Myanmar: Re-elected Aung San Suu Kyi government unable to deal with Covid or armed conflicts

Aung San Suu Kyi returned to government in a situation of political and social turmoil (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Foreign Office UK)

The general election in Myanmar, held last November, saw the National League of Democracy (NLD) – under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi – returned to government in a situation of political, economic, environmental, public health and social turmoil. The NLD won 396 seats in total – 258 seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives) and 138 in the Amoyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities). The opposition military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) only managed to win 24 seats – even less than the previous election.

This victory and support for the NLD can be seen as an indication that the majority of the people in Myanmar are still fighting for a democratic state, rather than letting the military dictate. But the party’s leadership and its ability to solve the national issues have always been questioned by the people themselves, something that is not surprising given the NLD’s capitalist character and its leaders’ willingness to work with the military tops. The election went ahead without the involvement of 1.5 million eligible voters, mostly in the border states, such as Rakhine and Chin. Efforts to exclude them were stepped up during the intensifying armed conflict between the state’s military and the national and ethnic-based armies that started to escalate again in 2018.

Due to the ongoing pandemic, several political parties wrote to the election committees demanding the postponement of the election. The movement of people control order that was imposed by the government was seen as a major obstacle to the smaller parties carrying out their political campaigns. The majority of political parties are small and do not possess sufficient resources to cope with conducting elections under the current rules. In an attempt to curb the armed movements in border states, the government also took control over access to the internet, severely affecting the parties involved in election campaigning. Thus, the NLD victory comes in the context of an unfair election for the smaller parties.

The military

The pro-capitalist media has painted this NLD victory as a continuation of the struggle for democratic reforms. The country was governed by the military for another 22 years after the introduction of a form of parliamentary democracy. Under the influence of western capitalist powers, changes in policies have been introduced to give a few democratic reforms to weaken the military tops who, since the mid-1980s, looked towards China. Aung San Suu Kyi has been praised for her efforts in this direction which helps increase the chance of western companies making profits in the ‘free market’.

However, the massacres and massive displacement of Rohingya Muslims that started some years ago exposed the limitations of her governance, and the failure to solve the oppressions of the ethnic minorities in the borderland states. In the recent election, about 600,000 people of Rohingya ethnicity were not allowed to vote; their attempts to stand candidates in the election were rejected by the election committees.

The ruling National League of Democracy did not make any objection to this. Nor did they struggle against the distorted constitution written by the military regime that gave the military a fixed 25% of seats without even competing with other parties. The old order retained its grip in the new state.
In a capitalist society, democratic ideals are fragile and working people and the poor masses are continually exploited. The current economic crisis in Myanmar is a manifestation of the impact of globalisation and its failures. The ongoing pandemic speeds up the worsening condition of capitalist structures.

The World Bank reported that Myanmar’s deficit is expected to widen to more than 8% of GDP and revenue is expected to continue to decline due to the continuing global recession. Tourism, services and commerce – which account for 42% of the country’s economy – are expected to slow down almost zero. Manufacturing, which covers 36% of the economy, will experience a negative growth rate or contraction of – 0.2%.

This situation has an impact on the working class, in general. Four out of five workers in Myanmar work in the informal sector and it is more difficult for them to get government assistance. Dependence on a declining global market puts the NLD leadership in a difficult and unstable position.

Trade wars

With the country situated to the south of China and adjacent to the Gulf of Bengal – Myanmar is seen as strategically important for the further expansion of the economic network led by China. The controversial port development in Kyaukpyu triggered a conflict between China and India. It will facilitate the transportation of oil and natural gas resources from the Middle East via pipelines to Yunnan in southern China. In the new industrial zone in Dawei, various companies from China – especially those closely related to the pipeline development in Kyaukpyu – are vying for power and embarking on building important infrastructure there. The construction of this network acts as an alternative to the Straits of Malacca route. It is an important strategic approach for the country that is currently the second-largest economic power in the world.

However, the payment for this project has been reduced to $1.3 billion from $7 billion initially. Following the failure of some governments in other countries, such as Sri Lanka, to solve debt problems – the NLD government is cautious about any project from China. It has also had to cancel a dam project in the Kachine district due to mass protests by all the ethnic groups living along the river.

Large infrastructure projects come up against problems such as military operations in areas where the living conditions of the ethnic minorities in borderland states are precarious. For a long time traditional lands have been destroyed for the expansion of the lucrative agricultural sector.

China will continue to play a significant role in economic development in Myanmar as elsewhere in the region. But Myanmar will also be influenced by US-led policies to counter Chinese hegemony in countries such as India and through cooperation in the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative with Japan and Australia.

Recently, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade agreement, signed by ASEAN countries in November, provides an opportunity for China to further strengthen its economic network in the Southeast Asian region and indirectly revitalise projects put on hold in Myanmar. The country which is seen as democratic, still fresh in terms of its labour resources and market availability, will, in the end, prioritise profit-based development, regardless of the workers’ welfare.

Unresolved National Question

The formation by British colonialism of the modern state in what is now Myanmar resulted in endless border conflicts. In any capitalist (or Stalinist) state, the national question often especially arises in border conflict areas. In neo-colonial countries, such as in southern Thailand, the Mindanao Islands, the Philippines or West Papua in Indonesia, these often developed into military conflicts against government oppression. The right to self-determination for each ethnic group in a border area is also closely related to the difficulties that arise because those areas are not at the centre of economic development.

The struggle for liberation and the right to self-determination are closely related to the question of identity when ethnic minorities are constantly in conflict with the political dominance of the main ethnicity. But there is a limit to struggles based on identity alone. They are often betrayed by opportunistic leaders who do not use class consciousness to strengthen solidarity between different ethnic groups but instead use identity to help create their own national bourgeoisie. The leaders of armed groups in the border area of Myanmar have become important figures in the big business of the country

It is the historic role of the working class to be the main political force that can oppose capitalist interests and take the right approach to solve the problems that often occur in border conflict areas. In the struggle, it can overcome racial and religious boundaries. Solidarity among the 130 ethnic groups in Myanmar needs to be based on uniting against a common enemy – the ruling class based solely on defending the interests of free-market gain.

The working class is concentrated in the main urban areas but is the main force that can lead struggles against landlordism and capitalism. Cooperation between workers from multi-ethnic backgrounds can overcome existing differences in the struggle against capitalist forces both in the military and in the government. But if a clear programme is not adopted by the leadership of the labour movement and a revolutionary socialist organisation is not built, the national question will continue to give rise to conflict in the country’s border areas and intensify due to power struggles between the superpowers.

Socialists support the struggle for full rights and the right to self-determination of all minority ethnic populations in Myanmar. But discrimination against the working class and the poor will not stop as long as the exploitative capitalist system survives. The struggle of each different ethnic group should be linked to the struggle of the entire working class in the different countries of the region to defeat capitalism and to replace it with the rule of the majority to liberate all of society.

Absence of fighting leadership

Nearly 250,000 workers in Myanmar have lost their jobs permanently due to the Covid pandemic – both locally and abroad. More than 140,000 local workers have lost their source of income due to the closure of more than 5,650 small companies, as well as 270 large factories, shops and restaurants.

Recently, the government has implemented an order to close 600 units in the garment industry without providing alternative work or full maintenance. The closure of factory operations in the Yangon district has had a huge impact on 600,000 workers – 80% of the workforce. The employers have decided not to pay the employees’ salary and will only start-up payment after the factories reopen sometime in the future. The situation of this crisis, which is happening almost all over the world, reveals how capitalism cannot assist workers in the crisis – instead, it only provides aid funds or bailouts to employers who will surely prioritise profits and the sustainability of their own companies without thinking about the life situation of the workers they have exploited.

The absence of a militant programme and leaders has let workers down; their lives are being devastated by the economic downturn and the Covid pandemic. An interview between the Thai media – The Irrawady – and the deputy secretary-general of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, Daw Phyo Sandar Soe, is proof of the absence of any radical perspective from the trade union leadership. They are laden with an apologetic attitude. Concerning the closure of factory operations, Daw Phyo Sandar Soe only expressed his regret without agitating for any action to oppose the oppression perpetrated by employers towards workers.

Throughout the pandemic situation and the economic crisis, the union leaders have unhesitatingly emphasised the importance of industrial harmony – a form of tripartite cooperation between government, employers and workers. National solidarity is talked about even though this strategy does not give any advantage to the working class, in general. The Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar – while conducting discussions on how to deal with this situation – recommended the closure of operations without any alternative programmes. Even worse, this approach was also adopted by the other two labour federations and underlines the weakness of the existing leadership which see solutions only within the framework of capitalism.

Even with the rising unemployment rate, the confederation is only proposing a working-class adaptation programme – how to acquire new skills or jobs in the future. But it does not provide a programme or perspective that can solve the existing problems concretely. While there is news of protests carried out by workers led by some other unions, they are still on a small scale and have not succeeded in influencing the labour movement, in general.

Employment-related reforms, such as the freedom to form trade unions, are supposed to be being implemented at a time when capitalist rule is at its peak. There is a lack of awareness of what a truly radical working-class leadership could do and a failure to realise the potential strength of the labour movement. But, given the impending crisis and taking into account the scale of this global crisis, the labour movement in Myanmar may take a more radical turn and reject the current leadership who are unable to fight and defend the working class.

The leadership of the present NLD government will be pre-occupied by the question of the inflow of foreign funds and investments from developed countries, indirectly taking an approach that will prioritise the financial interests of large corporations from outside. This situation will reveal the inability of the NLD government leadership to defend the working class, due to the fundamental conflict of interest between capital and labour. Although the NLD leadership is trying to implement reforms in Myanmar, especially on national issues that include ethnic minorities, these reforms will further expose the failure of capitalism. As long as the condition of the exploited working class, especially in the border areas, is not addressed, there will be no end to unceasing turmoil.

Revolutionary socialist change

Political movements supposedly based on democracy, such as the NLD, emphasise the question of reform and the autonomy of the people free from the grip of the military regime. Last year, some organisations decided to boycott the election as long as the NLD failed to acknowledge the people’s demand to repeal the current constitution. For the capitalists, Myanmar is seen as a country that has the potential to be more developed – but only along capitalist lines. That means an inflow of investment. But, for a small country that is squeezed between the big powers, this hope is just an illusion. This kind of ‘development’ will only bring further contradictions and economic depression for millions of poor working people. Cheap labour and the lack of protective laws for the working class in Myanmar are some of the attractive factors which attract foreign investment into the country.

The military conflict in the border areas will continue to be a major issue for future NLD leaders. It involves the interests of various parties, the ethnic minorities, the military and the foreign capitalists, who want the best outcome for their investments. Despite the conflicts between the capitalist powers, in the end, it is the working class who will suffer the most.

The CWI argues the need for class conscious leaders to build a struggle towards socialism. Only through revolutionary power held by the working class can the problems and contradictions of capitalism be overcome. Economic regulations based on the importance of capital will not take into account the interests of the working class who are the majority of the world’s population.

Southeast Asia encompasses most of the world’s commodity production and is a goldmine for the capitalist class. At the same time, it will be a huge natural resource if the working-class can wage a victorious struggle to take over the existing productive industry and democratically control it according to the needs of the masses and the environment.

The existing NLD leadership will expose their weaknesses and destroy the illusions in them held by the working class, who increasingly oppressed by the capitalist class every day. The need to build political parties with working-class leadership aiming for socialist change is becoming increasingly urgent in the region. The question is posed of creating a network of mass working-class parties in the region and preparing the way for a socialist confederation of South-East and the spreading of socialism worldwide.

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January 2021