For the second night in a row, sounds of the striking pots and pans were heard across the streets of the city of Yangon, in Myanmar. Residents in the main capital are showing their dissatisfaction and anger towards everything that is wrong in their country. There are now protests and strikes, from the younger layer of activists, and strikes of nurses who are currently leading the civil disobedience movement. If nothing changes and things get worse, there can be further participation and struggles from the masses in the country.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi is now again held prisoner in less than three months since the electoral victory of her party, the National League for Democracy, in Myanmar’s General Election. A coup led by the military has overthrown the elected government and placed hundreds of officials under confinement inside government housing compounds. The Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw), Min Aung Hlaing, took over as the country’s de facto leader. He declared on the military-controlled Myawaddy TV that there would now be military rule for a year but also a new General Election.
Instead of claiming full governmental authority, the military leaders have pretended to be a transitional government that will mainly focus on the Covid-19 situation and at the same time deliver a ‘free and fair’ election shortly. However, top military personnel are quickly being assigned to various high-ranking positions in the government in an effort to consolidate their power.
This coup by the military has no legal basis and contradicts the constitution they themselves introduced in 2011 as Myanmar was finally handed over to a ‘civilian’ government. However, the quasi-democratic political structure with an uneasy power-sharing between the NLD and the military, which still held considerable influence in the government, led to a deadlock for the so-called ‘transition into democracy’ in Myanmar.
Although the military bureaucracy was automatically awarded 25% of the parliamentary seats under that constitution and had significant control over key executive positions, the conflict that existed inside the government between the military leaders and the NLD could no longer be tolerated and ignored. In the end, the military used the NLD’s weakness and the criticism it received, for instance, from Human Rights Watch before the election, for an unfair and biased electoral process as an excuse to grab hold of the power.
Despite protests from opposition parties questioning the integrity of the election which excluded a significant part of the population, especially from the conflict areas around the borders of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD achieved a sweeping victory. The military-backed USDP only managing to decrease their vote share from the previous election made it clear that the people of Myanmar have entirely rejected them and many still placed their hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership to deliver democracy.
Inaction of NLD
But Suu Kyi had always maintained a strategy of cooperation with the military and rejected any antagonistic remarks or actions against them. Despite popular demand to amend the existing constitution that gives too much power to the military leaders, the NLD had largely remained silent on the issue. Even with a majority in parliament and with full authority to make legislation, the NLD continued with their non-confrontational approach. This received widespread criticism amongst the activist layers in Myanmar for their inaction. Instead, they focused on bringing in foreign investment to develop a stable capitalist economy while letting the military enjoy the major government control. The NLD leaders had no confidence that their mass support could overcome the military tops and feared that if they mobilised mass support it could get ‘out of control’ and threaten their pro-capitalist project. Now the working people of Myanmar are going to pay the price of the refusal of Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD to mobilise a mass movement to break the power of the generals when they had the chance.
Ever since the end of the military’s direct rule, in 2011, and the transition to a free-market-friendly, parliamentary democracy, the remaining military figures in politics, with their control over major assets, contributed to the unstable nature of capitalist development in Myanmar. The influx of foreign capital and the implementation of policies that create competition between the big capitalists have led to major conflicts among the bourgeoisie in Myanmar.
This military seizure of government reflects the growing nervousness among the military leaders who had failed miserably to establish political dominance. The diminishing support for their political representation in the Union Solidarity and Development Party and growing competition with a new layer of capitalist forces powered by the free marketisation of Myanmar has now driven the military to carry out a complete takeover, even before the first day of the new parliament sitting. The current Covid-19 pandemic has also given them a window of opportunity to discourage protests from the people about their actions.
The UN Security Council, holding an emergency meeting to discuss this matter, has already taken steps to condemn the military coup d’etat. Accordingly, crocodile tears and economic sanctions will follow. There are clear signs of disapproval by certain sections of the international capitalists towards the sudden coup that could deliver instability and uncertainty, halting of the establishment of ‘free’ market competition in Myanmar. This sums up the approach of the imperialist powers. Normally “democratic rights” rank below strategic and economic interests. Thus the western imperialists work happily with the Saudi feudal dictatorship and want Turkey’s increasingly totalitarian regime to stay in the NATO alliance.
On the other hand, predictably, Xi Jinpeng has adopted a more conciliatory tone towards the generals. China urges the international community to avoid any further escalation of tension and focus on ‘stability’. The Brunei government, which is chair of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) at the moment, has parroted China in calling vaguely for ‘dialogue, reconciliation and a return to normality’ in Myanmar.
Capitalists from both ends of the world have a vested interest in maintaining stability in Myanmar to continue the plunder of its natural resources and human labour. However, amongst the major capitalist nations, China has the closest ties with Myanmar with mega infrastructure projects lined up for years to come. Myanmar is an important location where China could bypass the naval trade route in the Straits of Malacca and open a land path to India. Myanmar has a vital role in China’s massive ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.
Even if Chinese capitalists disapproved of the coup d’etat, due to the situation of uncertainty it produces, China would play its cards carefully to maintain its influence over the country’s economy and politics. China will use this incident to create an even bigger wedge between Myanmar and the US-led capitalist block to weaken its influence in the region further.
The ASEAN chair’s response also shows that even other countries in the South East Asia region are reluctant to condemn the Myanmar military directly and choose to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach. Small economies in this region have also been trying to benefit from the China-US trade war by not taking clear sides in international issues. Either way, the Myanmar military regime will now be more dependent on China for aid and economic opportunity as it chooses to retreat on its promise to open up its economy.
Highly unpopular coup
This coup by the military is highly unpopular in Myanmar. Not only government officials were detained, but countless activists, journalists and critics of the military have been rounded up by the armed forces.
Anticipating a reaction from the people, Min Aung Hlaing and the military bureaucracy will be swift to move against any rebellious action from the masses with violence and brutal repression, as was often done in the past. Additionally, they will try to divide the people along ethnic lines and continue to oppress different ethnic minorities, over 30% of the population, by fanning the flames of nationalism, only for political gain. However, the reality is, with abysmal support from the masses and with no clear way to move forward, the military regime is under huge pressure to justify their actions.
Aung San Suu Kyi
It is ironic that now, after the military coup, Aung San Suu Kyi is crying out to the people to protest against the brutal military regime while she failed to challenge the military throughout the tenure of her leadership, which had significant mass support. Given the widespread anger amongst the Myanmar people, it is not impossible that they take to the streets in their mass, as they did in 1988. However, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership have proved to be incapable of fulfilling the people’s aspirations for a free and democratic Myanmar.
The policy adopted by the liberal Suu Kyi and her party offer no way forward for the working masses and youth. In Myanmar’s situation, as in many other neo-colonial nations, the struggle for democracy is intertwined with the struggle against the capitalist system as a whole. The peculiarity of capitalism’s growth in Myanmar, with a history of brutal military rule and constant imperialist intervention, means it will never provide for the basic needs of the country’s population. Liberal representatives such as Aung San Suu Kyi are entirely unable to challenge the international capitalist forces and deliver even basic advancement for the people of Myanmar.
On the contrary, the task of eliminating poverty in the cities, towns and villages across the country, and establishing fundamental freedoms, democratic rights and a solution to the questions of national and democratic rights in Myanmar falls on the shoulders of the working class. It requires the building of a party with a mass base and a clear socialist programme to unify the suffering masses of Myanmar and to defeat both military rule and capitalism in the country.
Trade union leaderships, opposition organisations and left forces should join hands at this moment to fight this seizure of power by the military. Mass workers’ action, such as a general strike, like the heroic movement in August 1988, would immediately incapacitate the military regime and could appeal to many in the nearly 70% of the population living in the countryside.
Combat organisations need to be set up in the workplaces, colleges and neighbourhoods of town and country. Representatives need to be elected from these bodies to link up on a regional and national level and they should be subject to immediate recall if they go against the wishes of those who elect them. An appeal would have to be made to the ranks of the army and police to join the fight against dictatorship and against capitalism – local and international. The battle must be waged now to build a genuine socialist alternative to the corrupt and decaying capitalist system in Myanmar – not a repeat of the post-1962 regime modelled on Stalinism, but one based on genuine workers’ democracy. Such a revolution would have an appeal across the region and be the basis for the formation of a confederation of socialist states in South-East Asia and beyond.