Mass rally in Yangon in mid-February, just one example of the many massive protests in Mayanmar against the coup
Myanmar is on fire. From the major population centers of the central Irrawaddy River valley to the country’s borderlands – the western coast, the border with India and Bangladesh in the northwest and west, the long border with China on the north and east, and the southern border with Thailand down through the narrow coastal strip – the flames of popular revolts are blazing across this Southeast Asian country. Hot coals of resentment have burst into flames of awakened political consciousness.
In the November 2020 election, Myanmar’s most prominent political leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and her National League for Democracy, won re-election in a landslide, overwhelmingly defeating the military’s Union Solidarity and Development Party. In the minds of the masses of voters, the NLD represented the democratic reforms and social progress that followed the end of decades of military dictatorship.
Thus it was especially shocking when in February, just months after the election, the generals declared the government illegitimate and announced that they were deposing it and returning to military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi and Win Myint, the deposed president, were arrested, charged with cooked-up violations and held indefinitely in jail. The generals ridiculously denied that their takeover was a coup, but it must be noted that the constitution adopted a decade ago was designed to allow the military to short-circuit democracy whenever it might choose to do so. Nonetheless, a legal coup is still a coup and an outrageous attack on democracy.
The revolt erupts
In response to the coup, the population erupted immediately into huge protests, massing in front of government buildings in the national capital Yangon. Calling themselves the Civil Defense Movement (CDM), thousands of activists utilized the internet to call massive demonstrations in defiance of the government’s threats of deadly repression. The extent of the revolt threw the generals off balance temporarily, but by the end of February the junta began a gradual crescendo of violent responses. On one day, March 27, the military killed more than 600 people, and brutalized thousands more. According to the U.S. government, roughly 1000 have been murdered (a conservative estimate) and thousands more have been imprisoned. These attacks on workers, students, artists and intellectuals from all cross the social spectrum could not stop the growing rebellion.
Rapidly CDM grew into a wave of strikes, culminating in a general strike movement. Strikes by workers broke out as the multiple conflagrations ran across the land, bursting into a country-wide general strike. Among the first reported strikers were teachers and health workers. Also close to the start of the strike wave was a general strike in the copper fields, a lucrative source of funds for the government. Quickly strikes spread through the hundreds of garment factories where the workers, predominantly women, produce to benefit the foreign super-exploiters of low-wage labor (as in much of Southeast Asia). The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar put out a call making the growing general strike official.
Employees in the critical sector of the natural gas fields, as far as we know, have not engaged in work stoppages or protests, apparently due to intense government threats. However, an interview conducted in the Yamada gas field has revealed that a majority of workers very likely would prefer that the French Total company, one of the foreign owners, end all its lucrative payments to the government, even if that means the workers have to suffer loss of income and they and their families are deprived of electric power.
Over six months after the coup, photos and videos continue to emerge showing anti-government marches popping up everywhere. Entire villages turn out for marches, their participants well aware that they were being photographed. That such images put them at risk of persecution did not stop people from marching. They recognized that their struggle needed to be publicized to the outside world. The strike wave isn’t over, either. For example, to our knowledge, the copper miners have not ended their strike.
Workers on strike in a rural area in central Myanmar, June 18, 2021
The angry awareness of the rebels is illustrated in an interview with striking teachers in a remote village. This is how one of these teachers answered the question about how many striking workers in this village have returned to work:
“No one in this village has gone back to work. We will never go back to work until this revolution is finished. From other villages, we have heard of only a few cases of people doing CDM [civil disobedience] who have returned to work. These were people who were desperate, single mothers with babies or people with sick family members; they wanted to do CDM until the end, but they needed money and had no other way to get it. But for us, it doesn’t matter what happens. Even if we lose everything and have nowhere to live and nothing to eat, we will never go back to work at our school under this brutal junta. Even if we have no food to eat, we will do CDM until the revolution ends with victory.”
As the army’s attacks mounted, many villages responded by forming armed self-defense militias. Pitched battles erupted, but the army’s artillery and helicopter gunships crushed many local militias and then burned their villages to the ground.
The National Unity Government
The common cry of the marching villagers is the call for the end of rule by the military junta and no accommodation to dictatorship. The only acceptable outcome for them is a return to democratically elected government. This sentiment is evident in the demands being raised in the multitude of demonstrations, rallies and marches occurring daily all across the country, in the smallest villages as well as the large cities. The most frequent demands seem to be the following:
- Abolish the dictatorship, dissolve the junta!
- Release Aun San Suu Kyi! Release all innocent detainees!
- Support the National Unity Government; for its global diplomatic recognition!
- Replace the 2008 constitution; for a federal democratic union with equal treatment for all ethnic minorities!
For the vast majority, the only legitimate government is the National Unity Government (NUG), formed shortly after the coup by members of the popularly elected government who managed to avoid arrest. At this stage, the NUG is only a shadow government existing underground, but it is able to issue statements and policy decisions.
As the government’s attacks grew increasingly intense, it became obvious that an armed military resistance was imperative. Thus the NUG initiated the People’s Defence Force (PDF), a loose coalition of popular militias whose purpose is to carry on an armed struggle against the Myanmar Army. The largest and most established of these militias are veteran fighters against the national military in the decades of the many civil wars between the government and the various ethnic minorities.
The resistance militias
Members of the People’s Defence Force in Sagain Region in June
Following the wave of workers’ strikes and mass non-violent protests, and in the face of the military’s worsening violence, these ethnically based militias have come to the fore of the resistance to the coup, along with more recently formed armed defense groups.
There is a long history behind the militias. Myanmar has never been an ethnically homogeneous or unified nation. Prior to British colonial rule from 1885 to 1948, there were several kingdoms, each of which represented the domination of one ethnic group over neighbors (who were frequently related to the ruling group). These ethnic minorities today generally have a distinguishing language or dialect and a majority adhering to a specific religious tradition.
The major ethnic groups have, in general, never accepted the idea of a central government. Each has not only desired autonomy for itself (or even complete independence), but in many cases have fought civil wars against the central state. Several of the armed militias experienced in these wars are now participating in the joint struggle, either as direct members of the People’s Defence Force or as military allies of it.
At the same time, there are a significant number of new militias that have been organized since the coup, some of them also based on ethnic identities. These may have no direct continuity with the civil wars of the past, although individual fighters in these new armies could be veterans of the past wars. Many of the fighters in these new armies are young people, in some cases women as well as men, who have no military experience. In other cases, some of the militias have fighters experienced with weapons as game hunters. An example of the latter is the Chinland Defense Force in Chinland State, near the border with India in northwest Myanmar.
Other militias are veterans of civil wars. Perhaps the most important of the militias with long experience in past wars with the Tatmadaw (the Myamar military) is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Not only does it have a long history but it is also directly part of the PDF, not simply allied with it. Starting soon after Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948, the Kachin armies in north Myanmar repeatedly fought wars for autonomy. In the decades since, there have been numerous clashes with the Tatmadaw. Just recently the KIA, along with other PDF fighters, won a battle in Sagaing Region to the west of Kachin State. The PDF reported that together with the KIA they killed more than 180 junta troops over five days in the week ending July 17.
Another important militia with long experience fighting the Tatmadaw, but not directly allied with the PDF, is the Karen National Union (KNU), according to The Irrawaddy, “one of the most powerful ethnic armed groups in Myanmar.” Some of the KNU’s junior units have joined in the fight against the junta, but apparently they have been disavowed by the official leadership of their superiors. The Irrawaddy reported, “KNLA Brigade 5 has been clashing with junta security forces in Karen State’s Papun District since March and military tensions are running high in the area.” Also, “On June 5, the Karen National Defense Organization, which is under the command of the KNU, attacked junta troops in the border town of Myawaddy, along with the Myawaddy People’s Defense Force and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army.”
The junta’s goal of ethnic unity
The Myanmar government, led by the Tatmadaw generals and abetted by Aung San Suu Kyi (see “The Case of Aung San Suu Kyi” below) has for several years waged a genocidal campaign against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority concentrated in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. The government appealed to Burmese Buddhist biases against Muslims, assisted by some branches of the Buddhist hierarchy, and mobilized mobs of civilians as well as the army to conduct bloody pogroms against them. Thousands of Rohingya were slaughtered in campaigns that stretched over several decades and came to a climax in late summer of 2017, forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee abroad, mostly to Bangladesh (where the majority is also Muslim). The government of Bangladesh did everything it could to prevent the entry of Rohingya refugees, forcing them into camps or, worse, into boats heading largely for graves at sea.
The Myanmar government’s goal in this genocidal campaign was in part to forge a common consensus of patriotism around the social domination of the major ethnic group, the Burmese (or Bamar). The many wars against the other ethnic groups are also a major part of this horrific campaign for national “unity”
In addition to its genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, the Tatmadaw generals have conducted total war on the populations in the regions where armed ethnic militias dared to rebel. Using a strategy labeled “Four Cuts,” the Tatmadaw inflicted massive terror on civilians. Clearly imitating the U.S. in Vietnam, the rationale for the war against the civilian populations was that the militias required their support in order to survive. The doctrine was developed in the 1960s when the Tatmadaw was fighting the Communist Party of Burma and the Karen National Union, “Myanmar’s oldest ethnic armed group.” It seems to have been continued virtually through all the civil wars since.
According to Naw Htoo Htoo of the Karen Human Rights Group, the Tatmadaw’s use of Four Cuts in areas under KNU control “targeted every person and village which they thought would have ties with the KNU.” “They fired indiscriminately at Karen villages, destroyed every food and aid item they thought was meant to support the KNU… restricted medical aid in conflict-affected areas, arrested people they suspected of providing aid and food, and arrested their family members…” she said. “They also used widespread sexual violence and forcibly relocated entire communities.”
The civil war today
There has been no let up in the struggle since February. The Tatmadaw junta continues to carry on its bloody work, especially in the countryside, where they are targeting militants and raiding the safe houses of leaders at all levels. The Tatmadaw has also increasingly attacked entire villages, continuing to massacre unarmed civilians, although they are occasionally impeded and in some cases defeated by the militias. Yet the struggle does not die, the marches continue and the Tatmadaw is unable to put out the flames.
An additional factor has entered the fray. Covid-19 has been spreading rapidly within the population. According to one press report, “the per capita death rate in Myanmar surpassed those of Indonesia and Malaysia to become the worst in Southeast Asia. The country’s crippled health care system has rapidly become overwhelmed with new patients sick with COVID-19.” Medical workers associated with the CDM have requested that professionals not cooperate with the government. The word is that government agents are discriminating against those who they suspect are rebels for protection masks and are arresting doctors who support the CDM. This tactic will not save the illegitimate government. It intensifies popular hatred and undermines any remaining shred of legitimacy. Additionally, the virus has penetrated deeply into the military at all levels. This could undermine the morale of the soldiers and enable the victory of the masses.
In the West, pundits and analysts have already written off the possibility of victory by the masses. A prominent view is that a victorious revolution is nowhere on the horizon: a definitive stalemate has been reached and that without a change in course through ample intervention from outside (read imperialist governments), Myanmar is fated to be a failed state. History, however, frequently falsifies such predictions. We can’t count this revolution out when masses have committed themselves as deeply they have in Myanmar and when the working class itself is on the move. The chaos, despair and death on all sides may work to demoralize the core of the state that keeps it from total collapse: its armed forces.
Myanmar does not recruit via conscription. Soldiers recruited from the countryside are trained and disciplined to kill their former neighbors or similar people, though frequently they are sent against ethnic groups with whom they may feel nothing in common. The barrier that separates the masses in Myanmar from the soldiers is the soldiers’ hardening experience and rigid discipline with their barracks. This army has been used only in domestic civil wars, so that is a big factor – they are virtually a centralized, militarized police force. But this hard discipline is never absolute in any fighting army. If the going gets rough, the army’s morale could collapse.
The international context
Myanmar is a poor country exploited by imperialist and other major powers. Western energy corporations profit from its offshore natural gas supplies; Russia sells arms to the military. China, the closest great power, is a substantial investor and hopes to integrate Myanmar into its Belt and Road Initiative via the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a huge infrastructure project. It would give China direct connections to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, enabling its commerce to the Middle East, Africa and beyond to bypass the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait, in both of which the U.S. Navy can challenge Chinese shipping in the case of conflict.
In this context, the Western powers have made token gestures in opposition to the military’s seizure of power. Soon after the coup, the Biden administration condemned it and demanded the return of the popularly elected government. In February Biden announced limited financial sanctions against a few government individuals perceived to be directly active in the coup itself. Since then the U.S. has leveled financial sanctions against additional individual officials and also against a few state-owned companies (among them, Myanmar Timber Enterprise and Myanmar Pearl Enterprise).
Both liberal organizations like Freedom House and right-wing Republicans like Senator Mitch McConnell supported such sanctions. Of course, their opposition to the junta doesn’t imply support for the mass revolt. They prefer restoring Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom the U.S. has had close ties, in contrast to the military’s connections with Russia and China.
International bodies have also declared nominal opposition to the coup. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in March adopted a resolution condemning the coup with a perspective of resolving the crisis through mediation. The NUG released a statement rejecting this, saying that they refused to negotiate with the junta and would do so only if the majority of people in the country wanted them to – thereby leaving themselves a future loophole.
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on June 18 calling for a reversal of the coup in order to bring an end to the fighting. The U.N. resolution also banned all arm shipments into Myanmar. This is a falsely even-handed measure, since the ban would apply not just to the junta but also to the rebels fighting it, who are in much greater need for arms from abroad than the well-armed military. In any case, such a resolution was toothless, since the Security Council is the only U.N. body empowered to take coercive action – and Russia and China would veto any such measure.
Even the fossil-fuel corporations Chevron and Total, which both have deep financial investments in the lucrative natural gas fields in Myanmar, felt obliged to publicize support for the cause of democracy and to announce cessation of dividend payments to the junta. But these are only part of the funds that these corporation pay to the junta.
There is an understandable impulse among activists to call on the major imperialist powers, the U.S. in particular, to intervene on the side of the rebels and to ignore the UN ban against sending arms. We hold that the rebels have the right to accept arms and funds from any source. But we warn that imperialist powers do not support rebellions out of belief in democracy; they give aid in order to gain influence among the politicians they approve of in the hopes of continuing to exploit the country. What they want above all is a negotiated settlement that would leave the current state of affairs essentially unchanged, hoping that the murderous junta will reform gradually over time. We note that the NUG to our knowledge has not called for outside powers to intervene.
The current sanctions (along with other kinds of outside pressure and military advances by the rebels) may in time induce the junta to seek negotiations, but sanctions are not likely to bring about the junta’s financial collapse. The natural gas fields remain the junta’s main source of revenue. According to Justice for Myanmar, a group that for several years has been monitoring how corporations exploit Myanmar’s resources, the dividends represent “only a minor portion of the revenue that the junta is receiving“ from operations by these corporations in the gas fields. The junta also received a “share of gas revenues, royalties and corporate income taxes.” As Justice for Myanmar puts it:
“Huge sums of revenue from Myanmar’s natural resources – which belong to its people, not to its corrupt and brutal generals – are pouring into the black hole of the military’s finances. Total is aware of these facts but continues to operate the Yadana project and pipeline at great profit to itself and its foreign partners, with the complicity of the Myanmar military. Justice For Myanmar demands that Total immediately suspend all payments to the illegal military junta and place funds in a protected account until democracy is restored.”
More than ever, solidarity from outside is needed to turn the tide in favor of the revolutionary forces. Think of the enormous effect on the situation in Southeast Asia if workers in neighboring countries were to rise in rebellions. Workers in the garment industry in Myanmar, who have been central in this revolt, have sisters and brothers in the vast garment industries in Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia and of course China. Due to the mobile character of capital flows in the garment industry, many of the contracts that were being handled in Myanmar have already been transferred to neighboring countries. Garment workers’ strikes or other demonstrations of solidarity in even one of these countries would have enormous effects.
Could labor actions in southeast Asia be stimulated by solidarity actions in the advanced capitalist countries like the United States? The international labor movement has been so stultified in the past decades through sellout union bureaucracies that the concept is difficult even to imagine. It would be a surprise indeed if any major U.S. union would take a strong stand with Myanmar’s workers, but the shock wave of such action would itself have an incalculable impact on workers in southeast Asia.
The established labor unions, however, are not the only site where workers and youth are in struggle. The best example can be seen in the significant numbers of activists associated with the revolt against police brutality and racial injustice, especially the groups associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. We have to hope that the entire spectrum of organizations that struggle for social progress show a wave of support for the Myanmar revolution. Even though there is not yet a large expression of support, those who understanding the importance of the Myanmar movement must begin now to put demands for action on the leaders.