Which way forward for the revolution in Myanmar?
More than 100 days after the start of the military coup, the revolutionary movement in Myanmar continues its heroic resistance in the face of an escalating crisis and shocking repression. April estimates put the death toll at over 700 killed by Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, and more than 3,000 detained, but the actual numbers are likely much higher. Nearly a quarter of a million people have fled the country, many crossing the border into neighbouring Thailand, India, and China. This in itself is a recipe for humanitarian disaster, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic raging through India, with a worrying surge in cases now emerging in Southeast Asia.
The coup has also had staggering effects on Myanmar’s economy, previously considered one of the fastest growing in the region. The World Bank is now projecting a 10% contraction of the economy this year while others put the figure as high as 20%. Shortages of essentials including food, fuel, and medicine are widespread and Myanmar trade unions estimate that more than 600,000 workers have lost their jobs since the coup. The UN estimates that the impact of the coup and the pandemic could push nearly half of Myanmar’s population into poverty by 2022.
Initial illusions that imperialist countries will step in have declined as the world’s major ‘superpowers’ either passively sit by or actively aid the junta. While China, Russia, India, and Israel sell arms to the military, Western powers like the US, EU, and UK have mustered only limited sanctions. Measures taken by ‘deeply concerned’ corporations have been exposed as the hollow, face-saving manoeuvres they really are, with companies like H&M recently resuming production in Myanmar in spite of the continued onslaught against protesters. The UN, looked to by many as a way out of the crisis, has failed to pass even a non-binding weapons embargo, and the recent ASEAN summit was seen as a major disappointment as the bloc resolved to pursue talks with junta leader General Min Aung Hlaing.
Attempts at ‘diplomacy’ with the junta are a slap in the face to the workers and young people of Myanmar as the Tatmadaw intensifies its reign of terror, detaining journalists, using civilians as human shields, and killing at least 43 children. Sexual violence by the military is horrifically common. Repression against workers, who have led the way throughout the revolution, has increased as well. More than 11,000 college and university staff were suspended for their participation in strikes against the coup. Hundreds of students have also been arrested and detained over the past months, many held in undisclosed locations facing brutal violence and torture by the regime.
But in the face of the escalating violence by the military, the resolve of protesters has not been crushed. Protests, strikes, and demonstrations continue throughout the country. As in many other movements around the world, working class women have fought audaciously, playing a leading role both in the workplace and the streets. Last month, the formation of the National Unity Government (NUG), a parallel government to the junta, was announced. The main force within the NUG is the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but it also significantly includes representatives of ethnic minority organizations. The NUG has also launched an armed wing, the People’s Defence Force (PDF), which includes many of Myanmar’s ethnic armies. Mass pressure from below is what has forced the NLD to go this far and it’s the bold and courageous mass movement, with the working class at its forefront, that is capable of carrying the revolution to victory.
Escalate the Struggle: For a General Strike Against the Tatmadaw and the Multinationals
Many young people, disgusted by the bloodshed and tired of waiting on the NUG to go beyond well-crafted statements, are looking to guerilla struggle as a way forward. At this stage self-defence is a necessity, however, there are also dangers inherent in the situation. Without a political force capable of democratically organizing self-defence in the interests of workers and the oppressed, there is a risk the situation will degenerate into civil war between opposing armies.
To be truly effective, self-defence must be controlled democratically by workers, youth and the poor, not coordinated behind closed doors by NLD politicians or the leaders of the ethinic armies. But even this would not be enough in itself – self-defence is not purely an issue of military strategy – it is a political question that must be tied to a broader program to take the revolution forward. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD, who were engaged in a power-sharing agreement with the Tatmadaw under the 2008 constitution and actively defended the genocide of the Rohingya people, have already proven that their concessionary politics are a dead-end.
The movement needs to go on the offensive, to escalate struggle through an indefinite, nationwide general strike. In Myanmar a general strike is not only a strike against the domestic and global capitalists that prop up the military, but also a direct blow to the Tatmadaw which owns a significant portion of Myanmar’s economy. A new general strike could lay the basis for a revolutionary assembly, made up of representatives from the trade unions and workplaces, ethinic minority organizations, and the youth in the movement, to democratically coordinate the strike, self-defense, and the development of a new constitution.
It’s only on this basis, rooted in the power of the working class who launched the movement, that the revolution can be successful. There can be no return to the compromises of the past. Democratic rights will not and never have been benevolently handed down by any ruling power, foreign government, or international institution, and working people have nothing to gain from struggles between imperialist powers who are in reality only jockeying for position to assert their own economic interests. To truly free workers and the oppressed from the brutal exploitation and oppression by both the military and the imperialist powers, the revolution needs to dismantle the Tatmadaw, take the key sectors of the economy under the democratic control of workers and the poor, and recognize the right to self-determination for all ethnic minorities.
Revolutionary Workers’ Solidarity with the Spring Revolution
The revolutionary movement in Myanmar provides important lessons for mass struggle around the world, revealing first and foremost the heroic determination of the masses of workers and the oppressed, but also the contradictions and challenges of the current political period. The triumphs and defeats of the movement are not isolated; as workers and young people from Chad to Palestine to Colombia stare down police and the military they are in reality facing the same opponent – the inherently violent and exploitative capitalist system.
International Socialist Alternative has launched a campaign, Revolutionary Workers’ Solidarity with the Spring Revolution, to build solidarity with the movement and make connections with activists on the ground in Myanmar. This has included solidarity photos and messages from working people around the world, including socialist feminists supporting the struggle against sexual violence and healthcare workers who have been on the cutting edge of struggle globally. Socialists, trade union and feminist activists, as well as any worker or young person who supports the revolution are encouraged to send photos or messages of solidarity.
In contrast to weak statements made by capitalist governments, international solidarity from workers and young people is immensely powerful and vitally necessary to take any struggle forward. For this reason Socialist Alternative England, Wales, and Scotland organizes on an international basis as part of International Socialist Alternative. Through our shared political analysis and method, we fight against a common enemy and for a common goal – a socialist world free from violence, oppression, and exploitation, organized on the basis of human need not profit.