Burma: Military Junta crushes movement but embers of resistance still alight

Official figures belie extent of killings, maimings, disappearances and arrests

The generals who run Burma made very public announcements last week about the release of some 150 political prisoners, among them members of the opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Thousands of monks and activists still remain in jail. There have been reports of renewed protest in the religious stronghold of Pukokku and undoubtedly a simmering anger against the dictatorship persists.

The following article was written towards the end of September – nearly one month after the generals moved in to silence the protests.


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Military Junta crushes movement but embers of resistance still alight

Burma’s military junta seems to have once again succeeded in crushing the new upsurge of protest on the streets of Rangoon and other cities. The six-week long movement has died down as thousands of protesters and activists have been arrested in the crackdown against the peaceful demonstrations of unarmed people. The military junta used excessive force and reports indicate that the number of activists and monks brutally killed far exceeds official figures and is over 60.

The search operations and arrests have been continuing in order to completely smash the protest movement. Thousands of police and army personnel have been occupying the streets to stop any more protests. The regime has banned all rallies and demonstrations, and Rangoon looks like an army garrison. The curfew that was imposed four weeks ago has been lifted. Internet services have been restored (although only one per cent of the people of Burma have access to the internet). Mobile phones are not properly working.

The mass protest movement has failed to bring down the military regime but it has shaken the ground under its feet. The uprising has been defeated with brutal state force but anger and hatred against the regime has increased. The people fought courageously without fearing for their lives. But their heroic actions failed to defeat the military regime because of the lack of an organisation that could give a clear political lead – call for general strike action, make an appeal to the ranks of the army and to workers internationally. The regime has been able to restore order for the time being and there might be a pause in the movement, but it will re-emerge if the regime refuses to give concessions to opposition parties.

Hundreds and thousands of people, including monks, political and worker activists, school students and poor people, took part in the protests. A new layer of young people and students entered the political scene and challenged the vicious regime. The military junta has said that around 1,400 people are still in custody but the actual numbers reported by family and friends are many times higher than the official figures. The imprisoned are facing summary trials without any right to defence and can be sentenced to a minimum of five years in jail. Hundreds of monks are also in custody facing humiliation and torture.

The regime has regained control but their fear is not over yet. From the outside, the military junta looks very strong but internally it is shaky and uncomfortable. Shari Villarosa, head of the US mission in Burma, told AFP (Agence France-Presse): “They have a curfew in place and every night they arrest people. While a semblance of normality has returned, long simmering discontent has been heightened by anger at what has been done to the demonstrators – the atrocities that have been committed against the monks and activists. The regime is still frightened of the angry monks and growing anger in the people”.

The political vacuum and the monks

There is a big political vacuum in Burma. The continued repression has weakened the ability of political parties and groups to organise. Hundreds of political workers are either in the prisons or have been forced into exile. The junta is well aware that, given the freedom to organise, trade unions and political organisations would mushroom as they did in the events of 1988. Hence the determination of the generals to end the protest movement at the earliest possible opportunity.

There is no doubt that the detained opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is very popular and very well respected amongst the people but her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been significantly weakened because of state repression over many years. This party enjoys the support and sympathy of the masses but has not really been in the position to translate this into well-organised political action.

In this vacuum, the monks came forward to put themselves at the head of this movement. The leaderships of the NLD and other groups like ‘88 Generation Students’ are in prison or in exile. The military junta has consciously done this to remove the political leadership from the masses and political workers. Their policy has certainly affected the political parties which have been struggling for existence and their capacity to organise themselves.

However, even in the most difficult of circumstances, developing a party that has an idea of how to defeat the dictatorship is vital. It depends not only on bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of repression, but also on political clarity – the capacity to estimate the strengths and weaknesses of the different forces involved in the struggle and how events are likely to unfold.

After three days of mass protests and big rallies in the last week of September, the military junta decided to crush the protests by isolating the monks and started a vicious crackdown. In the beginning, the junta tried using violence on the streets but it did not work. They then decided to besiege the monasteries, sending security forces to block the entrances and arrest the monks. The crackdown was so severe that many monasteries in Rangoon are now empty. Monks were arrested, some were undoubtedly killed and many have disappeared.

The streets around the holiest place – the Shwedagon Pagoda – are still deserted. This was the key rallying point for the mass protests. The scale of the crackdown can be judged from the fact that usually thousands of monks collect alms at dawn on the streets and surrounding areas, but now residents of Rangoon say hardly any monks can be seen in this area.

Reliable reports indicate that the military is offering donations of thousands of dollars to the different monasteries to pacify the monks. Many monasteries have refused to accept such donations and are also refusing to accept alms from soldiers.

Summary trials

The military junta started summary trials inside the prisons of the 1,400 officially arrested protesters. More than 300 have been given sentences of from five to 20 years. Even people in their 70s have been sentenced to as much as seven years in prison. Others are awaiting a similar fate. All are facing charges of treason and terrorism for participating in anti-junta protests. Even using a slogan against the military junta is a crime and means at least five years’ imprisonment.

More than 3,600 political and worker activists are already in the prisons for taking part in anti-junta protests over many years. Hundreds have been detained and arrested without any trial and the junta does not acknowledge this. Many have been dumped in the cells to be brutally tortured. In July of this year seven activists were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment for organising a labour rights seminar.

Military economy

In 1962, when the generals took over, they nationalised almost all industry outside of agriculture. After destroying the other state institutions, the military junta has enjoyed an absolute monopoly over Burma’s economy. All the state-owned companies are run and controlled by the junta. There are 400,000 soldiers and officers in the army and most of the top layers are involved, some heavily, in the economy. The military controls oil, forestry, heavy industry, energy, gems and the rice trade.

The generals control the economy through what are formally state-owned companies. In fact, they use these companies as their personal assets. Much of the surplus that is made in them goes directly into the pockets of the generals and senior officials.

The Burmese dictatorship is one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. The biggest share of state revenues goes towards perks and privileges of the junta members and to finance the military machine. There are 40,000 registered companies in Burma although only 10% are operational.

Burma’s economy is in serious trouble as it is growing at a snail’s pace. The average growth rate is around 3% per annum over the last few years. The infrastructure is very poor and most of the roads are in a bad condition. Inflation is rampant and badly hurts the poor masses. Corruption, nepotism, cronyism and inefficient management have halted economic growth. The nationalisation of industry and the economy has turned into the ‘militarisation’ of the economy – being run entirely in the interests of the army tops. A handful of state officials and senior junta leaders are making fortunes while millions of ordinary Burmese fall below the poverty line.

The plunder and looting of the state and natural resources has made what was the richest country in the region into the poorest one. It is difficult to get a real picture of the economy, as the junta has complete control over the media and information. There are many joint ventures going on with foreign companies, mostly from India and China, but the fundamental control of the economy is still in the hands of the junta. There are private companies, mostly owned by family members of the serving and retired senior military officers. The army as an institution has also developed companies to create military-owned businesses and plunder state assets.

Both India and China want to further strengthen economic ties with Burma to get its oil, gas and timber resources. Burma has 300 billion cubic metres of proven gas reserves. Both these two governments support the military junta against the increased pressure from the US and from European imperialist powers for the restoration of democracy. They are both gaining access to energy and natural resources in exchange for their political support of the junta. Burma exports oil and gas to China and India. India is very interested in investing in the oil sector and Chinese companies have already invested heavily. The junta is well aware of the growing needs of both these economies and thus expects more political and economic support in return for obliging them.

The trade between India and Burma expanded to $669 million in 2005 from $87 million in 1992. The Gas Authority of India Ltd (GAIL) and the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) are currently involved in the process of laying a gas pipe-line from northern Burma to northeast India. The most ambitious of India’s ventures is a link between ports on India’s east coast and Sittwe port in western Burma.

India is also working on the $100 million Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport project -building an inland waterway and highway connecting Mizoram state, India and Paletwa, Chin state, Burma – to develop as an alternative trade route. India is also selling arms to the Burmese dictatorship including tanks, light infantry guns, sophisticated assault rifles and helicopters.

The Burmese military, in a large-scale offensive in northern Karen state, destroyed 230 villages and displaced 27,000 people to clear this area for gas field installations. In eastern Burma some 3,000 villages have been destroyed and 1.5 million people displaced for the same reason. Both India and China have no problem with this destruction and killings because they are more interested in getting the oil and gas. Both India and China will continue to support the military junta to pursue their economic and political interests.

The working and poor people need unity and united action to defeat the military junta. The masses can not rely on imperialist powers for their political, social and economic liberty, democratic rights and real freedom. Imperialist powers like the US and the EU, and regional powers like China and India have their own interests. They support or oppose the military junta for their own reasons and interests. Their class interests are different from the class interests of the working masses. To defeat the military junta, protests and rallies are not enough. Preparations for a general strike will need to be linked with an appeal to the lower ranks of the army to join the struggle against the dictatorship. An international socialist appeal to workers in the region would also be crucial in winning a lasting victory.

  • No to summary trials and sentences!
  • Release all the arrested political workers, students and labour activists.
  • For the right to organise trade unions political parties and student unions.
  • Labour and trade union rights in work and in the army, including the right to strike.
  • End the dictatorship! For a revolutionary constituent assembly.
  • No to the militarisation of the economy!
  • Nationalisation of big industry under democratic workers’ control!

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November 2007