Photo: Railway workers in Mandalay.

By GILES JI UNGPAKORN

The military coup in Burma/Myanmar is being opposed by tens of thousands of activists in towns and cities throughout the country. These protests show a glimpse of what needs to be done to overthrow the military. The most important actions have involved organise workers. They are important because workers have the potential economic power to bring the military to its knees.

There are reports that hospital workers at up to 70 hospitals have been taking action against the coup. In the southern city of Dawei and at Dagon University, on the outskirts of Yangon, students have held protests. Teachers, academics and civil servants have also been protesting. There are also reports of railway workers joining protests in Mandalay and according to “The Irrawaddy”, hundreds of workers at the Chinese owned Kyisintaung copper mines in Sagaing Region have joined the civil disobedience movement. In addition to this, residents in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Rakhine, Mon and Shan States have joined anti-coup nationwide rallies, temporarily putting aside their differences with Burmese politicians.

The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy. The Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained many oppressive powers, a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament. Opposition to the coup also means opposition to this fake democracy.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains a popular figure inside the country, but she is not the kind of leader who is willing to overthrow the dictatorship. She has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their sham democratic system. She is also an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. This is why she refused to condemn the atrocities carried out by the army against the Muslim Rohingya. Within her party (the National League for Democracy) she has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies towards her opponents and tried to ban Muslims from holding important posts. During Suu Kyi’s time in office, there were over 200 political prisoners and her government continued to allow the junta’s laws to restrict free speech and assembly. Yet, despite this, we must stand with all those who demand her release from detention and an end to military rule. But this is not the same as supporting Suu Kyi’s leadership.

Hospital workers protest the coup.

The demands of the democratic movement cannot just be confined to ending military rule. Self-determination for the various ethnic nations within Burma has been a key issue since British rule. The British encouraged ethnic divisions along the lines of the empire’s “divide and rule” policies. There can be no peace or genuine democracy without addressing the ethnic question. Yet, most Burmese nationalist politicians since independence have opposed full self-determination for all ethnic groups, favouring a unified country, which has often involved “unity by military force”. There has been continuous armed conflict between separatists and the central government in various parts of the country since independence. At one point Burmese pro-democracy students also tried to use armed struggle against the regime after being brutally repressed in 1988. In no case has armed struggle resulted in victory.

Despite talking about freedoms for ethnic groups, in general, Aung San Suu Kyi has a condescending attitude towards the non-Burmese who make up a significant proportion of the country. She opposes the right to full self-determination. Suu Kyi once wrote in her book “Freedom From Fear” that the Karen “made good nannies”, the Chins were just a “tribe” and the Kachins, while being “handsome people” only worship spirits. She contrasted this to the “highly cultured” Buddhist Burmese, Mons and Shans. It is no wonder that many ethnic groups do not trust her!

Between 1962 and 1988 Burma was ruled by the military dictator General Ne Win, who claimed that he was a socialist. Yet in reality his regime was a nationalist “State Capitalist” regime modelled on the various Stalinist regimes throughout the world. This had an effect on the stifling the development of a genuine socialist movement.  

Wall posters in Yangon. (NY Times)

Right-wingers try to argue that deals done at the top, with the help of foreign powers, can gradually bring about democratic change. This is a dangerous myth. The so-called “Burmese Road Map to Democracy”, applauded by the West, merely allowed for a façade of democracy while the military held real power. Aung San Suu Kyi was only allowed to take part in elections because she was prepared to compromise. This façade of democracy was enough for the West and mainstream commentators to declare that Burma was returning to “democracy”.

The so-called “international community” will blow hot air over the coup and threaten sanctions, but this will achieve very little. Apartheid in South Africa was not ended by sanctions. It was ended by mass uprisings of youth and militant strikes by the black working class. The Arab revolts ten years ago managed to overthrow repressive leaders through mass uprisings. The dictators Suharto and Marcos were overthrown in Indonesia and the Philippines by mass revolts, not by international pressure. In fact the international community are only interested in ensuring stability and “business as usual” despite their meaningless words about democracy and human rights.

It is likely that the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures. The Burmese military has huge economic interests and behaves like an armed mega business corporation.

There is a rich history of mass uprisings from below in Burma. On 8th August 1988 a great uprising took place against the military, led by workers, monks and students. This was met with terrible brutality from the security forces who fired live ammunition directly into the crowds. But the defiance continued. On 22nd August a general strike was announced, with strike centres in most towns and cities. The regime began to wobble and the ruling class party disintegrated. This was the window of opportunity to seize power and overthrow the military. Yet on 25th August Aung San Suu Kyi addressed 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and urged protesters to forget what had taken place and not to lose their “affection for the army”!! Thus Suu Kyi helped to demobilise the movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

A further mass uprising led by monks took place in 2007 in response to economic hardship and students demonstrated against the military in 2015. Both these revolts were crushed by the army. Monks have a history of radical politics in Burma and this was strengthened when students entered the monasteries after the 1988 revolt was crushed. The monasteries provided an opportunity for education and some freedoms for political debate when the universities were shut down or tightly controlled. 

Over the last 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has moved to divert radical movements towards parliamentary politics. Every time a revolt takes place she attempts to place herself as the figure-head or personification of Burmese democracy, rather than encouraging mass action from below. This has only protected the military’s power. While opposing the military dictatorship run by the generals, she often expresses admiration for the army, which her father Aung San established after independence.

The real hope for democracy in Burma is that the new generation of young people, independent of Aung San Suu Kyi, will rise up, taking lessons from Thailand and Hong Kong, but also teaching and inspiring activists in those countries. Success in overthrowing the military will depend on involving the working class, both inside the country and also the millions of migrants working in neighbouring Thailand.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai socialist and political commentator, living in exile since he criticized the 2006 military coup in his country. The article can be found on his website: https://uglytruththailand.wordpress.com/2021/02/10/the-real-hope-for-the-people-of-burma-lies-with-a-movement-from-below/