Talkin' about a revolution

13 October 2007

In the wake of the recent protests by the citizens and Buddhist monks of Burma against the military junta that has ruled and repressed their country for the last decade, the international media have expressed moral indignation, political leaders have promised a firm response and the gun-toting dictatorship has appeared ready to make concessions. As the world holds its breath to see if the actions of these brave protestors can force the change of a repressive regime and cure the ills of their nation, many who lament the apathy of modern Westerners (not least us students) claim that such demonstrations are always inevitable failures. ‘Protest’ is seen as a relic cherished only by political groupies or that suspicious hippy activist that seems to lurk down many a suburban street; for the rest of us, the world goes on much as it ever did, despite all the banners and loudspeakers of an upset minority.

As a demonstrator in the anti-Iraq war protests of 2003, I remember only too well the sense of impotence that can accompany even the most popular acts of direct action. Those Iraq protests united a wide range of political views – I still have colourful memories of pram-pushing Mums rubbing shoulders with sixties’ peaceniks and ardent student protesters – but, whatever the particular motivations of each demonstrator on that cold March day, the ultimate result was one of failure. ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ went ahead and we are all living with the consequences.

Direct action is a demonstration in two senses of the word: a protest and an exposition. Whatever journalists might think of demonstrators, they cannot help giving them the oxygen of publicity, thus dragging neglected issues out of obscurity and into the political domain. Demonstrations are also expressions of popular public sentiment, but these high emotions are often intangible, burning brightly and then fading away having secured little more than single-issue concessions. Remember the fuel protests and the Countryside Alliance march? They were powerful while they lasted, but soon forgotten once over.

Marches can express the popular disaffection of a set of individuals, but it takes a movement to translate that into a coherent, political challenge. Without achieving such a sustained, united front, the Iraq protest was always unlikely to be able to force a change in the policies of Blair and Bush regarding Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Yet the 2003 March was not the only mass protest that has seemed to fail in its immediate aims and which has lent ammunition to those critics who argue that all such demonstrations are worthless. The unforgettable image of a brave student flag-bearer staring down a Chinese army tank in the Tianamen Square protest of 1989 was beamed to TV audiences around the world, but, eighteen years on, the Communist party still rules in Beijing. Nearly two decades after an estimated 3,000 Burmese civilians died protesting against military rule, the Buddhist monks of Rangoon are still praying for a democratic future.

The demonstrations that grab headlines and dominate the media focus are often the most extreme or perverse, whilst serious causes are sidelined. Students do not need to be reminded that top-up fees are a sticky issue, but few would have been driven to the lengths of the performance artist Mark McGowan who used his nose to push a monkey nut seven miles from the Goldsmith’s College where he was studying to Downing Street. For sure, the act of crawling inch by painful inch certainly testifies to McGowan’s forbearance, but it also implies that the desire to arrest attention was just as high in his thoughts as any principle regarding student rights. McGowan’s demonstration predictably finished far from the steps of No. 10. In our media-driven world, the most visible demonstrations frequently appear to be little more than a thinly veiled form of attention-seeking.

Would a polite letter to the Prime Minister on McGowan’s part have been any more effective? I’ve been sad enough to send enough complaining notes to my local MP about everything from fox-hunting to racial jokes. Her name’s Ann Winterton (that lovable Tory who once happily declared that “Pakistani’s are ten a penny” in the UK) and I well know that expecting a written response, let alone any decisive action, from such letters is often a vague hope. Yet, as Gandhi argued while advocating his own doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violent protest, it only takes a small amount of ingenuity to turn a quiet protest into a cause that can bring down oppression. The small doctor from Porbandar rejected the calls made for street violence on the part of many of his colleagues in the campaign to free India from British Imperialism, and preferred quiet, individual protests to rabble-rousing.

The question of whether his unobtrusive protests were effective is answered conclusively by history. 100,000 Indians were eventually jailed by the British for following Gandhi in violating the salt law, an example of oppression that caused indignation from Western reporters and governments the world over. The eventual climb-down of the authorities proved to be one of the seminal moments in the fight for independence. As for Gandhi’s famous hand-weaving, the blue wheel now found on the Indian flag, the “Ashoka Chakra”, is first and foremost a symbol of truth and virtue, but it was also inspired by the humble hand-loom that Gandhi called to be made central in every Indian home. His quiet, unobtrusive protest may have been headline-grabbing, but it was so in a form far less crass and infinitely more dignified and successful than McGowan’s. It served to inspire the Indian people and unite them behind the cause of freedom in a manner that guns, shouts, or even nut-pushing would never have achieved.

Those who lament all demonstrations as acts of certain failure ignore the very real power that the ‘protest’ can have. Popular revolutions the world over have seen undemocratic governments fall from power, but even where such an abrupt reversal is not the case, the example of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other proponents of non-violence has proved that many forms of demonstration can force political change.

After the brutal repression by the Junta of their peaceful demonstrations, despair has now taken over many of the dissidents, western diplomats and ordinary people in Burma. Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer in the Cambridge English Faculty and regular Guardian columnist on South Asian issues, argues that “students should give the lead” to wider society in protesting against political injustice, at home and abroad. She attacked the performance of international politicians – “There’s a lot of verbiage and piety out there, but no serious action” – and stated her fears that, unless political activists kept the issue in the public eye, the Burmese peace movement would soon become isolated.

Unless some form of protest can keep the situation in the eye of the Western media, Burma seems condemned to repeat the failure of twenty years ago, when a similar rebellion was crushed. Perhaps the greatest hope for the people there lies in the quiet dignity of their freely elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It is the image of her face behind bars and of peaceful monks demonstrating in the streets that offers the best chance of galvanising foreign governments and the Burmese people themselves against the army authorities. Their demonstrations may take years to bear fruit but to those critics sitting comfortably in their armchairs, furthermore, there is a question that must be answered. Is it better to do nothing?

the wake of the recent protests by the citizens and Buddhist monks of Burma against the military junta that has ruled and repressed their country for the last decade, the international media have expressed moral indignation, political leaders have promised a firm response and the gun-toting dictatorship has appeared ready to make concessions. As the world holds its breath to see if the actions of these brave protestors can force the change of a repressive regime and cure the ills of their nation, many who lament the apathy of modern Westerners (not least us students) claim that such demonstrations are always inevitable failures. ‘Protest’ is seen as a relic cherished only by political groupies or that suspicious hippy activist that seems to lurk down many a suburban street; for the rest of us, the world goes on much as it ever did, despite all the banners and loudspeakers of an upset minority.

As a demonstrator in the anti-Iraq war protests of 2003, I remember only too well the sense of impotence that can accompany even the most popular acts of direct action. Those Iraq protests united a wide range of political views – I still have colourful memories of pram-pushing Mums rubbing shoulders with sixties’ peaceniks and ardent student protesters – but, whatever the particular motivations of each demonstrator on that cold March day, the ultimate result was one of failure. ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ went ahead and we are all living with the consequences.

Direct action is a demonstration in two senses of the word: a protest and an exposition. Whatever journalists might think of demonstrators, they cannot help giving them the oxygen of publicity, thus dragging neglected issues out of obscurity and into the political domain. Demonstrations are also expressions of popular public sentiment, but these high emotions are often intangible, burning brightly and then fading away having secured little more than single-issue concessions. Remember the fuel protests and the Countryside Alliance march? They were powerful while they lasted, but soon forgotten once over.

Marches can express the popular disaffection of a set of individuals, but it takes a movement to translate that into a coherent, political challenge. Without achieving such a sustained, united front, the Iraq protest was always unlikely to be able to force a change in the policies of Blair and Bush regarding Saddam Hussein and his regime.

Yet the 2003 March was not the only mass protest that has seemed to fail in its immediate aims and which has lent ammunition to those critics who argue that all such demonstrations are worthless. The unforgettable image of a brave student flag-bearer staring down a Chinese army tank in the Tianamen Square protest of 1989 was beamed to TV audiences around the world, but, eighteen years on, the Communist party still rules in Beijing. Nearly two decades after an estimated 3,000 Burmese civilians died protesting against military rule, the Buddhist monks of Rangoon are still praying for a democratic future.

The demonstrations that grab headlines and dominate the media focus are often the most extreme or perverse, whilst serious causes are sidelined. Students do not need to be reminded that top-up fees are a sticky issue, but few would have been driven to the lengths of the performance artist Mark McGowan who used his nose to push a monkey nut seven miles from the Goldsmith’s College where he was studying to Downing Street. For sure, the act of crawling inch by painful inch certainly testifies to McGowan’s forbearance, but it also implies that the desire to arrest attention was just as high in his thoughts as any principle regarding student rights. McGowan’s demonstration predictably finished far from the steps of No. 10. In our media-driven world, the most visible demonstrations frequently appear to be little more than a thinly veiled form of attention-seeking.

Would a polite letter to the Prime Minister on McGowan’s part have been any more effective? I’ve been sad enough to send enough complaining notes to my local MP about everything from fox-hunting to racial jokes. Her name’s Ann Winterton (that lovable Tory who once happily declared that “Pakistani’s are ten a penny” in the UK) and I well know that expecting a written response, let alone any decisive action, from such letters is often a vague hope. Yet, as Gandhi argued while advocating his own doctrine of ahimsa, or non-violent protest, it only takes a small amount of ingenuity to turn a quiet protest into a cause that can bring down oppression. The small doctor from Porbandar rejected the calls made for street violence on the part of many of his colleagues in the campaign to free India from British Imperialism, and preferred quiet, individual protests to rabble-rousing.

The question of whether his unobtrusive protests were effective is answered conclusively by history. 100,000 Indians were eventually jailed by the British for following Gandhi in violating the salt law, an example of oppression that caused indignation from Western reporters and governments the world over. The eventual climb-down of the authorities proved to be one of the seminal moments in the fight for independence. As for Gandhi’s famous hand-weaving, the blue wheel now found on the Indian flag, the “Ashoka Chakra”, is first and foremost a symbol of truth and virtue, but it was also inspired by the humble hand-loom that Gandhi called to be made central in every Indian home. His quiet, unobtrusive protest may have been headline-grabbing, but it was so in a form far less crass and infinitely more dignified and successful than McGowan’s. It served to inspire the Indian people and unite them behind the cause of freedom in a manner that guns, shouts, or even nut-pushing would never have achieved.

Those who lament all demonstrations as acts of certain failure ignore the very real power that the ‘protest’ can have. Popular revolutions the world over have seen undemocratic governments fall from power, but even where such an abrupt reversal is not the case, the example of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other proponents of non-violence has proved that many forms of demonstration can force political change.

After the brutal repression by the Junta of their peaceful demonstrations, despair has now taken over many of the dissidents, western diplomats and ordinary people in Burma. Dr. Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer in the Cambridge English Faculty and regular Guardian columnist on South Asian issues, argues that “students should give the lead” to wider society in protesting against political injustice, at home and abroad. She attacked the performance of international politicians – “There’s a lot of verbiage and piety out there, but no serious action” – and stated her fears that, unless political activists kept the issue in the public eye, the Burmese peace movement would soon become isolated.

Unless some form of protest can keep the situation in the eye of the Western media, Burma seems condemned to repeat the failure of twenty years ago, when a similar rebellion was crushed. Perhaps the greatest hope for the people there lies in the quiet dignity of their freely elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It is the image of her face behind bars and of peaceful monks demonstrating in the streets that offers the best chance of galvanising foreign governments and the Burmese people themselves against the army authorities. Their demonstrations may take years to bear fruit but to those critics sitting comfortably in their armchairs, furthermore, there is a question that must be answered. Is it better to do nothing?