Burma: Is the generals’ regime opening up?

Workers and youth fierce struggles ahead

The revolutionary movements in North Africa and the Middle East are still exercising the minds of dictators across the world. President Thein Sein and his 40 year old regime in Burma fear the same fate as that of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. The Burmese regime has begun to make limited democratic reforms. The opposition leader, Aung San Su Kyi, is likely to be elected to parliament in by-elections in April and trade unions are beginning to flex their muscles (See report below of strike action at a Chinese-owned factory).

It is now a race against time for the long-suffering and potentially revolutionary workers and youth of Burma to put their stamp on events and remove the generals from power.

Socialistworld.net carries background analysis by Keith Dickinson, Socialist Party, England and Wales (CWI).

Supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, election campaign rally in Meikhtila, central Myanmar, 5 March

Since the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma/Myanmar, in November 2010 the West’s capitalist powers have seized the opportunity to begin to move in, ‘licking their lips’ in anticipation of what they can gain. The first visit for 50 years of a US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, in December 2011 underlined the potential for them of this market of 56 million people.

Probably more important for these exploiters is that the country has plentiful reserves of oil, gas, hard timber and precious gems. The military government has already embarked on developing contracts. As the ‘Wall Street Journal’ puts it: “Business delegations… are streaming through Rangoon/Yangon, including ones from Austria and Germany, while the city’s main hotels – which suffered years of dismal occupancy rates – are now largely full with tourists and business people. Asian companies from Taiwan, Thailand and elsewhere are eyeing investments in a roughly 100 square mile, multibillion-dollar Dawei Special Economic Zone under development in southern Myanmar that will include roads, railways and a deep sea port”. As one of their correspondents says: "The interest in Myanmar/Burma spans every segment of business."

This is part of the strategic drive of the US to increase its influence in Asia. Recently, it has established a base for their armed forces at the port of Darwin, Northern Australia, and the Chinese leadership has already warned Obama against ‘interference’ in East Asia. The South China Sea now carries at least a quarter of the world’s shipping including almost all the oil for Japan and much of China’s. So these developments are a major factor behind the tentative ‘liberalising’ measures of the Burmese generals. They, it would seem, are looking to counterbalance the influence of the Chinese bureaucracy on their economy.

China’s Premier Wen Jiabao immediately visited Burma, ostensibly to discuss the suspension by the Burma regime of the Myitsone hydro-power dam project the Chinese were backing. The decision was probably influenced by the Kachin Liberation Army blowing up three bridges in the area which are on the main routes into China, as the dam will replace the villages of 2,000 people, but may also have been influenced by the attempt to rebalance the economy in the direction of the capitalist powers. The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Summit in Naypyidaw included the other Mekong River Countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. So if China demands you attend a conference in a hurry, you attend! China’s trade with Burma rose by more than half to $4.4 billion and China invested $12.3 billion in 2010.

“Weirdest capital city”

The building of the new capital city, Naypyidaw – “the world’s weirdest capital city” – was started in 2005. It has been carved out of the jungle 200 miles north of Rangoon, and about 150 miles south of the second biggest city, Mandalay. Underlining this weirdness, a dispatch to the Daily Telegraph spoke of “the widest of highways swept by a broom wielding straw hatted army but empty of cars and people”. There is nothing but desolation all the way up these roads to a gleaming pagoda and presidential palace protected by a moat. Palatial accommodation is provided for the ministers and their civil servants who are the only population in the city. As the Telegraph commented at the time of the 2007 uprising, Naypyidaw “offers a secure bolt-hole should the ongoing protests escalate in Rangoon… one political analyst in Rangoon [said]… ‘They are running away from their own people.’” [23 September 2007.]

Since Clinton’s visit there has been a procession of ministers from capitalist governments visiting Burma, with the intention of getting a slice of the cake. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, publicised his trip as mainly to “encourage the Burmese government to continue its path of reform”. Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, said: “We will respond – France and the EU – positively and in concrete terms to these significant gestures.” But their ‘concern’ has not been sufficient for them to take action against French oil, timber and gem companies who have broken the so-called sanctions for decades and super-exploited the Burmese workers.

Whether or not President Thein Sein is now more liberal personally, he is an ex-general in civilian clothing and is part of and backed by the present army leaders. They undoubtedly will have been worried by watching the Arab revolutionary spring, and now the protests in Russia. Also they had to give the United States and western governments some concessions towards democracy for them to justify to their own peoples the opening up of relations with this still repressive regime. In his Independence Day speech on 4 January 2012, Thein Sein defended the former military regime and warned that his reforms were conditional on stability, and “if national solidarity disintegrated, the goal of democracy could not be achieved”. The shutters could come down at any moment.

 Aung San Suu Kyi herself has said “I think business people should wait and see a little, for their own good as well as the country”. She has always said she would be prepared to work with the army, even in the period of her courageous resistance and imprisonment by the generals. There were attempts on her life and those of her fellow NLD members, some of whom disappeared or were assassinated. One element influencing Suu Kyi has probably been that her father, Aung San, was a leader of the guerrilla fighters for independence from the British Empire in the 1930s. He was the general to whom Attlee’s Labour government of 1945 had to concede independence. He was later assassinated with some other members of his cabinet when Suu Kyi was only two years old. It was largely accidental that Suu Kyi became the leader of the opposition. She was living in exile in Britain and had to visit her very ill mother in Rangoon at the time of the huge mass movement against the government from 1988 onwards.

Protests brutally crushed

In the absence of any organised opposition party before the establishment of the NLD, she was called upon to speak at mass open-air meetings of the protesters. This she did to gatherings of tens of thousands around the country. The corrupt army leaders stepped back into the shadows in the face of this movement to await their opportunity. They then announced a general election to take place in 1990 to quieten things down but viciously attacked and arrested those who continued to protest both before and after elections. Despite the short period since the formation of the NLD, they won 90% of the votes. However, with this the revolt of the masses had quietened down believing democratic controls would now be restored. But the generals clung to power, annulling the results, claiming the election was not for a new government but for an enquiry commission to be set up to look at a new constitution.

Any new protests were brutally crushed and the leaders of the NLD, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and others were imprisoned in their thousands. However, the regime had to keep her mainly under house arrest largely in an effort to appease international pressure. Thousands of students and young workers and Buddhist monks were forced to escape. They formed the All-Burma Democratic Front with 10,000 armed supporters at one stage and linked up with the many ethnic groups fighting for their survival and national rights against the regime mainly in the jungles bordering China, Thailand and Laos.

Many of the national and ethnic struggles are still taking place but the regime is now trying to negotiate peace terms with the leaders. A ceasefire agreement was signed on 12 January, to end the conflict with the largest group, the Karen National Union (KNU). Its armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army, has been defending its territory for around 60 years against the ruthless destruction of their villages. Around 100,000 people have been forced over the border into Thailand and are surviving in refugee camps.

It is hoped that the new deal between the regime and the Karen will set an example for the other groups to settle but one of the leaders of the Shan minority among the 650 prisoners released on 13 January was very unforgiving: “I have wasted seven years of my life for something I didn’t do.” The NLD is monitoring carefully the number of political prisoners actually among those released. Of the 1,500 listed by the Association for Political Prisoners, only 450 are out. The NLD says only half of their known 600 members in jail have been released. It is confirmation of the depth of the splits within the regime that around 200 of the released are military and intelligence personnel imprisoned after past internal power struggles! A Buddhist monk, a leader of the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’ concluded on his release: “Burma still has a long way to go. Although they are releasing prisoners now, they still have the characteristics of a dictatorship.”

2007 events

The 2007 events resulted from the regime doubling the fares and the fuel costs and the youth and students’ protests were joined by the monks. Such was the brutality and arrests that when a delegation of senior officials and army officers went to the monastery in the town of Pakokku to apologise, a week or so later, they were kept captive by the monks, their vehicles burned, then told to walk home. The monks’ original slogan was “Monks for the People” then as the protests grew it became the Saffron Revolution, and their call was, “We want the people to join us”. Thousands did and thousands more lined the streets, linking arms to protect them and the other demonstrators.

The important role played by the monks was explained by a Burmese commentator to the London based Financial Times: “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”. Many youth, particularly the youngest sons, are expected to serve some time in the monasteries. The huge protests that developed that September have undoubtedly influenced the regime’s attempted concessions now.

2010 sham election

In 2010, the regime held a sham general election in which almost all the candidates had a military connection and it was reported that nearly 50 so-called ‘opposition’ candidates were elected. Now – conveniently, it would seem – they have declared 48 seats had electoral discrepancies and some of those elected have been promoted to ministerial positions. This will mean by-elections which the regime will portray as open and democratic with a small number of opposition candidates elected to a ‘parliament’ of 438.

Some of these may come from the NLD, including Suu Kyi, who has now registered as a candidate for a seat south of Rangoon. She has been welcomed by thousands along the roads of her election campaign trail. But the NLD had stated that they would not stand until all their members were freed from prison. However, there was a split in the NLD over whether to stand in the 2010 election over the same issue. The regime had stated that it would release all the prisoners in January and the by-elections held in February. Now they are to be held on 1 April, but the leading NLD founder Win Tin, himself imprisoned for 18 years since before the 1990 election, says Suu Kyi had been criticised by party colleagues for being too optimistic. “We are planning to go on tours all over the country, not a campaign, a tour. We are not allowed to campaign. But she has a good relationship with the government. We are criticising her, she should not trust so easily”. This raises the possibility that Aung San Suu Kyi will provide the regime with a democratic cloak for repression in the future and that she and the NLD could become a brake on workers in struggle.

Whatever the immediate developments it looks as though Burma is opening up and workers in cities, towns and countryside may be able to openly organise again. And they will have to organise well to defend themselves against the exploitation of the capitalist class wherever in the world they come from. The Burmese people have a tremendous tradition of struggle and socialism, even from the first election after independence in 1948 when all nine parties that stood had to have socialist in their title to have any hope of election.

Even the coup against the pro-capitalist government of U Nu in 1962 was led by generals who had led the independence struggle and still had some popular support. Burma was known as the ‘rice bowl of the world’ and the coup leaders nationalised most of the economy. They planned a new education and health service and even the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, proclaimed Burma had developed the highest literacy level in Asia.

The degeneration of army rule and deformation and corruption of the economy culminated in a huge general strike and protests all over the country in 1988. So profound and popular was it that sections of the armed forces joined the marches and protests. As it went on, workers set up local committees to organise the distribution of food and other necessities, but there was no workers’ party that could pull these initiatives together nationally and pose themselves as a new revolutionary government.

The future of Burma will be decided when workers and youth test their ‘rights’. Will the regime when threatened by mass protest, be able to ‘turn back the clock’? Or can the masses, learning from the experiences of 1988 and 2007, develop their own organisations to take the struggle forward, defeat the regime and its friends internationally?

The best revolutionary Burmese workers will have learned from the struggles of the past and we must give them the broadest international solidarity and support.

Strike in Rangoon: The Untold Story

By Amara Thiha

It was a sunny humid day with the temperature above 30ºC. About 1800 young women were sitting on the hot concrete motorway on the outskirts of Rangoon talking to each other. It was a strike! No leaders, no posters and slogans, not even any water to drink but they had solidarity and were eagerly looking for social justice.

Since 6 February, 1,860 workers from Tai Yi shoes factory have been on strike to reclaim their rights, to receive the appropriate amount of salary and holiday pay. The strike had begun after the rejection of compensation for the workers following the unilateral closure of the factory by its owner during the Chinese New Year. Laying off the workers without giving notice affected the salary of the workers, which is not fixed but depends on the working hours and overtime bonus of each individual worker. Workers at Tai Yi are not permanent but temporary, calculated and hourly paid.

The average salary of the skilled worker without taking leave and fines is €67 per month for 26 working days of 8 hours each. Just 20 percent of their salaries, €14, is a basic salary with the rest totally dependant on the bonus, overtime fees, skilled fees, continuous working days and approval of the owner of the factory.. Therefore, an 80 percent share of the income of the workers is not guaranteed and is totally depended on the factory owner. The cheapest sweatshop workers have just 75 kyats per hour, €0.075, as their basic salary. The strikers demanded an increase to €0.15 per hour as basic salary. This flexible system of payment allows the owner to maximize the exploitation systematically and be able to create strike-breakers easily when it is necessary.

Together with the 38 workers’ representatives, government representatives and factory owner agreed to negotiate up to €0.10 per hour as a basic salary. However; the other bonuses had been removed and reduced to the average salary, leading to the dissatisfaction among workers and a determination to continue the strike. With the support of a legal assistance team, this case will be go to a commercial court to settle, but the court has declared that it is unlawful to be on strike during the court hearing, in an attempt to break the strike. There’s no doubt that the Burmese government and court do not stand together with the workers for justice!

Burma: The Industrial ‘Chicken Coop’

The income and the system of payment of workers in other factories and different projects, including government projects around Burma, are no better than at Tai Yi. Although labour laws have been in place for 50 years, they are ineffective due to the lack of trade unions and representatives. This is a favourable environment for bosses to exploit sweatshop labour without being worried. Exploited workers, forced labourers and child workers are usual phenomena. Burma is a country ready to adopt western-style neo-liberalism after the honeymoon trips of US secretary of the state Hillary Clinton and other western diplomats. ‘Reforms’ is the popular word spreading in the media from the elite, diplomats and cheerleaders of neo-liberal academics but is louder than justice for the workers. Indeed, the reform from military council state capitalism to crony capitalism, leaves no room for social justice, workers and ordinary people. The government’s desperation to lure foreign investment has led it to ‘dance a tango’ with western states that consider labour rights as a threat to their neo-liberal reforms. Burma has been shown a green light from the west to transform society into a newly industrialised chicken coop!

Keeping Silent: The Untold Story

Perhaps surprisingly, well-known opposition leaders are silent even 3 weeks after the workers’ strike. They are preparing to trade off social justice for 48 seats (9% of the total) in the parliament in the forthcoming by-elections on 1 April (April Fool’s Day!). Keeping good relations with the un-mounted generals is the priority on the opposition’s agenda. Fear of losing supports from western states limits the political space granted by the regime and the opposition fears that workers’ movements might jeopardize their chances in the by-elections. They are therefore reluctant to stand together and support the workers’ movements. Fear of the left, deeply rooted in Burmese political sphere, is another concern of the opposition. At the same time, supporters of the regime label this workers’ movement as a danger and a plot to destroy the reforms towards the ‘chicken coop’. The opposition leaders who were trusted before remain silent in order to keep the system without social justice running smoothly. But the opposition will only lead the movements once victory is assured.

Trade Union: The Last Defence for Justice

Independent trade unions are ready to reorganize after 20 years of oppression. Representatives from workers, the workers solidarity league of Burma with the legal assistance team, are now ready to stand together with the workers. Together with the 48 workers’ representatives, they hosted a press conference on 27 February in Rangoon to organize the trade union and to continue the strike until workers have been granted a basic salary that will allow them to live as human beings. Although international solidarity organizations support the cause of workers in Burma, the lack of media coverage and political support domestically keeps the voice of workers silent. But following the last 20 years of repression of workers’ rights, a new form of oppressive mechanism is already operating, taming society to accept the neo-liberal model with the cult of creating an obedient labour force, threatening the lifeworld with the sugar-coated oppressive system. Solidarity is the last defence for the workers and social justice while all the opposition’s cheerleaders and ultra-elite hypocrites have turned society into a ‘chicken coop’.

[Author is a Burmese Ph.D. student from Democracy in XXI Century Programme at Coimbra University, Portugal]

Official page for workers strike: http://taiyiworkers.nazuka.net/

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March 2012