Deaths and injuries, as protests spread

For the second day running, on Thursday 27 September, Burmese police and soldiers fired on peaceful protesters, as they attempted to quell anti-military protests in the main city, Rangoon. Overnight, six Buddhist monasteries were raided by soldiers, who beat monks and took many away in army trucks.

There are fewer monks on the streets, as so many were arrested. But there are large crowds of “ordinary people” protesting instead, according to the BBC news. The ruling junta warned people, “to go home or face serious action”. But by midday, 27 September, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Rangoon, “in an apparently spontaneous show of defiance…singing nationalist songs and hurling abuse at the soldiers driving by in trucks” (BBC online news). The soldiers replied by live fire and nine people were believed killed, including a Japanese video reporter.

The events in Burma are being watched by people around the world, not least in neighbouring countries, and the region. There are reports of protests against the Burma military regime taking place in South Korea.

Below, Khalid Bhatti, from the CWI in Pakistan, reports on the crisis in Burma.

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Army shoot peaceful demonstrators

The ruling military junta in Burma (Myanmar), terrified by continuing opposition protests and demonstrations, used the police and military to try to crush mass protests, on Wednesday, in the largest city, Yangon (Rangoon). The ‘security forces’ opened fire and used tear gas to violently disperse peaceful demonstrators in the heart of the city. Reportedly, four monks and two other protesters were shot dead and more than 300 were arrested.

The military junta imposed a curfew, on Tuesday, to stop the protests but up to 100,000 people, including thousands of monks and pro-democracy activists, gathered in the city centre, despite the threats from the junta to take stern and extreme measures. The use of violent means and excessive force has been the hallmark of 45 years rule by the brutal military junta. The armed forces crackdown against protesters saw hundreds of people, so far, arrested. This is clearly an attempt to crush the current wave of protests against military rule. The police and army brutally attacked protesters, using batons and tear gas.

Loss of fear

Hundreds and thousands of people came onto the streets, despite the repeated warnings from the junta to use violence. The official warnings failed to stop people from participating in monk-led, pro-democracy protests. Wednesday’s protests were a significant sign of defiance. The police and army were present on the streets. It was not like previous protests, when the ‘security forces’ were kept some distance from protesters. Every protester on the marches was sure state force would be used and they would come under attack. Still more than 100,000 participated in the protests. The mood was very charged and more politicised than on previous demonstrations. Burmese people have started to loose their fear of the regime and are becoming more confidant. A young school student remarked: “We are not afraid; we know they will use force but we are here to sacrifice even our lives”. Another young man said: “I heard about the struggle of 1988 and bloodshed, but I am not afraid to come out to show my dissent to the military junta. I am here to repeat the heroic of 1988 martyrs”. One political commentator put it this way, “The general mood is of anger and hatred towards the military junta. The people are suffering and there is no hope for them under this military rule. The only way is to fight against it to bring it down for a better future. A layer of young people have lost their fear and they are ready to sacrifice everything”.

Protest movement grows

The military junta decided to unleash violence on Wednesday because they fear much larger and more widespread protests and demonstrations. One Western diplomat told the AFP news agency: “The military junta has decided to crush the movement at any cost because it is becoming out of control and seriously dangerous”.

Gulf News quoted one military official: “The situation is far more serious than we thought in the beginning. The Monday protests and the mood of participants were beyond our tolerance. If we are not going to act now, the game will be over in next few weeks”.

The Monday demonstrations were not just in Yangon, but also organized in Taunggok, a costal area, in the north of Yangon. Now these protests are spreading to the other cities and towns. In Yangon, two separate marches were organized, in which more than 30,000 people took part. In Taunggok, nearly 40,000 took part in the street protest. In the beginning, the demonstrations and protests were very small, and in most cases involved around 400 to 500 people, mainly political activists. But now these protests have grown to thousands.

The movement was started by a small dissident group, called ‘88 Generation Students’, involving mainly political activists. Now monks, nuns, students, lawyers, trade union activists, and other layers in the society, are joining the protests. The movement can further spread, if it can withstand the increased repression and violence used by the junta.

Fuel hike

The current wave of protests started in the second week of August, in protest against the sudden 100% increase in the price of fuel. This was a shock for country’s 53 million people, who mostly living in abject poverty. The leaders of the 88 Generation Students Groups (former student leaders of 1988 pro-democracy movement), started the current protest movement. These protests were not very big but continued for more than 3 weeks, without any help from other sections of the society. The military junta started a crackdown against this group, and arrested more than 20 leaders from Yangon. This repression failed to stop protests, however, which spread to other cities and towns. Some trade union activists also joined the protest movement, and some were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.

Working people and socialists around the world support the struggle for democratic rights in Burma, and the struggle by ever increasing numbers of Burmese working people for a different system to capitalism. The mass movement against the junta is a magnificent and inspiring example of the willingness of the poor and oppressed to resist oppression. So far, however, the working class of Burma has not yet entered the field of struggle in a decisive way, clearly putting their independent class mark on events. The collective power of the working class – displayed through the general strike and other methods of mass struggle - with a bold and decisive leadership, and bringing all the oppressed of society behind it, would be a tidal force the brutal Burmese junta could not withstand. A general strike would include the creation of mass committees of action that could bring together workers and youth all across Burma in opposition to the regime.

The military junta made the mistake for underestimating the strength of the activists, who are organized underground, and have the support of workers, peasants, students and monks. Most of its 88 Generation Students Groups leaders live in exile in Thailand. The protests took a decisive turn when police beat up and publicly humiliated monks active in the 88 Generation Students Groups and who took part in a demonstration in Yangon. This treatment of monks enraged many other monks, and they joined the protests.

One leader of the 88 Generation, Htay Kywe, who recently arrived in Thailand, having escaped arrest, told the AFP news agency these protests are just the beginning. There will be no end to these protests, Htay Kywe said, as there is huge anger against the ruling junta. The protest movements will never end, like the rising tide and waves, and the military regime will hear protest voices, loud and clear. Indeed, as long as Burmese people face economic hardships, authoritarian rule, injustice, repression and exploitation, and society continues to be under-developed, people will not accept it and will want to fight back.

Military junta in trouble

As the protests and demonstrations grow, and the movement spreads, tensions can develop amongst the top brass of the junta. This is the most serious challenge faced by military rulers since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, which was cruelly crushed by the junta. There are already frictions in the junta. The middle rank officers, particularly, are disgruntled with the situation. This pressure of mass protests can widen these frictions and tensions amongst the junta.

If the oppositionist movement becomes stronger, all-out repressive action by the junta can spark rebellion amongst the middle and lower ranks of the military. There are differences in the top brass over ‘political reforms’ and the return to some sort of ‘civilian rule’. The hard-liners want to continue with military rule, without giving concessions to pro-democracy groups. But some ‘moderates’ want to make compromises for a ‘smooth transition’, along with some pro-democracy forces, to civilian rule, to protect their interests.

Time is running out for the junta to make a peaceful transition. But one thing is clear: the junta cannot continue to rule like this forever. The military junta might be able to survive the present wave of protests, to ride out the storm. But even if it does, the regime will be inherently unstable and vulnerable. A new military coup against the present military rulers cannot be ruled out.

Imperialist strategy

China and India are the main foreign supporters of the Burmese military junta. China, in particular, has big economic ties with the Burmese regime. It is Burma’s biggest economic partner and a supplier of military equipment to the regime. Burmese oil and gas are vital for China and Burma is market for goods from the Yunnan province in China.

Along with Russia, China blocked punitive measures by the UN against the Burmese dictatorship. However, China was sufficiently concerned about events in Burma going out of control to publicly criticise the junta, urging the dictatorship to press forward with a “democracy process that is appropriate for the country”, according to the official Chinese news agency. According to the Chinese TV station, CC9, the Chinese government is worried about the ongoing unrest in Myanmar, and urges the government to start the democratic process, to try to calm the situation. Chinese officials are also in constant contact with opposition groups and minority rebel tribes. A spokesman for the exiled National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, based in Thailand, said his organisation has been in contact with Chinese officials for one year. “The Chinese government has not officially recognized us but they are very friendly and wanted to help the country to end the crises,” the National Coalition spokesperson claimed (Reuters 26 September).

On 25 September, the US administration announced new sanctions against the Burmese regime, and EU said it would consider ‘toughening’ its existing sanctions. However, the Western powers are not motivated by plight of Burmese protesters and the country’s desperately poor and oppressed people. After all, Bush regards Pakistan’s military ruler, General Musharraf, as a key ally in the so-called ‘war against terror’. The White House is largely motivated by the geo-strategic importance of Burma, and its rich supply of natural gas and oil, all of which is linked to increased US competition with China.

The Burmese protesters, students and working people and poor can have no faith in Western powers or the UN solving their problems. They must rely on their own strength and self-organisation: This means the mass movement demanding democratic rights, including the right to assembly, to form political parties, including a workers’ party, to vote, and for the right to organise independent unions, as well as developing clear class demands in the interests of students, the poor and working people.

After many decades of military oppression, many Burmese look to opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League of Democracy (NLD), to provide an alternative. Members of the NLD came under renewed repression during the recent protests, and Aung San Suu Kyi has spent many years under ‘house arrest’ or in prison. But the NLD will not lead a decisive struggle against military rule to bring about democratic rights and to change society. It is a pro-capitalist, pro-Western party, which previously tried to negotiate some form of ‘civilian rule’ with the generals, in vain, without addressing the fundamental deep economic and social problems besetting the majority of the country’s people.

To successfully remove the military regime, to bring about democratic rights, and to change society, working people and the poor and oppressed in Burma need their own mass organization and a bold socialist programme.

Socialists say:

  • End military repression and the rule of the junta
  • Release all political prisoners
  • For a general strike to bring down the military regime
  • Full democratic rights, including the right to organise and assembly, and to form political parties
  • For the creation of independent trade unions
  • For a mass party representing the interests of the working class and subsistence agricultural workers
  • For free elections to a constituent assembly
  • For a workers’ government with socialist policies, based on the interest of workers, small farmers, agricultural labourers, and the urban poor
  • Nationalise the natural gas and oil wealth, along with the other main pillars of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management, for the benefit of all
  • Full rights for all minorities
  • For a socialist federation of the region

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