Strategies of Dissent Evolving in Burma

Burmese men read news on arrested dissident Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month. Many activists are shunning protests for work with nonprofit groups.
Burmese men read news on arrested dissident Aung San Suu Kyi earlier this month. Many activists are shunning protests for work with nonprofit groups. (By Khin Maung Win -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 24, 2009

RANGOON, Burma -- Call it the evolutionary school of revolution.

After years of brutally suppressed street protests, many Burmese have adopted a new strategy that they say takes advantage of small political openings to push for greater freedoms. They are distributing aid, teaching courses on civic engagement and quietly learning to govern.

"We are trying to mobilize people by changing their thought process," said an entrepreneur in the city of Mandalay who is setting up classes on leadership. He added half in jest, "Civil society is a guerrilla movement."

Government critics including many Burmese say opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's return to house arrest this month underscores the junta's resolve to keep her out of reach of the population ahead of parliamentary elections next year that many dismiss as a sham. But a growing number of educated, middle-class Burmese are pinning their hopes on what they call "community-based organizations," finding outlets for entrepreneurship and room to maneuver politically in a country with one of the world's most repressive governments.

At first light on a recent Sunday, a dozen doctors piled into two old vans, stopped for a hearty breakfast of fish stew and sticky rice, then headed out to dispatch free medicine and consult villagers an hour outside Rangoon. The group first came together two years ago to care for demonstrators beaten by security forces during monk-led protests. When Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit in May 2008, killing an estimated 140,000 people, the doctors joined countless Burmese in collecting emergency supplies for survivors while the junta rebuffed foreign aid dispatches.

Like many of those ad hoc groups, the doctors have since developed an informal nonprofit organization, meeting regularly and volunteering at an orphanage and in villages near Rangoon. The group's leader secured funding from a foreign nonprofit agency and named his team "Volunteers for the Vulnerable," or V4V.

But to avoid having their activities labeled as activism, the leader negotiates weekly with the authorities for access to the villages under cover of an anodyne Burmese fixture -- the abbot of a local Buddhist monastery.

For their own safety, the V4V founder said, "not even all our members know the name of the group."

Successive military governments in Burma since 1962 have clamped down on civil society and forbade associations of more than five people. Burmese say they have come to see the activities of semi-illicit groups such as V4V as rare outlets for entrepreneurship and for maneuvering politically.

"There is still room to change at the small scale," said an AIDS activist, sipping juice in a teashop. "Many people say civil society is dead. But it never dies. Sometimes it takes different forms, under pretext of religion, under pretext of medicine."

A 32-year-old writer here said his father was a local township representative for Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, which won 1990 elections but was never allowed to take power. Suu Kyi has been confined to house arrest for 14 of the past 19 years, and the number of political detainees is estimated at about 2,000.

But the young writer sees a role for himself beyond the opposition party.

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