Written by U Ne Oo on 1998-02-01

Adelaide Voices, Feb/Mar'98


Dr U Ne Oo, a Burmese refugee and human rights advocate

In Massachusetts, USA, a Burma activist campaigns for selective purchasing legislation; in the Northern Territory of Australia, the supporters for an Independent East Timor launch a photo-exhibition; somewhere in the world, members of Amnesty hold a candley hold a candlelight vigil for prisoners of conscience, and Indigenous land-rights advocates in Australia address public rallies.

These phenomena are known as `new social movements' or simply `movements'. These movements are the people's struggle for greater respect for human rights in the respective countries.


There can be no geographical boundary to such movements, especially when sophisticated communication technologies are now available: a movement can be intra-national as well astra-national as well as international.

Though the new social movements may in general be defined in broader social and political contexts, common elements among these movements can clearly be seen. Firstly, they seek to redress the fundamental social and political injustices for which an existing political order cannot adequately provide a solution.

In Burma, the existing military led one party rule cannot accommodate the democratic aspirations of Burmese people. IN East Timor, the sovereignty of its state is not recognizts state is not recognized by Indonesian authorities. In Australia, the rights of the Indigenous population are not properly provided for in the Constitution: these are the types of root causes of the conflict between authorities in power and the people's movements.

One other element shared by all movements is the transcending nature of participant groups. In contrast to other social phenomena, such as interest groups, the participants in a movement are not necessarily confined to a particular section of the community. Communitiesmmunity. Communities from a broad spectrum of society participate in such social movements.

A movement can enjoy broader support bases because it seeks to address obvious injustices that are affronts to the human conscience. The Burma democracy movement for example, as with its counterparts, enjoys the support of many of the social and political organizations across the globe.


A stark contrast between a formal political institution, such as a political party or trade union, and a mor trade union, and a movement, is in defining unity. Because the participating individuals and organizations transcend social strata as well as geographical boundaries, it is impossible to unify a movement in a normal sense.

Since movements are built upon the voluntary participation of flexible, non-authoritarian and autonomous organizations, they may not necessarily find a hierarchical form of leadership to set agendas for the movement.

Furthermore, it is rather counter-productive (often impossible) to regulate the agend to regulate the agendas of a movement. The unity of a movement, therefore, can only be defined by the participants' principal objectives.

The exception to this argument is Amnesty International (AI). The overall agendas of AI's campaigns are set by its Secretariat in London. However, because of the fundamental nature of of AI's objectives, and the voluntary participation by members from almost every society throughout the globe, that organization may be considered as a movement.

Although unity in the normal sense may not normal sense may not be possible in a movement, the participating organizations and individuals can still achieve co-ordination between them. On achieving such co-ordination, the diversity of strategies by autonomous organizations will translate into the strength of the movement.


The entities which movements seek to confront are usually the established institutions, such as governments, power groups or corporate interests. In confronting its opponents, the movement will have advantages as well a advantages as well as short-comings.

When mobilising public opinion in a campaign, the movement generally is much slower than its opponents. However, once it is mobilised, a popular movement can often wield considerably more influence on public opinion than that of its opponents.

For example, the news media monopolized by a government or an interest group may be quicker to put out their version of a dispute. However, the public in general may be more receptive to the `grassroots' communications. In this way, the movement m way, the movement may have the advantage.

A grassroots organization may often feel weak if one compares it directly with its opponent in terms of total resources. However, the movement in a broader sense is not necessarily disadvantaged by this in a campaign. For example, the Burma democracy campaign features in the international media, and on the Internet where the junta is simply outnumbered by many of the movement's voluntary supporters. Thus the best practice is to encourage all participants within the movement to put for movement to put forward their best available time and efforts.

For those who are seriously engaging in a struggle it is often necessary to remain in the position of the underdog and prepare to put up a long fight. Because a movement, like a human being, has its limitation on resource and energy, it is good practice to choose carefully the action to be engaged in.

The leaderships of a movement may not necessarily strike down every move of its opponent: such practice can easily exhaust the movement's energy. The leadershi energy. The leadership must always focus on the principal objectives and must engage selectively in a series of campaigns.

The international movements should not rely principally on the normal media to build up a campaign. The normal media can help the cause, especially when mobilising local grassroots support.

However, the normal media is of only limited use in the long term since the focus of the movement and the news media are quite different. For example, when reporting the situation of a group of refugees, a normal of refugees, a normal newspaper or television report may only focus on more sensational aspects, such as extreme violence or egregious living conditions, that may necessarily provoke the public to a quick response.

The movement may, however, need more factual reports with information such as the total number of refugees, conditions of food and sanitation at the camp site and various matters relating to protection of refugees. The best solution is for grassroots support groups to set up their own communication networks, such as n networks, such as newsletters or Internet mailing-lists.

One striking thing about social movements is that they cannot be suppressed totally: as long as injustice exists there will be people's struggles to overcome it. In the longer-run, however, people's power is always greater and will finally win the struggle.


The present military junta in Burma seized state power in 1988 after violently suppressing the popular democracy movement. An election was held in May 1990, in which then May 1990, in which the opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won an 82 per cent majority.

The military junta then refused to transfer state power and now continuously harasses, intimidates and unlawfully detains the members of the NLD.

Since the seizure of state power, the junta exercises all legislative, executive and judicial powers. Many decrees (laws) made by the ruling junta are rendering violations of human rights legitimate, according to the UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur.(For example, the junta mr example, the junta made a decree in 1996 to criminalize anyone discussing the Constitution of Burma. This law has prevented the elected representatives from freely discussing and drafting a constitution.)

Since 1991, the UN General Assembly has been consistently putting pressure on the junta to respect the result of the 1990 election. At the time of preparing this article, a representative of the UN Secretary-General is visiting Burma to broker a dialogue between the junta and National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi (the winner of the 1991 Nobel peace prize). The military junta, since 1966, has not allowed the Human Rights Special Rapporteur to visit Burma.

Adelaide Voices:Moving Towards Human Rights