In Person

Protests Must Serve the Public Interest

By The Irrawaddy 12 August 2017

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the recent anti-government protests in Yangon and Mandalay. I’m Irrawaddy reporter Kyaw Kha. Sayadaw U Pannavumsa, who participated in a 1990 anti-government protest and the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and U Kyaw Ko Ko, who participated in the Saffron Revolution and the 2015 protest against the National Education Law, join me for the discussion.

Recently, there were sit-in protests in Yangon and Mandalay staged by Buddhist monks and laypeople who identified themselves as nationalist activists. The Mandalay Region government arrested the protestors on the third day of the demonstration. The same day, protesters in Yangon dispersed, saying they were advised by senior Buddhist monks to do so, and protestors in Taunggyi also dispersed. Sayadaw U Pannavumsa, what is your view of the protests in Yangon and Mandalay that called for overthrowing the government?

The Irrawaddy discusses the lack of public support for recent anti-government protests in Yangon and Mandalay.

Posted by The Irrawaddy – English Edition on Friday, August 11, 2017

Pannavumsa: When a protest is to be staged, what is important is that the people want it—whether it is because food prices are too high or people are dissatisfied with the performance of the government. You can’t demand a government step down only because an individual monk or layperson dislikes it. It needs to be based on the desire of the people. That is why the people’s leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has highlighted the importance of public participation.

The protestors said they staged the protest for religious cause. But, the people still have trust in the government. According to the protesters’ signs, the government should be overthrown because it doesn’t safeguard Buddhism. But the deepest wish of people right now is to achieve peace. And the current government is not a military regime or authoritarian. But protestors labeled the government as authoritarian in their signs. Far from supporting these protests, people view them with disgust. If a protest is to be staged, there must be strong reasons for it. Without strong reason, many will not join the protest.

Looking at the 1990 movements of Buddhist monks as well as the 2007 Saffron Revolution, monks didn’t take to the streets of their own accord but at the request of people and housewives [who complained of high food prices]. In so doing, monks didn’t shout slogans that were against the Buddhist commandments.

During the Saffron Revolution, monks took to the streets in townships across Yangon and were supported by students like Kyaw Ko Ko and Sithu Maung. People from all walks of life—from street vendors to well-off people—joined to support the monks. It is important that people support protests. This recent protest did not reflect the desires of the majority, but only a small group of people. So, it failed and the organizers now face legal action.

KK: Looking at those sit-in protests in Yangon and Mandalay, the number of protestors was a maximum of 40. And from what we saw on social and print media, there was no public support. When you students staged a protest march through townships, locals and students’ parents joined you along the way. The recent protests didn’t receive similar support. Why do you think that is?

Kyaw Ko Ko: The [protesters’] organization has taken the wrong path. They are not acting as they should, they are doing the opposite. Many of Myanmar’s problems are leftover from the military dictatorship. And it is difficult to root out the problems because of the [military-drafted] 2008 Constitution. All of the fights against military dictatorship, although they were suppressed, won a certain degree of public support. All of the united fights by us or Buddhist monks or farmers or workers against the military dictatorship garnered some public support and moved us forward in the political transition.

The recent protests in Yangon, Mandalay and Taunggyi did not win public support because the ideologies they espoused were not acceptable to the people. Usually, there is a three-point principle regarding protests; there must be a strong reason to stage the protest, there must be limits, and there must be an outcome. Without these three points, we can’t put up a fight.

We staged a four-day protest in Yangon in our protest against the National Education Law. Before the protest, student unions across Myanmar met at the office of Free Funeral Services Society (FFSS). We staged the protest only after we reached a unanimous agreement.

The recent protest came out of nowhere. It took place without the decision of the monkhood, the people or housewives, as the Sayadaw mentioned. Why was the objective of their protest to overthrow the government? Which weakness of the government do they object to? That they say that the government is not safeguarding Buddhism is a wishful argument. It is nowhere close to reality. So, the reason behind the protest is not valid.

Again, there are limitations in a fight. In our case, we distributed pamphlets to rally the people first. As students took to the streets, parents and people who sympathized with them also joined. They can’t challenge a government to step down all of a sudden. They staged the protest because they don’t understand that there must be reason and limits. And they did not achieve an outcome. Their ideology is wrong, and it will never be right again.

In our country, no one oppresses Buddhism except military dictators. The Sangha protests bore witness to this—the bloodshed. In the 2007 Saffron Revolution, we saw a photo of a dead monk drifting in Dawbon Creek in Thaketa Township. There were also other pictures that serve as evidence.

I’d like to ask this question—why are they trying to distract the public attention with their activities while they still can’t identify the main perpetrators? If they can answer, they will succeed. If they lie, they will fade away.

KK: Monks have participated in most of the protests since the 2007 Saffron Revolution. But the public views on their participation have changed. Trust in monks’ protests has declined. Why do you think this is?

Pannavumsa: Not only has the image of monks been marred, but doubts have risen among the people. As Kyaw Ko Ko has said, we need to see to what extent a protest will benefit the people. In this instance, there is no benefit as it was staged in a confrontational manner. This has marred the image of good monks.

Eleven protesting monks were arrested in Mandalay, and it was discovered that six of them were not officially registered as monks. They don’t know religious verses. And looking at their appearances, they lack charm. They have tattoos on their hands. And according to the interrogation, they joined the monkhood just before the Buddhist Retreat [which usually starts in July]. They did not join the monkhood as children. They have not studied Buddhist scripture. They are not serving the interests of the religion, but they are outsiders.

KK: People had high hopes for the National League for Democracy [NLD] government regarding reforms. But the NLD government’s performance falls short of the people’s expectations in many areas, including the peace process. Why has it failed to implement speedy reforms as people expected?

KKK: It is clear. As I remember, the NLD made three commitments when contesting the [2015] elections—constitutional amendment, peace and the rule of law. And it still can’t realize its commitment to peace. It can only graze it, with no tangible achievements.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi contested the election with her eyes fixed on national reconciliation. National reconciliation is quite a problematic issue. My personal view, also the view of the Social Democratic United Front of which I’m a member, is that the wishes of the people will not be fulfilled while a military dictatorship persists. We can’t allow a military dictatorship to survive under the flag of reconciliation. It must be eliminated once and for all by scrapping the 2008 Constitution, which it uses as a fort. Soldiers should not be in Parliament. They must be in places appropriate to their roles. We want to get rid of military intervention in politics.

But the NLD’s path is not that path. It seeks to reconcile with the other side. And for this, it has to make compromises. It cannot take the helm of the entire government. Three important ministries—home affairs, defense and border affairs—are held by the military. As the Home Affairs Ministry is held by the military, the management of the general administration departments under that ministry is largely in the hands of the military. So, it has been difficult for the NLD government to realize its commitments.

To be frank, staff officers, directors and permanent secretaries in each ministry are military associates. And [state and regional] chief ministers do not have complete power. The heads of regional and state general administration departments—who are referred to as commissioners—are more powerful than the chief ministers. The NLD doesn’t have complete administrative, legislative and judicial power. So, no matter how eager it is to introduce reforms, it can’t exert its full efforts, and there will be delays and setbacks.

KK: Thank you for your contributions!