covering burma and southeast asia
Friday, November 22, 2019



By The Irrawaddy JUNE, 1999 - VOLUME 7 NO.5


Working Underground to Plant the Seeds of Civil Society

A student activist with eight years of experience working underground in Burma reflects on the limitations and possibilities of “UG” activism. He points to a need to re-think strategies if long-term goals are to be achieved. Democracy will only succeed if there is a strong civil society in Burma; and now is the time to sow the seeds, Min Zin writes.

“Leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons where they have become less effective.”-Nelson Mandela

In the past, whenever I reflected on clandestine or what we activists call underground (UG) activities, it was very difficult for me not to be subjective. Because of my personal experience inside Burma as a UG activist for over 8 years, I used to fully support the UG way of engaging in politics, seeing it as an inevitable form of resistance and the only way to achieve political victory.

In fact, I still believe that UG activism is an essential part of the struggle to bring freedom to Burma. But the question I now ask myself is whether such activism will in itself achieve our political goal of restoring democracy. To answer this question, I will try to be as objective as possible about the nature and value of underground activity, in order to suggest ways in which it can be more effectively utilized to bring about a successful transition of power in Burma.

Facts and Misconceptions

I think that the Burmese are as familiar with the term “UG” as most foreign observers of Burmese politics are. Inside Burma, the word “UG,” which is used to refer to activists who engage in clandestine political activities, inspires feelings of awe and respect in most people. Why is this? Because it takes tremendous commitment and risk to work as a UG, many of whom have ended up in prison because of their political activities.

In Burma today, few organizations and political parties have legal standing and there are no democratic rights such as free speech or free assembly. So any organization or political party that wishes to uphold its political beliefs and pursue its objectives must choose the underground method of engaging in politics. Those who are barred from legal politics become UG activists. Even political parties that are legal find themselves tremendously restricted, so if they want to truly implement important policies, they too must combine UG-style activism with their legal activities.

The primary goal of UG activists is to remove the existing power structure or government. What are the tasks of UG activists? Mainly the tasks are organizing, distributing information, forming UG alliance fronts, supporting their own network (including political prisoners), and infiltrating the military and the government. UG activists must find ways to penetrate and work in different sectors of society, while continuing to maintain a long-term political vision. They must recruit and mobilize forces. And they must carry out the right action at the right time — whether it is circulating pamphlets or staging a mass movement - even if it means having to wait for long periods of time. There are also many disciplinary rules and organizational structures. I won’t go into all of them here, but the most important UG discipline is “secrecy” and the most important UG structure is the “vertical communication system.”

During my time on the run inside Burma, I was an active member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU).

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