Political Prisoner for a Day: Why Small-Scale Crackdowns Still Work

The past week has confirmed that despite the Burmese government's made-for-export show of reforms, there is still no such thing as political freedom in Burma. Yet, you probably haven't read anything about the nation's ongoing (but increasingly repressed) student protests in this week's headlines. That's largely because the regime has responded in such a way that is threatening enough to stifle dissent at home, but not violent enough to invoke international outrage. This is the "sweet spot" for authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. Ethically and politically, it's a challenge because arguments for sovereignty and non-interventionism tend to seem much more convincing when we don't have immediate concerns of visceral slaughter. Yet, we know that targeted, small-scale crackdowns can be just as effective as large-scale bloody crackdowns when it comes to controlling and oppressing citizens.

Returning to the situation in Burma, after months of tense relations between the regime and student protesters following the passage of a new National Education Law that established strict central control over Burmese universities, the government recently cracked down on student protesters, despite the peaceful nature of the protests. The crackdown, while violent and disproportionate, was not quite the explosion of indiscriminate state brutality that many feared. Rather, what we have seen has been a much more constrained, discerning application of force that targeted a few hundred students. Throughout the past week, reports of arrests of students and journalists involved in protests have proliferated, with people reporting detainment in the middle of the night or police coming to their homes to arrest them because of their affiliation with student unions. The most prominent incident so far happened on March 10th, when riot police attempted to subdue a demonstration of about a couple hundred students. Many students were beaten and approximately 127 were arrested or detained. However, it seems that most of these students were released in the days following the crackdown.

In comparison to the bloody government suppression of protest movements that has for so long been the status quo in Burma, so far the government's response has been restrained. The crackdown was tame enough that it elicited only weak chastisement from the international community and certainly didn't make any international headlines. And therein lies the truly sinister danger of such a strategy. Certainly, locking someone away for a day is not as horrible a human rights abuse as locking someone away and torturing them for ten years-- but it still operates as a highly effective way to intimidate and subdue protesters and sympathizers. In many ways, it echoes the Burmese regime's careful new choreography of reform, where it has budged just enough to satisfy the international community without ceding any real power. The controlled crackdowns once again lead me to offer the same caveat I have found myself more and more frequently mentioning when I am discussing Burma: we cannot make the mistake of confusing a lack of bloodshed with freedom. (Of course, there is certainly no lack of bloodshed in the parts of Burma plagued by ongoing war, the subject of much of my other writing.)

This type of targeted political violence does not bode well for the approaching elections. If this is how the government responds to students protesting for education reform, what will the regime do when it is not just the education system, but the entire government that is in danger of slipping out of their control?

*I am an avid observer of Burmese politics. I have worked closely with the Kachin Women's Association Thailand, an organization that aids Kachin refugees, for about 3.5 years. I also spent a year working as a research assistant at Dartmouth College conducting research on the Karen National Union and Communist Party of Burma insurgencies.

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Tags: Asia, Burma, Myanmar, Obama, US, democracy, diplomacy, education, engagement, foreign, More…human, policy, political, prisoners, protests, reform, rights, student

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