Written by U Ne Oo on 1998-06-11

Part-1: Human Rights Advocacy

Recently, there have been some postings on the Net which attributed to the activism and advocacy in general. In the World of Internet mailing-list, the power to communicate is equal among all subscribers, regardless of their political leaning or background resources. Surely, we all have the right to speak our own mind on the Internet. However, a serious distinction has to be made between advocacy and non-advocacy; of true-activists and cynics.

On the surface, these postings do look like a rather objectionable form of usual "squabbling" within a movement. At a deeper level, however, there exists the underlying  misconceptions about the true nature of (political) activism. It should be noted that this kind of political-illiteracy is not an isolated incident but rather prevalent among the Burmese population.


Contrary to some people's beliefs, the meaning of advocacy is not about preaching to the masses who, supposedly, are uninformed or unsophisticated. The advocacy is not of an avenue to make oneself known to the public or to the powerful people within the community. The advocacy, certainly, is not about airing one's own personal grievances in a public arena -- no matter how this may justified from one's own perspective. Nor activism means to let loose one's frustration about its own life and therefore sought a revenge on the Establishments: i.e. society, governments and political system etc. What, then, are the meaning and purpose of advocacy and activism?

The advocacy, to my understanding, is about communicating to the general public or to the like-minded people on the matters of special concerns. The activist may put forward his/her own assessment of the situation, or personal view: rights and wrongs, justs and unjusts. He/she may further suggests how things ought to be done in particular circumstances. This is certainly different from preaching moral messages to the public. Sure, there has to be some element with ethical and moral leaning included in the communication because the activist needs to explain about what is right and what is wrong. But on the whole, the activists are simply seeking cooperation from the public on particular matters.


There can be as many different motivations as the number of activists participating a campaign or a movement. Some may try to gain social status or to receive recognition from the public by doing advocacy and joining the movement. Others may just try to be involved in "activities" with colleagues and friends. Significant proportion of them may be genuinely unhappy with the socio-political situations or established systems -- in our Burma case,  the military's holding onto power -- and therefore seeking changes by doing advocacy. (In our Burma advocacy cases, we can forget about the possibility of activists joining the movement to gain financial incentives -- it just simply impossible!)

People may join the advocacy, initially, for different reasons. However, in the long run, those who genuinely care about the cause and seeking genuine changes to the system are likely to be staying in the movement. The other types of participants may just come and go regarding the movement.

My personal reason to join refugee advocacy in few years back and becoming an activist was to seek improvement to the situation and to find a solution to the Burma's refugee problem. In these years, not only had I been -- and since then continue to have been -- a refugee in Australia, I have had much concerns about the Rohingya refugees especially. Among many of displaced people from Burma, the Rohingyas are somewhat under-represented, politically, because of their low political status in Burmese community. On the other hand, we had received various reports, through JRS and other refugee agencies, the egregious living conditions for Rohingyas in Bangladesh and a possible forced repatriation to Burma. My empathy about refugee has also been a driving factor. When having concerns about such vulnerable people and practically cannot do anything else, then there is only one thing left to do: urge the people who are in authority to "do something". That became my first engagement in the work for advocacy.

Looking a glimpse  at the activists around the world, we can see differing causes they are striving to achieve: East-timorese activists for an independence of their homeland; Chinese and Indonesian activists for the transition to democracy; Australian-aboriginal right activists for a better social justice situation for the Indigenous Australians etc. On their own, the objectives set out by those activists are clearly beyond their own personal capacity to achieve. Therefore, they must try to win the public support for their cause by doing advocacy.


At this point, we can visualize an "activist", a "cynic" and a "situation" that is beyond their capacity to solve. A cynic will certainly be complaining about situation but will not try to correct the problems. An activist, on the other hand, will reach out to the people and seeking improvements, no matter how small and being insignificant. The activism, therefore, is being built-upon the faith in humanity. A person may never become an activist, no matter how articulate or having the power to communicate to the people, if he/she does not have concern for the others and is lacking the faith in humanity.

Engaging in advocacy is about becoming a service to the community with the purpose of furthering the cause and in helping to those vulnerable others. An activist must be open-minded and selfless in seeking cooperation from the community and providing solidarity to other activists. Without such spirit of cooperation, one would never become a successful campaigner for the cause.

The faith in humanity, of course, does not mean to take a refuge in the thought that everything in this world will turn out to be good in the end. It means that the trust in fellow human-being's willingness and ability to strive for the just and right causes. Activism, therefore, is built upon the positive nature of human society.

It may be true that the Burmese generally are not politically open-minded -- i.e. not quite receptive to the well-meaning activists and their advocacy. Even then, it is heartening that there are no shortage of people, particularly among Burmese expatriate community, who are being cooperative. Some people sought to complain about the Burmese expatriate community as "A 3 Burmese has to have 2 political parties". Nevertheless, things are being done and many more are going to get done in this way.


As explained above, the principal requirement for activism is the good-heartedness towards others and the faith in humanity. However, in politics things will not be done  simply by having a goodwill. For a successful advocacy, some level of political sophistication is required. The activists, at least, must have the working knowledge about the policy of various political actors, such as governments, United Nations and other entities. For example, when you advocate for the refugees to the United Nations, you must have the knowledge about various U.N.Refugee Conventions and government policies etc. Without such knowledge, your action will probably get to no-where. In other words, the activist  who advocate to the public must know on what issue is he/she been talking about. It may be found that, in politics, it is not always easy to identify the important issue.

In studying the policies of governments and other political actors, to my experience, simply reading the policy statements is generally not enough. One may have a grasp of the "working policy" for a political entity only by observing it a fairly long time. Therefore, no activist can simply "swing into action" in advocacy work: the only path to political advocacy is via a process of gradual learning.


There have been attacks on activists such as "self-appointed" judges by cynics and-- sometime by professional politicians. There has been a question of whether an activist has the right to advocate on behalf of the people who are in a dire situation -- such as people of Burma. The answer rest with the whole concept of (political or human rights) advocacy and political leadership.

As far as human rights  advocacy is concerned, the activists certainly have the right to campaign on behalf of the oppressed. This is simply because campaigning for human rights means campaigning for the truth and justice. In other words, we need nobody's permission to tell the truth and we require nobody's blessing, including the oppressed, to serve justice. Therefore, it is quite wrong to accuse human rights activists as the self-appointed gurus.

The right to political advocacy (re: political leadership) is a little more complex. However, our Burma history has given us some good examples to look at on this question. It is as a matter of understanding the political actions of activists and leaders within the context of current socio-politics.

Part-2: Political Advocacy


Broadly speaking, there are two disciplines for analysing politics: one based on studying behaviour and attitude of political elites and the other focusing on behaviour, beliefs and political formation of the masses--known as Political Sociology. To understand the political behaviours, one will need fair knowledge of both disciplines. To my observation, majority of Burmese activists use the method of analysis that are more akin to the former discipline. The latter approach, political sociology, is much more helpful in understanding political policies and political behaviour of the masses, such as movements. One of the reason some Burmese tend to attack personal or personality, probably, is because they have not acquire  understanding principally of political policy and issues, i.e. political sociology. (Also observed is that the professional political institutions, only in a desperate position, may choose to make personal attack on their opponents which considered to be the "dirty politics".)


Doing politics is not simply about debating issues in public in order that the best debater should get his/her own way. Nor all politicians/activists can simply do things whenever they've got elected/supported by the public. A formally elected politician or a "self-appointed" political activist may only carry out actions that are believed to be in consistent with the aspiration of masses. Whether such action being a correct one would be a measure of the ability of leadership as well as how truly a leadership reflect the aspiration of the masses. However, it is a silly thing to say to a political activist, in our case of Burmese dissidents, to be the self-appointed leadership for a simple technical reason.

For the population under siege, such as the people of Burma, the political activists must rely on various means, i.e. predicting and theorising, in order to gauge the will of the population. It is the nature of dissident politics that political activists must evaluate the will of their population mainly through indirect means. Burmese activists, accordance with their own interpretation of Burmese society, must simply represent themselves as delegates of the oppressed masses to engage in the struggle. The question of whether their actions and interpretations are right one for Burma will have to be judged by the history.


Under most circumstances, the political dissidents have to make decision, mount campaign and engage in the struggle, on behalf of the oppressed. For example, in Burma's struggle for independence from Britain, General Aung San did not seek to consult -- there was no need -- with the oppressed Burmese whether they wanted to be free from Britain. In 1940, Aung San secretly went to went to China trying to establish contact with Chinese communists. Later, due to circumstances, he accepted the help from the Japanese. From this history for independence, we can also see that those engaged in struggle must make decisions according to prevailing circumstances.


We can also look at 1930's Saya San peasant-rebellion as an example. The British authorities' view on 1930-peasant rebellion was that Saya San wanted to be a King therefore he rebel the British government. This assessment, which seems to have made merely based on the attitude of political elites, is certainly inaccurate. In the 1930s, we know that the Burmese rural communities had been under severe social and economic stress, primarily because of the British government introduction of land tax, land tenure and Indian money lenders etc. Such social discontent was forming to become a rebellion and Saya San, as a political leadership, had to lead such rebellion. Saya San, in his time, probably look to the monarchy as an alternative  system to British administration. Therefore, it is wrong to suggest Saya San rebel the British because he wanted to be a King.

As the two examples above shows, the political leadership may emerge primarily as a reflection of the aspiration of the masses. It is also obvious that the leadership must initially struggle without full knowledge or consensus view of the majority masses regarding their causes. Present day analogies of the leadership in struggle, in this context, are too numerous to mention.


At this point, a crucial question must be asked why some Burmese dissidents choose to confront the government, at great personal sacrifices and risks, while the rest of expatriates rather stay quiet ? Are these dissidents simply making themselves "important" or the rest of expatriates community so cowered by SLORC/SPDC intimidation ? Part of the answer lies in the beliefs and attitudes of political leadership.

Most Burmese dissidents have spoken out against the government  in public primarily because of they have the political views and beliefs. Although we (Burmese) all have grown up in the same socio-political environment, only those who acquired such political views and outlooks will likely to form a political belief that the need to strive for political change. Not everyone in the community, though can generally distinguish goods and bads of politics, will acquire such political views and political outlooks. Only those who came to form the political beliefs will be leading to carry out thy out the political actions. (A note of caution: the above argument is generally for the people who are engaged in the so-called revolutionary politics. In a well-established political systems, where political success is usually associated with fame and fortune, the driving factors for people doing politics can be much more complex and can be other than their beliefs, however.)

In conclusion, as above two historic examples show, the political leaders and leadership must rise up to serve the aspiration of the masses. This conclusion is true regardless of those people, i.e. the activists and leaders, themselves are aware about the fact that their values and aspiration are intimately connected to that of the masses. How well a leader/leadership reflect the aspirations of masses will be as a matter of judgment made by the course of events.


To my understanding, good political leadership is not about carrying out the tasks that are of simple majority opinion, though the majority aspiration has to be an influencing factor. For example, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's decision in 1988-89 to resist the military regime in a non-violent means is a form of political leadership. At that time, the public emotions against the regime was running high and Suu Kyi, as a leader, could have easily persuaded to resort to violence if she were to listen to the consensus-majority views. However, her insistence that the public must not use violence in resisting dictators has proven her leadership ability (the total success for this decision of leadership, of course, is still need to be proven.)

We can also look at the NCGUB as a case study on political leadership. The decision to form a federal union for Burma in December 1990 by those MPs, The Manerplaw Agreement, can be seen as an act of political leadership. At that time, and at present still, many Burmese inside Burma, especially of our generation, do not have an imagination of how the ethnic political problem with democratic aspiration may be combined together to reach a solution. The Manerplaw Agreement have paved the way for peaceful co-existence of ethnic minorities and majority Burmans (time, again, is still needed to prove this fact).

Whereas the Burmese political leadership have chosen definite path to peace and democracy, it would all depend on our ability to materialize these final objectives. Such objectives will only be possible to achieve by mutual understanding and cooperation amongst all democratic forces.

With best regards, U Ne Oo.

Activists and Advocacy Part 1+2