183 killed, 74 last Sunday, March 14, alone. 2,175 reported arrested, many facing charges that could mean execution. Yet tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions continue to pour onto the streets. The killing of a 15 year old girl on Sunday has not stopped the youth, nor has the open fire with live rounds stopped striking workers, especially garment workers.
This is Myanmar today as it joins the ranks of countries that seem to be going up in flames. (Think: Belarus.) Yet today Myanmar and the entire region present the world working class with a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. What is the historical background and the future perspectives for this uprising and how does it offer opportunity for the world working class?
First Humans in Region
The first homo sapiens are thought to have settled in the region close to 30,000 years ago and in the following millenia one ethnic group after another settled in what became today’s Myanmar. Various city states developed and were overthrown by others or by invasions from outside, for example the army of Genghis Khan. Today there are some 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in Myanmar, plus one other: The Rohingya, who are unrecognized by the government and are in effect a stateless people whose roots trace back to the early Arakan kingdom. Located along the Bay of Bengal, the Rohingya also have ancient historic links to Arab traders. Thus their main religion is Islam, not Buddhism.
Failure of Capitalism
The significance of this is that capitalism in Myanmar never has been able to unite this region into one united country, and the ruling class lives in perpetual fear of different separatist movements. This, in itself, is a force that tends to drive capitalism in Myanmar towards military rule.
It might be different if capitalism were able to develop the country economically, but it has not, partly due to imperialism the most devastating of which was British imperialism. They fought a 60 year war – the Anglo-Burmese war – to enable the British East India Trading Company to control the region and bleed it dry. This war was concluded in January of 1886 when Britain formally annexed what was then known as Burma. The country was then invaded by Japanese army during WW II and became a battle ground between those troops and the British, with various indigenous groups joining one side or another, or in reality fighting against one side or another.
Finally, with the wave of national liberation struggles sweeping the world, Britain granted formal independence to Burma in January of 1948. This was followed by a series of military dictatorships.
Coup and “Burmese Way to Socialism”
In 1962, at the height of the Cold War and while the United States was waging war against the Vietnamese people, the military leader Ne Win seized power in a “bloodless coup” and declared a “Burmese way to socialism”. (How many times have we heard that sort of phrase?) Under his rule widespread nationalization of industry was carried out, literacy programs were established and laws against landlordism and also usury were put into place. Rent on land was abolished. Internationally, Burma became one of the “non-aligned” states
However, all the government’s measures were from above, and enormous blunders as well as corruption and repression were therefore inevitable. For example, Ne Win tried to undercut the power of the money traders and finance capital through currency reform. He simply abolished the currency’s higher denominated notes as legal tender. This wiped out the savings of millions and led to at least one insurgency – that of the ethnic Kayan people.
Army “Shoots to Kill”
In 1988, an uprising that started among the students swept the country. Known as the “four eights” uprising, it forced Ne Win from power. Upon announcing his resignation, Ne Win also warned the “army would have to be called and I would like to declare from here that if the army shoots it has no tradition of shooting into the air. It would shoot straight to hit.” His warning was correct as in the following weeks the army killed up to 3,000 protesters.
Tatmadaw: A Military and Economic Institution
With few interruptions, the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, has ruled the country either directly or indirectly ever since. Similar to some other countries from Pakistan to Venezuela, the Tatmadaw is big business, literally. According to a UN report, as of 2019 they owned over 140 private enterprises, including banking and insurance, mineral and timber extraction (including jade, in which Myanmar is rich), construction and production of food stuffs, coal and gas. They also have extensive real estate holdings as well as the country’s two largest banks. This last gives them direct access to global finance. Among other things, it is through these holdings that the Tatmadaw can finance its activities directly. According to the NY Times, “The Tatmadaw began battling various ethnic groups soon after independence from Britain in 1948 and has continued ever since. Much of the fighting has been over control of resources, such as the lucrative jade and ruby trade in Kachin and Shan States, in which the military’s companies have a major interest.” This situation has led the situation in Myanmar to be likened to “Sicily under the Mafia”. But the Tatmadaw puts even the Mafia to shame when it comes to brutality. In its genocidal war against the Rohingya, it has slit men’s throats, conducted mass rape of women and girls and even thrown little babies into open fires.
During its years in power, especially during the Ne Win dictatorship, the Tatmadaw was hostile to China for several reasons. For one thing, the Chinese government had been clandestinely financing several guerrilla groups of some of the ethnic/national minorities. In addition, the Tatmadaw was hostile to its own Chinese national minority.
Aung San Suu Kyi
In 2015, the National League for Democracy swept the elections and its party leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi became the equivalent of prime minister in Myanar. This was a post created especially for her because she was constitutionally barred from becoming president. Again, that was due to a nationalist clause in the constitution, which prohibited her from the post because both her husband and her children were not born in Myanmar. She took office, but the Tatmadaw remained the real power behind the throne.
Two years later (2017) the Tatmadaw carried out a genocidal war against the Rohingya, as Oaklandsocialist described here. Also, as we explained, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi covered up for the Tatmadaw.
A “Stolen” Election
In November of 2020 new elections were held and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a landslide over the USDP, which is considered as a front for the Tatmadaw. Despite her collaboration with the military, however, they claimed fraud. They also accused Suu Kyi of having accepted a large amount of gold, although they didn’t say from where. There is no evidence for any of this.
In February, the Tatmadaw formally seized power, leading to the present protests.
Role of Other Countries
The role of the neighboring imperialist and sub-imperialist states is complex and constantly shifting. The same goes for US imperialism.
Obama had been friendly to Suu Kyi, as was China. Under her, several Chinese projects were started, most notably a copper mine whose construction was tainted with accusations of human rights abuses. During her time in office, Myanmar also became part of China’s “belt and road” global scheme. On the other hand, a former junta member, U Thein Sein, had halted China’s construction of a dam in Myanmar in 2011. That dam would have flooded a holy site. In addition, almost all the electricity produced by the dam would have been sent to China. To this day the dam’s construction remains on hold.
China remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner. However, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, and Japan, South Korea and Thailand also have investments there. North Korea is also playing a role, helping the country develop nuclear power. Development of nuclear power is often linked with developing nuclear weapons and there is every reason to think that may be a goal of the Tatmadaw. Why, otherwise, would they want to invest in such a costly technology when the country has the greatest potential for solar power in the region as well as having great hydropower potential? And doesn’t any military-run government worth its salt need a bomb, after all?
Despite the previous unfriendly relations with the Tatmadaw, the Chinese government quickly shifted its orientation. The state controlled Xinhua news agency referred to the coup as a “cabinet reshuffle” and both China and Russia blocked any UN Security Council action on the coup. According to the NY Times, Chinese officials have expressed support for the military’s “deserved role in the course of national transformation and development.” The same NY Times article writes: “Despite the economic agreements it reached with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, China has not signaled support for her. It appears to be calculating that there is little chance the coup will be reversed.”
Presumably they are basing their calculation on the willingness of the Tatmadaw to drown the country in blood. After all, this is a military that is willing to commit the immense crimes it carried out against the Rohingya, where it is estimated that they killed 60,000 (36,000 of whom were burned alive), raped 18,000, and beat 116,000; a military whose soldiers who obey orders to “kill all you see, whether adult or children”. Nor has it been only the Rohingya against whom the Tatmadaw has acted in the past. In 1988, it killed 3,000 people during a period of mass protests. It has also been used as a strike breaking force.
In most cases, the desertion of soldiers would be a real possibility. That is what happened in the early years of the Syrian revolution, for example. (Assad was only saved by the intervention of Russia and Iran.) In this instance, however, since the military is also a capitalist enterprise and since its soldiers are in separate communities, that may be difficult. (Reports are that some 600 police have deserted, but few or no soldiers.)
However, Myanmar has a powerful, rapidly growing and youthful industrial workin class, most especially in the garment industry. That sector has been increasing at nearly 80% per year in recent years and is the largest exporter in the country. Women compose over 90% of that work force and are both low paid and have to face regular sexual harassment. Their strength, their economic power, in this struggle must not be underestimated. Nor must the determination of those in the streets.
One thing that would give the struggle an enormous boost would be for the working class and youth in the neighboring countries to join in. After all, this is not only about democratic rights, as important as that may be. Without such rights, how can workers organize unions to defend their interests? And the problems workers face in Myanmar are common throughout the region. Garment manufacturing, for example, is increasingly shifting out of China and not only to Myanmar but also to Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Already, links are developing through the “Milk Tea Alliance”. A coordinated campaign of the workers in Southeast Asia, along with support from workers in China, India and around the globe, could push the Tatmadaw owned industries to the wall, preventing them from granting the privileges to the rank and file soldiers. This could break the loyalty the soldiers have to their officers.
Today, most workers in the United States see movements like that in Myanmar as being a matter of abstract interest at best. They could not be more mistaken. Global working class solidarity in action is more important today than ever. With the general shift of global manufacturing to Asia – including India, China and Southeast Asia – the Asian working class has taken on increased importance in world working class politics. Who is to say that the next great step forward for the world working class – the formation of a world working class party, a new working class international – will not get its major boost from the struggles of workers in Asia, struggles such as that in Myanmar today.
Socialists in the working class can play a small but important role in helping to build direct links between workers in the United States (and elsewhere) and the workers and youth in struggle in Myanmar. The movement in Myanmar calls for “a harsh (global economic) comprehensive sanction” against Myanmar. “After suffering abuse of the eco-social system by the military over five decades, now facing death from bullets shot by our own military in our own homes, without external invasion, and we now call for clear-cut international sanctions on the country,” they write.
Major multi-nationals like Chevron and Total energy company have large operations in Myanmar. In many cases those companies have unionized work forces around the world. Socialists and activists should approach those unions and their membership and urge them to see to it that those companies cease all operations in Myanmar until the military is ousted from power.
The young, and rapidly growing working class of Myanmar and the entire region can play a vital role in rebuilding a world working class movement.The call from Burma explains the need to “rebuild Burma (“Myanmar”) from scratch”. We should join in that effort as part of a struggle to rebuild not only Burma but the entire world from scratch.