Over the past week, daily protests against the Burmese dictatorship, led by Buddhists monks, have grown to number more than 100,000 people in the biggest city, Rangoon. According to TV reports on Monday, 24 September, every layer in society is becoming involved, along with the clerics – intellectuals, ‘labourers’, artists, actors, students and the poor. There is no sign of the protests abating in spite of the military now warning demonstrators they will “take action” against them. Their regime is under threat.
But, as one commentator put it this morning (25 September), the military leadership may be “concerned about whether rank and file soldiers, who have also suffered from the generals’ economic mismanagement, would obey orders to shoot unarmed demonstrators.” Another said, “Shooting peaceful demonstrators in the full glare of YouTube is no longer something that even Burma’s allies will be able to ignore”.
The initial demonstrations against a sudden doubling of fares and fuel costs by the regime were organised in mid-August by students and activists with monks soon taking up the fight. The first demonstrations were brutally suppressed. 150 people were arrested and many badly beaten by civilian goon-squads. But the movement did not disappear. More protests were organised.
Just over two weeks ago, on 6 September, some monks in the town of Pakokku took a group of visiting senior government officials and army officers captive and burned their vehicles. The delegation had gone to the monastery to apologise for excesses against the brethren and fellow demonstrators, when shots were fired in the air and monks were bound and bludgeoned by police and pro-government gangs. The delegation was eventually released and left to return home without their vehicles!
The monks of Pakokku did not encourage local people to get involved in the hostage-taking, which they said was their affair, but they had held signs on the original demonstration reading “Monks for the people!”
As the flood-gates of mass protest opened nationwide, the Buddhist clergy stepped up their calls of: “We want the people to join us!” Thousands have joined in and thousands more are lining the routes of the marches, linking arms to protect the participants, cheering encouragement and offering water, flowers and balm to soothe their feet!
As the Financial Times (London) has pointed out, “There are 400,000 - 500,000 monks and novices in Burma making them members of the only institution in the country of comparable size to the military. Some monks are refusing to minister to the military and their families. ‘They are younger monks and have obviously become very political,’ said one Burmese commentator.” (FT, 24 September).
Many Burmese youth, particularly the youngest sons, are expected to serve some time in the monasteries. The church relies on the local population for their income in alms. If the upper echelons of the Buddhist church have preferred to stay on good terms with the top generals, accepting their (substantial) alms in return for guarantees about their next life, the younger monks have been more in touch with the sufferings and anger of the people. In the absence of a mass party based on the working class, poor farmers and labourers, they are filling the vacuum and ‘spear-heading’ the movement, as they did, along with students, in 1988, before workers and other layers of society entered the struggle.
The young monks have been further radicalised by the movement they initiated. They began by making demands like, “We want national reconciliation” and “We want dialogue”. They also included demands for the freeing of all political prisoners. But now, emboldened by the growing support for the movement, the monks’ leaders shout through megaphones “Our uprising must succeed!” According to Reuters news agency, the All Burma Monks’ Alliance has, “for the first time, urged ordinary people to ‘struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship’ until its downfall”. The protests will not stop, they declare, until they have “Wiped the military dictatorship from the land”!
1988 and today
The generals’ regime in Burma has been in power for 45 years, ruling with brutal methods inflicted by a massive 450,000 strong army. Now it faces the biggest threat to its existence since the revolutionary events of 1988. Then, power could have passed into the hands of the working and poor people, joined as they were on the streets by soldiers and police, if the spontaneous local committees had linked up on a national scale.
There were weeks of struggle in which no party with a revolutionary leadership came to the fore that could carry through the overthrow of the regime. The baton passed to Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma’s ‘founding father’ – Aung San, who was assassinated, along with six members of his interim government, in 1947. Aung San Suu Kyi’s programme was limited, as she appealed for negotiation and cooperation and with the military in moving towards democracy. In this respect, history could be tragically repeated. Then and today, only a leadership aiming to develop the mass street protests into a struggle for socialist aims can achieve a lasting victory in the struggle against dictatorship.
The heroic movement of 1988 was crushed. At least 3,000 were killed, many more jailed, and thousands fled their homeland. In the elections conceded by the junta in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party - the National League for Democracy - won a landslide victory. The generals immediately moved to annul the results and re-impose their one-party rule. Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and imprisoned. For most of the last 17 years, she has been held in jail or under house arrest, with cruel restrictions on any contact with the outside world.
Zig zags of regime
Last Saturday, 22 September, up to a thousand protesting monks made their way unmolested to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, linking their protest to the pro-democracy movement. She came out to the gates to meet them, waving and weeping. Fearing the effect on the movement of more contact with the NLD leader, the regime promptly changed tack and deployed barbed wire, water canons and rows of police to prevent any further demonstrations reaching her house.
The National League for Democracy, the main opposition party, is denied the basic right to organise publicly, let alone contest elections. But in the last few days, its leaders have come onto the streets to join the mass protests, risking arrest, imprisonment and torture. They will need to go far further than demanding concessions from the junta or even insisting on full democratic rights. To guarantee stability and a massive improvement in people’s lives, a socialist democratic plan on the basis of state-owned production, with workers’ control and management, would need to be introduced. An appeal to workers in nearby Asian countries to follow suit would be vital. A party with such a programme could grow rapidly in today’s conditions.
It is far from clear how events will unfold in the next few days. “Burma’s leaders are now in uncharted territory”, the British ambassador in Burma, Mark Canning, told BBC radio, on the morning of 24 September. He saw three possible scenarios. The demonstrations could be left to subside, but “that’s looking less and less likely by the day”. The regime could crack down on the demonstrations which “would be a disaster”. (Even China, Burma’s most important trading partner, desperate for the natural gas being extracted off the coast of Burma and opposed to United Nations sanctions, is urging the generals to be cautious.)
A third possibility, according to the British ambassador, was that the regime was divided over whether to make concessions or to apply brute force. Such splits in the ruling layer are an indication of intolerable pressures developing from below. Weakness at the top can encourage broader layers of workers and oppressed to become involved in challenging the old order.
Burma has one of the worst records of human rights abuses in the world, including the systematic use of rape and torture, forced labour and violent national oppression (of the Karen and other peoples). While the military absorbs 40% of the state budget, spending on health care is minimal and, in a country that once had the highest literacy rate, education standards have plummeted through lack of government funds.
The level of poverty and hunger means millions of families having no more than one meal a day. Once known as Asia’s rice bowl, Burma cannot sustain its own people. One third of the population are malnourished or physically underdeveloped.
Yet the top twelve military officers who form the junta live in luxury in the newly-built capital city – Naypyidaw - carved out of the jungle, 320 kilometres north of Rangoon. Much of the generals’ income derives from bribery, corruption and drug trafficking, especially of heroin. Anuj Chopra, who writes for the (London) Sunday Telegraph, commented, the new capital “offers a secure bolt-hole should the ongoing protests escalate in Rangoon…They are running away from their own people”.
How far will the mass demonstrations of the last few weeks go? Will the workers, students and poor peasants move en masse onto the scene of history in a new attempt to bring down their military overlords? They are beginning to lose their fear and sense their potential strength. They are worrying even the leaders of US imperialism - not intrinsically averse to dictatorships but forced, like Condoleezza Rice, to mouth hypocritical words of condemnation.
Tumultuous events lie ahead in which the genuine ideas of socialism, as opposed to the monstrously distorted ideology of the regime, can regain their rightful place amongst the oppressed workers and poor of Burma.