The coup in Myanmar (Burma) this month saw the military depose civilian prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi. But real hope for democracy doesn’t lie with her—it lies with the democratic movement from below, which has sprung up in the streets and many workplaces.
The movements’ demands cannot just be confined to ending military rule. There can be no genuine democracy without addressing the military’s repression of ethnic and religious minorities.
Despite the popular image internationally of Aung San Suu Kyi as the leader of Myanmar’s democracy movement, the last five years running up to the coup have exposed her pretences of being a democrat. Since becoming prime minister in 2016, she has been cooperating with the military under their sham “democratic” system.
The “Burmese Road Map to Democracy”, agreed in the 2000s, merely allowed for a facade of democracy while the military held real power. The constitution gave the generals the right to take total power in any “emergency”, and they retained many of their repressive powers, a monopoly of key ministries, and a quarter of parliamentary seats.
This facade was enough for the West to declare that Myanmar was returning to “democracy”. Mainstream commentators try to argue that deals done at the top, with the help of foreign powers, can gradually bring about democratic change. This has been the dominant idea in mainstream academia for 50 years. A recent article in the New York Times newspaper even implied that the development of Myanmarese democracy was seriously damaged because Aung San Suu Kyi failed to cooperate and compromise enough with the military. In fact, she compromised too much. Even Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, admitted that she was too close to the generals.
Aung San Suu Kyi was only allowed to take part in elections—and become prime minister in 2016—because she was prepared to work with the military. This still didn’t save her. And it meant that, during her premiership, more than 200 political prisoners languished in jails while the military continued to restrict free speech and assembly.
The period was particularly disastrous for the Rohingya Muslims. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee the country after the military launched a “counter terrorism” campaign against “insurgents” in the Rakhine region in 2017. Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to condemn the army’s atrocities against the Rohingya people because she is an Islamophobe and a Buddhist nationalist. Within her party, the National League for Democracy, she has tried to ban Muslims from holding important posts and shown increasing authoritarian tendencies towards her opponents.
Despite talking about freedoms for ethnic groups in general, Aung San Suu Kyi opposes the right to self-determination and has a condescending attitude towards almost anyone who isn’t part of the Bamar majority, which is around 30 percent of the country’s population. She once wrote that the Karen people “made good nannies”, the Chins were just a “tribe” and the Kachins—while being “handsome people”—only worship spirits. She contrasted this to the “highly cultured” Buddhist Bamar, Mons and Shans. It is no wonder that many ethnic groups do not trust or support her.
Most Myanmarese nationalist politicians since independence from Britain in 1947 have opposed full self-determination for all ethnic groups. They have favouring a unified country, which has often involved “unity by military force”. There has been continuous armed conflict between separatists and the central government in various parts of the country since independence.
Self-determination for the various ethnic groups within Myanmar has been a key issue since British rule. The British invaded the kingdom that ruled over much of modern-day Myanmar in 1885, deposed the monarchy and incorporated it into their Indian colony. They looted the country’s natural resources and destroyed its environment, tearing down forests to make way for agribusiness. And, to get their way, the British colonial authorities divided people along ethnic and religious lines. This included the segregation of entire professions and whole towns. These sectarian divisions took on a life of their own and shaped the movements that fought the British. They continue to shape both the military regime and nationalist politicians, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, who have opposed it.
The nationalist movement’s leadership represented a middle class layer that wanted to develop Myanmar into a modern country, a process being held back by British imperialism and colonialism. Some looked to Stalinist Russia as a model for rapid development. The “Soviet Union” retained its sheen among anti-colonial movements because of the legacy of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It saw workers take power and struck a blow against European imperialist powers. However, under Joseph Stalin’s rule Russia had become a “state capitalist” country, where the ruling bureaucracy exploited workers, competed with rival imperialist states, and human need was subordinated to capital accumulation. While its industrial development and growth rates were impressive, they were built on the backs of workers.
After Myanmar’s independence in 1947, the nationalist movement suffered splits over how best to build up new the state. But the process of national capitalist development meant subordinating workers’ demands and suppressing oppressed minorities’ claims to self-determination. Amid growing divisions in the ruling class and fears that some ethnic minorities would assert their self-determination, the military stepped in in 1962. The coup ushered in 26 years of rule under General Ne Win, who claimed to be “socialist”. Yet in reality his regime was a nationalist and state capitalist, modelled on the various Stalinist states throughout the world. This had the effect of stifling the development of a genuine socialist movement, which looked to workers’ struggle and democracy.
During this period, the military ramped up repression against minorities. For instance, a racist law passed in 1982 excludes them from citizenship, making them a stateless people without rights to travel. The official “socialist rhetoric” was dropped in the late 1980s amid economic stagnation and unrest. In recent years the military has opened up the economy to attract greater foreign investment. But the regime fears that the process of opening up economically will threaten it’s tight control, especially as the region becomes a cockpit for imperialist rivalries.
One consequence is that it has pushed nationalism and repression more alongside a seemingly outward turn. Aung San Suu Kyi’s has gone along with military’s barbarous acts and reinforced the ruling nationalist ideology. Her brand of nationalist politics serves to demobilise a potentially powerful opposition of working class and oppressed in Myanmar.
Another consequence means the army is nervous to move against any threat to its control. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a landslide victory in last November’s elections. The coup might have been a pre-emptive warning against those who think that the military could now have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures. The Myanmarese military has huge economic interests and behaves like an armed mega business corporation.
Myanmar does have a rich history of uprisings from below. Yet, once again, Aung San Suu Kyi and her politics have played a demobilising role. Over the last 30 years, she has moved to divert radical movements towards parliamentary politics. Every time a revolt takes place she attempts to place herself as the figure-head or personification of democracy, rather than encouraging mass action from below. This has only protected the military’s power. And while opposing the military dictatorship, she often expresses admiration for the army, which her father Aung San established after independence.
On 8th August 1988 a great uprising took place against the military, led by workers, monks and students. This was met with terrible brutality from the security forces who fired live ammunition directly into the crowds. But the defiance continued. On 22nd August a general strike was announced, with strike centres in most towns and cities. The regime began to wobble and the ruling party disintegrated. This was the window of opportunity to seize power and overthrow the military. Yet on 25th August Aung San Suu Kyi, then a young opposition leader, addressed 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. She urged protesters to forget what had taken place and not to lose their “affection for the army”. So Aung San Suu Kyi helped to demobilise the movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
A further mass uprising led by monks took place in 2007 in response to economic hardship. Monks have a history of radical politics in Burma and this was strengthened when students entered the monasteries after the 1988 revolt was crushed. The monasteries provided an opportunity for education and some freedoms for political debate when the universities were shut down or tightly controlled. Once again in 2015 large numbers of students demonstrated against the military. The army crushed both these revolts.
Today, thousands of people are bravely resisting the coup. But simply a return to Myanmars sham democracy—where the military maintains its power and minorities face repression—is no solution. The real hope for democracy in Burma is that the new generation of young people— independent of Aung San Suu Kyi—will rise up and take inspiration from the mass movements in Thailand and Hong Kong. Interestingly, the “3 fingered salute” used by democracy activists in Thailand has been adopted by anti-coup protesters in Myanmar.
Success in overthrowing the military regime will depend on involving the working class, both inside the country and also the millions of migrants working in neighbouring Thailand. One good sign is that there are reports of hospital workers at up to 70 hospitals taking action against the coup. In the southern city of Dawei, and at Dagon University on the outskirts of Yangon, students have held protests. Teachers and academics have also been protesting.
The so-called “international community” will blow hot air over the coup and threaten sanctions. But this will achieve very little. In fact, these imperialist states are only interested in ensuring stability and “business as usual”, despite their meaningless words about democracy and human rights. Apartheid in South Africa was not ended by the “international community” It was ended by mass uprisings of youth and militant strikes by the black working class. The Arab revolts ten years ago managed to overthrow repressive leaders through mass uprisings. The dictators Suharto and Marcos were overthrown in Indonesia and the Philippines by mass revolts, not by international pressure.
Our hope is that the working class in Myanmar will use the potential power to break the military—and go beyond the Aung San Suu Kyi’s nationalist politics.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist living in exile in Scotland. He has studied and written about South East Asian politics. You can read his blog at uglytruththailand.wordpress.com