Myanmar: a movement of revolutionary proportions

The coup in Myanmar has unleashed a movement of revolutionary proportions. The determination of the masses to stop the military from taking over can be seen in the widespread and growing strike and protest movement that has been unleashed. The military junta clearly underestimated the level of opposition they would face.

The civil disobedience campaign has continued to grow, and what must be of most concern to the military chiefs is that it has taken on the form, not only of street protests, but of a widespread strike movement. As the New York Times reported:

“The civil disobedience movement, or C.D.M., as it is known, has widespread support across the country. It targets the military’s extensive business interests and government functions essential to military rule, as well as encompassing street demonstrations and a noisy new evening ritual of banging on pots and pans.

“The huge outpouring of support is all the more impressive given the military’s brutal history of gunning down pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and 2007. One expert on the government’s civil service system estimated that the country had about one million civil servants and that about three-quarters of them had walked off their jobs. Many are essential in keeping the country running.” (NYT, 15 February 2021)

Widespread strike movement

It is one thing when they have to face student protests, or civil rights protests, but when the working class begins to intervene it changes the nature of the conflict. The working class is the force that can change society; it can paralyse the whole country, and if it had the leadership, it could pull behind it all the other layers of the population: the youth, the middle classes, the peasants, and the national minorities, and not only remove the military regime but also sweep away Myanmar capitalism, which is at the root of the present impasse.

The tragedy of Myanmar is that the working class does not have a leadership that is prepared to go beyond limited democratic demands. And yet, despite that, the workers are instinctively moving in the right direction, organising strikes and sit-ins, electing strike committees and so on. Testimony to the role being played by worker activists is the fact that striking workers spearheaded the campaign, and some of these are among the more than 400 people known to have been detained since the coup.

Those who first ignited the mass movement in Yangon are the FGWM - previously known as the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar but now expanded into a general workers’ union - which has thousands of members. The leader of the FGWM, Moe Sandar Myint, has become a prominent figure in the protest movement. As she explained in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation: “Workers were already angry, they were already activated. A familiar feeling of suffering had returned and they could not stay silent. They just needed someone to follow - and that is the reason I dared to start the strike.”

She went out mobilising workers in the days after the coup, calling on people to “fight against the military dictatorship until the end.” The military authorities tried to silence her by raiding her home, but she managed to elude them. In the same interview, she said: “During the night, I must work on strategy - how to strike, where to protest - and then send invitations to workers: when, where and how we will take action against this military dictatorship. I'm in grave danger... but I will not be silenced.”

Unfortunately, when she appealed to other unions to take action, she found a less militant response, with union organisers calling for calm. But the pressure from below was growing, and as medical staff and government workers started coming out in strike action, a united front of several union organisations was formed. Moe Sandar Myint reflected the mood on the ground when she said: “Workers are ready for this fight. We know that the situation will only deteriorate under military dictatorship, so we will fight as one, united, until the end.”

Rank-and-file workers and local leaders of workers’ strikes in other sectors joined the movement. Civil servants, doctors and teachers have gone on strike, including even some police officers. Lawyers, engineers, farmers, factory workers have also been part of the movement. The railway workers have joined the strike movement, with rail services grinding to a halt. Hospitals have also closed, and government ministries in the capital, Naypyidaw, such as investment, transport, energy and social welfare, are struggling to stay open as they have been hugely affected by mass walkouts.

The strikes are also affecting the military-run conglomerates. A copper mine in the northern Sagaing region, a joint venture owned by the army officer controlled MEHC and Chinese state-owned Yantsee Copper, has been paralysed after more than 2,000 miners walked out. Hundreds of engineers and other workers at Mytel, the telecoms company partly owned by the military, have also come out on strike. Five thousand workers in Hlaing Tharyar, an industrial area of Yangon, have joined the strike movement, stating they will stay out so long as the military junta remains in power.

The bank workers have also joined the strike wave in big numbers, participating in the civil disobedience movement. KBZ, one of the largest private banks, has had to close. The state Bank, Myanmar Economic Bank, which pays out government salaries, has been affected. There is an endless list of workplaces that have been involved in strike action.

Back in 2007, during the “Saffron Revolution”, there were street protests, but no widespread strike activity with the clear aim of hitting the military’s economic interests like the one we are witnessing today. The present strike wave represents an immense leap forward in the thinking of the masses, and shows that they have drawn important conclusions from past experiences.

In the past decade, a young and militant trade union movement emerged in Myanmar, after the military handed over to civilian rule and the ban on trade unions was lifted. And it was this new, young and fresh layer, together with the students, that was among the first to move in protest against the coup. The lead from this new generation of worker activists, in turn provided the impetus to other layers to join in. The workers have not forgotten that, under the previous military regimes, they were denied the right to organise, and they are determined not to return to those days.

Repression not having desired effect

The military has been responding to this rising movement of the workers and youth in the only way it knows how: by stepping up repression. They have repeatedly shut down the internet overnight. This is to facilitate their tactic of going for the best-known activists at night in their homes. Several well-known figures have been arrested in this way.

They have also increased the level of violence on the streets, using water cannons, firing rubber bullets and even live ammunition into the crowds, leaving one young woman in a critical condition after being hit in the head, and four others were taken to hospital in the capital Naypyidaw, while many others have been injured around the country. A crowd that had gathered in the northern city of Myitkyina, apparently with the aim of shutting down the electricity grid, was shot at by soldiers.

There is a heavy presence everywhere of military vehicles and special forces, whose aim is to intimidate the people and force them to stay off the streets. But so far, the repression has only had the effect of enraging the masses even more. The most recent protests were among the biggest seen so far, and are the response of the masses to the military junta’s press conference in which they stated they had not carried out a coup!

The military regime has repeatedly shut down the internet in an attempt to remove an important tool in the hands of the protestors. The Myanmar military is used to operating hidden away from public view, but we are not in 1998 or in 2007 now. In spite of their attempts to shut down social media, they discover that the movement keeps coming back at them.

On Monday, regardless of the overnight internet blackout, more protests erupted in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, despite the deployment of heavy armoured military vehicles on the streets as well as special forces, such as the 77th light infantry division, made up of battle-hardened troops, infamous for their brutality against ethnic minorities. This is a clear warning to the masses on the streets that, if they continue, then they could be facing bloodshed. The past track record of the Myanmar military is indeed one of ruthless and bloody clampdowns, such as in 1988, when they killed thousands.

And yet, the people remain undaunted, remaining on the streets and even challenging the troops. It is clear that all the measures taken so far are not having the desired effect. The military is getting desperate in the face of such widespread opposition. They have introduced a new law that allows for 20-year prison sentences for anyone who tries to obstruct the operations of the soldiers on the streets.

The army chiefs are accustomed to commanding. They have a military mentality and for decades they had complete control, and they thought that they could simply take back control. In this they seriously miscalculated. The situation has revealed clearly that they have a very small social base in society and can only count on their oppressive military machine and the lumpen elements. This is revealed by the fact that, in a desperate attempt to frighten the people, they released 23,000 criminals with the intent of using them to terrorise the masses. But they did not take into account that you cannot give military orders to an entire people, once they have risen in revolt.

Such is the determination of the people to resist, that in some areas of the country neighbourhood watch brigades have been set up to protect their communities and resist the military’s attempt to arrest local civil disobedience activists.

Exploiting the National Question

The Myanmar military is renowned for its brutal treatment of protestors, but in particular, its treatment of the national minorities is infamous. Now, the irony of the situation is that, in a desperate move, they are attempting to co-opt the leaders of various ethnic groups. In some cases, they have released some of these leaders that had been previously imprisoned.

Precisely because the military has a very weak social base in society as a whole, they are playing the game of “divide and rule”, but turned on its head. Their general policy is to whip up Bamar/Buddhist chauvinism and direct it against minorities. This was the case with the Rohingya, for example. Now they are attempting to lean on the understandable resentment of ethnic minorities and use them against the Bamar workers and youth, who are out on the streets protesting.

The military chiefs are trying to exploit the genuine feelings of resentment of the ethnic minorities towards ASSK and the NLD. They have been doing this by inviting ethnic-based political parties into their military administration. An example of this is Mahn Nyein Maung of the Kayin People’s Party. He lost in the November 2020 elections, but now has a position in the military government.

Before she came into office, ASSK had made many promises to the ethnic minorities. On this basis, many of Myanmar’s different ethnic nationalities supported ASSK and the NLD during the elections of 2015, hoping thus to move forward in their struggles for self-determination under a federal system. Back then, the NLD promised it would work for peace and end the various ethnic conflicts, some of them involving armed struggles, and it would make changes to the 2008 constitution to accommodate the needs of the minorities. This was not to be, however, and once in office she compromised with the military and backed and justified their atrocities.

The case of Arakan [renamed as Rakhine] can serve to highlight the contradictions. This is a geographic region in the south of the country, a long narrow strip along the eastern seaboard of the Bay of Bengal. One of the peoples that live here is precisely the Rohingya, who have been brutally treated by the military. The government recognises Tibeto-Burman Arakanese as the Rakhine, but it does not recognise the Muslim Rohingya people.

The military carried out attacks on the Arakan rebels, but officially the order to do so came from the NLD administration in early 2019, who – ironically in the light of today’s events – later that year also imposed internet restrictions on much of the state. And in the November elections, about three-quarters of eligible voters in the state were disenfranchised. One can understand why the people in this state do not trust the NLD!

Now, the military are trying to pretend they are friends of the people in Rakhine. And while preparing to impose restrictions on the internet in the rest of the country, on 2 February they lifted them in Rakhine; and then on 12th well-known Arakanese political prisoners were among the thousands released from prison.

All this explains why ASSK, while still maintaining mass support among the Bamars, lost the support of many of the minorities. It is an unfortunate fact, however, that now the so-called “leaders” of the minorities are lining up with the military. They will be used as so much small change in the military’s manoeuvres, and will later be discarded. Just as ASSK and the NLD betrayed them, so will the military when they are no longer of any use to them.

The capitulation of these minority leaders, however, goes against the healthy instincts of significant layers among the minorities. Some of them have joined the protests, understanding that the new military government is the enemy of all the peoples of Myanmar, both Bamar and ethnic minorities. They understand that the military is merely using them in its moment of need.

The rights of the various ethnic minorities cannot be won either through collaboration with the present military government or with the liberal bourgeoisie that is backing ASSK and the NLD. What is required is an independent party of the Myanmar workers that would have as one of its main slogans: the right of self-determination of all the people within a federation. That, however, is not going to happen on a capitalist basis, and it would have to be a Socialist Federation of Myanmar.

Where does the movement go from here?

The mass movement is presently increasing. The crackdown on protesters in Naypyidaw, Yangon, Mandalay, Magway and other cities has had the opposite effect of what the military was trying to achieve, and is pushing the movement forward. In purely military terms, the state has the resources to crush the movement brutally many times over. But it is not merely a military question. It is mainly a question of the balance of class forces and leadership.

As we have seen, the workers played a key role in promoting the protest movement. Unfortunately, the political leadership of the movement has another agenda, which is to limit the movement to simply getting ASSK reinstated. Some are going down the road of attempting to “negotiate” with the regime. But as the saying goes “weakness only invites aggression”. What is required is to call for an all-out general strike, involving every sector, every workplace, combined with sit-ins and self-defence groups, which must be under the control of the workplace and neighbourhood committees.

Combined with this there should be a call to the university and school students to occupy all the schools and universities, and the farmers should also be called on to join the movement. The movement also needs to send a clear message to the national minorities, making it clear that it considers their needs and is prepared to fight for their rights.

Herein, however, lies the problem. The declared central aim of the movement is to restore ASSK to office, but that ignores her true class nature. She represents the interests of international capital, not the interests of the Myanmar people. It is understandable that the people of Myanmar defend democracy. Marxists also defend democratic rights. We stand for the right to organise, both trade unions and parties, for the right to free speech, the right to strike, and so on. In that, Marxists are against the military junta, but can we support the NLD and ASSK? That is where we part ways with the liberal bourgeoisie. We stand for the independent organisation of the working class, opposed, yes, to the military, but also to the emerging bourgeois liberals.

If ASSK successfully gets back into office, she would return to her previous stance. She would betray the national minorities, but she would also betray the majority Bamars; she would not act in defence of the workers and youth of Myanmar, but would govern in the interests of the capitalist class. A working-class-based alternative to ASSK and the NLD needs to be built urgently.

What we have in Myanmar is a process of class differentiation, which is only in its early stages. The fact that the working class does not have a revolutionary leadership up to the tasks of the day is the factor which allows events to unfold the way they are doing. The ranks of the movement, the worker activists on the ground, are far ahead of the trade union leaders in general, but there is no party to pull all this together and transform it into a political force that can intervene in the situation.

The fact that workers have initiated strike action from below, combined with sit-ins, shows that they have the correct instinct and understanding. Contrary to what some might think, the workers are revealing an advanced consciousness. The problem, however, is that the official trade union leaders, even when they are leading protests, are in general lining up behind ASSK and the NLD, thus not allowing an independent voice of the workers to emerge.

There are some union leaders who stand out for their militant approach, but the unions in general are permeated with reformist leaders, who have been influenced by so many NGOs, including those promoted by the ILO, whose purpose is to push trade union officials to limit the scope of the workers’ movement, and promote class collaboration, especially on the political front. The capitalist class have understood that you cannot hold down the masses by merely military means, but you need to have the collaboration of the workers’ leaders themselves, so as to co-opt the workers’ movement within the legal framework, and as a result, the trade union leaders line up behind the bourgeois liberals.

No to “lesser evilism” – for independent workers’ action

The workers, however, are piling on the pressure from below, as they want to fight, and that explains why the leaders are forced to call some action. But they do it in a way that limits the scope of the movement, and they tie everything to the NLD, thus lining up the workers as allies of the liberal bourgeoisie, which means supporting one section of the capitalist class.

The political vacuum thus created is filled by ASSK and the NLD. It will take time for a differentiation to take place within the movement. At the moment, the one idea which dominates the thinking of the masses is that we have to stop the coup and re-establish democracy. They want to show how strong the opposition to the coup is, and they hope that the military will somehow listen and withdraw. Marxists sympathise enormously with this spirit, but we explain that it is not enough.

What would force the military out is the development of a mass movement that is so strong and widespread that it would threaten to go to a higher level and threaten the whole economic system, not just the military regime. Then some of the more intelligent strategists within the ruling elite would be forced to understand that it would be best to send the military back to the barracks and call on the services of ASSK again in an attempt to calm down the masses.

The National Endowment for Democracy sponsored Institute of Strategy and Policy-Myanmar - in effect a voice of US imperialism - and other famous authors, the grandson of former UN General Secretary, and Harvard trained historian, Thant Myint-U and others are thinking precisely along these lines. The Institute of Strategy and Policy initially issued a statement in which it “...urged the junta to find a peaceful solution by means of political dialogue with key stakeholders in order to resolve all crises caused by the coup”. Some of the more intelligent strategists within the ruling elite realise that it is very dangerous to push the masses to take direct action and get involved in politics, for once mobilised the masses would see how powerful they actually are. As the saying goes “appetite comes with eating”, and the serious strategists of capital, especially those more closely connected to imperialism, are worried. The main objective is to get the masses back to “normality", where they can return to playing a passive role.

An independent movement of the workers and youth is something that ASSK and the NLD fear as much as the generals do. We should not forget that while in office ASSK collaborated with the generals; she accepted their constitution and their privileges. That is because the military is a big economic player in the country; the junta are capitalists themselves. The only real way of removing them from power would be to remove their economic power, and that would mean the expropriation of all military-owned companies.

The problem for the bourgeois liberals is that such a measure could only be carried out by mobilising the workers, and if the workers are mobilised to take over the military’s economic interests, we are talking here of half the economy. If a movement of the working class were set in motion to expropriate the military, it would not stop there, but would challenge capitalism as a whole. This explains the collaboration between ASSK, together with the NLD, and the military.

The present movement is spontaneous in character. The masses still have big illusions in bourgeois democracy, but for the masses democracy is not an abstract principle, but a means to an end, which is to improve their lives, get better wages and conditions, more jobs, better and universal education, healthcare for all, etc. Under bourgeois democracy you can organise, you can have workers' unions, student unions, you can express your opinion and put forward your demands. On top of this, the masses have not forgotten military rule. They see the generals as the main enemy. This means they are prepared to protest, even risking their lives, to defend democracy. That is why the masses in general still support ASSK. And that explains why she may be brought back at some point, with the aim of using her authority to guarantee that the mass movement does not get out of control.

The masses learn from experience, and it will take time for the illusions they have in ASSK to be burnt out of their consciousness. When the economy is growing and the system can provide jobs, housing, etc. then they can even tolerate corruption and privilege. This was the case to a certain degree in the first years after ASSK came into office. But when the system is no longer able to provide the minimum required for a civilised existence, then they begin to question the people at the top. That will happen at a certain point and the workers and youth will see through bourgeois liberals like ASSK.

However, there are different layers within the movement. The slogans that are being raised are “Down with the military dictatorship, Free ASSK and the president”. While in general, the masses still have illusions in the NLD and want to see it in government, there are more advanced layers that have already seen through the limits of ASSK and the NLD. Other slogans that are being raised are “Abolish the 2008 constitution; Build federal democracy”, which go directly against the power of the military and also make room for the national minorities. They also go beyond what the NLD was prepared to do when it was in office.

Experience is teaching the more advanced workers and youth that the bourgeois liberal road is a dead end. They are told to back ASSK as the “lesser evil”, compared to the military. What has to be explained is that fighting for democracy does not at all mean that you have to sow illusions in ASSK. You can fight the military, while at the same time warning the masses of all the limitations of the bourgeois liberals.

The mass movement in Myanmar has started from the democratic tasks, but in order to achieve their aims they must carry on their revolution to the end, which can only mean struggling for a socialist federation of Myanmar which would serve as a beacon to the workers of the whole region. We are seeing huge movements in India and Thailand, which show that a lead from the Myanmar workers could very quickly spread to the international plain.

To sum up, what is required is a bold call for an all-out general strike with the aim of bringing down the regime. As part of this, it is necessary to spread the strike committees to all workplaces, neighbourhoods and villages; and to coordinate these at regional and national level. That way the movement would have a national leadership. Combined with this, it is necessary to create self-defence groups in the workplaces and neighbourhoods.

The call should go out to remove the 2008 constitution, and to organise for a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly, as a true expression of the will of the people. Away with the reserved seats for the military! At the same time, the organised workers in the trade unions must set in motion a process that prepares the building of an independent party of the working class. Without their own voice, the workers are forced to tail behind the bourgeois liberals, who will betray them as soon as they are back in office.

The problems facing the Myanmar masses, the workers, the youth, the peasants, the national minorities are rooted in the crisis of capitalism on a global scale. The revolutionary movement taking place today cannot limit itself only to democratic demands, but must go further and raise its own demands. The solution to the present impasse cannot be found on a capitalist basis. What is needed is the expropriation of the big capitalists, of the military oligarchs, of the foreign companies, and for these to be democratically run by the workers themselves.

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