There is little cause for optimism in the Burma movement these days. For those of us involved during the 2007 demonstrations, the sense of impending victory during those weeks is a distant memory. Back then it felt like, after four decades of struggle, the military dictatorship could be on the brink of collapse. Now even the most confident activists struggle to see that happening anytime soon. The sham election scheduled for November 7th will do nothing more than see Than Shwe and his military thugs swap uniforms for suits, whilst giving their backers (such as India, China and Total Oil) flimsy evidence of ‘reform’ to justify their continued commercial and political love-ins when scrutinised by the international community. Concurrently the junta is enacting its plans to crush the remnants of ethnic-minority resistance in what has been termed, without a trace of exaggeration, their ‘final solution’.
Yet in the midst of this hopelessness, a recent BBC report gives the faintest glimmer of light; interviews with Burmese soldiers suggest that there is growing discourse in the ranks over withheld pay and cuts in rations. It seems that the generals’ chronic economic incompetence, which has turned one of the richest states in South East Asia into one of the poorest on the planet, is now cutting into their own forces. Of course, military dissent in Burma is not new and in the past several soldiers have either disobeyed their superiors (usually only to be thrown into jail and tortured) or deserted altogether. But mass mutiny – the kind of which could genuinely endanger the dictatorship in a way that street protests couldn’t – has yet to materialise. There were high hopes that such widespread dissent might come about when the Generals ordered soldiers to fire on monks in 2007, but ultimately the fear of prison, torture or execution kept them largely in line. Now that the troops’ livelihoods and their capacity to feed their families are at risk – compliance may not be so assured.
Furthermore, the overwhelming reliance on conscription and child soldiers means that any mutiny has the potential to spread quickly and lead to complete breakdown of the dictatorships’ control mechanisms. True, many of the soldiers- particularly those responsible for the war crimes frequently committed in ethnic regions – genuinely harbour a depraved sense of nationalism and megalomania that causes them to rape, kill and loot without hesitation. But the core of the army is unwilling men kept in line by a fear that would become irrelevant as soon as discourse reaches a critical mass.
As the Generals begin to shift focus towards their post-election civilian dictatorship, neglect of the rank-and-file troops who have kept them in power for the last forty years may well continue – heightening the chances of open dissent. And if a mutiny were to coincide with the kind of large scale demonstrations seen in 2007, or with the predicted increase in conflict with ethnic rebel groups, the collapse that the regime averted three years ago may well become a reality.
It’s far from a certainty and the BBC report may not reflect anything more than a few disgruntled individuals – but the dictatorship has responded by issuing a formal denial; a sure sign that it is shaken and now has genuine concerns about the loyalty of its men. Perhaps the outlook may not be so bleak after all.