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In Session: Politics of Protest: Social Movements that transformed Southeast Asia
4: Resilience of Contentious Movements under Repression: The Role of Bystander Protection in the Burmese Pro-Democracy Movement
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Cornell University, United States
Authoritarian regimes with zero-tolerance policies toward the opposition are hostile environments for mass contention to emerge and endure. The five decades of Burmese military dictatorship were a period of brutal repression against pro-democracy activism. Nonetheless, large-scale protests still emerged through the years. What accounts for the perseverance of non-violent mobilization under repression? The existing social movement literature offers weak explanations for variation in durability of contemporary campaigns since it mostly focuses on challengers' modes of contention and mobilizing structures, which do not significantly vary across most campaigns under dictatorship. I would like to fill this gap in the literature by arguing for the role of an important yet oft-neglected factor: civilian bystanders and observers of opposition activism. I propose that protective support by non-political, ordinary citizens toward movement participants significantly influences its resilience, as such support helps the activists to escape crackdowns and bolsters their attachment to the movement. I study hard cases for activist survival during both protest and non-protest periods under the two decades of Burmese military rule, 1988-2010, with an original qualitative dataset consisting of a large number of semi-structured interviews and written testimony of more than 100 ordinary citizens and former pro-democracy activists in Myanmar. The novelty of this dataset is the unprecedented number of voices from the ordinary, non-contentious general public, which are mostly missing in existing research on social movements. Hence, this study offers a new framework to comprehend opportunities and constraints around movement entrepreneurs by taking into account the role of bystanders.