To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
March 27, 2021

Myanmar rises against military rule

By Joseph Green, Detroit Workers’ Voice

The military staged a coup in Myanmar on February 1, arresting much of the civilian leadership of the country, and since then protest has never stopped. Despite the mounting toll of arrests and deaths, people continue to flood the streets of Myanmar's largest city Yangon, and other towns and cities across the country, denouncing military rule. Week after week, they defy new atrocities and numerous declarations of martial law against protesting towns. They are demanding respect for the results of the election of November 8, in which the military suffered a crushing defeat by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Restoration of an NLD-led government would just be the start of democratization in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi is a national hero in Myanmar, and lived through periods of house arrest during military rule, adding up to 15 years. But under her leadership, during the period since 2015 when the NLD was supposedly the head of the government, it conciliated military power and covered for its atrocities against the Rohingya.

Yet  the masses of Myanmar people have come together in a powerful common struggle. They will not go back to the long years of full military rule. Moreover, if they defeat the coup, it will open the path to further struggle over the path forward for Myanmar, and give space for mass organizations that go beyond the NLD.  But if the military prevails, a bloody blanket of silence will be imposed on Myanmar for many more years.

The naked brutality of the Myanmar military

In the weeks since the coup, the Myanmar military, called the Tatmadaw, has displayed its utter brutality. The death count goes up every day, reaching 400 as this article is written. About 3,000 people have been detained, and they are subject to beatings and torture. So far at least two officials of the NLD, U Khin Maung Latt and Zaw Myat Lynn, have died in custody.

The military has beaten protesters, used all sorts of weapons upon them, and fired live rounds into demonstrations. Many of the dead were killed by shots fired intentionally at their heads. The military raids homes as well as trying to clear people from the street. The military leaders declared a state of emergency as soon as they staged the coup, suspended any rights of the people, arrested strike leaders, removed licenses from news media in order to shut them up and allow the arrest of journalists, repeatedly blocked the internet, and have put a number of neighborhoods under martial law. The military has invaded hospitals, universities, and temple compounds. It has also organized pro-military goons to fight protesters. This is, after all, the same military that sought to eliminate the very presence of Rohingya in Myanmar. On March 24, the military regime released several hundred of its prisoners, but new arrests continued, and then three days later, on Armed Forces Day, March 27, the military killed over a hundred protesters, in the bloodiest day yet since the coup.

The brutality is so extreme that earlier this month about three dozen police officers fled Myanmar to the Indian state of Mizoram in order to avoid taking part in the bloodshed.

The resistance defies the bloodshed

None of this has suppressed the movement. There is a continued mass outpouring throughout the country. The character of the demonstrations has changed over time, though. Originally the protests had a festive character. As people poured into the streets, some wore fancy clothes, and there were contingents showing off different sections of people that backed the movement, including Buddhist monks, musicians, beauty queens, and body-builders. But as the military cracked down, people started wearing helmets and carrying shields to protect themselves, and set up barricades. Some people wrote their blood type and phone number on their arm, for use in case they were wounded by the military.

Right after the coup, a Civil Disobedience Movement quickly developed which opposed working with any state institution so long as the military was in power, so even doctors and civil servants refused to work. There were also strikes in one workplace after another, paralyzing the economy.

Myanmar workers are playing a major role in the movement. The garment industry employs 600,000 or so workers, and young women garment workers have been prominent in the strike movement. There are also strikes of health care workers, rail workers, teachers, bank workers, copper miners, and others.

While the strikes and shutdowns continue, the confrontations in the street are growing more bitter. You are taking your life in your hands if you go in the street, but people continue to stand up against the coup. Protesters have built barricades with sandbags and bamboo, used smoke bombs, or occasionally fabricated various types of weapons, including fire bombs and, most recently, bow and arrows. Meanwhile some protesters are considering whether to take up armed resistance in the countryside. Indeed, armed ethnic insurgencies have existed for decades in Myanmar, and there is the issue of whether they will coordinate with the movement against the coup. Many people from the ethnic minorities have taken part in the mass movement against the coup, but most of their parties and armed organizations have been silent; only a few of the ethnic organizations have condemned the coup so far, while a few leaders have colluded with the Tatmadaw.

The class character of the resistance

The movement has a variegated class character. Workers have taken a prominent role in the resistance and carried out widespread strikes, but the demands of the resistance aren't for changing the economic system. Resistance to the coup is spread across all sections of society, and it unites supporters of the NLD with activists who have more radical aims. The majority of the population is either against the coup or belongs to minorities that have been opposed to the Tatmadaw for decades.

Even some officials are against the coup. Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar's representative to the UN, declared that no one should cooperate with the military until the coup was called off. And Myanmar's Ambassador to the UK, Kyaw Zwar Minn, called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from jail.

There is a government in exile, the CRPH or Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw is the Myanmar parliament). NLD representatives elected in 2020 defied the coup by selecting 17 parliamentarians to comprise the CRPH. The wide spread of the protest movement has put pressure on  the CRPH to take better stands towards the ethnic groups and against the institutions of military rule.

This struggle is of utmost importance to the working people of Myanmar, who are sacrificing a great deal to support the resistance, but it centers simply on curbing military rule. That's why the governments of various countries whose bourgeoisie is exploiting Myanmar, including the US, can profess some hypocritical sympathy for it. But in the long run, throwing off military rule will open the road for bringing class issues into Myanmar more to the fore.

Nature of the NLD and the reform period in Myanmar

The military had ruled Myanmar for a long time. But in 2008 the military rulers backed a new constitution, which opened a period of reform. The problem the military had is that they expected to win votes in the new system, whereas they kept having to commit fraud to win elections. Still, by 2011, Myanmar found itself with a nominally civilian government. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, there was an amnesty for about 200 political prisoners, unions and strikes were legalized, censorship was relaxed, and so on.

In the 2015 election, the NLD won a sweeping victory, gaining a majority in both houses of parliament, and Aung San Suu Kyi became essentially the head of government. The period of reforms continued, with progress in education, some motion in the direction of universal health care, and an active attitude towards fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, below the surface, the military still was ultimately the real power, with the government being something of a coalition with it. The NLD consented to this form of rule, where for example the military was guaranteed one-quarter of the seats in parliament no matter what the election results were, and even enacted some repressive legislation. Worse, Aung San Suu Kyi covered up for the bloody military campaign against the Rohingya that began in 2016, resulting in many atrocities and the flight of over a million Rohingya out of the country. She did this either to conciliate the military or because she shared with the military leaders the belief that the Rohingya weren't really part of the Myanmar people, or for both reasons.

Myanmar has many different ethnic groups. About two-thirds of the people of Myanmar are Bamar, with the others being Shan, Karen, Rakhine (also called Arakanese), Chinese, Indians, Mon, Rohingya, and others. There has been a long history of military oppression of the minorities, and of armed resistance on their part, as well as differences among the minority ethnic groups. A democratic settlement among the different peoples of Myanmar is a crucial issue. The NLD made promises to the minorities (but not the Rohingya), but frictions remained between it and the minority ethnic groups.

Economically the reform period inaugurated by the military welcomed foreign investment and "liberalized" the economy in the direction of what the Western bourgeoisie wants. The military continued to enrich itself through ownership of a section of the economy, but it proceeded towards the neo-liberal idea of modernization. The NLD government went along this path as well. One would expect it to continue in this direction if it returns to power. Democracy in Myanmar, as elsewhere, would mean a greater extension of the class struggle, not liberation from poverty and exploitation. But the only path forward towards socialism is through the class struggle.

Prospects

The struggle in Myanmar is going to be long and bitter. The military is pulling out all the stops in its efforts to maintain power. The experience of the reform period has taught it that it can't simply give up a little power, but that the people would vote it out of power if they could.

A victory of the people against the military would be an encouragement to working people everywhere. Activists in Southeastern Asia are watching the struggle of nearby countries; this can be seen, for example, in the development last year of the Milk Tea Alliance of activists in Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

However, the defeat of the coup  wouldn't be the end of the struggle against poverty and degradation in Myanmar, but the start of another stage of it. The present struggle embraces both bourgeois and working class forces.

Moreover, to establish a durable democracy in Myanmar, there needs to be a just settlement that guarantees the rights of all people in Myanmar, Bamar or minority. There is no way that Myanmar will live in peace while the rights and citizenship of the minorities is denied. Indeed, the atrocities against the Rohingya increased the power of the military, helped divide the peoples of Myanmar, and paved the way for the present coup.

The people need, not simply the return of the NLD government, but a thorough destruction of military tutelage, a full recognition of the rights and citizenship of the different ethnic groups, and rights for the workers to organize. The working masses of Myanmar face a struggle to push for these things. The bourgeoisie would be satisfied with simply an improved NLD regime. The workers face the need to build up their own independent movement, able to oppose economic liberalism as well as militarism, able to organize a class movement separate from either the NLD or the military.

A gallery of 20 pictures of the events on Armed Forces Day can be found in the AP article “Myanmar forces kill scores in deadliest day since coup”.<>


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 March 27, 2021
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