Burma: A potential paradise haunted by poverty and war

Ancient kingdom prey to colonial powers

Thousands of years after the first kingdom developed in Burma, George Orwell a representative of the new ‘kings’, the British, was fascinated by this fantastic country. His ‘Burmese Days’ is a depiction of the declining British Empire. As an employee of the imperial police, Orwell could see at close range the brutality of the colonial oppression. Today Burma is a shattered country. First by colonialism and imperialism and then by the Burmese version of Stalinism, introduced in1962 by the notorious dictator Ne Win.

Burma (recently renamed Myanmar by the regime) is probably potentially one of the richest countries in the world. The natural resources are enormous: natural gas, oil, tin, coal, silver, gold, gems, large teak forests, fertile rice fields just to mention a few.

Burma’s history has consisted of a long struggle over who should to control its wealth. According to the history books, the first Burmese kingdom was formed when the Pyus people settled in the delta of the river Irrawaddy, about 400 AD. Since then Burma was dominated for hundreds of years by different kingdoms – Mon kings, Burman empires and Mongol chiefs. They all wanted to show their greatness by raising magnificent temples and pagodas (buildings in memory of Buddha). This can still be seen, for example in the Shwe Dagon stupa in the capital Rangoon, in the temples of Mandalay and Pegu or in the hundreds of thousands of pagodas that are scattered all over Burma.

On several occasions the Burmese rulers’ kingdoms spread far beyond the current borders of Burma into Thailand. As late as in the 18th century, Siam (Thailand) was forced to move its capital to its current place in Bangkok to avoid the ravages of King U Aung Zay Ya.(i) There is a long historic conflict between Thailand and Burma which has been used many times by the rulers of both countries to maintain their own domination.

The most important features of early Burmese history is the migration that took place as a result of many wars of conquest and the migration from densely populated areas in India and China. In an area a bit larger than Sweden there are over 100 different ethnic groups and as many languages. 70 per cent of the 50 million inhabitants are Burman, but there are many large ethnic groups such as Shan, Karen, Mon, Indian, Chinese, Chin, Kachin, Kayar, Arakan, Naga, Karenni etc.

British colonisation

The area nowadays called Burma, with all its natural resources, became an attractive prey during the period of colonial conquest. When the British colonisation began they were quick to exploit ethnic antagonisms. With the classic method of divide and rule they "favoured" some ethnic minorities (i.e. oppressed them less). Among others the British used the Karen and Karenni to rule. They had come in to early contact with British missionaries and had been converted to Christianity (a majority of the Burmese are Buddhist). When the British finally occupied the whole country in 1885, the administration was mainly based on migrant Indians and representatives of the ethnic minorities. The army was almost completely based on soldiers from the ethnic minorities. The ethnic majority, the Burmans, were brutally oppressed and regarded as unreliable savages. At the same time some ethnic minorities were given certain rights to self-determination. The ethnic antagonisms we see today originate to a large extent from the methods used by the British colonisers.

After colonisation, Burma was incorporated in to the capitalist world market. The British invested heavily in rice production and soon Burma was one of the largest rice exporters in the world. They also started to fell the big teak forests. The profits were of course taken by the British and the big estate owners, even if some were allowed to trickle down to their subordinates. The people remained in poverty were under severe oppression.

Soon after the birth of colonialism and colonial oppression, its gravedigger was born in the form of the struggle for liberation. In the beginning of the 20th century, nationalist movements grew in almost every colony in the world, and Burma was no exception. It was mainly among the growing middle class that hatred against the British took an organised form. For example, Burma’s most well known freedom fighter, Bogyoke Aung San (born in 1914), was brought up in an anti British lawyer family in Rangoon.

From the first nationalist movements in the beginning of the 1920s with for example the Young Mens’ Buddhist Association until independence in 1948, the university in Rangoon was the centre for resistance against the British. The first student strike, that demanded increased self-government for Burma, was organised in 1920. Up until then Burma had been a part of the British crown colony in India, which was seen as very degrading for the Burmese nationalists. In 1930 anti-Indian riots took place in Rangoon where Indian merchants were killed. In 1936 a new student strike took place. In 1937 the British were forced to proclaim Burma as a separate British colony, with no connection to India.(ii)

One of the nationalists at Rangoon University was the above-mentioned Aung San. He was wanted by the British who also put a price on his head (rumoured to be $0.5!). In the beginning of the 1940s Aung San was forced to flee the country and came into contact with Japanese regime, this coincided with its attempt to challenge Britain as the main imperialist power in Asia. A deal was struck with Aung San where he would assist a Japanese invasion and in return Burma would be given ‘independence’. Aung San returned to Burma and together with 29 other nationalists he set up the ‘thirty comrades’ that started to build a Burmese army on the Thai island of Hainan (in the South China Sea). One of those thirty comrades was a man named Shu Maung, better known as Bo Ne Win, later Burma’s dictator for 30 years.(iii)

Japanese control

In 1941 the US forced Japan to declare war and in December the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. In January 1942 Japanese forces landed in Burma, closely followed by the newly formed Burma Independence Army (later renamed Burma National Army, BNA). The Japanese had taken the whole of Burma by June 1942 and in 1943 they declared an ‘independent’ Burma. The Japanese immediately dissolved the BNA for acting too ‘independently’. Aung San had made a big error in trusting the imperial Japanese regime to liberate his country.

"The Japanese were like Nazis and treated the people very badly. They raped the women, stole and plundered," says Kya Thet, a political refugee from Burma.

In 1943 the fortunes of war changed. Germany was crushed in the battle of Stalingrad by the Soviet army that had recovered from Stalin’s purges before the war and now he could take advantage of the production potential of a planned economy. It was now quite clear that Germany and Japan would lose the war, even if it would take some time. Aung San and his nationalists followed the course of events and changed sides. They formed the Anti Fascist Organization that later became the Anti Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) and started preparations to get rid of the Japanese. They started negotiations with the British about cooperation and in 1945 the British once again invaded its former colony.

Despite the fact that Britain was on the winning side in the war, it could no longer uphold its old dominant position, either economically or militarily. Paradoxically, its lack of industrial competitivity in terms of investment in machinery was partially created by its easy access to cheap labour and raw material in their large number of colonies. The US and the Soviet Union were the new super-powers of the world.

But a force at least as mighty as that of the super-powers was that of the colonial revolution. All over the world the oppressed people in the colonies revolted against their masters. In Burma a general strike broke out in September 1946. The disintegrating British Empire had no choice but to agree on Burmese independence. In January 1947 Aung San signed a deal that gave Burma independence within one year. But before independence became a reality on the 4th of January 1948 Aung San was murdered. He never got the chance to experience either independence or the chaos that followed. For the Burmese people he has become a national hero and a martyr.

The acute problems that were facing Burmese society, for example the ethnic minorities’ struggle for independence, were not solved by liberation from the British Empire. It is true that Aung San in the Panglong agreement of 1947 admitted that Burma was a union, with some rights for ethnic minorities and the right to leave the union after ten years. But the ethnic groups that demanded immediate independence, like the Karen, were not included in the Panglong agreement.(iv)

After the murder of Aung San, U Nu became the prime minister of Burma. The regime of U Nu paid no attention to the limited rights that had been given to the ethnic minorities and tried to create a centralised unified state. Minorities were oppressed and were purged from the state apparatus. The methods of U Nu, together with the divisions created by 70 years of British divide and rule tactics, lead to ten or so ethnic minorities starting up guerrilla warfare against the regime in Rangoon. Just as in Vietnam, the jungle of Burma is well suited for guerrilla warfare and still today some minorities are using armed struggles against the central military dictatorship.

Apart from the ethnic guerrillas, the Chinese revolution in 1949 led to even more problems for the newly formed state. When the Chinese Red Army defeated Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang armed forces, one of those armies fled into northern Burma where they tried to set up their own state (mainly financed by opium production).

Country in ruins

The economy had been in crisis since 1938 and two invasions during WWII meant Burma was a country in ruins. The new regime was not able to develop the country. Growth was the second lowest in South East Asia at the same time as the population growth was high. Rice exports fell to only 30-40 per cent of the level before the war. The peasants lived in poverty and the economy was still dominated by foreign corporations, small domestic capitalists and financially strong Indians.(v) The country was led by the AFPFL that said they had a "social democratic policy" and they "nationalised" parts of the industry. In reality it was a joint ownership by the state and big foreign corporations.(vi) The economy declined further. Aid from Britain, the US and Israel could in no way stop the crisis which was made even worse by the guerrilla wars. 30 per cent of state expenditure went to the military.(vii) In 1958 the ruling AFPFL split. In 1960 the GDP was still below the level of 1929.(viii)

The 1962 military coup by general Ne Win, 14 years after independence, must be looked upon with these facts in mind. Ne Win and his generals were themselves children of the independence struggle they had their social base among the now ruined Burmese petty bourgeoisie and in the countryside. They could see an economy that was incapable of protecting the interests of the military elite; at the same time discontent grew among the petty bourgeoisie and the poor masses. The capitalist leaders of the AFPFL had turned out to be incapable of governing the country.

Previously in 1958 the military had been in power for some time after a government crisis. During that time, Ne Win abandoned all democratic and human rights and brutally attacked the ethnic minorities, which had some effect. He also put money into rebuilding the infra structure and restored "law and order" (through brutal oppression).(ix)

After regaining power, U Nu started to negotiate with ethnic minorities in 1962. Ne Win and the generals decided they had enough and went through with their military coup.

Ne Win carried through a purge among the state civil servants, and dissolved the constitution. The parliament was replaced by a "revolutionary council" in which Ne Win was chairman. All opposition was silenced by mass arrests. Demonstrations were met with the bullets of the military and all parties were banned except for the party of the military. The Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). The military found support from nationalist groups that were closely connected to the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Capitalism eliminated

All foreign corporations, banks and bigger companies were nationalised and capitalism was eliminated from Burma. The larger private savings were confiscated with no or little compensation. "Burma’s way to Socialism" was the name of the program implemented but it was a caricature of Socialism. Ne Win had probably never read a book by Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. The fact that Ne Win had no socialist background was shown by the US action after the military coup.

Moe Min Han, a Burmese refugee now living in Europe relates: "In a BBC broadcast, representatives of the US made a positive statement about Ne Win. They thought that he would fight the Maoist guerrillas, which he did. But he created his own Maoist regime".

Ne Win’s regime was a primitive imitation of Stalinism in the Soviet Union or China, disguised with "Buddhist ideas". However, Buddhist monks were quick to point out that Ne Win’s regime had nothing to do with their religion.

Stalinism is a system where capitalism has been abolished in terms of private ownership of major industries and the land. Production in society follows a plan instead of capitalist anarchy. Unlike democratic socialism, where the people democratically decide the needs that should be satisfied, Stalinism gives power to small bureaucratic elite that is like a parasite on the planned economy that distributes the resources according to its own interests. To make this possible, against the will of the people, Stalinism also means a one party state with enormous oppression of all opposition.

Even though Ne Win gradually built a terrible terror apparatus, there was a big support for abolishing capitalism in the beginning, especially in the countryside. Peasant committees (where big estate owners, merchants and bankers were excluded), with the right to lease land were formed. In 1963 all peasant debts to the state were written off and an aid program was launched to help farmers with fertilisers, better seed and access to tractors. The state loaned out 700 million kyat (the Burmese currency) to farmers and doubled the number of tractors by importing one thousand from Czechoslovakia. New laws were implemented that meant that farmers could not be evicted from their land. Bankers that had harassed the farmers were severely affected by anti-capitalist laws.(x) A campaign against illiteracy was also launched even the country’s ability to read was already quite high. In 1983, 86 per cent of men and 74 per cent of women could read and write.

These reforms had big support among the poor in the beginning. But it was not long before the contradiction grew between the needs of big capital to develop industry and the need of the farmers. As the antagonism sharpened, oppression became greater and greater.

"After 1967 things developed badly. Ne Win isolated Burma from the rest of the world," says Kyaw Thet.

Burma became one of many countries that took the path of massive nationalisation. Because of the inability of capitalism to solve the problems that confronted Burmese society a part of the elite saw no other option than to follow the example of China. Capitalism and its representative U Nu had failed to solve the conflict between the state and the ethnic minorities. They had failed to break Burma’s dependence on the big imperialist powers that continued to exploit the country and stop every form of industrial development. And they had failed to give the farmers a decent life, where they could cultivate their own land without being dependent on big estate owners and bankers.

This failure was not because U Nu and his government were less talented than others. It was because the international development of world capitalism at that time, as today, prevented poorer countries breaking out from the grip of imperialism. This fact was explained by the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, at the beginning of the 20th century. He and Lenin described how capitalism now had conquered the whole world and consequently entered a new phase: imperialism. During this phase, the rich imperialist powers prevent the development of independent capitalist states in the poorer countries. Trotsky explained that a more advanced capitalist development in the poorer countries could only take place if the tasks of the ‘bourgeois revolution’ were implemented. The tasks are:- solving the national question, breaking the grip of imperialism and carrying through land reform so that the peasants can cultivate their own land.

These tasks had been solved in different ways by the growing bourgeois class in the advanced capitalist countries before the imperialist époque. But under imperialism the bourgeois class in the poorer countries were incapable of solving the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. The reason for this was, and still is, the fact that under imperialism, the domestic bourgeois can never grow strong enough and very much dependent on both imperialism and the big estate owners (that would be hit be these reforms). The bourgeois simply do not bite the hand that feeds them!

Permanent revolution

Trotsky explained that it falls to the working class, with the support of the poor farmers, to carry through the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. But to defend these reforms, the working class has to move on to socialist measures of nationalisation of the big corporations under democratic worker’s control. Trotsky´s theory is called the "permanent revolution", since the workers have to move on to a socialist revolution alongside the bourgeois revolution.

Trotsky´s theory of the permanent revolution was borne out in Burma in 1962, but in a distorted way. The domestic bourgeoisie in Burma was not able go through with the tasks of the bourgeois revolution and was thereby incapable of developing society. But a genuine democratic workers’ and peasants’ revolution also did not take place in Burma. This was partly because of the strength of Stalinist Russia and China, and the dormant international working class.

Instead of a worker’s revolution in Burma, it was the military elite that found a way out of the crisis by creating a replica of the Stalinist regimes in China and the Soviet Union.

Secluded dictatorship

The new regime of the military elite combined a primitive form of Stalinism with extreme nationalism and xenophobia. Especially the West was regarded with suspicion and hostility. Even humanitarian aid was turned down. Foreign visitors were only allowed to stay 24 hours in the country (nowadays two weeks). In the same way as Cuba, Burma tried to play off the rival Stalinist powers, China and Russia, against each other.

For many years Burma was a completely secluded dictatorship where there seemed to be no development at all. But just as in other Stalinist countries, the economic problems grew bigger. A planned economy-the base of the Stalinist countries-needs democracy in the same way as the human body needs oxygen. The economic isolation, together with a primitive planned economy with bureaucratic control, became an absolute obstacle to further development. The lack of industrial resources, the ethnic wars and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy made the crisis deeper and deeper. On top of the domestic problems, falling prices of raw material on the international market (e.g. increased capitalist exploitation of the poor) made things even worse.

The crisis became acute in 1987 when Ne Win nullified all 50 and 100 Kyat notes and replaced them with 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes. Many never got the chance to exchange their money and hence lost all their savings. He even locked all his cabinet ministers in the meeting that voted for it, to prevent them capitalising on it. Later all the new notes were nullified and no compensation was given. Instead new 45 and 90 Kyat notes were printed (it is said that these denominations were picked because they were multiples of Ne Win’s lucky number- nine!). The result was of course economic disaster. The confidence in the notes was non-existent and trade was paralysed. Inflation was between 200 and 500 per cent.(xi)

1988 – the year of revolution

Burmese students have been in the forefront of struggle since the fight against colonialism. Under Ne Win, in March 1988 a student was killed by the military and protests broke out at Rangoon technical university. The anger became even bigger when 41 students suffocated in police vans after being arrested and transported to Insein prison.

This was the beginning of a month of protests that in the end threatened the existence of the regime. During the spring and summer the protest demonstrations grew bigger and bigger. The protestors demanded democracy, economic reforms and that the military murderers should be prosecuted. The students were joined by other groups. Trade unions and workers’ committees were formed in the factories. Buddhist monks and civil servants took part in the protests. In an attempt to defeat the protests from the regime the 77 year-old Ne Win resigned as leader of the Burma Socialist Programme Party on the 23rd of July and promised a referendum about the one party system. 64 year-old Sein Lwin became the new leader. He was known as a murderer that had killed students who had protested against the military coup in 1962.(xii) The protesters understood that Ne Win was still pulling the strings behind the scene and the protest continued and became even stronger, now that the movement had forced the military junta to retreat.

On the 3rd of August military law was proclaimed in Rangoon by the junta but thousands continued to demonstrate against Sein Lwin and demanded democracy. At the same time the protests spread like wild fire all over the country. In many cities religious buildings became the centre for the resistance. In Rangoon the city hall and the hospital became the centres of the protests. The military responded with violence against the protesters but did not dare to make a frontal attack on the movement.

General strike

The 8th of August was a new day of protest. The whole country was paralysed by a general strike and millions marched onto the streets all over the country. Where the protestors were attacked by the military it resulted in big street battles. Many hundreds of demonstrators were killed but the military also sustained some losses.

"Almost everyone was out on the streets in Rangoon. It was only the elderly who did not have the strength and stayed at home", remembered Moe Min Han.

Big demonstrations, strikes and riots continued in the following days. Thousands of protesters were killed but millions were on the streets. Some protesters fought back against the military and police with crossbows and jingles (poisonous arrows). Some of the forces who were commanded to go out refused to fire against the protestors, for example parts of the navy and air force. In Rangoon it was an artillery regiment from the Kachin army (with less connection to the protestors) who attacked the demonstrations.(xiii)

"The military junta used this method all over Burma. Protestors were attacked by soldiers belonging to another ethnic group", says Kyaw Thet.

On the 13th of August the military junta was forced to retreat. Sein Lwin resigned. For the first time since 1962, a civilian was appointed president. The regime promised economic reforms but at the same time they raised the wages for the army by 45 per cent to keep them loyal.

Demonstrations of joy burst out in Rangoon. But the demonstrators stood firm and demanded prosecution of Sein Lwin, a multi party system, release of political prisoners and a full account of how many had been killed by the police.

At the end of August new mass rallies took place. A general strike committee organised an indefinite general strike that the regime could not prevent. In many villages and cities ‘peoples committees’ took over control of society and handed out basic necessities.(xiv) Hundreds of independent newspapers mushroomed from nowhere. (xv) At this point the generals were practically powerless and could do nothing when the workers and students showed their collective strength. Instead they tried to weaken the movement by assassinating some of its leaders. The movement now included not only students, monks and workers but also teachers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, fire fighters etc. (xvi)

"Even soldiers, parts of the air force and police, took part in the demonstrations", remembers Moe Min Han.

No clear lead

The protests were probably bigger than ever and they became more and more organised but no alternative leadership and organs of rule had developed.

"Everyone protested, but everyone by themselves. There was little organisation and no leadership. The old prime minister, U Nu, proclaimed himself as leader but the people didn’t trust old politicians like him", says Kyaw Thet.

Many old politicians from pre 1962 re-emerged in the autumn of 1988 but without being able to attract the people. Most support was given to Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the murdered liberation hero Aung San. With charisma and courage, she expressed the enormous hatred that existed against the dictatorship.

To overthrow the dictatorship, it was necessary to co-ordinate the committees of workers and students into regional and national co-ordinating committees. A unified movement of that kind could have taken over the running of society and been able to neutralize the military forces still loyal to the regime (for example by showing a clear alternative leadership that the rank and file soldiers could join and by clearly confirming all minority groups right to independence). The CWI argues that such an organised movement would have needed (and will need) a democratic socialist plan to decide, in a democratic way, how production should be organised according to the needs of the people. It would also have been necessary to seek support from the working class internationally, especially from the workers in neighbouring countries.

None of the "leaders" that emerged during the protest movement could give the organisation and the direction that was needed in 1988. Despite the opposition from Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the NLD, their alternative was anything but crystal clear. Aung San Suu Kyi emphasized "unity" and "dialogue" with the military regime and in the beginning had a negative attitude towards the ethnic minorities (although the mistake was later corrected). The military regime was terrified and was in no way interested in "dialogue". Their concessions to the movement of the masses were only in order to gain time and regain control over the country, Ever since the Stalinist take over in 1962, the generals’ only "ideology", has been to keep and extend their power.

Junta regains power

In the end of August and beginning of September it would have been possible to overthrow the junta. But because the demonstrations and strikes did not develop into a unified organised movement that could form a leadership and alternative ruling power, the movement took a step backwards instead. This was fatal as the junta was able to gather strength again and strike back. On the 18th of September the army crushed the movement in massacres and mass arrests. The regime appointed a new leader, Saw Maung, loyal to Ne Win. On the same day, the student co-ordinating organisations and the general strike committee had announced the formation of a parallel government but it was already to late.(xvii)

Even if the junta had won a decisive battle it did not yet dare to proclaim victory. The new military leadership, under the Orwellian name of SLORC, promised general elections and a multi party system. The election took place in 1990 under condition of extreme oppression. Despite this (for example Aung San Su Kyi had been under house arrest since1989), the NLD was able to win 60 per cent of the votes and 80 per cent of the seats in parliament.

But by the time the election took place, the military had already broken the back of the protest movement. Tens of thousands had been murdered or jailed. Hundreds of thousands had fled the country and over one million were hiding in the jungle. "I fled to Thailand after the coup. I was only seventeen and did not even know in which direction Thailand was", says Moe-Min.

Others joined guerrilla groups in the jungle. But guerrilla warfare could not overthrow the junta. Through guerrilla warfare the guerrilla groups isolate themselves from the masses in the cities and hence isolate themselves from the force that can defeat the military regime. After the election the junta changed the meaning of the election saying that it was not an election to a new parliament but to a national conference that would discuss a new constitution. The "national conference" was assembled but was later dissolved when the military could not control it. Slowly but steadily the regime was able to re-introduce its brutal dictatorship.

"Today all phones are tapped. We can call home but not talk politics. If you do, your relatives and friends can be arrested," says Moe-Min.

The military junta has changed its economic policies since 1988. They want to walk the same path as the Chinese ‘communist’ party, re-introducing capitalism but maintaining dictatorship (Singapore and Malaysia are role models). The regime has opened the country to foreign capitalists so that they can invest and make profits out of Burma’s big natural resources. Since 1988 Thai corporations have devastated large teak forests in Burma. In 1997 Burma was accepted as a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Today Japan, Thailand and Singapore have the big economic interests in Burma. In 2003 the regime launched a new program to deregulate the rice trade so that the rice could be sold on an open market. To be seen as more respectable abroad, the junta has opened up a "dialogue" with the "democracy movement" but in practice they keep their iron grip over the country. Economy in crisis The new economic policy has given mixed results and over the last few years, several foreign companies have left the country, this is partly because of pressure from democracy groups but mainly because of bureaucracy, corruption and the decay of the infrastructure they face in Burma.

The production of rice has collapsed. Since the end of the 1950s rice exports have fallen 95 per cent!(xviii) In 1997, 23 per cent of the population lived in absolute poverty.(xix)

"The situation in Burma is very difficult and many are starving. At the same time there is a small group of very rich. It is especially the military and their relatives," says Kyaw Thet.

Infant mortality in Burma is the fourth highest in South East Asia and maternal mortality is the third highest.(xx) HIV and AIDS have become large problems in the last few years. The black market is gigantic and is estimated to be as big as the official market. Through corrupt methods many legal entities are sold on the black market.

If you go to the train station to buy tickets you cannot find any. Instead you have to buy them at a high price on the black market. One of the biggest products on the black market is opium.

"Burma is the second biggest producer after Afghanistan. It used to be the MTA (Maun Thai Army) and its leader Khun Sa that produced most of it. They worked together with the military junta. Today Khun Sa lives in Rangoon and has invested his money in businesses based in Rangoon and in Singapore. He has stopped growing opium. Instead it is the UWSA (United Wa State Army), one part of the old Maoist guerrilla forces, that has taken control over the opium production in northern Burma (Shan State). They are probably working together with the regime, since they are never attacked by the army. I guess they pay some money to the military junta", says Moe-Min.

The situation in Burma is becoming increasingly explosive. Economic crisis and extreme poverty are combined with an increased split and uncertainty over how to deal with the crisis among the ruling military junta. The junta has less and less social base within society. In the same way as Bush and Sharon did in 2003, the junta has launched a "roadmap" to "democracy". But just as the Sharon government never took the "roadmap" seriously, the Burmese generals will only use the roadmap to maintain its tottering position.

Split at the top

"The military has very bad contact with the people. There is a split within the junta. The leader Than Shwe and his deputy Maung Aye want to increase repression against the opposition and the people. At the same time the Prime Minister, Khin Nyunt, has met with Aung San Suu Kyi," says Kyaw Thet.

He continues:

"They are in the same situation as Suharto in Indonesia was. They feel a pressure for change, but they are afraid of being killed if they loose power. That is also the reason why Aung San Suu Kyi is in such a dangerous position."

Since 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi has become a symbol of the resistance. She has been in and out of house arrest since 1989. During her tour with the National League for Democracy (NLD) in May 2003 she was subject to an assassination attempt by the regime-friendly USDA militia. At the same time the whole EC of the NLD was arrested.

Many people, also outside Burma, have reacted strongly against the persecution of Aung San Suu Kyi. The CWI demands her release and that of all political prisoners. At the same time we warn that she and the NLD´s policies offers no way forward for the oppressed masses of Burma.

The NLD’s alternative to the Burmese generals’ system that has more and more capitalist elements in its market economy, open for domination by western multi-nationals. In the NLD program from 1990 they say that the NLD wants "An overhaul and revision of the tax system to make private companies more profitable" and "An economy that in all parts is based on a market economy".(xxi) The economic policy of the NLD is no surprise, considering that several of the leaders of the NLD were heading a capitalist Burma before 1962. Others had high positions within the Ne Win regime for many years.

Utopian programme

Aung San Suu Kyi says that the NLD "Wants human standards according to international norms" and compares Burma with the development that Germany and Japan had after World War Two. The problem is that the capitalist ‘international norms’ for less developed countries are horrific; starvation, malnutrition, poverty, AIDS epidemics and war are the norm. A development similar to that of Germany is utopian under capitalism. As we have said before, imperialism is an absolute impediment to poor countries development. Burma would be a new Ethiopia or Nicaragua, not a new Germany or Japan.

A complete return to capitalism (some steps have already been taken) in Burma would not mean any real democracy and would not solve the ethnic conflicts. On the contrary, a capitalist Burma (just as in the rest of the neo-colonial world) would be under the control of multinational companies, their national governments in the West and the representatives of international capitalists in the IMF, World Bank and the WTO, with a weak national capitalist class doing their bidding. The profits that multi nationals would make in Burma would be delivered to rich share holders in the US, Europe and Japan while misery would prevail in Burma. National capitalist leaders in Burma would not accept that regions of the country rich in natural resources could break loose from the state of Burma and thereby be out of their control. For that reason, the many ethnic conflicts would continue to be unresolved.

A "dialogue" between ‘democrats and the military junta will never result in them giving up power. The CWI stands for mass struggle against the oppression of the military junta. The Burmese masses cannot trust capitalist leaders of the West nor an imperialist-controlled United Nations in its struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. The capitalist leaders of the West’s alternative to the oppression and exploitation of the military junta is globalised capitalisms exploitation of the Burmese masses.

New movement

Workers, youth and poor peasants have already shown the strength of a mass movement. In 1988, only the lack of a clear strategy from a leadership conscious of the tasks needed to be carried through stopped the masses from taking power. With the experiences of that movement a new movement based in a socialist programme can organise to make the military regime a matter of history. Such a movement needs an international outlook and must appeal to workers and he oppressed worldwide to support their struggle. Such a movement can also be the foundation for a democratic socialist Burma that can overcome the ethnic problems and distribute the wealth of Burma democratically according to the needs of the people. A democratic socialist policy is the only way to eradicate poverty and war. A democratic socialist movement would defend the rights of all ethnic groups and minorities. At the same time, socialists would grant national minorities the right to self-determination up to and including independence if that is what they want. Socialists would argue for the different ethnic groups to cooperate through a socialist federation in Burma as part of a democratic socialist South East Asia.

The cwi stands for:

  • The Right to self-determination for all ethnic groups
  • Defence of all rights for ethnic and religious minorities
  • Mass struggle against the military regime in Burma. Strikes and demonstrations by an organised working class together with the poor peasants can overthrow the dictatorship.
  • The enormous natural resources of Burma should be publicly owned and controlled democratically by the working people. No to the big multinational companies’ exploitation of the wealth of Burma.
  • A democratically planned economy, under the control of workers and poor peasants. Production according to the needs of the people, not for profits to the rich.
  • A democratic socialist federation in Burma as a part of a democratic socialist South East Asia.


  1. Burma. Lonely Planet
  2. Olson, Bo A, Burma – den gäckande påfågeln
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. CWI-pamphlet, The Colonial Revolution
  6. Ibid
  7. SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 1, No., 1, Spring 2003, ISSN 1479-8484 p.9
  8. Ibid.
  9. Olson, Bo A, Burma – den gäckande påfågeln
  10. CWI-pamphlet, The Colonial Revolution
  11. The Militant, 5th of August, 1988
  12. Chapentier C-J, (1988), Eight days in Burma
  13. Ibid.
  14. Olson, Bo A, Burma – den gäckande påfågeln
  15. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, (Jan 1990), Events in Burma: a chronology
  16. Charpentier C-J, (1988), Åtta dagar i Burma
  17. Olson, Bo A, Burma – den gäckande påfågeln
  18. International Herald Tribune, 980211, "Burma Sees Hope in Rice"
  19. SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 1, No., 1, Spring 2003, ISSN 1479-8484 p.18
  20. Aung San Su Kyi, Letters from Burma
  21. ibid

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October 2004