Which way is Myanmar going?

More people have been killed in Myanmar (Burma) as the military try and hold back the wave of protest. But pressure is building up on the regime. Whether it will clamp down firmly or move in the direction of negotiations depends on the power of the movement in the coming days.

The Burmese generals must be dreaming of the "good old days" when they could stop any news getting out of their country, while they kept a firm grip on the situation. Now they have blocked the Internet in the vain hope of stopping news getting out as they proceed to arrest and shoot unarmed civilians. But their attempt is in vain. They cannot stop the world from seeing what is going on. The latest we have is that they have killed ten people in the last couple of days.

What must be worrying them in particular is the determination of the demonstrators in the face of brutal repression. Last night's reports were that the shootings far from curbing the will to protest has actually strengthened the movement. We have seen scenes of ordinary civilians facing up to the soldiers, daring them to shoot on their own people. In one Yangon neighbourhood hundreds of protesters ignored the government's ban on demonstrations and took to the streets again.

The regime has organised a systematic operation of rounding up the most militant of the monks, raiding their monasteries and taking many away. With this they hope to remove the focal point of the protest. The question of the monks, however, is an embarrassing one for the military tops. There are about 500,000 of them. The tradition is that many families will send one of their sons to be trained as a monk. Therefore the protesting monks we have seen on our TV screens will have direct family links with millions of ordinary Burmese people. Hounding them, beating many and arresting them could have the opposite effect to what the obtuse military chiefs may imagine.

However, although the present wave of repression is shocking to people all over the world reading the reports and watching the scenes on TV, compared to the past it seems the Burmese military are holding back from launching an all-out bloodbath as they did back in 1988. The reason is clear: if they are seen killing large numbers of monks, who are greatly revered in the country, this would enrage the populace even more and lead to a protest that could sweep away the regime.

Imperialism has a problem with this regime. The army chiefs belong to a period when they had full control over the situation. For many years they had managed to shut the country off from outside influence. But years of economic decay have eaten away at the regime from within. It is a body that is rotten to the core and only the outer shell remains.

As we explained in yesterday's article, a section of the officer caste is more prone to opening up to the opposition. They can see that if they do not loosen up to some degree then the whole edifice could come crumbling down, and if the military is involved in widespread killings in the coming period, the anger of the population could reach such levels that they would lose not just their military and political positions but also access to the material wealth they have accumulated over years. It is this gut instinct that is guiding them. One wing sees that any concession to "democracy" will be the end for them; another wing sees that if they don't make concessions then they will lose everything anyway.

That may explain why a United Nations' special envoy to Myanmar, Ibrahim Gambari, is now travelling to the country, apparently without any obstacle being put in his path by the regime. In the past this would have been unthinkable. It is clear they want to leave a channel open for negotiations. An outside "mediator" could open the road to bringing the opposition on board. This they see as the only way of stopping the present wave of protest.

China is being called to play a major role in defusing the situation. Normally China prefers to stick to its policy of not interfering in the "internal affairs" of a country when such events take place. The Chinese regime brutally dealt with the Tienanmen protests nearly 20 years ago and at the time stuck to the position that other countries shouldn't meddle in their domestic affairs. But this policy cannot hold any longer.

China now has big investments in Myanmar and wants guarantees that those investments are safe. It is also Myanmar's biggest trading partner. As many commentators have explained the Chinese regime is not concerned about "democracy". How can it be, when there is no such "democracy" in China? What they are concerned about is stabilising the Burmese regime. China also has its internal problems, with growing social polarisation and widespread discontent. They fear that the masses in China at some point in the future could draw some lessons from the present situation in Myanmar.

In the recent period the Burmese regime had been going through the motions of drawing up a democratic constitution, but the text was written in such a way as to leave the main levers of power still in the hands of the military. China had been pressurising the regime to speed up this process. Their idea was clearly to loosen up somewhat from the top in order to avoid an explosion of discontent from below. The military have left it a bit late, and as soon as they announced their stringent economic measures in August the whole situation imploded.

Jiang Yu, China's foreign ministry spokesperson announced yesterday that, "China hopes that all parties in Myanmar exercise restraint and properly handle the current issue so as to ensure the situation there does not escalate and get complicated."

In the next few days we can therefore expect diplomatic pressure on the regime to increase. It would not be surprising to discover that discreet lines of communication are being built between elements within the army officer caste and the opposition, brokered by western diplomats. This would not be in contradiction with an escalation of repression over the next few days. The increased violence on the part of the regime could enrage the masses to such a degree that a wing of the military could be forced to open up negotiations in order to calm the situation down.

However long it takes, the end result will be a movement in the direction of some kind of bourgeois democratic regime. The Chinese regime would clearly have preferred to avoid such a scenario, as this would loosen their grip on the country. The USA and other western powers are pushing for the opposition to come to power. As we said yesterday, this does not represent in any way a greater love for democracy. It is merely a means of increasing the spheres of influence of this or that imperialist power.

This explains the widespread publicity being given to the movement in Burma. So far the biggest rally we have seen has been between 70,000 and 100,000, depending on which reports one reads. This is an impressive movement. No one can have any doubt about the courage of the demonstrators in the face of a brutal military apparatus. But if we consider that the population of Burma is around 50 million, it is still rather small compared to movements we have seen in other parts of the world.

We should recall that in Mexico at one stage during the protest movement against electoral fraud last year, there were three million people on the streets of Mexico City. The movement had a mass participation that lasted for months. But what kind of media coverage did that movement get? The official media did not offer us scenes of the rallies in Mexico City. On the contrary, they played the whole movement down. Organs such as The Economist and Financial Times, which are now talking of "revolution" in Burma, denied such a movement was taking place in Mexico.

Why the difference? It is very clear! In Burma the outcome of this movement will be to bring to power a bourgeois opposition that is already closely linked to imperialism. In Mexico imperialism was backing Calderon and feared the masses that were rallying behind Lopez Obrador. In Burma, imperialism wants to see this regime brought down so that a government they can "do business" with can be brought to power. In Mexico the politician they can "do business" with is the man who led the blatant electoral fraud.

We see how imperialism has two weights and two measures when it comes to using terms such as "revolution" and "democracy". For imperialism "democracy" means the untrammelled rule of capital. Any hint at genuine mass, workers' participation in the political affairs of a country is seen as "dictatorial". We see this in the way they define the Venezuelan government.

Therefore, while we support the aspirations of the courageous Burmese masses in their protest and in their attempt to bring down this brutal military regime, we also maintain a sense of proportion and do not close our eyes to the manoeuvres of imperialism. And although the dominant idea in people's minds is that the opposition is working for democracy and the downfall of dictatorship, we know that there is more to it than that!


See also: