by Ellen Isaacs
March 18, 2021
Burma or Myanmar? Neither name connotes any progressive political position. Burma is what the British colonialists called their territory. The military victors in a 1989 coup changed the country’s name to Myanmar. Many local opposition groups prefer Burma, so we’ll go with that.
Every day the news from Burma grows more shocking. The military leaders of the February coup are shooting at and killing large numbers of peaceful demonstrators, at least 51 over the March 13-14th weekend alone. Over 1800 protestors have been arrested. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands continue to protest the military seizure of power, reflecting hatred of the many brutal military regimes during recent Burmese history. A general strike was called on March 8, demanding a return to democracy. Even several hundred police have resigned rather than fire on their own people; youth have set up self-defense committees.
Sadly, there is no leadership calling for revolutionary, anti-capitalist change, and opposition appeals for help are being sent to capitalist Western countries. The major demand is for the return to office of Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and her party, the National League for Democracy(NLD), deposed after a four year period of power sharing with the generals. The All-Burma Federation of Trade Unions has asked the UN and the US to recognize the NLD government and assure a “federal democracy.” But during her time in office, ASSK actually wielded limited power, defended massive anti-Muslim racism, and did little to promote the welfare of workers or farmers. Underlying the violence is really the conflict between pro-Western or pro-Chinese interests who seek to control Burma’s resources and coastline. What is lacking is a movement that seeks to empower the working class in opposition to capitalists and imperialists that dominate both the present regime and ASSK’s party.
A Very Abbreviated History
Modern day Burma was consolidated as a British colony in a series of wars from 1824 to 1885, and was made a province of India from 1886-1937. Nationalist movements began during the 1920s, culminating in a general strike in 1938. The Communist Party of Burma (CBP) was founded in 1939, led by Aung San, the father of ASSK. He and other leaders were soon forced to flee to China where they hoped to contact the communists, but instead allied with the Japanese who promised to promote national liberation. As the Japanese occupation proved to offer no such liberation, these Burmese leftist leaders then allied with the British war effort against fascism, and the Japanese were expelled in 1945. Aung San cooperated with the post-World War II British government and helped negotiate independence in 1947, although the country remained dominated by imperialist interests. Aung San’s party, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) won the first elections, but soon after he was assassinated by right wing forces. Left groups, including the CBP, were forced underground.
Strife between rightists and leftists continued, and the communists turned primarily to organizing peasants. In 1962 Army Chief of Staff General Ne Win took over the country and arrested many communist sympathizers. He and other officers declared a “socialist” state, and ushered in a policy of nationalization and isolation. Corruption and poverty led to many rebellions, in which ASSK was a leader, but another military victory occurred in August, 1988. The new dictators changed the name of the country in English to Myanmar. The communist movement, torn by internal strife, ceased to exist in 1989.
Under pressure from popular protests, elections were held in 1990 and won by the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by ASSK. The military, however, did not let a new government take power and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for much of the next 15 years. The dictatorship was brutal, holding up to 800,000 people in forced labor, arresting masses of protestors, and making a poor response to a disastrous cyclone in 2008. The military allowed some reforms in 2015, releasing ASSK and allowing her to participate in elections, to which she agreed even though millions of minority group members were excluded from voting. The generals had also written the constitution so as to guarantee themselves many seats in parliament and control of key agencies.
The Days of Aung San Suu Kyi
Not only did ASSK hold little real power, she did not promote equality for all Burmese. A significant minority group is the Muslim Rohingya, 4% of the population in the majority Buddhist country. Historically, they are actually the oldest inhabitants of present-day Burma, in an area known as Rakhine, and were joined in the early 20th century by many imported laborers from Bengal and India who settled there. ASSK, however, always refused to call the Rohingya by their name and promoted racism against them and their genocidal expulsion, which displaced, brutalized or killed at least one million people. Her economic program promoted privatization and opening up Burma to more foreign capital. From 2015-20, the economy expanded, especially because of the connection with China, but it has recently contracted due to the pandemic.
The policies of ASSK and the campaign against the Rohingyas largely reflect the interests of China, which shares a 2,129 km border with Burma and has huge financial and strategic interests in the country. China is in the process of developing a deep sea port on the Rakhine coast and a vast industrial park nearby, both to be significant parts of the Belt and Road Initiative. The port is the terminus of a huge natural gas pipeline and would be a shipping site for Chinese exports as well as increasing the reach of China’s navy to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean beyond. Together with China’s increasing naval cooperation with Pakistan, the move is a threat to Indian and US commercial and naval influence in the area. China is also a major backer of the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma and involved in the vast harvesting of Burmese timber. China thus primarily desires stability, be it under the military or the NLD, although the military is probably the more reliable partner.
In March 2020, the NLD proposed some constitutional amendments, one of which proposed gradually reducing the military’s control of legislative seats, and in November, they won a great electoral victory. Thinking a true mass movement might develop, the military decided to re-establish itself in power and attacked ASSK again. She was arrested and charged with bogus criminal offenses like illegally importing walkie-talkies found in her home.
What is Needed
Although the opposition to the military coup has been widespread, from peasants to bank clerks to policemen, and extremely valiant, its demands are limited primarily to a return of the NLD and ASSK. But both of these entities represent capitalist interests, be they Chinese or Western. There are no parties or groups, at least none known to even left-wing commentators, that are calling for or leading struggle for a worker-run society. As in India, we are witness to a vast and brave movement involving a large segment of the working class, a movement with the valor and breadth to be capable of system change, but with very limited demands. Without the leadership of a communist party, it is impossible that a society where all workers flourish will be attained. It is clear that it is essential that revolutionary parties be built in smaller struggles, in Burma as in all the world, in order to prepare leaders and the analysis to seize the moments of mass popular upheaval as are now occurring. Let us do this now, wherever we may be.