They poured out onto the streets in the millions. They have brought the country to a virtual standstill. This is Myanmar today – workers, youth, small business people, opposing the military coup that overthrew the elected government of the National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The international socialist left is rightly highlighting this movement. But it is also failing in its duties. Let’s remember that for years Kyi herself peacefully shared power with this very same military that has now seized complete power. And what did this power sharing arrangement mean in practice?
It meant the genocidal slaughter of the Rohingya minority, who live principally in the state of Rakhine. Not so long ago (2017), this same military instituted a genocidal slaughter of the Rohingya. Soldiers were given the order to “shoot all you see and hear” and “kill all you see, whether children or adults” as they entered Rohingya towns. The NY Times reports “The massacres of Rohingya that culminated in 2017 catalyzed one of the fastest flights of refugees anywhere in the world. Within weeks, three-quarters of a million stateless people were uprooted from their homes in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, as security forces attacked their villages with rifles, machetes and flamethrowers…. Old men were decapitated, and young girls were raped, their head scarves torn off to use as blindfolds, witnesses and survivors said. Doctors Without Borders estimated that at least 6,700 Rohingya, including 730 children, suffered violent deaths from late August to late September 2017. Roughly 200 Rohingya settlements were completely razed from 2017 to 2019, the United Nations said.”
At the very least, Aung Suu Kyi stood silently by while this slaughter was carried out. Later, when charges were brought against the military in the International Court of Justice in the Hague, she defended that military.
To this day, some 900,000 Rohingya are stateless, living in refugee camps in Bangladesh, while some 600,000 remain without rights in Myanmar. They have no right to vote and the repression continues.
“I will protect our democracy with my life”, said one protester against the military coup. Another explained: “I cannot live under a military dictatorship. Our leaders, whom we elected, trusted and respected, are arrested.” Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an awareness of the connection between this military repression of the majority of the people and its genocidal slaughter of the Rohingya. There does not seem to be a demand for equal rights for this minority.
But by at the very least covering up for the military’s repression and genocidal slaughter of the Rohingya, these same leaders are actually complicit with this very same military. They helped this military carry out its brutal methods in Rakhine State, thereby helping it build up its power in society as a whole. In other words, they fed the crocodile and now that very same crocodile is turning on them and the rest of society. Beyond this practical matter, how is it possible to fight for any sort of decent society, any sort of democracy, when the genocide against one sector is ignored?
A brief review of the coverage of the socialist left reveals that in general they are ignoring this crucial question. While we must, of course, support this movement, we also must point this issue out. We must encourage the workers and youth in Myanmar to consider this crucial issue. If we do not, we are failing in our responsibility.
Update (Feb. 25): Since this article was posted, we have found one group that does link the issue of the coup with the brutal treatment of the Rohingya. That is this article: “Myanmar: A Movement of Revolutionary Proportions. It gives an excellent rundown on the situation for various ethnic minorities in Myanmar and is well worth reading. Other groups had good articles written earlier but little or nothing linking the issue of ethnic cleansing to the struggle for democratic rights since the protests began. In the US, there will be no successful working class struggle that doesn’t link the issues of special oppression with the interests of the working class as a whole. The same is true for the workers’ movement around the world, including the rights of ethnic and national minorities.
Added note: This article has an important comment below which gives a little more detailed history of Myanmar, its military and the national minorities there. We urge readers to take a look.
Categories: Asia, Marxist theory
Hi John, and readers.
Shortly after the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyii I wrote the following, which was published in the Weekly Worker’s letters page nearly two weeks ago here:
Thoughts on Myanmar:
The recent arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi has likely less to do with a coup against democracy and more to do with the semi-colonial relationship that Myanmar has with China. So far from what I’ve read, Trotskyists completely neglect to mention this. Fascist Myanmar is the oldest regional ally of the People’s Republic of China: not only a military ally, but an economic one, where cheap raw materials such as jade can be extracted, as well as cheap labour. It has also become one of the first steps in the Belt and Road Initiative.
In recent years it has become known for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Rohingya people – an ethnic minority of Muslims, some of whom seem to have formed both nationalist and religious fundamentalist groups to resist the genocide. The ethnic cleansing is deeply tied to fascist Japanese invasion and occupation, and also to imperialist British colonialism. It was under the three-year Japanese occupation that the Burmese National Army, trained by the fascist Japanese (and led by the father of Suu Kyi), attacked ethnic minorities, as Japan attempted to wrest control from the British.
It was only after it became clear that Japan didn’t seek to liberate Burma, but to steal it as a colony for itself, that the BNA flipped sides to fight the Japanese. The Burma National Army, of majority Bamar ethnicity, became firm Bamar supremacists, learning from the racial supremacism of the Japanese and the British. This would ripple into later organisations through leaders like the Japanese-trained Ne Win, as they formed a Bamar variant of fascist ideology, crystallised in the Burma Socialist Programme Party.
Aung San Suu Kyi was not a critic of the genocide, but in fact made up excuses for it, providing a valuable, but ineffective, political cover. For being a ‘symbol of democracy’ (and I use that phrase tongue in cheek – a symbol promoted in the west), she did not have much to say on minority rights or the right for suffrage for those minorities. Suu Kyi, with her Nobel Peace Prize, became a useful tool of the military as a toothless figurehead – a puppet to lift US sanctions and ease domestic tension by providing a legitimate face for fascist rule. The entire time Suu Kyi was ‘in power’ Myanmar had a constitution written by the military, in which the army controlled at least 25% of parliament by default through military appointments. Many following reports of attacks against ethnic minorities (Suu Kyi is Bamar) say the attacks increased and it was reported that her government attempted to install statues of her father (a Bamar) in the communities of ethnic minorities being oppressed. Those ethnic minorities were prevented from voting.
But despite the fact that Suu Kyi was a paper tiger, she was looked on by western imperialists as a potential partner, posing with Bush and Obama, while the military was looked on as a loyal partner of China. With Chinese ambitions in Myanmar with Belt and Road – as well as the Covid-19 outbreak that many experts said required a military lockdown to control – it’s likely that Suu Kyi was seen as outliving her usefulness, resulting in her removal. The real power behind the throne, the military, needed to show China that they are a most reliable partner for decades to come and that there’s nothing to worry about.
The idea that Myanmar was ever on a road to bourgeois democracy was an illusion. A bourgeois democracy requires a serious crisis, a bourgeois democratic revolution, a mass uprising, or a war where the victor installs it. It was a foolish lie that it could democratise as a result of a change of heart by the fascists.
So what next for Myanmar? The manoeuvring of the military seems designed to bring Myanmar closer to China, but it is also an unpopular decision with the masses. Suu Kyi remains very popular, and her supporters may attempt to build a movement. But I cannot see a movement of just the Bamar. At some point, if the Myanmar people who are Bamar want to end military rule, they will likely need the help and support of ethnic minorities. They have to demand an end to the persecution of ethnic minorities to make that happen. They will need more allies.
Otherwise, their fate is going to be left up to the bigger regional powers of India and China.
The Marxist Line
Thank you for your comment, Art Francisco. This history basically is a confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. That theory holds that in countries like Myanmar – the former colonial world – capitalism cannot accomplish what it did in the US and Europe. It cannot end feudal remnants, cannot end colonial domination, cannot unite a nation. For that to happen, the working class must take power. Not only that, but it’s clear in Myanmar for the working class to hold onto power, it has to spread the revolution to surrounding countries and also to the Chinese working class.