Burma’s Freedom – Violence or Nonviolence?

A debate has arisen among members of the GF Committee over the justification of the use of military force in a good cause. Here are some of the email exchanges.

The Editor would like to hear from readers also on this topic which is central to Gandhian thought.

John Rowley:

I take my view from the Buddha, Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh, and Burmese friends.

The Buddha said that if you knew that there was a man in a boat with others who intended to rob and kill his fellow passengers, then it was justifiable for you to kill him if there was no other way of preventing the crime. Gandhi said, I think, that if your family or your country was violently attacked then it was justifiable to defend both with violence if no other course worked.

Bhikhu Parekh says in his Hansard Society booklet Intervention and Democracy that armed intervention on strictly humanitarian grounds is justifiable if all other means have been exhausted.

My Burmese friends (and The Burma Campaign) totally agree with Bhikhu, and Buddhists ask those who advocate nonviolence in all situations to come in and experience extra-judicial killings, indiscriminate torture, child exploitation, slavery of innocent women, children, the old, the disabled. A single bullet can kill an experienced satyagrahi as easily as a new-born babe – if no one ever hears of either, what is gained when the perpetrator continues to live ? And if the whole world hears, who is to distinguish between either ? And if the whole world hears and does nothing, neither prepared to risk their own lives nor that of those they pay to risk death (soldiers), once again nothing is gained. Sanctions have proved ineffective in Burma as well.

For the time being, I rest my case. I do not think that everything Gandhi said or did was right especially as we are 60 years on since his last breath and thousands of miles away. I would have supported the execution of Saddam Hussain if that could have been achieved without any other person being hurt. As it happened, and only because we are still seduced by this illusion of the nationstate, we have ended up being responsible for the death of over a million people in Iraq simply because we did not take the trouble to try to understand the culture, politics and social interactions of all the people living there or consult them on how best we could help.

David Maxwell:

The strong sense of injustice at the treatment of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Burma by the military junta, and now the harsh treatment of protesting Burmese monks, makes it difficult not to want tough intervention, as a last resort. John knows the Burmese situation so well and feels so strongly, his frustration levels are understandably high.

But where might a violent last resort lead? Would not a definition of satyagraha which includes force as a last resort, devalue it ? Gandhi’s search for truth firmness was looking for a way to be firm without doing violence to others. He was only human and wavered in that search at times, but in his last three years the overwhelming force of the atom bomb steadied him in his conviction that civilisation was impossible without nonviolence. There could be no ifs and buts.

I heard at this year’s Conflict Research Society AGM a story about a leading military man lecturing at Bradford on conflict resolution. He spoke knowledgeably and enthusiastically about negotiation, mediation, restorative justice, etc, but when asked by a student for his personal definition of conflict resolution said it was all these things but ended his definition with these words – “backed up with overwhelming military force”. That was his bottom line, and those he dealt with knew it. The iron fist in the velvet glove? They did not have much choice. Agree or else! 

Gandhi’s line if I understand aright, was that he personally could not be violent whatever the cost, and could not support the violent actions of others, unless you see ambulance work (which may enable soldiers to return to violence, but that is their choice) as violent. There is a world of difference between seeing nonviolence as a tactic to use when you are weaker than others, and those who see nonviolence as a principle to keep to even when other ways are at your disposal.

Graham Davey:

On nonviolence, I think Gandhi was a bit ambivalent and I am still not quite prepared to rule out military action in all circumstances. Gandhi supported recruitment to the Indian Army when Japanese forces threatened to invade India, and the Tanzanian army saved more than a few lives when Idi Amin was deposed in Uganda. Having said that, I think statements from the Gandhi Foundation should not mention military action as a last resort because all to often it is threatened or used long before other methods of conflict resolution have been exhausted.

David Maxwell:

I take your point, Graham, about Gandhi’s uncertainty during the Second World War. His proposals for dealing with Hitler had seemed ineffective too. However, after the dropping of the atomic bomb, his conviction that nonviolence had to be the way came back very strongly. Unpack the implications of “not rule out military action in all circumstances” and what do you get? The need for military force always at the ready, trained and equipped and eager to justify their role. Give them the chance to use that role, they are very reluctant to then modestly fade into the background until ‘needed’ again. The price of dealing with Hitler was the rise of the industrial military complex which now offers to solve the recurring economic crisis of over production by wars causing mass destruction. That raises the new spectre of environmental unsustainability.

Graham Davey:

I agree with all you say, David, but don’t think that the non-pacifist position inevitably involves all the damage and wastage of militarism. I would envisage Britain having only a territorial army for use only under the auspices of the United Nations. Perhaps Switzerland is showing the right direction for European countries.

Antony Copley:

Gandhi began to experience the limitations of satyagraha as he confronted interstate conflict – his advice to Viceroy Linlithgow in 1939 was to let Hitler overrun Britain – he told the Jews to practise nonviolent resistance, and then horror of horrors he had to face Japanese invasion in 1942. His response in the end was the Quit India satyagraha – the Japanese would have no occasion to invade if the British left. Even so, he also let it be known that he would not resist any British presence in defending India if India were free. As Gandhians we have to confront the limitations of nonviolence in such extreme moments.

What do you think? Please write your comments below . . .


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Categories: Nonviolence, South Asia


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