Mayanmar Today

A Revolt? A Civil War? A Revolution?

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

[This is an interview forthcoming in Philosophie Magazine in French]

Why did you agree to do this interview?

Normally, I wouldn’t have done this interview. I agreed because I’m a political person, and I felt that the young people in Myanmar who are resisting are becoming violent because of the lack of international response. I thought that, as one small voice among the international responders, I should say something. I don’t have any special information, but I want to give a response, to speak for them, to them and about them. One must do whatever one can. My activism is a certain kind of education, not gathering and imparting information. So I am hoping that people who have much more strength and power over the physical world will also respond to the kind of response I am trying to give to the resistant people of Myanmar.

How would you describe what is happening in Myanmar? A Revolt? A Civil War? A Revolution?

I really do think of it as resistance, very strong resistance. Resistance involves the actual subjects in the collective, unlike more abstract words like revolution.

Is it a resistance of subalterns?

These people are not subalterns, in the sense of small groups on the fringes of history. They are in fact citizens. Subalterns, like Rohingyas in Myanmar, are denied the rights of citizenship. And generally, the hardest thing for them is to internalise that the state belongs to them, that they have the right to demand things from the state. Precisely, these young people are resisting today because they feel the state belongs to them. There is therefore a real difference in this organised movement and subaltern actions. It’s not that the subalterns cannot resist, but their resistance looks different.

You’ve been committed against the genocide of Rohingyas. Do they have links with the re-sistance groups?

It would be hard for me to give you real information right now. But when I left New York, which was the 15th of July, the news among those of us who are working for the Rohingyas was that, as resistance groups were thinking about national unity, citizenship etc., they considered sympathising and coming together with all ethnic minorities, including Rohingyas. But I have no certainty, no special information about that.

Many protesters support Aung San Suu Kyi against the regime, but she did nothing for Rohingyas. It makes the convergence difficult?

In this kind of situation, in times of political passion, when people are resisting, there can be a clinging to folks who have been created into heroes. But it is, for me, a side point. I am not really interested in who supports Aung San Suu Kyi and who is against her. My job is not to say : « Keep away from those who like her! » I would just say : think again. Not that she’s an evil person. But she’s a much more ordinary person than the fact of resisting her own house arrest. That’s what made her such a heroic figure. But once she came out, when she had to think about other people, she showed that she was not a bold person. She was not really a leader because she could not say no to ugliness and violence.

Why is the situation exploding today?

There has been so much oppression, violence, exploitation, so much denial of anything like normal juridico-political operation, of anything approaching middle-class normality. Every-thing has been operating in terms of the ad hoc structure of bribery and patronage and vendettas. And for so long. This situation creates what I have called an « imperative » and what Rosa Luxemburg called « spontaneity ». The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is the only piece where Marx actually describes the content of a revolution. He describes the proletari-an revolution as a response to imperatives: outside conditions coming one by one, here and there, and «saying» to the revolutionary groups: « It is time, do it, show us ». They fail, again and again, and try once more. This idea that the imperative comes from the outside has something to do with Luxemburg’s idea of spontaneity. It is what’s happening in Myanmar, but also in the United States, for example, with the entire Black movement. A situation has been going on for so long that something happens.

And people are now ready to put their lives at stake?

Fanon described how on-going situations of sustained top-down violence and non-response produce violence in turn, but also make people lose the fear of death. That is a pathetic way of putting it. It is much more active. I am 80 years old, and so I am not all that afraid of death. But that is not at all what is happening in resistance, where the whole group collectively confronts death, not just lose fear.

Would you say violence has become the only way those people can make their voice heard?

When there is no response, that’s when the only response seems to be violence, including the extreme suicidal violence—losing the fear of death, or even desiring death. That’s what the military junta is doing to the young people of Myanmar. That is absolutely terrible: the so-called military leaders of the country are deliberately destroying the best young people. This is what their violence now signifies: the violence they feel condemned to harms them. Because there is nobody that is really standing up for them. Tell me, who?

That’s why violence has become unavoidable?

Unavoidable but not necessary, because this is not a situation that should be accepted. When you make your voice heard through violence, what you’re doing is enforcing your voice, so it’s by weakening the other side that your voice is heard. Making my voice heard through fear is not going to be a lasting solution. If one really wants a just society, one cannot consider this solution as necessary : one must aim at a society that, in the long run, would be a peaceful society. You may say that this is continuous with a position against capital punishment.

Do you think that solidarity between resistance movements around the world is essential?

These solidarities beyond boundaries are a good thing in terms of responses, they should exist, people should know that other people are also suffering and fighting. But they are not going to lead to actual changes concerning a globalisation of resistance. I don’t believe it will happen. That is the hope of Apo, a wonderful man who has been in jail for 23 years and is still a pacifist : his idea of democratic confederation has influenced the political structures of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. And when he comes out of prison, he will want to globalise those principles. I think he will have to confront nationalism, because, although many people consider we live in a post-state world, all the indexes such as the Human Development Index or the Gross Domestic Product, leading to nationalist competition, still operate in terms of nation-states. I began one of my books by saying: “Only capital and data globalize. Everything else is damage control”.

Concretely, that is also through capitalism that the international community could put pressure on the junta?

When we were fighting against apartheid in South Africa, we called for divestment. As we fight for Palestine, one of the things that we go for is divestment. Boycott doesn’t work, but large-scale divestment does work. I do believe that to fight violence with violence, which has been the millennial solution, is a very wrong solution. Putting more violence and subjugating whichever side you think is wrong—violence against the state or state-legitimised violence—won’t solve anything. It is not productive. What is much more productive is working within the system that everybody values : global capitalism. India, China, the US, and others are well-invested in the Burmese economy. That is something that people could think about! My own work is in the longest-term solution, a permanent commitment to the sustained production of a general will for social justice through holistic education.

Is there also a colonial dimension in the current situation?

Probably. But I would like to say that, if one makes colonialism the only wrong thing, then one cannot see how much violence, how much ethnic violence has also been justified in the name of anti-colonial politics. You forget what kinds of ethnic horrors can be perpetrated in the name of being anti-colonial. The Ne Win government, established in 1962, which finally led to varieties of ethnic cleansing, was anti-colonial and supposedly socialist.

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Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021