Over the past few months, the world has largely overlooked a series of peaceful protests by Burmese students that began in November, coinciding with President Obama’s visit to the Southeast Asian nation. The students are protesting the country’s new National Education Law, which maintains close, centralized government control of the nation’s educational institutions and limit students’ freedom of association (read more here). In January, students from across the country began a march to Rangoon. The demonstration has continued despite a televised government warning to cease protest activity and a sharp increase in the presence of security forces along the protest route. In a nation that has only recently begun to emerge from decades of brutal military rule, protest is a serious game with seriously high risks.
This is a defining moment in Burmese history, no matter the outcome. If the government is truly committed to future reforms—as it has assured its citizens, the US, and the United Nations that it is— then these relatively small, low-stakes protests are a critical litmus test. If the government lets the students carry on, even if it doesn’t give way on their demands, it will be an incredible sign of the regime’s honest intentions and commitment to progress. If, on the other hand, government security forces use violence to subdue a peaceful protest, there will be serious consequences. It could spark far larger-scale protests and re-ignite ethnic violence (which is, for the most part, currently subdued by precarious piecemeal ceasefires with insurgent groups) as citizens lose faith in the idea of government-guided, institutionalized reform. Violence against protesters would also signal to the international community that the regime's commitment to reform is fickle.
The Obama Administration has thus far pursued a policy of careful re-engagement with the Burmese regime, tempered by a reluctant Congress that has questioned the Burmese government’s commitment to reform. As the recent warnings to protesters and the bolstered security force presence show, the student protests are pushing the regime to the edge of its comfort zone. The government’s reaction (or inaction) as the students head towards Rangoon will be the clearest glimpse of the secretive Burmese regime’s true intentions that we’ve had in a long time. We ought to pay attention.
*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.