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A long march to freedom

The Myanmar coup shows that the military is an existential threat to democracy in many nations

Protestors in Yangon

The latest overthrow of a democratically elected government in Myanmar on February 1st, 2021 shows dramatically how the military can set back democracy. The Myanmar military, known as Tatmadaw, has declared a one year “state of emergency” and taken full control of the country’s government and infrastructure. Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Chairman of the State Administration Council, is now exercising supreme power over the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and several dozen other senior officials were arrested in early morning raids in the capital, Naypyidaw. The charges laid against Ms Suu Kyi allege that she illegally imported and used communications equipment -walkie-talkies -found at her home in Nay Pyi Taw. The military repeatedly claims that there was fraud in the elections of November 8th 2020 which the National League of Democracy (NLD) won by a landslide.

The party backed by the military, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) performed dismally. Given that the military holds a quarter of all seats in both the House of Nationalities and House of Representatives in accordance with the 2008 constitution devised by the military, giving the military a veto over any change, the claim of fraud is contrived. The deeper reason is the anxiety of the military that its monopoly of political, social and economic power has come under serious threat by the electoral popularity of NLD and the demand for constitutional reform.

Suu Kyi’s pact with the military has unravelled. The youngest daughter of the Burmese father of the nation, Aung San, assassinated in 1947, her rise began on the back of the 1988 democracy uprising when she became the General Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD). When the NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, the military nullified the results, and kept her under house arrests off and on for 15 years from 1989 to 2010. She became an international icon and won many awards including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

When Myanmar opened up to liberalisation, there was a protracted move to democracy and the NLD won the 2015 elections when she assumed the post of State Counsellor (equivalent to Prime Minister). Her image was tarnished when she appeared before the ICC to deny the allegations of genocide against the Rohingya by the military.

In Myanmar, people have been protesting against the coup in large numbers. The response has been water cannons and rubber bullets and even live ammunition. Amnesty’s crisis evidence centre has reported that there is evidence of use of machine guns and live fire on protestors. The first victim of police shooting was a young woman, Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, shot on February 9th. On February 20th, reports came that security forces opened fire on protestors wounding 40 and killing two in Mandalay. A large number of people have been arrested and detained.

So far the protestors are not deterred. All sections of civil society have joined in civil disobedience to demand the restoration of democracy. What is significant is that workers have taken action. Rail workers, civil servants, bank workers have come out on strike against the coup. Unions have taken a leading role in organising the strikes.

The coup is poised to deliver a major blow to the $6 bn garment industry reeling from the pandemic which has reduced working hours. Garment workers have joined protests. Front line health workers in more than seventy medical facilities have walked out in response to the coup. It has cut off telephone lines and internet connections across a large part of the country to stop protestors from communicating for organising and also with the outside world. Witnesses describe the level of violence as ‘a war zone’ in Mandalay and other locations away from the main city Yangon where most embassies, the UN and international journalists are based. The general strike on Monday the 22 shut down businesses in defiance of the military’s threat of violence is a harbinger of the coming heightened struggle between the masses and the military.

At this stage it is hard to say how severe the military repression will be and what will be the costs to civil society. The military has a history of terrible violence in1988, during the massive democratic uprising known as 8-8-88 (acronym for August 8,1988), when thousands of protestors were massacred and again in 2007, when protests were suppressed with killings and arrests. In 2017, the military unleashed violence against the Rohingya with more than 600,000 fleeing to safety in Bangladesh.

Our hope should lie with the mobilisation of the people united in a common front. The demand for democracy must include the Rohingya in the North West of the country if there is to be meaningful democracy for all. The ethnic cleansing must stop and those who sought refuge in Bangladesh must be allowed to return.

We have to go back to Burma’s colonial period to understand how modern Burma developed as a nation. British colonisation of Burma began in 1824 and after three Anglo-Burmese wars spanning over 60 years, it consolidated the annexation of Burma in 1888, sending the last king of Burma, Thibaw Min, into exile in India. Of those years, George Orwell who spent five years in Burma, wrote in 1929 that that the British were robbing and pilfering Burma quite shamelessly. They seized the mines and the oil wells, controlled timber production and acted as all sorts of middlemen, brokers, millers and exporters, making colossal fortunes from rice without the peasant producers getting anything out of it. The get-rich-quick businessmen make their pile from rice, petrol etc., and sent the money to England, rather than investing it in the country.

Secondly, Orwell said that the British government was at pains to give the people only summary instruction, merely sufficient to produce messengers, low-grade civil servants, petty lawyers’ clerks and other white-collar workers. They were unwilling to develop a well-educated Burmese class which could assume the leadership of the country in the future.

The Second World war was a turning point. Burmese independence fighters set up a Burmese Independence Army (BIA) to free the country from British rule. They initially forged an alliance with Japanese forces to obtain training and weapons. The British, on retreating, followed a scorched earth policy to thwart the Japanese advance. They destroyed the major government buildings, oil wells and mines for tungsten, tin, lead and silver to keep them from the Japanese. When the Japanese occupied Burma and refused to give independence, the BIA switched allegiance to the British and rebelled against the Japanese by deploying its units across the country. It became the first truly national organisation in Burma which is still honoured by its people.

Myanmar was bombed extensively by the Allies. At the time of independence, the country was in ruins with its major infrastructure completely destroyed. Independence began badly with many of its best leaders assassinated. Over the next decade, the fragile democracy struggled to rebuild the country, a task that should not be underestimated in an underdeveloped colonial country where there was no Marshall plan to reconstruct it.

The military guns first crackled in 1962, when Gen. Ne Win overthrew a fragile government. The Revolutionary Council centralised state power, established the Burmese Socialist Programme Party with anti-communism as its motto and banned all other parties. Myanmar also turned away from the outside world when it came to economic policies. During the military’s 49-year direct hold on power, the country declined economically until it opened up to liberalisation in 2011.

In the wake of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, the UN set up an independent fact-finding mission to assess the economic interests of the military in Myanmar with a view to recommending how these needed to be brought under the control of civilian authorities. In its report in 2019, the mission revealed a business empire is so vast and secretive that there is no transparency and accountability over the military budget. The Tatmadaw uses its web of commercial interests, established through military-linked companies and subsidiaries, relationships with state-owned enterprises and private crony companies, to secure financial resources to support its activities and personnel.

Furthermore, there were reasonable grounds to conclude that China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, India, Israel, the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine allowed arms and arms- related transfers and assistance to Myanmar which posed a direct and foreseeable threat to human rights to the people of the country. The military that were the champions of independence have become parasitical, treating the country as their fiefdom.

There has been a swift international response against the coup. The UN Human Rights Council has adopted a resolution calling for support for Aung San Suu Kyi and other officials, and to refrain from using violence on people protesting against the military coup. The US government has imposed sanctions on some military officers but it remains doubtful if that would provide key leverage for change. What is needed is corporations investing in Myanmar to begin to pull out their investments. That would worry the military deeply because it holds substantial shares in its joint ventures with corporations. However this response at its best has been rather timid. It is hampered by a legacy of seven decades of impunity when the international community failed to take any significant action when the military was violently repressing the minorities like the Karen and expelling the Rohingya muslims.

When the Burmese military took power in 1962, neo-fascist military dictatorships were in power South Korea, Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Zaire and Thailand among many others. Through the cold war period until 1979, the USA supported these regimes, generally viewing them as promising stability in an unstable Third World. These regime intensified the use of organised terror in the name of ‘modernisation’.

American policy changed when the Shah’s dictatorship in Iran, installed after he coup against Mossadegh in 1953, was swept away by the Islamic revolution in 1979. It encouraged a new wave of democracies, albeit managed in its client states through electoral manipulations. However this promotion of democracy is not consistent as we saw in Egypt, after the uprising of 2011, when the first elected government of President Morsi was overthrown and replaced by one of the most brutal dictatorships under General Sisi, fully supported by the USA and many regional powers.

Liberal news and editorials in the media have rightly condemned the coup in Myanmar and demanded the return of democracy. It’s a pity that they have not been consistent over the decades and even today condone other neo-fascist and authoritarian governments across the world. Myanmar’s strategic position in the region puts it at the mercy of Chinese and American interests.

Western intervention in the name of freedom, human rights and democracy has been a dismal failure across the world. Progressive movements have rarely been supported by the dominant powers. In fact these powers have done everything possible to destroy such movements and have supported reactionary forces. The war on terror launched almost 20 years ago erased the boundary between terrorism and freedom struggles, hence all resistance movements across the world were labelled terrorists.

Military coups are not aberrations but integral to the imperialist system. Geopolitical interests play a significant role in the turn of events in any nation. Military aid by the most powerful countries create a class of privileged military officers with guaranteed pensions and business investments. They are linked to the dominant countries. They are a marked feature of uneven development when the gap between the highly developed countries and the undeveloped countries is so vast that it drives some classes to believe that a strong authority will lead to development. That is why the military remains an existential threat to democracy in many nations.

Military leaders are trained in the ethos of control, regimentation, discipline and order. They are not able to foster participation, negotiations, consensus and accountability necessary for democracy. The takeover by a strong man promising social order attracts many who fear chaos, including the rich who wish to keep on making money. That is why, when the military assumes power over society it represses politics and people and distorts society. It ends up in a mire of corruption and in the long term fails dismally. Myanmar is no exception.

Progressive forces should never disregard the power of nationalism and the role the military plays in the suppression of democracy. The illusion that the military in any country is a neutral force politically must be shed. Mass movements for political change need to be firmly based on popular participatory democracy, racial and ethnic equality, gender equality and an economy linked to ecology, to be developed for the good of all. This is going to be a long march to freedom for many people in the world including the people of Myanmar to whom we should extend unreserved solidarity.

First published in The Labour Hub on February 24 2021- link below