The tragedy of Myanmar

The sudden steep increase in the price of fuel in Myanmar (Burma) in August pushed the already impoverished masses beyond the limit. Now a mass movement threatens to overthrow the rotten military regime. But the lack of a genuine workers’ alternative has left a vacuum into which the bourgeois opposition are stepping.

The latest news from Myanmar (previously known as Burma) is that soldiers have fired on protesting crowds with tear gas. Yesterday other reports indicated that at least one demonstrator had been killed and others seriously injured. Several monasteries have been raided by security forces as they are seen by the regime as the focal points of the present unrest.

The regime is attempting to hold back the masses with brute force. Back in 1988, according to all available reports some 3,000 people were killed in the previous mass protests. Therefore no one can have any doubts as to the brutality of this regime and the depths to which it can sink as it attempts to hold back the tide of protest.

The question that remains to be seen is whether the present balance of forces allows for such a clampdown to be repeated on the same scale this time. Many things have changed since 1988. In the past the regime had based itself on the model of Chinese Stalinism, but the Soviet Union has gone and China has taken the road of capitalism, but even more importantly things have moved on inside Burma itself, with worsening economic and social conditions.

Hypocrisy of imperialism

After the mass protests and the threat of a brutal clampdown on the part of the regime, George W Bush and Gordon Brown, as could be expected, have been beating the drum of "democracy" and "human rights". President Bush announced earlier this week that new US sanctions would be imposed on Myanmar, and he attacked the military regime for imposing "a 19-year reign of fear" on the people, denying them any basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.

In his recent speech to the UN General Assembly in New York he said that, "Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma." The European Union has also added its voice to the protest, as did British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who declared that, "The whole world is now watching Burma and its illegitimate and repressive regime should know that the whole world is going to hold it to account. The age of impunity in neglecting and overriding human rights is over." The western media have also been producing article after article about the lack of democracy in Burma.

Gordon Brown, the UK prime minister, has also called for the UN Security Council to meet to discuss the crisis, no doubt with the proposal that the UN step in to solve the crisis. He has urged the UN to send an envoy to Myanmar.

This appeal to the UN is an attempt to confuse matters and to present world "public opinion" with the idea that the UN is an independent arbiter that can resolve such conflicts. We have repeated it many times over: the UN cannot play an independent role. It cannot guarantee peace or solve major conflicts. That is because the UN can only express the interests of the major powers. If these can reach agreement over an issue then the UN can be used as a cover to display "impartiality". Where the imperialist powers cannot agree then the UN is powerless, as was clearly the case in the Iraq war, and it is the strongest power that decides. In the case of Myanmar, if the UN did get a say in affairs there, it would be simply to put a rubber stamp on decisions taken by the major powers. 

Brutal regime

No one can have any doubts about the brutal nature of the Myanmar regime. It is indeed one of the most brutal and corrupt in the world and the masses have every reason to protest. Their living conditions have fallen dramatically from what was already a very low level. But Bush and Brown seem to have no ability to feel shame or embarrassment at making their statements expressing their indignation. While they have unleashed the most awful conditions on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, while they continue to have very good relations with brutal regimes like that in Saudi Arabia, after decades of supporting military coup after military coup, they suddenly discover a love for democracy in Myanmar.

Genuine socialists defend the right of the Myanmar masses to decide their own destiny, to remove this oppressive regime and replace it with a government that defends their real interests. But they are not going to get that from the USA or Britain, or from the EU or any other imperialist power. The present "opposition" will also not grant the people their wishes. They are merely exploiting the genuine discontent of the masses to ride on their backs to power. They are not representatives of the masses.

What we have is a struggle for spheres of influence, particularly between the USA and China. India also has an important stake and has been in competition with China to get control of the raw materials that Myanmar is rich in. As in the Ukraine, in Georgia and many other similar situations, the USA has been manoeuvring to get its puppets installed in power. And Myanmar is no different. The US want to squeeze China out and impose a "democratic" regime that will be more compliant to the demands of imperialism. Any such "democratic" regime would apply the policies of the World Bank and the IMF, i.e. the policies dictated by imperialism, which would include widespread privatisation, cuts in social spending and a general attack on the already miserable standard of living of the masses. One only has to look at what has happened in the Ukraine after the so-called "Orange revolution" to understand this.

That is why we must distinguish between the genuine aspirations of the people and the aims and objectives of the Western-backed "Opposition." In order to do this we need to unravel what has been developing in Myanmar over the past decades.

Historical background

The present regime has its roots in the events that took place in 1962 when Ne Win carried out a coup and modelling himself on Maoist China nationalised all land, industry and commerce, setting up a one-party totalitarian regime. He even adopted the title of "Chairman". Capitalism was eliminated and a planned economy was set up. The fact that this was possible was a reflection of the inability of the then Burmese bourgeoisie to develop the country's economy. It also reflects on the role of British imperialism in the past, when they held Burma as a colony. They took 62 years to conquer the whole of the country, between 1824 and 1886, and then held it until 1948. Throughout that period they failed to develop the country in any significant manner.

Even after formal independence, it remained totally dominated by imperialism. In those conditions Ted Grant back in 1964 analysed the developments in Burma and explained the process:

"It is the incapacity of the bourgeois, semi-bourgeois, upper middle class, landlords and petit-bourgeois to solve these tasks, that poses the problem of the permanent revolution in a distorted way. Had there been in existence strong Marxist parties and tendencies in the colonial areas of the world, the problem of power would have been posed somewhat differently. It would have been posed with an internationalist perspective. Even more than in the industrially developed countries of the West, socialism in one country, or, one might add, in a series of backward countries, is an impossible chimera. Nevertheless, the tasks of development in these countries are imperiously posed. With the world balance of forces, with the delay of the revolution in the West, with the lack of Marxist parties in these countries and with the social classes in these countries themselves, new and peculiar phenomena are inevitable.

"For example, with a mighty Chinese revolution on its borders, developments in Burma have taken a peculiar form. Since the end of the war Burmese society has been disorganised. The national minorities have waged a constant struggle for self-determination and national autonomy in their own states (Kachins, Shans etc) and at the same time, different factions of the Stalinist party have waged a terrific guerrilla war. One government has succeeded another, but each has been incapable of putting its stamp on society. Like the Chinese bourgeoisie before it, it has been incapable of unifying society, giving it social cohesion and satisfying the land hunger of the peasants, or breaking the economic power of imperialism. It is a striking symptom of the new developments in these backward countries that all the factions in Burma claim to be 'socialist'. Imperialism dominated the economy, by its ownership, largely, of whatever industry existed and of the main economic forces such as teak plantations, oil and transport.

"With the example of China on the border, it became more and more apparent to the upper layers of the petit-bourgeois that on the road of bourgeois society there was no way forward for Burma. As in China, in the decades before the revolution, the bourgeois was incapable of bringing the guerrilla war to an end and ensuring the development of a stable society and the inauguration of industrialisation and the creation of a modern state.

"Each succeeding government made only the feeblest attempts to try and develop the economy. The weakness of imperialism, the balance of forces nationally and internationally, led to a situation where the officer caste posed the problem before itself of finding some stability within society. In all these countries, the development of the bourgeois revolution, a bourgeois democratic state, and a development towards a modern bourgeois democracy, given the existing relationship of class and national forces and with the pressure of the world economy, for any lengthy period is impossible.

"Consequently, some form of Bonapartism, some form of military-police state, was inevitable in Burma. The officer caste saw itself in the role of the only strata which could 'save' society from disintegration and collapse, as the feeble bourgeoisie obviously offered no solution. Consequently, the officer caste which had participated as one of the 'socialist' factions, decided that the only way forward was on the model of 'socialist' China, but called a 'Burmese model' of 'socialism'. They have moved rapidly on familiar lines - a one-party totalitarian state, and the nationalisation of foreign-owned interests, including oil, teak, transport etc. They have begun the expropriation of the indigenous bourgeoisie. They even threatened the nationalisation of the small shops. They based themselves on the peasants and the working class. But they do not have a model of scientific socialism, on the contrary, their programme is one of 'Burmese-Buddhist socialism'." (from The Colonial Revolution and the Sino-Soviet Dispute, By Ted Grant, August 1964)

Burma was never "socialist" as the bourgeois media portrayed it; it was a terrible caricature of socialism, where the means of production had been expropriated but power was not in the hands of the workers and peasants. Power was in the hands of a bureaucratic military elite.

It should also be added that the regime that came to power had a particularly distorted view of how the economy should be developed. They did not just nationalise the commanding heights of the economy but took over every small plot of land, every little shop. The effects of these measures far from helping to develop the economy, actually contributed to stifle development. The regime went as far as closing dance halls, abolishing tourism and expelling foreigners. It became one of the most autarchic regimes we have ever seen, in many ways similar to the North Korean regime.

Although there was some development of the economy, the bureaucratic restraints eventually choked the economy, particularly in agriculture. Burma had been the world's largest exporter of rice, but by the mid-1970s the country could barely produce enough food to feed its own population. Per capita income also fell from $670 in 1960 to $200 in 1989. The military bureaucratic caste very quickly became an absolute fetter on the development of the productive forces. What was potentially a very rich country was in fact one of the poorest countries in the world.

The 1980s saw the situation deteriorate further. In 1987 the regime announced that large banknotes were no longer valid currency. This destroyed the savings of ordinary people and led directly to the 1988 uprising that was later crushed in blood. In the same year the old dictator, Ne Win, retired and a group of generals seized power, elbowing out the previous faction that had control of the state. It was this new regime that changed the name of the country to Myanmar in 1989, abandoning the previous title of "Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma", and called a free election in 1990 which saw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) win a landslide victory, gaining the support of 80% of the population.

The indications are that, in line with what was happening in China, the army chiefs were under pressure to open up the regime and the economy, but they could not stomach the idea of losing their control over the economy, which their privileges were based on. They were not against the idea of so-called "liberalisation", i.e. privatisation and breaking down the old state-owned planned economy, but they wanted to make sure they kept control by becoming themselves the direct owners of the means of production. In this sense their model continued to be that of China, a country where the old state apparatus remained intact but the economic base of the country was shifting towards capitalism.

Thus, while refusing to recognise the results of the 1990 elections, they took steps in the early 1990s to open up the economy and allow a certain development of the market, but for the imperialists they did not go far enough. The regime stopped half way! That is the real concern of imperialism, not the lack of "democracy". After all, they do very good business with China, where a one-party totalitarian regime is still in power. The reason they call for "democracy" is that they see a bourgeois democratic regime as being more pliable and more easily pressurised to abide by their economic policies.

Underdeveloped economy

The fact remains that the economy of Myanmar is still very underdeveloped. And after the clampdown in 1988, followed by the refusal of the military to accept the results of the 1990 elections, most foreign aid and investment dried up. In 2003 foreign economic pressure was intensified after the regime attacked a convoy of Aung San Suu Kyi. The US imposed new sanctions, further tightening the economic squeeze.

Economic statistics on Myanmar are not easy to come by. Since 1997, the generals have not even published a formal budget, and the figures they do produce cannot be trusted. In the same period figures on health, education, etc., have been scarce. But according to some estimates, "the junta is thought to spend more than 40% of its budget on defence and arms procurement", but it spends less than 1% of GDP on health and education combined.

Those statistics that are available reveal the terrible plight of the people of Myanmar and also the very low level of development of the economy. Out of a population close to 50 million, there is a labour force of around 29 million, but 70% of this is employed in agriculture. Agriculture in fact accounts for 50% of GDP while industry is only 15% and unemployment is estimated to be above 10%. Annual GDP per capita in 2006 stood at $1,800.

However, this hides the real distribution of wealth. The poorest 10% of the population consumes only 2.8% of national wealth, while the richest 10% consumes 32.4% (1998 figures). This is being made worse by spiralling inflation which stands at well over 20%. That explains why 25% of the population lives below the poverty line. There is a very high risk of disease, in particular of diarrhoea, hepatitis, typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria. HIV is also widespread. Life expectancy until a few years ago was about 62 but now it is calculated it may be falling very rapidly and some estimates say it may fall to well below 50. This is an indication of the general decline in infrastructure that has taken place over recent years.

In this general economic and social decay the national question has been further exacerbated. The majority of the population is Burman (around 68%), but the rest of the population is made up of ethnic minorities, Shans, Karens, Rakhines, Chinese, Indian, Mons and some smaller groups. There are conflicts, mainly on the eastern borders and government offensives have led to large numbers of refugees and displaced persons, mainly Karen, Karenni, Shan, Tavoyan, and Mon.

The degree of collapse of the economy and general infrastructure can be seen in the fact that trafficking in persons has become a major export of the country, with men, women, and children smuggled out to East and Southeast Asia for sexual exploitation, domestic service, and forced commercial labour. Many of Myanmar's migrants end up in forced or bonded labour and many of the women end up in forced prostitution. Although the country is rich in raw materials, it has become the world's second largest producer of opium. What an utter condemnation of these rotten army officers who are busy accumulating personal wealth while millions suffer in abject poverty.

Mass movement unleashed

It is in this already desperate situation that the regime announced stringent economic measures in August, when they suddenly withdrew fuel subsidies. On August 15, without warning, the government announced that fuel prices were to rise by 500 per cent.

The price of gas went up five-fold. The price of petrol and diesel doubled. Bus fares also doubled. The regime was taking desperate measures to reduce the state deficit. All this came like a sudden blow to an already impoverished population. All it needed was a spark and the generals provided it with their draconian economic measures.

This set in motion the movement that has led to the present situation. On August 19 around 400 "pro-democracy activists" organised a march in Rangoon against the price increases. The regime reacted as it has always done by arresting 150 of the demonstrators. By early September the movement, with a huge participation of Buddhist monks was growing stronger by the day.

The young Buddhist monks filled a vacuum by offering a focal point to the mass movement, but even they have no political expression of their own. Thus on September 22 they marched to the house of opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, where she has been kept under house arrest for years. Then on September 24, 100,000 people came out onto the streets of Rangoon.

Divisions within the regime

As we write, reports keep coming in of further measures of repression with mass arrests and shootings taking place. There are also, however, indications that the regime is divided on how to proceed from here. They could opt for the 1988 scenario, but even for them that would not solve anything in the long-term. In fact an attempt to go down that road could unleash an even bigger movement that could bring the regime crumbling down leaving a huge power vacuum. That would be seen as an extremely dangerous position both by the military and the bourgeois opposition.

That explains why some of the officer caste is more inclined to open a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. She has the moral authority to rein in the masses. But for her to do that, she would have to show that some gains have been made, and that would mean the regime opening up towards some kind of transition to "democracy". They would also have to combine this with some economic measures to alleviate somewhat the pressure on the masses.

Here the Chinese can play an important role. They have made big investment in Burma and do not want to see these put at risk. According to The Financial Times (September 25):

"Privately, in talks with the US, and publicly in recent weeks, although less explicitly, China has urged Burma to engage the now-detained Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, directly in recognition of her democratic mandate."

"In September, Tang Jiaxuan, a former foreign minister who has been used as an envoy by Beijing, told Burmese leaders that "China wholeheartedly hopes that [Burma] will push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country".

"Xinhua, the official news agency, added that China, ‘as a friendly neighbour, sincerely hopes [Burma] will restore internal stability as soon as possible, properly handle issues and actively promote national reconciliation'.

"China fears that any violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators by the junta will reflect badly on Beijing itself and its willingness to support dictatorial regimes.

"China has invested heavily in Burmese gas fields, often in competition with India. It is also building a port at Kyauk Phyu, in Burma, which will be connected by a 1,950km highway with Kunming, capital of China's Yunnan province."

The Chinese regime is an important factor in the situation as the above quote indicates.  The fact that around 35% of Burma's imports come from China underlines the influence that China can have on the regime.

Whether this will be enough to twist the arm of the generals we will see very soon. One thing is clear: this regime's days are numbered. Sooner or later it will fall. The tragedy of the situation is that the working masses have no real alternative to turn to. There is no independent voice of the workers. Also the failures of the old Stalinist regime are being used by the media to discredit the very idea of socialism. This leaves a huge vacuum that must be filled by someone.

The nature of the opposition

As we have seen the lead came initially from the young Buddhist monks, around which a mass movement has developed, but they too do not have their own political voice. Thus they have turned to Aung San Suu Kyi and the National league for Democracy. This woman, thanks to her years under house arrest has built up the moral authority to emerge as "leader" of the mass movement.

What we have to underline is the fact that she and her party were not the promoters of this movement. The movement is a reaction to the terrible conditions the masses are living under. However, although she has not promoted the movement, she will most likely be the main beneficiary of that movement.

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of one of Burma's "independence heroes" and has been built up as "the living symbol of Burmese aspirations for a better life", as The Financial Times has described her. However, some historical "facts" can help shed some light on the background of this woman. Her father actually collaborated with the Japanese against the British during the Second World War. In this he had at his side Ne Win, the man who was to lead the 1962 coup. When the Japanese were in retreat these two "heroes" switched sides and joined the British. So much for the "anti-imperialism" of these two gentlemen. Many years later we see the daughter of Aung San, Suu Kyi, being used as an instrument of imperialist policy, this time of US imperialism.

The cynicism of imperialism and of their paid strategists can be seen in the following analysis that recently appeared in The Financial Times:

"Kyaw Yin Hlaing, a politics professor at City University of Hong Kong, says that some concessions - including immediate measures to alleviate public hardship in day-to-day living - could reduce the momentum of the demonstrations. ‘People are asking for changes,' he said. ‘The easiest way for things to calm down is to do something that will make them feel that there are some changes and more changes will come in the future.'

"Limited economic measures without the promise of more fundamental political change, however, may not be sufficient to end the protests, given the depth of popular anger. And ‘to obtain a peaceful negotiated settlement that enables political progress to be achieved requires a strong leader on both sides, who is ready for compromise and can control their constituents', says a Bangkok-based western diplomat and long-time Burma watcher." (Financial Times, September 25)

It is all about what needs to "seem" to be done and about who controls "their constituents". It is not about real change, about genuine alleviation of the problems of the masses. There is no surprise in this. The military elite wants to hold on to power for fear of losing their privileges. They want a capitalism all of their own, that allows them to remain as the elite of society. The opposition want a form of capitalism more in line with the interests of imperialism. On this basis both sides are in opposition to the real interests of the toiling masses.

Socialist perspective

Back in 1988 the mass movement could have toppled the regime had it had a correct leadership with a genuinely revolutionary and socialist perspective. The solution was not in sowing illusions in the "market" but in wresting power from the military and replacing it with genuine workers' and peasants' power. This would involve not privatisation, but state-owned planned economy under the democratic control of the workers and peasants through democratically elected bodies.

Because no such leadership existed, since then Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have built up their authority and are now able to fill the vacuum. This means the masses in Myanmar will pay a heavy price. It is their movement that will eventually bring down the rotten military caste that is presently in power. On the back of this movement the bourgeois opposition will come to power. They will then proceed to accelerate the process of privatisations and opening up to the world market. The resources of the country have already been plundered by foreign powers, in particular China. This plundering will multiply a thousandfold and the Myanmar masses will be no better off.

At a certain stage the masses will see through the empty rhetoric of the bourgeois opposition. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy will lose their gloss. In those conditions a genuine socialist alternative could gain the ear of the masses. The task is to build such an alternative.

This task can be facilitated by events in the surrounding countries, particularly in India and China, where there is a powerful working class. Because of the extreme underdevelopment of Myanmar the solution to the present crisis cannot be found solely within its borders. Even a healthy socialist regime, with genuine workers' democracy would come under immense international pressure. If the initial workers' democracy that existed in the Soviet Union was snuffed out by the isolation of the revolution, Myanmar cannot hope to do better.

The solution to the present crisis in Myanmar lies in the struggle for a Socialist Federation of Asia, within which the workers and peasants of Myanmar would find their role. Marxists are duty bound to tell the masses the truth. We do not fall into the trap of having illusions in the present opposition in the country. We recognise the immense revolutionary will of the masses. We support the masses in their aspirations, but we also tell them that only by counting on their own forces, by taking power themselves and linking up with the workers throughout the region can they find any long-lasting solution.

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