What is happening in Myanmar and why?

The military coup that was carried out in Myanmar by Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the army, on 31 January has unleashed a movement that the military were clearly not expecting. Their coup took many by surprise. No one in Myanmar was expecting it, and it also does not seem to fit with the needs of the moment. So why did it take place? In this article, we attempt to outline some of the factors that led to this sudden and sharp change in the situation.

It is an established norm of bourgeois strategy that a military coup is usually a measure of last resort. And, more importantly, in order for a coup to be successful, it is a step that you take only when the movement of workers, peasants and youth has been already demoralised by their own leaders.

That was the case in 1922 in Italy when Mussolini rose to power, and it was the case with Pinochet in 1973 in Chile. The balance of forces for a reactionary crackdown had already been tipped in favour of the ruling class by the vacillating leaders of the working class, who were not prepared to mobilise the full force of the workers, peasants and youth when the time was ripe.

There are moments in history, however, when the conflicts between different wings of the propertied class also lead to a situation where the deadlock requires the use of force. Here, over and above the growing social discontent in the depths of society, we also have an ongoing conflict between two wings of the ruling class in Myanmar, on one side the enriched military oligarchs and on the other the emerging liberal bourgeois backed by imperialism.

An important point we have to remember, however, is that conflicts at the top, i.e. splits in the ruling class, can open the floodgates of class struggle from below. The general understanding of the serious strategists of capital is that you cannot crush a working-class movement when it is at its peak by brutal force alone. That explains why the preferred method of the capitalist class everywhere is to first use, for a period, the reformist leaders of the workers themselves. These leaders have the authority to hold back the workers sufficiently to allow the system to survive and get back on its feet.

In Myanmar, we were in the early stages, where a figure like ASSK still had widespread support, and although certain layers were losing the illusions they had in her, many were still placing their hopes in her ability to achieve genuine change for the mass of the population.

The perspective for the coming period in Myanmar is one of rising class struggle, not demoralisation and paralysis. This is confirmed by the reaction to the coup, which is not one of dejection and demoralisation, but of anger and a will to fight back.

So, why did the coup take place? For an understanding of that it is necessary to look at the nature of the military officer caste in Myanmar, its position in society, its roots and its past period of domination. And sometimes it is even the case that one has to look at particular powerful individuals who can play a key role within the objective situation, in this case a reactionary role.

Historical context

Myanmar, then known as Burma, gained formal independence in 1948 from British rule. The local nascent bourgeois and landlords were incapable of developing the country after the Second World War. They were unable to solve the complex national question of Burma, with national minorities waging armed struggles for self-determination, such as the Kachins, Shans, etc. and ferment among all the different peoples that make up the country.

Myanmar has 135 officially recognised ethnic groups, but with many more sub-groups. The Bamars are the majority group with 68 percent of the population, followed by the Shan (9 percent), the Kajin (7 percent), the Rakhine (3.5 percent) and on top of this there is the religious divide, with 88 percent of the population being Buddhist, with small Christian (6 percent) and Muslim (4 percent) minorities. Among the Muslims are the Rohingya, who are not officially recognised, not even being included in the census, and are terribly oppressed, having suffered genocidal attacks by the military.

Sao Shwe Thaik and Hubert Elvin Rance Image public domainMyanmar, then known as Burma, gained formal independence in 1948 from British rule. The local nascent bourgeois and landlords were incapable of developing the country after the Second World War / Image: public domain

After independence, the new regime also faced the problem of having to deal with a strong Communist Party, whose authority had been enormously enhanced by its role in the war against the Japanese and in the struggle for independence. Unfortunately, the Communist Party leaders adopted the policy of the Popular Front, based on the idea that the revolution in Myanmar would be bourgeois-democratic, laying the basis for capitalist development.

After having participated in a popular front with the local Burmese national bourgeois prior to 1948 and later repressed by the same bourgeois, the party turned to the armed struggle, abandoning the cities and looking to the peasantry. In 1953, the party was banned as a consequence.

Meanwhile, successive unstable governments proved incapable of solving any of the problems facing the country. The weak bourgeoisie proved unable to carry out any of the basic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. The peasants wanted land and the people as a whole desired liberation from the yoke of imperialism.

At the same time the Soviet Union had emerged as a major power in the world, developing economically and spreading its influence to Eastern Europe, and in China the 1949 revolution had eliminated capitalism and landlordism, followed a decade later by the Cuban revolution.

Stalinist Russia and Maoist China had both made huge steps forward in terms of economic development and real concrete reforms to the masses, based on the state-owned, centrally planned economy. But the working class was not in power. At the top of society there was a privileged bureaucracy, governing with repressive methods. Nonetheless, at that time, compared to what capitalism had to offer the former colonial countries, the system in the Soviet Union and China seemed a much more viable alternative.

It was in this context, and with the Chinese model on its border, that in 1962 a group of radical officers led by Nay Win carried out a coup. The officer caste saw themselves as the only layer that could stop the country from disintegrating, and they adopted a “Burmese-Buddhist road to socialism”. A one-party totalitarian regime was brought into being, with the nationalisation of foreign-owned interests, and even of the local Burmese bourgeoisie. Modelling itself on the Soviet Union and China, however, meant that a privileged bureaucratic caste was put in place.

Initially, in the years immediately after the 1962 coup, on the basis of a state-owned economy, the country developed at quite a rapid pace, with ups and downs, but in some years even reaching double digit percentage annual growth of GDP, in some years reaching 10-13 percent, and this provided the regime with a degree of stability and legitimacy.

During this period, although the regime declared “unaligned” status, eventually the country de facto fell within the sphere of influence of Maoist China. And this was the regime that remained in power until a severe economic crisis led to the 1988 protests when Nay Win was forced to resign. In the years 1986-88 GDP contracted sharply, in 1988 alone by -11 percent.

To understand the next phase in developments in Myanmar, we have to look at the international arena. The Soviet Union was in crisis and in 1989 the Eastern European regimes which were under its control collapsed, followed two years later by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Just a few years earlier, China under Deng had begun the process of opening up to foreign investment and was moving more and more towards a market economy.

The planned economy, and what was seen by many as “socialism”, appeared as a failed system. Meanwhile, capitalism had temporarily recovered from the crisis of the 1970s. This inevitably affected the thinking of the officer caste governing Myanmar at the time. Their own confidence in the system they presided over was shaken.


Myanmar also faced growing unrest in this period. The mid-1980s saw the emergence of widespread student protests, which culminated in what became known as the 8888 people’s power uprising. The name came from the fact that the movement began on 8 August 1988 as a student protest, which then spread to the wider population.

That movement was defeated in a bloody coup in September of the same year, when thousands were indiscriminately killed by the military regime that took over. It was in that period that Aung San Suu Kyi (aka ASSK) emerged as an iconic figure, speaking at a huge rally of around half a million at the end of August.

ASSK became a focal point for opposition to the regime, and despite the military clampdown, things could not be the same as before. The military were feeling the pressure and in 1990 they were forced to call elections. The NLD, the National League for Democracy, with ASSK as candidate, stood and won a landslide victory with 81 percent of the votes and 392 of the 492 MPs.

8888 Image KwantongeThe mid-1980s saw the emergence of widespread student protests, which culminated in what became known as the 8888 people’s power uprising / Image: Kwantonge

At the time, however, the military refused to recognise the result of the election and blocked the process of democratisation, placing ASSK under house arrest. In 2007 tensions rose again, with the outbreak of a huge movement known as the “Saffron Revolution”, which was also put down by the military, but pressure from below could not be curbed simply with brute force.

Thus in 2008 the military were forced to allow a referendum on whether the people wanted parliamentary elections, which showed a massive and widespread desire for an end to military rule. Therefore, in 2010 they were forced to lift the house arrest of ASSK and allow new elections to take place.

The NLD, however, boycotted those elections because many of its demands had not been met, such as the release of political prisoners, and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the party of the military, therefore won a big majority of the seats contested in the upper and lower houses.

The military, at the same time, made sure there was no danger of them losing the key levers of power. They wrote the constitution which gives them automatically 25 percent of the MPs in parliament and guarantees them control of key ministries, defence, the interior and border controls. They also included a clause that gives them a majority of seats on the National Defence and Security Council, which can declare an emergency.

Having prepared these safeguards, in 2011 the military relinquished direct military rule, and the USDP governed the country. But in the 2015 elections, the NLD with ASSK as its figurehead won a majority in both houses. She was hailed as a hero, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a symbol of democracy and freedom. But once in office things changed very quickly.

The military chiefs promoted Buddhist chauvinism among the majority Bamar population as a means of distracting attention from the real economic and social problems. In the recent period they have concentrated attention on the minority Muslim population, the Rohingya, many of whom have been forced out of the country and into refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh. In 2017, the military, backed by reactionary Buddhist gangs, burned whole Rohingya villages and killed thousands.

ASSK, instead of condemning these actions of the military, covered up for them in the international arena. In fact, she has leaned more and more on the Bamar majority, after having previously promised the ethnic minorities that she would defend their rights and bring an end to the many small local wars going on.

Her “democratic” mask fell once she was in office. And her economic agenda was never as progressive as it was made out to be by the media. By “progressive” what they really meant was a liberal programme of privatisations and a greater opening up to foreign capital. An example was her Myanmar Sustainable Economic Development Plan which allows foreign capitalists to invest up to 35 percent in local companies, as well as holding stakes of up to 35 percent in Myanmar companies traded on the Yangon Stock Exchange.

With such a programme there is little room for genuine reforms for the workers and peasants of Myanmar. On the contrary, it means passing from control of the economy in the hands of the military oligarchs to control by foreign capital. Neither of these has the interests of the people of Myanmar at heart.

What played to ASSK’s advantage when she first came into office in 2015 was the strong connection of the economy of Myanmar with that of China. In the period 2015-19 the country had an average annual growth of 6.5 percent. However, the figures for 2020 were showing a significant slowdown to around 2 percent, together with worsening public finances due to the impact of the pandemic.

As The Economist (7.11.20) pointed out in November of last year:

“Many Burmese have yet to see the prosperity that Ms Suu Kyi promised. One in four remained poor in 2017, according to the World Bank. The precariat is growing. Nearly half of those polled by the ABS last year were worried about losing their livelihood, more than twice as many as in 2015. Some 54 percent said they were unable to access basic services, such as water, public transport and health care, up from 48 percent five years ago. ‘Gains from the economic reforms and growth under the NLD government have yet to be widely perceived by ordinary citizens,’ the authors of the survey wrote.”

For ordinary working people, democracy is not an abstract principle but a very concrete question. Democracy for the working people is seen as a means by which to get a better life, more jobs, better pay, better services. People had been suffering for decades under the military and they expected more genuine change under ASSK.

She has maintained her base of support among the Bamars and some of the ethnic minorities partially because the rule of the military is still fresh in the minds of the masses, but she also made significant concessions to Buddhist/Bamar chauvinism stirred up by the military, which also explains her stance on the ethnic minorities.

The nature of the military caste

To return to the question of why the military carried out a coup, we have to look at both the nature of the Myanmar officer caste and the general instability within the country. In Myanmar the officer caste is not merely the “armed bodies of men” (to quote Engels) at the service of the propertied class. The military officer caste is also a very big and powerful economic force within the country, with a recent history of direct rule. Many former military high-ranking officers have become among the richest people in the country.

During the regime of 1962-88 the power and privileges of the army tops were guaranteed by their control of the state, which in turn controlled most of the economy. But the military regime that came to power in 1988 under Saw Maung revealed that the officer caste had lost confidence in the economic system that had served them well up until then. The new regime looked to the market, i.e. capitalism, to provide a solution to the crisis that had led to social upheaval, and thus set in motion a process that aimed at breaking down the old state-owned economy and moving towards greater and greater marketisation. By adopting this policy, they hoped to achieve economic development while at the same time protecting their own privileged position in society.

The role of China

China played a role in this, as this was the very same road they were going down. Myanmar shares a long border with China, which has big economic interests in the country. After the 1988 coup, China played an important role in pulling in the Burmese Communist forces operating in the country.

According to the Geopolitical Monitor:

“The deputy chairman of the CPB and other central leaders were detained during the coup, and all of them were sent to Menglian County in China. It is believed that China played a role in this uprising and the whole CPB leadership was offered retirement in China. What China wanted to do was to pressure the communist leaders to step down. The main reason being that China didn’t intend to export revolutionary ideas to Myanmar anymore. Instead, due to the opening-up policies, China hoped to open the border trade with Myanmar to explore its rich resources.”

The same article continues explaining that after the 1988 coup:

“Myanmar’s military was condemned by the West through sanctions and the government has no choice but to engage closely with China. Therefore, Myanmar relied on support from the Chinese government, both economically and politically, and developed a friendly relationship with China. For example, China has constructed hydropower stations, as well as oil and gas pipelines from the deep-water port of Makassar Bay in Myanmar to Kunming, China.”

The Chinese bureaucracy was not interested in promoting any kind of Communist-led revolution, but in creating an environment in Myanmar that was friendly to business, and in particular business with China, allowing it to penetrate the Myanmar market and also get leverage over its natural resources.

This close relationship with China under Deng met the needs of the aspiring military oligarchs who were emerging. The government that came into office after the 2010 elections was directly controlled by the military; it was their party that “won” the elections. In 2011 they announced that they were going to privatise 90 percent of state-owned enterprises within a year. But as the BBC complained at the time:

“One theory is the privatisation programme provides a kind of golden parachute for those exiting power.

“This suggests that most of the privatised assets will be acquired at knock-down prices by people who have had positions in government, and by their families and friends.

“‘I think what's really going on is there's going to be a bit of a firesale, if you like, of these assets to people closely connected to the current regime,’ said Sean Turnell, a professor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

“‘And really the motivation for them is making sure this wealth remains in their hands, regardless of what happens to the political situation,’ Mr Turnell said.” (‘Burma to privatise 90 percent of its companies’, 14 January 2011)

That plan was only partially carried out, as we can see from some statistics on the Myanmar economy. Agriculture and light industry are now mainly in the private sector, but the bulk of big industry remained under state control.

Their plan was not to sell off to private capitalists, but to transform themselves into the owners of the means of production. They went on a rampage of land-grabbing, together with grabbing whatever resources they could get their hands on, even illegally, all at knockdown prices, prior to the 2010 elections. This kind of activity is still ongoing and has provoked many local protests by the people being evicted from their properties.

Again, their model has been China. The military bureaucracy, like the bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party, were not going to give up control of the national economy and therefore they adopted a two-pronged policy. They proceeded to privatise a section of the economy, while holding on to key sectors via their control of the state sector.

Many of the more lucrative enterprises were placed under the control of two military-controlled business conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL). As commander-in-chief, Ming Aung Hlaing also has authority over these conglomerates, on top of the businesses that are directly controlled by his family.

The military are determined not to cede control of its most lucrative activities to civilians who represent western imperialist interests, and that is an added factor in maintaining good relations with China. This explains why they are seen as an obstacle by western imperialist powers. The multinational corporations would like to penetrate the Myanmar economy, but the military have been resisting this. And the fact that the main foreign power in Myanmar is China, magnifies the problem further.

What had begun under the military in 1988 needed a strong push, as natural resources and heavy industry remained in state control. In 2016 there were still 50 public corporations and 500 state-owned factories that belonged to various ministries and state agencies, needing major investment which could only come from abroad.

The state-owned enterprises still play a big role in the economy. They generate 50 percent of fiscal revenues; they are involved in almost every sector, from transport to textile, from banking to natural resources, and they still employ around 150,000 workers. And the managers of these enterprises are free to grant contracts to private sector partners, who are very often companies owned by the military officers.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing 2017 Image MARCELINO PASCUAWhy did General Min Aung Hlaing step in? / Image: MARCELINO PASCUA

This also explains why the West back ASSK, who they see as a lever to open up the Myanmar economy and weaken the grip of the military officer caste. Her task was to push forward the programme of privatisation, and she promised to build a “healthy market economy”.

In the push for privatisation, however, back in 2016, according to Nikkei Asia “resistance from the military was expected”, and it went on to give a very prescient warning, “If the government led by Suu Kyi continues to push privatization, it eventually will clash with military interests.” (Nikkei Asia, May 22, 2016) And that is exactly what we have seen with the recent military coup.

And yet, as we have seen, the military had many guarantees in the political system that protected their interests. ASSK even had Myent Swe, a former high-ranking military officer, as vice-president, who was also serving as chairman on the committee that oversees privatisation, an obvious compromise with the military.

So why did General Min Aung Hlaing step in? He is the present commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, but he is about to retire, as he is required to do by law when he turns 65 in July. However, he has his own personal concerns. He is regarded as being responsible for the genocide carried out against the Rohingya. The United States and Britain have both already imposed personal sanctions on him. So, he has good reasons to believe that his personal livelihood could be threatened under international law once he loses his present position of power. He fears being put on trial as a war criminal. He and his family have benefited enormously from the process of privatisation described above. He is a military chief that has enriched himself at the expense of the Myanmar people.

According to Justice for Myanmar, a campaign group quoted by Al Jazeera: “If democratisation progresses and there is accountability for his criminal conduct, he and his family stand to lose their revenue streams…” And that explains his ambitions to become President of Myanmar, as he sees it as a way of protecting himself from any moves to indict him with criminal acts.

To become President, however, the military, who already appoint 166 of the Members of Parliament, also needed to win a further 167 in the elections, which they failed miserably to do, winning only 33 of the 498 seats that were contested. Thwarted on the electoral front, the top brass of the military realised that the only way was to carry out a coup and take back direct control.

The result of the November 2020 elections was also a clear indication of how little support the military have among the wider population. Given the massive landslide victory of ASSK and the NLD, they feared that the masses could be encouraged to go further and push ASSK more than she herself would like to go.

In March of last year, the NLD had put forward some tentative constitutional amendments. One of these was aimed at gradually reducing the number of seats in parliament that are reserved to the military. The problem the NLD has faced all along is that the generals wrote the Constitution in such a way as to guarantee against any such attempts. Any change to the Constitution requires the support of more than three-quarters of the MPs. But with a quarter of the seats in parliament reserved to the military, they can block any such attempts, and last year they did just that.

Biggest protest movement since 1988

ASSK and the NLD are incapable of taking on the military and removing all the levers of power they have, because in the last analysis both ASSK and the military chiefs support the market economy, i.e. capitalism. The only way of really defeating the military chiefs and removing them from power is to mobilise the full force of the workers and peasants, but that would be too dangerous for the liberal bourgeoisie, as such a mass movement could develop a logic of its own. If the masses mobilise in large numbers and begin to get a taste of their own power, they could begin to pose their own demands on jobs, housing, wages, etc., which would go well beyond the interests of the bourgeois liberals behind ASSK, and potentially pose a threat to the system as a whole.

The military were aware of these dangers, and desired to put an end to the growing social instability. This was an added factor that pushed them to intervene directly. However, they are also conscious of the fact that they cannot rule through direct military government for long. Their base of social support is too narrow for that. This explains why they took power, but announced that within a year they would call fresh elections. In the meantime, they are attempting to pin criminal charges on ASSK – accusing her of the illegal importation of walkie-talkies! – so as to eliminate her as a candidate.

Their aim is to achieve a more acceptable and controlled civilian government, which would amount to military rule camouflaged with a fig-leaf of democracy. But the masses can see through all this and are not taking it. The protest movement that has broken out since the coup took place is the biggest since 1988. This was not the aim of the military when they stepped in. The irony of the situation is that back in 1988 a military coup put an end to the movement, while in 2021 the coup has played the role of the “whip of the counter-revolution” that spurs on the revolution.

Student protests, worker sit-ins, and street fighting have all erupted in the past few days. The military think they can dictate to society as they did in the past. But rather than putting an end to the mass opposition to the generals, the coup has merely brought to the surface the underlying contradictions in Myanmar society.

Already, serious strategists of capital are considering that the only way to stop this movement getting out of control is to bring back ASSK. Whether this will happen in the short-term is difficult to say. One thing is sure, however, and that is that in Myanmar the movement towards revolution is only in its early stages, not at its end.

[This article is partially based on a dialogue with sympathisers of the IMT in Myanmar. In the next article we publish on Myanmar, we will be looking more closely at the movement that has broken out, what layers are participating, how the ruling elite is manoeuvring, how the major powers, in particular China and the USA view the situation, and what are the tasks of the Marxists in Myanmar today.]

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