education Law has managed to do what few in Myanmar have achieved since independence: to create a lasting national, cohesive social movement united around a core set of grievances and demands. Students, monks, and other civil resisters will continue to face repression from the state. But Myanmar’s desire to reconnect to the world after more than two decades of isolation also guarantees that the state will be forced to make increasing tactical concessions, leaving further openings for civil resistance.

Matching resistance to repression in China

Pu Zhiqiang

First Published at openDemocracy on April 8, 2015. Also available here.

Prominent human rights activist Pu Zhiqiang has languished in pre-trial detention since his arrest last May – in the lead-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – on charges for several crimes including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His case remains at a crossroads today. Any day now prosecutors should decide whether to indict and begin his trial or hand the case again back to the police for further investigation – meaning more time to conjure up criminal intent. It is unfortunately highly unlikely that he will be released.

Pu Zhiqiang is another high-profile prisoner of conscience suffering under a severe crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping since 2013. But is this vocabulary of a crackdown, with its connotations of sudden escalation, constructive?

Throughout 2013 to 2014, I remember many grassroots activists around China relating to me their perceptions that the ferocity of government repression should be understood as steadily increasing pressure, not as a swift crackdown. It is severe and inexcusable, without question, but in this sense it is more similar to the ‘frog in boiling water’ folk tale than the sudden purges of past dictatorships.

For domestic rights defenders, the challenge has therefore become matching their resistance efforts to this sort of slow-onset repression. Rather than pursuing tactics of sudden unrest and demanding high-profile victories, more can arguably be achieved – especially within a high-capacity authoritarian regime such as China – through strategic actions, producing limited but sustained improvements.

The importance of such realizations is universal. Activists and movements that demand sudden systemic change can become upset when they fail in their mission, causing participation to dissipate or making participation in successive waves harder to secure. They may refuse to abandon or adapt their tactics accordingly, such as refusing to evacuate a public occupation until all their demands are met. The world witnessed the gruesome consequences of this logic in Beijing in the early hours of 4 June, 1989.

Observers and analysts began to issue similarly cautious remarks regarding Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014. Victoria Hui, speaking with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, for example, outlined the need for tactical evolution in the form of methods of dispersion, which might garner less publicity but ultimately have more impact. Focusing on more systematic, grassroots, or small-scale change can ultimately be more productive for civil resistance and rights campaigns.

Broad resistance is harder to repress

Mark Lichbach came up with the five percent rule, that no regime can withstand the collective force of five percent of its population mobilized against it. Research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan actually puts that number even lower, showing that the sustained active participation of 3.5 percent of a population is sufficient for a successful campaign.

While 3.5 percent is a lot larger than it sounds (nearly 45 million people in China), it is not an impossible number. As Chenoweth and Stephan have shown, it’s been done before. But it does require diverse tactics that can appeal to broad sections of society, and the ability to outmanoeuvre repression and think in terms of grand strategy over immediate rewards.

The Chinese government is likely aware of the possible threat posed by sustained collective action achieved through small-scale victories for activists. This, in part, explains the sophisticated attempts to circumscribe collective action and to respond with draconian measures against even minor civil dissent. Indeed, the government is notorious for issuing harsh sentences for moderate voices and activists.

The year 2014 was marked by a procession of reprisals against all manifestations of nonviolent civil resistance and domestic rights defenders, from Xu Zhiyong’s four year prison sentence and Liu Ping’s six and a half year sentence to Ilham Tohti’s life sentence. Figures released by the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders indicate nearly 1000 cases of detention and torture of Chinese rights defenders in 2014, with more than 100 detentions drawn from seven provinces and three municipalities as simple reprisals against those who supported the Hong Kong demonstrations.

Much of this repression has come through the manipulation of Chinese law. In this sense it is persecution through prosecution, or what is called legalist repression. The vaguely worded crimes of “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” or “Disturbing Public Order,” outlined in Chapter VI, Section I of the Criminal Law, articles 290 to 293, have become a canvas applied to virtually anything the state finds discomforting. However, far more serious crimes have also been conjured to silence rights defenders, such as the appalling life sentence for Ilham Tohti on absurd charges of separatism.

There are several lessons in this for domestic actors and those who would support them – particularly the importance of steady, strategic development and a focus on details. This requires recognizing the dynamic between rights abuse and repression on the one hand, and the interconnectivity of resistance tactics on the other. Put another way, because repression is most often the context for a series of rights abuses, resistance that is too narrow is also more susceptible to persecution. The Chinese rights defence community has begun to recognize this.

For example, what begins as a land rights violation or forced eviction can escalate into a situation of arbitrary detention or disappearance of villagers who intervene between developers, hired thugs, police and local officials. Village petitioners might blockade township government offices or issue open letters. Some have resorted to mass public suicide. They also travel from the village or township to cities seeking government redress, file open information requests to expose the corrupt development negotiations, or organize small campaigns against corruption. By doing so, they may find themselves detained in black jails and abused by thugs or charged with illegal assembly.

Some turn to citizen lawyers or licensed lawyers for support at different stages. More tech-savvy petitioners and rights defenders post evidence of land theft and abuses to Weibo and other social media, or communicate with domestic or international media and organizations, at which point some might be arrested on charges of sharing state secrets. Sometimes the victim, jaded by an endless petitioning cycle, sees independent candidacy in local elections as a means of holding officials accountable.

How to protect a movement from state repression

Effective rights defence campaigns and civil resistance must prepare for the protection challenges of steady state repression. For a time, certain civil society actors such as lawyers, journalists, scholars, petitioners and labour, land or LGBT rights activists were focused on narrower solutions to their own causes. The mentality is shifting, however, in favour of more coordination and horizontal networking between groups.

This is not to say that issue-specific rifts don’t still exist. I’ve been frustrated in conversations with licensed rights lawyers who claim that grassroots ‘barefoot’ lawyers aren’t worth collaborating with. Similarly, freedom of religion activists have told me that gender issues aren’t an important civil society concern or that women don’t make as good ‘barefoot’ lawyers as men. But the broader preference is a trend toward more integrated communication and exchange.

These are among the lessons I have learned from nearly five years of supporting civil society and human rights in China.

The main protection challenges stem from the government’s manipulation or outright disregard of domestic law. However, despite the more traditional inclination of civil resisters to work outside of established state institutions, couching resistance in Chinese law has a demonstrated benefit.

The police often illegally detain rights defenders and activists. In some cases merely the presence of a lawyer or ‘barefoot’ lawyer may force the police to release the arbitrarily detained individual or at least begin proper legal proceedings. While the charges may still be contrived, operating within the legal system is preferable to disappearances or prolonged detention and is also advantageous to sustained rights defence and gradual normative change. Furthermore, even a flawed trial often supports greater coordination of civil resistance or advocacy campaigns than more illegal alternatives such as disappearance or detentions without trial.

The degree of international attention and domestic pressure and the profile of the activists are important factors in the effectiveness of rights defence. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liu Xiaobo is unlikely to be released from prison any time soon nor will Gao Zhisheng realistically be free of revolving detention and harassment despite considerable domestic and international advocacy. These high-profile cases are important to the central government and maintaining a strong stance is related to demonstrating their supremacy. On the other hand, in 2005 Rebiya Kadeer was released from prison and permitted to leave China following international advocacy. More recently, in 2011, following sustained domestic and international efforts, journalist Qi Chonghuai was transferred out of Tengzhou prison where he was being savagely beaten under direct order of local officials.

While Beijing likely later grew to regret releasing Rebiya Kadeer, these cases demonstrate that concessions have been made but only in cases where the central government doesn’t have a direct interest in the detention. One of the most successful tactics in rights defence and civil resistance to date is recognizing and capitalizing on cases where central and local government interests do not overlap. Although no easy task, identifying targets for support within the pillars of the state can have a drastic impact.

What role can the international community play? Recognizing the differences on the ground and the specific needs of Chinese rights defenders and civil resisters is essential. This can be accomplished through greater support of civil society, especially through increasing attention to activists outside of Beijing and Shanghai, supporting less high-profile rights defenders and activists throughout the country. Pressure must also come from within Chinese society. The greater rights defence campaign successes have tended to come most from domestic organizations working from the grassroots.

This can be achieved through the creation of space. Chinese rights defenders and activists must be provided greater opportunities to simply come together and exchange ideas and skills. This can be done through more training programmes and experience sharing but also just through creative ways to gather freely. While digital networking is important for direct exchange in individual cases, the sustainability of a rights movement is built on face-to-face interaction. This increases trust and supports more intimate exchanges about grievances and tactics.

Furthermore, as activists around the world know, you don’t always need a strict schedule of events and curriculum; sometimes just facilitating gatherings of activists is the best way to support the development of rights awareness and resistance tactics. Again, the government of China is aware of such moves, which is why it responded mercilessly to the New Citizens’ Movement dinner meetings and the small apartment gathering organized by the Tiananmen Mothers in 2014 for which Pu Zhiqiang was detained.

Additionally, increasing awareness of the needs and limitations of front line rights defenders in China can be reflected in more flexible donor contributions, through international organizations or government mechanisms, to support small initiatives and start-up organizations. The Chinese government investigates and has persecuted foreign funded Chinese organizations and individuals receiving money from abroad. Leaking state secrets continues to be an opaque legal charge and method of repression, as with Gao Yu, and many activists have been detained or had funding seized for collaborating with international donors. Financial security for domestic activists is a serious challenge and should be part of the agenda of international rights defence support moving forward.

This assessment is far from comprehensive. These are some of the principal means of state repression and small tactical changes that Chinese rights defenders and activists engaged in civil resistance campaigns have begun to recognize. Focusing on more daily routines and details rather than higher profile events is an important step for the sustainability of civil resistance and rights defence in China. The utility of such principles, however, is not confined to China.

A common refrain among activists in many countries is that their struggle is unique, oppression too institutionalized, dictatorships too brutal, or causes not well supported by the international community. One can differentiate between the conditions for domestic resistance in China, Zimbabwe and Russia from the United States, Spain and Australia but civil resistance trainers are wont to repeat that conditions do not dictate outcomes.

While specific country conditions do not determine the outcomes of resistance, they do affect the availability of tactical options for a given act or campaign of resistance. And recognizing the importance of building sustainable campaigns through a series of small-scale victories, matching resistance to repression, and horizontal networking are therefore not only important guidelines for civil resistance in China. They also have universal value.