Tag Archives: Military coup

The Sudanese Revolution continues

Yet again, the military in Sudan is attempting to crush a transition to democracy

The coup

On Monday 25th October, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) shredded the transitional agreement signed on 17th July 2019 which was to usher Sudan towards a democracy led by a civilian government over a period of 39 months. It swept away the Constitutional Charter signed by the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and the TMC agreed in August.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the TMC dissolved the power-sharing Sovereignty Council, dismissed the transitional government and the regional governors and declared a state of emergency.

The December revolution

From the beginning in 2018 and through 2019, the military was on the defensive. Waves of protest erupted across the country in January 2018 against the rise in bread and fuel prices. They continued to grow and peaked in December, demanding an end to poverty, corruption and unemployment. In this December Revolution, calls for President al-Bashir, who ruled for 30 years, to step down became louder.

In February 2019, al-Bashir declared a state of emergency and sacked the cabinet and regional governors in a bid to end weeks of protests against his rule, in which up to 80 people died.

Talks between the generals and protest leaders broke down. Sudan’s military removed al-Bashir from power, suspended the country’s constitution and closed its borders and airspace.

The TMC took over but thousands of protesters camped in front of the army headquarters, demanding civilian rule.  A three-month state of emergency was also imposed.  The Military Council began talks with opposition on the transition to democracy.

On May 28th and 29th 2019, workers launched a countrywide political strike against the military regime, with the strikers and protesters demanding civilian rule, undeterred by military threats.

Bloody repression

But the military crackdown continued unabated. It reached its high point with the massacre in Khartoum when the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) launched an assault on the sit-in in front of the military HQ using tear gas and heavy live fire on 3rd June.

An estimated 120 were killed and hundreds of unarmed civilians were injured, with hundreds of unarmed citizens arrested and many families terrorised in their homes across Sudan.

By mid-July 2019 there were at least 246 deaths and more than 1,350 injuries, an unprecedented historical record compared to other similar uprisings in the country.

On 30th June thousands of people protested across Sudan in a day of mass marches and protests in response to the call by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA)  and the FFC for a “miliyoniya” – a millions-strong protest to demand the handover of power to a civilian authority.

Power-sharing

The military caved in under internal and international pressure to agree to the power-sharing structure by signing the transitional agreement and the draft Constitutional Charter setting a road map whereby the new government would ostensibly bring Sudan’s economy back from the brink of collapse, achieve peace, build new institutions capable of combatting corruption and delivering justice, and pave the way for a new, permanent constitution and credible elections.

The transitional government under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok took power in September 2019.His cabinet inherited the economic crisis. The economy had been battered by years of US sanctions, after the US designation of Sudan as a supporter of terrorism in 1993, and was heavily indebted. It was also dominated by a small class of al-Bashir’s cronies. The spread of COVID-19 compounded the difficulties.

In December 2020, President Trump removed Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in return for Sudan normalising its relationship with Israel.  The United States further enabled $50 bn debt relief and $ 2.4 bn funding by June 2021 through the IMF and World Bank.

In return theHamdok administration implemented the agreed economic austerity reforms which included cutting back on subsidies and balancing the budget. Inflation went through the roof and by July 2021 stood at over 400%, increasing the hardship in the living conditions of many Sudanese, which were already dire.

These problems gave the military an opportunity to stir public discontent. It tried its utmost to stall economic reforms since it controlled the key sectors. Hamdok expressed his frustration that only 18% of the state’s resources were in the hands of the government. The generals publicly decried the ineptitude of the civilian administration.

During the 20 months with al-Burhan as the chair of the Sovereignty Council, the TMC took full advantage of the weaknesses in the transitional agreement.  Al-Burhan began acting as de facto head of state. His deputy, Hemeti, headed the civilian government’s Economic Committee, and also became chief peace negotiator with rebel factions. The generals even ventured into foreign policymaking, including involvement in foreign wars and pacts, and, most controversially, agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, without the knowledge of the civilian cabinet.

Planning for the coup

By July 2021, the generals were emboldened. When al-Burhan was just about to hand over the chairmanship of the Sovereignty council to civilian leadership, he went on the offensive. The generals had used this period to prepare a restoration.

Its allies mobilised the Beja tribe in eastern Sudan to blockade the main highway linking the main commercial seaport Port Sudan on the Red Sea and the rest of the nation. This caused severe bread shortages. The military refused to dismantle the blockade when the civilian government asked it do so.

On 21st September the authorities announced that there had been a coup attempt which had been averted. Shrewd political analysts thought that this seemed to be a ‘trial balloon’ set up by the military to gauge the public response to the ratcheting of tensions between the military and the civilian transitional government.

On 16th October security forces allowed several thousand demonstrators to be bused into Khartoum, as far as the gates of the presidential palace, where they openly called for a military takeover and the overthrow of the Hamdok administration.

In response to this, pro-democracy forces organised a mass protest on 21st October. Thousands of supporters of Sudan’s transitional government took to the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and other cities.

Arrests of civilian government officials

The security forces arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and members of the transitional government, officials and political leaders. 

Al-Burhan, announced that he had taken this action because he wanted to avoid a civil war because of civilian factionalism. He promised to hold elections in July 2023 and hand over power to an elected civilian government then. He alter went on to claim that there was no coup and that the Sudanese army had not killed any protestors.

Behind him stands his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemeti). He has been at the head of the Rapid Support Group (RSG), the Janjaweed tribal militia that carried out massacres in Darfur during Bashir’s reign. His group has been integrated into the army as a militia within the military. The RSG was responsible for the massacre at the sit-in on 3rdJune.  He has a close alliance with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. He projects himself in a high-profile foreign policy role and is regarded by some in Sudan as the country’s strongman.

Resistance from below

The announcement of the coup brought thousands of people out onto the streets of Khartoum spontaneously to demand the release of the political leaders.  Protestors opposed to the military takeover carried the national flag and burned tyres across the city. Youths barricaded streets. Soldiers stationed on the streets of the city to restrict movement clashed with protestors. A large number of protestors were arrested.   By the next day, at least seven anti-coup protesters were killed and 140 injured due to excessive force used by the country’s security forces.  The main opposition coalition, Forces of Freedom and Change, called for peaceful actions in the streets to overthrow the military takeover

Massive organised resistance from below was to follow. The call for a million to march on 30th October saw around four million people protest in nearly 30 cities across Sudan. Workers went on strike to shut down transport, oil fields, banking and most public institutions. Many women joined the street demonstrations. Teachers, university and school students also walked out.

The real drivers of the resistance are the Sudanese Professional Association which unites workers’ professional associations and unions and the neighbourhood Resistance Committees

The SPA emerged by stages during the 2010s from the struggles of professional groups: in turn, doctors, journalists, lawyers, veterinary surgeons, engineers, and school and university teachers. 

Neighbourhood Resistance Committees emerged as a leading force in 2018, mobilising millions of young people using this network-based form of self-organisation independent of political parties. They have been formed in major cities and rural communities, bringing together a broad coalition of activists drawing in the previously unorganised.  For example, Bahri (North Khartoum) is thought to have nearly 80 resistance committees, each with several hundred members. These grassroots committees have established local coordination committees; they reject any kind of centralisation and are keen to preserve their autonomy. They not only organise street protests but also provided food distribution, medical services and much more in some areas.

As usual the main bridges in Khartoum were closed by the military and there was an internet blackout to prevent the opposition from organising. Meanwhile the military used the state TV and social media to control the narrative.

For months, al-Burhan has been advocating the need for a technocratic government. Hamdok is a technocrat who has worked for many years for the UN, most recently as deputy executive secretary of its Economic Commission for Africa. Many are advocating he should serve as a neutral figure and lead such a government.

Sabotaging civilian rule

However, the real intention of the generals is to ensure that there is compliant neutral government that does its bidding and avoids accountability. They want to take politics out of policy decisions especially financial matters. They want to de-radicalise the new resistance forces, to divide and sideline them.

This is what they exactly did on 11thNovember, by appointing a new Sovereign Council with self-selected members of the military and civilians including ex-rebel leaders. Al-Burhan would lead the council with Hemeti as his deputy. The FFC representatives were totally excluded.

Divisions have also appeared in the FFC about strategy, tactics and inclusion of different political currents. It came under criticism for delaying the creation of a Transitional Legislative Council by more than two years.

Protests broke out across the country and on Saturday 13th November, another ‘million-people march’ saw huge protests across the country despite the military using live fire which resulted in fatalities. Protestors have been undeterred by this repression and have continued to make demands by being on the streets. The rallying cry now is “No negotiation, no partnership, no compromise.”

On 21st November, Hamdok was released and he signed a 14 point agreement with al-Burhan restoring him as the Prime Minister to lead a technocratic government. The calculation the generals are making is making that they would still be in control of the transition Sovereignty Council behind the facade of the technocratic government.

On the face of it, this may seem a retreat but is more likely a tactic to allay the street protests, influence public opinion and relieve international pressures.  The agreement has been angrily rejected by major networks of Resistance Committees, who have stated, “This agreement means nothing, we continue to hold to our position: no negotiations, no participation, no settlement.”  The Resistance Committees stand by the radical demands agreed by their gathering on 22nd October.  The SPA has also stuck by similar demands agreed on 30th October.  Both are in no mood to compromise – they want the overthrow of the military regime, full power to a civilian government and accountability of the military for killings and war crimes.

On Thursday 25th November, thousands of protestors were out on the streets across Sudan to pay tribute to the 42 people killed, according to medics, in the crackdown against anti-coup demonstrators. Demonstrators in Khartoum chanted slogans such as, “The people want the downfall of the regime”, while in the capital’s twin city of Omdurman others shouted, “Power to the people, a civilian government is the people’s choice.”

On 26th November, in an exclusive interview with Al-Jazeera, Hemeti said that Hamdok was aware of last month’s military takeover before it happened and was “completely agreeable” to it. This suggests that all the orchestrated manoeuvres to arrest Hamdok and then to release him, reappoint him as the Prime Minister were to give him legitimacy for independence.

Many Sudanese activists foresaw this as a part of process to “manufacturing consent”  to secure public opinion in favour of a return to peace and stability from the turmoil of the last two years.

The deep military state

If there is a secret ‘deep state’ in Sudan then the army is at its heart.  The military, trained by British colonial authorities, has ruled Sudan for 52 of the 64 years since independence from the British in 1956. The military generals have ruled the country intermittently for significant periods – Abboud (six years) Nimeiry (16 years), al-Bashir (30 years), each time overthrowing transient civilian governments. 

Besides having the technical armed power, the military stratum exerts immense political influence on national life in Sudan. Over a long time, this stratum is politically and organisationally centralised. Despite the factions within this stratum, the army has become the fundamental institution, just as in Egypt and Algeria.  Military supervision of government is the keystone of the ‘system’ that ‘the people want to bring down’ (a common slogan of popular uprisings in the region). As a part of the ruling class, it could not have done this without a compact with the landowners, business classes, industrialists, bureaucrats, etc.

The military economic empire

At stake is the military’s control of the economy beyond its massive call on public spending at the expense of public spending. Over 60% of state spending goes on military and security spending, according to IMF and World Bank estimates. Official budgetary allocations put security spending at five times the level of health spending and 35 times the budget for education.

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) amassed extensive commercial holdings under al-Bashir. The crown jewel of the military’s commercial empire is the Defence Industrial System (DIS). It was launched as the Military Industrial Corporation in 1993, to safeguard against potential disruptions of weapons supplies from Western governments by developing arms manufacturing capabilities.  Over the past several decades it diversified and expanded significantly without any transparency about its holdings, operations and revenues.

Today military and security services are running a network of companies with billions of dollars in assets. These military enterprises are involved in the production and sale of gold and other minerals – marble, leather, cattle, and gum arabic. They control 60% of the wheat market.

This commercial empire stretches across key sectors such as construction, real estate development, contracting, water supply, banking, transportation, aviation, tourist facilities telecommunications and the manufacture of household appliances, pipes, pharmaceuticals, detergents and textiles.

Even the RSF with Hemeti at the helm have built up secret independent sources of wealth. They have captured a large part of the country’s gold industry through a linked company, but the leaked bank data and corporate documents show their use of front companies and banks based in Sudan and the UAE. It has also earned significant sums from hiring out troops to fight alongside Emirati- and Saudi-backed forces in Yemen (as has the SAF) and Libya. Its contribution of just over $1 billion to the Central Bank of Sudan to support essential imports in 2019 gave a sense of the volume of the RSF’s reserves.

Besides all this, all the companies held by the SAF and RSF are exempt from paying tax and operate without transparency about their holdings and revenues.

Moves towards military divestment

It was at this time critical that the U.S. Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability, and Fiscal Transparency Act (SDTAFTA) came into force on 1stJanuary 2021. This required that the Sudanese authorities establish civilian control over the finances and assets of the security (encompassing the military) and intelligence agencies.

An agreement was reached in March 2021 between the government and the armed forces for a gradual divestment of the army from the economic field and transfer of military companies to civilian state authorities.  The stumbling block has been full financial disclosure and civilian capacity to take over. No steps in this direction have taken place in the face of the army’s refusal.

In April 2020,  a committee, established under the transitional charter to recover ill-gotten gains from former senior officials with close ties with al-Bashir, secured into public hands 20 million square meters of residential land, more than one million acres of agricultural land and dozens of businesses.  All of this is very limited compared to the massive resources of the country’s military, security services, and militias. This example rattled those in the military with vested interests.

Disasters of Military rule

Military rule has been a disaster for the Sudanese people. The economy stagnated for three decades since 1970 with a GDP mostly around $10 bn and saw growth after the discovery of oil, leading petroleum exports after 2000, to peak between 2010 and 2017 at around $60 bn. Since then it has seen a steep decline particularly after the secession of South Sudan where most of the oil reserves are. 

Sudan’s poverty rate in 2021 stands around 46%. Hunger is a serious issue particularly affecting children with a high proportion of undernourishment and stunting. It has one of the lowest human development rates taking in account life expectancy, education and per capita income.

The stakes for the country’s public finances and economy are equally high. Sudan is deemed to be “in debt distress,” with a foreign debt of $60 billion and total public debt reaching 202 percent of GDP in 2019. This makes it one of the IMF’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC).

Neither has military rule brought peace and stability to Sudan. Like most Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East and North Africa in the 1980s, the turn towards Islamist politics engrossed Sudan. The historical memory of the nationalist revolt led by the Mahdi in 1885 against British colonisation to create an Islamic polity has been carried forward in the al-Ansar movement. Today the National Umma Party claims to be the descendant of this movement.

In September 1983, Nimeiry issued several decrees, known as the September Laws, which made Islamicsharia the law of the land.  Secular Muslims and the predominantly non-Muslim Southerners strongly opposed the imposition of Islamic law.  John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s_Liberation_Movement (SPLM) defected from the government and begun to organize Southern opposition.  A civil war between the North and South followed which extended to the control of oil resources in the South. Strict sharia law was imposed under President Omar al-Bashir, during which time Islam became the religion of the state.

Osama bin Laden was in Sudan from 1991 to 1996 before he became America’s arch-enemy. As the originator of Al-Qaeda with its drive towards establishing an Islamic State through Jihad (Holy War), it is inconceivable that he would not have had influence on the Islamist currents in Sudan.

The second civil war was internationalised and lasted about 21 years and ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005, laying the basis for an autonomous South which seceded through a referendum in 2011.

The short sightedness of the military elite and politicians imposing Islamic laws in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country, and its failure to establish a secular, pluralistic and united society based on consensus and sharing of resources broke up Sudan with dire consequences for both South Sudan and Sudan. Sudan still faces an economic crisis due to the loss of two-thirds of its oil revenues with the secession of South Sudan which erupted into a destructive civil war.

The Darfur conflict in western Sudan has been costly. Rebels launched an insurrection in 2003 to protest against the disregard for the needs of the non-Arab population. The government responded by setting up and equipping Janjaweed Arab militias which terrorised the civilian population.  The conflict resulted in a humanitarian crisis that left hundreds of thousands dead and two million displaced. In July 2008 an International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor alleged that al-Bashir, as president of Sudan, bore criminal responsibility for the crisis in Darfur.

Since independence, Sudan had faced other insurgencies on the periphery because many communities have grievances to do with identity, marginalization, the relationship between religion and state, governance, resource-sharing, land issues, social justice, and equality at the national level. The military had failed to address these issues for decades and used military force to resolve them unsuccessfully.

Within a matter of months, the transitional government led by Prime Minister Hamdok was able to negotiate the Juba Peace Agreement. This was signed on 31st August 2020, in Juba, with the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, which includes the five main Sudanese rebel groups, and at the head the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement, both from the Darfur region in the west, and the Sudan People’s_Liberation_Movement-North , which is leading a rebellion against the Sudanese government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.  Some groups such as Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North and the Sudan Liberation Movement have not joined the agreement.

Geopolitics at play

Sudan is in a strategic location straddling North Africa, the Sahel and Ethiopia and sharing borders with nine other states. Its geopolitical importance is growing with its long coast line along the Red Sea where rival powers are jostling for control. Islamic militancy across the Sahel, the escalating war in Ethiopia and the strife within its border put it at the centre of regional stability.

Sudan has always been a locus of competition between regional powers and subject to the pressures of realignments in regional politics. Patronage and financial leverage often determined who would retain power in the country.

Al-Bashir with links to the Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed a privileged relationship with Qatar and Turkey, two backers of the Muslim Brotherhood. He also maintained an alliance with Iran.

The revolutionary uprising in 2018-19 provided UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt an opportunity to bring Sudan into their axis. In December 2018, Qatar reportedly cut off fuel shipments. Facing crushing debt, a crippling deficit and an acute foreign exchange shortage, al-Bashir cut subsidies for bread and fuel, triggering the first demonstrations which would grow into the December Revolution. In the coming months the crisis left al-Bashir with no allies or foreign backers, precipitating his downfall.

The Arab troika backed the TMC to the hilt, enabling it to launch the bloody repression, stalling revolutionary demands for civilian rule and enabling the emergence of a power-sharing agreement in which the generals would retain substantial executive powers. In the guise of ‘national stability’ they supported military and paramilitary figures and co-opted elements of the FFC to forestall any radical moves.

Closer links between Saudi Arabia and UAE were forged when Sudan deployed 30,000 infantry troops to fight in the Arab coalition against the Houthis in Yemen. Sudan received the payment of soldiers’ salaries, direct deposits to the Sudanese state’s coffers, and subsidies on basic commodities. By 2018, UAE officials estimated that they had injected about $7 billion into Sudan’s economy.

As an imperial hegemon in the entire region and indeed Africa as a whole, the US has kept Sudan on its radar for decades. It designated Sudan as a state supporter of terrorism in 1993 and imposed sanctions which strangled the Sudanese economically, cutting of financial support from international institutions.

President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa factory in Khartoum which was reduced to a heap of twisted metal by fourteen cruise missiles. It produced 90% of the major pharmaceutical products and was the sole producer of TB drugs for nearly 100,000 patients. The human costs were far greater than the damage to property.

The December Revolution provided the US with a new opportunity to bring Sudan within its fold in coordination with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt. As mentioned earlier, as soon as the US removed Sudan from its state supporter of terrorism list, both the IMF and the World Bank provided debt relief. The US also offered a credit line of $700 million. This provided the US with significant leverage over Sudanese state.

The US has been disappointed with the coup. Its envoy Jeffery Feltman  had frantic meetings with al-Burhan to stop the coup and to reverse it once it took place. The Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in touch with Hamdok during his arrest, further indicating the US engagement in Sudan at the highest level. All major donors and financial institutions have suspended economic support, including the US, World Bank, IMF, France, Germany, and the UK.

The question is what is the calculation the US is making in wanting a democratic transition in Sudan? Can it be trusted to safeguard democracy in Sudan? The way in which the counter-revolution was engineered in Egypt after the 2011 Arab Spring, with the election of Morsi after the first ever democratic vote being swiftly reversed, ushering in the military dictatorship of Sisi points to the contrary.

Historically the US has undermined the independence of African governments and overthrown governments that it considered against its interests by the CIA engineering coups, for example in Congo in 1961 and Ghana 1966.

From the 1950s to 1970s the US installed many neo-fascist military dictatorships across three continents. After the Iranian revolution its policy shifted to installing controlled electoral democracies generally in the global south.

Distorted politics of Sudan

Sudan’s current impasse cannot be fully understood without grasping the underlying politics over decades. Politics has never been absent whether it took a religious, secular or nationalistic form.

Sudan had experienced two historic and much celebrated political uprisings – the October Revolution of 1964, which overthrew the first military regime of General Abboud and ushered in a four year period of parliamentary democracy and the 1985 April Intifada which overthrew the country’s second military overlord, General Nimeiry. 

During both these upheavals, the urban professional activists, the Doctor’s Union, Bar Association, Khartoum University Teacher and Student Unions were the engines behind the call for strikes and the overthrow of the military dictatorship.

After 1964, there followed government by unstable parliamentary coalitions, hardly lasting a year. The Islamic Umma party and the Democratic Union Party were coalition partners. There were tensions between the secular “modern forces” and the Umma Party. When the Umma-dominated parliamentary regime outlawed the Sudanese Communist Party, a section of the ‘modern forces’ retaliated by facilitating Nimeiry’s military coup in 1969.

In 1989, Hassan-al-Turabi, the ideologue of the National Islamic Front (NIF) collaborated with Umar al-Bashir, to overthrow the Umma Party government led by Sadiq-al-Mahdi since 1985, thus ending the third parliamentary democracy. The NIF was fretting about the potential failure of its project of restoring sharia law. 

Through the different phases of Sudan’s history, the competition for dominance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Movement in various guises, both in Parliament and the military was decisive.

Instead of tethering it, the politicians rode the military tiger, only to be thrown off and sidelined. They failed to fulfil the primary requirement of democratic politics -keeping the military stratum under control. Their unprincipled opportunism, their horse-trading and their lack of vision for the future of the Sudanese people made them use the army generals to achieve their short term partisan aims -only to entrench military rule in Sudan for decades.

Once any military strongman took power, politics was repressed, civil society was demoralised, corruption prevailed, internal wars continued, and a vast amount of funds were wasted, inevitably distorting Sudanese society and its future development.

The struggle for self-determination

The military has become a parasitic stratum feeding on the national wealth in Sudan. It has a monopoly of violence. Revolutions can have many meanings. Any change that can shake up Sudanese society from the stranglehold of the military would be revolutionary and open up new possibilities.

The situation remains extremely fluid.  The generals have made well planned moves to solidify the coup.  The neighbourhood Resistance Committees can provide a basis for a decentralised federalist democratic power structure. But as new organisations and alternatives continue to emerge through the struggles, there is an urgent need to build their capacity to link up, build unity amongst the different classes and ethnic groups and present a radically egalitarian vision of governance in Sudan.

Although the revolutionary movement is confident, it needs to solidify fairly quickly to present an alternative to the Sudanese people. It must expose the failures and the corruption of the military relentlessly. Constant vigilance and change of tactics by the revolutionary forces to win over the majority of Sudanese to the necessity of change for further social advancement will be vital.

This is the third time in Sudanese history since independence that the explosive contradiction between the military stratum and civil society has come to the fore. Repeating the feats of the previous revolutions, activists need to be aware that by overthrowing an autocratic regime will not guarantee the emergence of a more democratic system. The revolutionaries will need to reconcile the centre and the periphery, and religion and secularism that previous uprising failed to do.

International Solidarity

The coverage about Sudan in the corporate media is cursory, superficial and ahistorical.  Sudan is a country far off whose fate matters little and garners interest only when Western interests are threatened or if terrorism in the form of an Islamic State insurgency shows up.

To support the civil society resistance in Sudan and the struggle for democracy, subscribe to MENA Solidarity Network which has up to date information on news, demonstrations, petitions and motions for trade union branches which can also be adapted for party branches.

The calls for international solidarity matters and should be heeded. The most important thing that we can do for the Sudanese revolution is hold the British government to account for its intervention with the US and the Arab Troika to push back the revolutionary tide. After all, the British government ruled Sudan for nearly seven decades after invasion, trained its army and supported conservative political forces in Sudan.

Secondly, activists need to put in real effort to track and shut down the sources of RSF and military revenues which are funding the counter-revolution.  This can only be done at multinational level, given that the commercial enterprises of the military are integrated with western capitalist economies dominated by banks and corporations.

Thirdly, international solidarity should focus on exerting pressure on the military to release detainees, compensate for death and injuries, hold all those responsible for these to account, refrain from using deadly force at protesting civilians, respect the rights to protest, restore telecommunications and the internet and to lift bans on trade unions and other associations.

Image: Sudanese soldeirs stand guard around armoured military vehicles as demonstrators continue their protest against the regime near the army headquarters in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, April 11th 2019. Source: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/military-coup-ousts-sudans-bashir-protesters-demand-civilian-government. Author: Agence France-Presse, made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

First published on the Labour Hub 29 November 2021 https://labourhub.org.uk/2021/11/29/the-sudanese-revolution-continues/

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