Workers have power to block Myanmar coup

The people of Myanmar have been on the streets for six weeks, defying the military. Mark Goudkamp looks at the history of struggle in Myanmar and how workers can lead the fight against the coup.

The military coup of 1 February in Myanmar has sparked a massive uprising and a civil disobedience movement led by workers and students. There have been protests featuring punks, democratically minded monks, the LGBTI community and all the national minorities, including the Rohingya, as well as the Karen, Shan, Chin and Kachin. Even small groups of police and soldiers have defected to the movement.

Some of the national minorities had been badly treated by the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But most understand that the Tatmadaw (military) is the enemy of all the people of Myanmar, both the Bamar majority and of the ethnic minorities.

The uprising’s dynamics have the potential to go beyond just restoring Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to power.

But the repression is intensifying and the death toll has been soaring since late February. As of 12 March, 78 people had been killed at protests up and down the country, with over half of those murdered under 25. Mass arrests are occurring, often in the dead of night.

Meanwhile, Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners says that more than 2000 people have been unlawfully detained, a number that is rising rapidly. They include NLD MPs, striking workers, university and high school students, monks who led the 2007 Saffron Revolution, veteran leaders of the 1988 uprising, as well as celebrities.

Soon after the coup, the junta released some 23,000 apolitical criminals, some of whom have attacked protesters and burnt homes. Ultra-nationalist monks have assaulted protesters and small marches of a few hundred pro-military protesters have attacked by-standers and journalists. The military government is regularly shutting down the internet and also plans a “cybersecurity law” that would mean three-year prison sentences for speaking out online against the regime.

On 19 February, 20-year-old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing became the first casualty after being shot in the head 10 days earlier as police dispersed a crowd in the capital, Naypyidaw. While her death was being mourned the following day, troops fired live ammunition on protesters expressing solidarity with striking shipyard workers at Mandalay’s Yadanabon dock. Two were killed and 30 were seriously injured.

Doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers were also shot at and their demands to treat the injured were ignored. The murderers were part of the Tatmadaw’s 33rd Light Infantry Division, which helped lead the campaign of mass killings, rape and arson that forced 730,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh in 2017. When one of the injured subsequently died, the regime said he’d died of COVID, but cremated him before his family could view his corpse.

But far from intimidating the mass movement, the repression and deaths have further galvanised it. Mandalay had an enormous rally, with one young protester saying, “They aimed at the heads of unarmed civilians. They aimed at our future.”

And on Monday 22 February, a mass general strike saw millions turn out to protest, with businesses shut down across the country and a sea of people in every city and town. This was despite a chilling threat broadcast on state-run media, which said, “Protesters are now inciting the people, especially emotional teenagers and youths, to a path of confrontation where they will suffer loss of life.”

The general strike was labelled “22222” or the “five twos” revolution in reference to the date 22/2/2021. The name was also meant to evoke the 8888 uprising, a popular revolt against the military regime of the time that began on 8 August 1988 and was later crushed.

Why now?

Aung San Suu Kyi faces trumped-up charges of violating a COVID safety law and another for importing six walkie-talkie radios. Her whereabouts are unknown. However, until last November’s election, a landslide to Suu Kyi’s NLD, the military had been happy to share power with her.

The 2008 constitution drawn up as a compromise after the 2007 Saffron Revolution was deeply undemocratic. It guarantees the military 25 per cent of all seats in both houses of national parliament and a third of seats in regional parliaments, as well as three ministries (Home Affairs, Border Affairs, and Defence). And, as we saw on 1 February, the power to call a state of emergency.

Constitutional reform requires 75 per cent support in the parliament. Residents without citizenship documents are barred from voting in elections, which excludes the Rohingya and also a substantial part of the Indian and Chinese communities.

In the 2010 elections, which were boycotted by the NLD after many of its leaders were banned as candidates, the military’s electoral arm, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), topped the poll.

But the NLD overwhelmingly won in 2015, bringing in the first non-military government since 1961. However, it did very little to challenge the military’s power or to tackle corruption. It pandered to right-wing Buddhist nationalists like the 969 movement, actively discouraging Burmese Muslims from running as NLD candidates. It broke promises to national minorities to move towards self-determination. As recently as late 2019, Suu Kyi was vigorously defending the military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

In last November’s elections, the pro-military USDP was utterly humiliated, winning just 3 per cent of the vote while the NLD’s 61 per cent meant it won 396 out of 476 seats in parliament, increasing its margin of victory. Simultaneously with Trump in the US, the military claimed significant voter fraud without any evidence.

While voter fraud was the military’s justification for the coup and the mass arrest of NLD MPs, General Min Aung Hlaing and other military leaders fear that the large parts of the economy they control might be threatened if democratisation got out of hand. Like in China, the military bureaucracy has adopted a two-pronged policy, privatising sections of the economy while holding on to key industries via control of the state sector.

Many of the more lucrative enterprises were placed under the control of two military-controlled business conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited. As commander-in-chief, Hlaing has authority over these conglomerates, on top of the businesses that are directly controlled by his family.

Even before the coup, Hlaing had international sanctions placed on him due to his genocidal policies towards the Rohingya. He is required by law to step down as head of the military when he turns 65 in July and fears that his massive wealth could be threatened under international law once out of power.

Hlaing says the military will hold elections in a year and hand over power to the victor. But the people aren’t having any of it and have responded with incredible tenacity and creativity.

The civil disobedience movement

After a quiet few days where protests were limited to the banging of pots in the evening, the scale of the revolt reached proportions not seen since the wave of protests and strikes in 1988. There have been daily mass protests defying the military. They quickly adopted the three-finger salute from the recent Thai uprising.

On 6 February, a huge number of buses poured in from the industrial suburbs of Yangon and the first mass protest was led by textile workers, who until COVID hit had led a significant strike wave. Their bravery galvanised others who’d been hesitant about protesting due to the military’s record of shooting protesters.

The approximately 5000 workers in Hlaing Tharyar, an industrial zone in Yangon, were early to join the strike. One, a union organiser, told Al Jazeera, “I can’t say how long we’ll be on strike, but it will be until the abolition of the dictatorship.”

The civil disobedience movement has adopted the slogan of “no recognition, no participation”. As protesters brave beatings, arrests, water cannon, live ammunition and vigilante attacks, activists hope an approach that shuts down the system can sustain pressure even if demonstrations are heavily repressed.

Trains have ground to a halt, hospitals have closed and state ministries in Naypyidaw, the new capital especially designed to make social unrest difficult, have experienced mass walkouts. Pilots have refused to turn up to work, massively disrupting domestic flights.

Many thousands, including nurses, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, farmers, railway staff, public servants, factory workers and even some police officers, have gone on strike or defected in a bid to cripple the military government. Staff from the Myanmar Economic Bank, which disburses government salaries, also joined the strike.

The strikes have also disrupted elements of the military’s vast business empire. A copper mine in the northern Sagaing region, jointly owned by the military and a Chinese company, was forced to cease operations when more than 2000 workers walked out. And hundreds of engineers and other staff working for Mytel, a telecoms operator part-owned by the military, have stopped work.

National football players say they’ll refuse to represent the country under military rule. Myanmar’s UN Ambassador made a defiant speech calling for the coup to be defeated and ambassadors in a range of countries are refusing to recognise the coup. The Myanmar ambassador in the US is claiming asylum.

The demonstrators are not only demanding the restoration of the elected government and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and others. They are calling for the scrapping of a 2008 constitution which gave the military a central role in politics.

There are calls for the boycott of military-owned companies, which are central to the food and beverage, tobacco, entertainment and banking industries. Pressure is being applied to global corporations with joint ventures in Myanmar to divest—successful in the case of the Japanese brewing giant, Kirin.

Woodside Energy, Australia’s highest-profile business operating in Myanmar, was forced to announce it would “demobilise” its operations by a campaign led by APHEDA (part of the ACTU) and Amnesty International. But other Australian companies like Myanmar Metals, Transcontinental Group, ROC and Tap Oil (as well as global energy giants Chevron and Total) continue to operate.

A group of more than 130 human rights and civil society groups from 31 countries have released an open letter calling on the United Nations Security Council to impose a global arms embargo on Myanmar.

The global response

What has been the West’s response? It’s mostly been words. However, first New Zealand, then the US, the UK and Canada have announced sanctions on military leaders, including banning travel and freezing assets. Australia has refused to even do this and only belatedly suspended its training of the Tatmadaw.

The West has pleaded with the military to show “utmost restraint” and G7 Foreign ministers have called for an end to the state of emergency and the release of Suu Kyi. But there have been no calls for the military to exit the political stage. It’s clear that the Myanmar people cannot rely on Western governments to win their freedom.

Meanwhile, China initially described the coup as a “major cabinet reshuffle”. The Chinese embassy has been a protest target due to Beijing’s close economic and military ties with the generals. China is by far Myanmar’s biggest trading partner. It wants stability and has denied being behind the coup.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi now says that, “The continuing turbulence in Myanmar is neither in the interests of Myanmar and its people, nor in the common interests of other regional countries.” Just a year ago Chinese President Xi Jin Ping was in Myanmar signing deals on road and rail projects that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The regional group, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), has a policy of “non-interference” in the affairs of its member states and says that the coup is an internal matter for Myanmar.

Malaysia deported 1086 Myanmar nationals, including refugees, despite a court order to temporarily halt their repatriation. Indonesia, whose own dictator Suharto was overthrown 23 years ago, is pushing a plan that merely asks the military uphold its promise to hold new elections within a year. When the Indonesian Foreign Minister and Myanmar’s military-appointed “Foreign Minister” flew to the Thai capital of Bangkok for three-way crisis talks, protesters denounced this sordid diplomacy, and converged on the Indonesian and Thai embassies demanding that ASEAN instead recognise last November’s elections.

Clearly, there still is a lot of support among Burmese nationals for Su Kyi. But many of her supporters can see that they can’t just return to the pre-coup situation. National minorities have thrown themselves into opposing the coup, including the Rohingya who don’t even have citizenship rights.

There have been moving photos of Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps holding pro-democracy placards. And there are also photos of Burmese protesters apologising for not having stood up for the Rohingya. Any democracy movement worthy of its name needs to fight for citizenship for all.

Learning from defeats

There are lessons that can be drawn from two previous anti-military protest movements: 1988 and 2007.

When Burma won independence from Britain in 1948, the nationalists failed to develop the country and in 1962 army officer Ne Win led a coup that brought in the so-called Burmese Road to Socialism. Roughly modelled on Maoist China, it led to economic isolation and military rule.

From being the world’s largest rice exporter, the country soon struggled to feed its population and became one of the poorest in Asia despite being rich in natural resources. Per capita income fell from $670 in 1960 to $200 in 1989.

In 1987 the regime announced that large banknotes were no longer valid currency. This wiped out ordinary people’s savings, including those of prospective students who’d saved for their tuition fees. From early 1988, Ne Win’s rule was challenged by large university student protests. A massive general strike started on 8/8/88 and spread across the country. Ne Win had already been forced to resign on 23 July and his successor did the same on 12 August.

Another huge day of protest occurred on 22 August and Aung San Suu Kyi rose to prominence four days later, addressing half a million people. She and other leaders hoped that a People’s Power movement could remove the dictatorship in a similar way that the dictator President Marcos had been overthrown in the Philippines two years earlier.

Suu Kyi urged the crowd “not to lose their affection for the army” and insisted that demands for democracy could only be achieved by “peaceful means”. She also worked to call off the strikes on the promise of elections (which were annulled soon after the NLD won them in 1990).

Although daily protests continued the military sensed weakness. On 18 September General Saw Muang repealed the 1974 constitution and established the even more draconian State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Martial law was imposed and protests were violently broken up. The military rampaged through the major cities, shooting indiscriminately.

Within the first week of securing power, 1000 students, monks, and school children were killed. Protestors were chased into the jungle and some students took up guerrilla training on the Thai border. The death toll soon passed 3000.

Some of these leaders were still active when the Saffron Revolution erupted in 2007. Anger about soaring food prices intensified when the military removed fuel subsidies on 15 August. Gas prices rose five-fold and petrol doubled. Some 400 pro-democracy activists including 8888 leader Min Ko Naing protested on 19 August and half were arrested.

Students and monks stepped in and the wave of street protests escalated between August and October. On 24 September, 100,000 came out in Yangon, the biggest protest since 1988. However, the military was able to repress the movement, which didn’t have the orientation towards strikes that we are seeing today.

Workers will be crucial

One difference today compared with 2007 is that many people in the formerly isolated country own smartphones and are online, allowing calls for civil disobedience to spread rapidly after of the coup, even amid night-time internet shutdowns. The violent acts of military and police officers are being filmed and uploaded onto social media.

Another even more important difference is that, thanks to a ban on unions being lifted in 2011, Myanmar has a young but tenacious workers’ movement. Kevin Lin recently interviewed Ma Moe Sandar Myint, a Federation of Garment Workers organiser. In 2019 she played a key role in a wave of walkouts in the country’s now-massive garment sector—now Myanmar’s main export industry which employs around six hundred thousand workers, who are also among the lowest paid in South East Asia on around $3 a day when $5 is needed to meet basic necessities.

When asked about the role of women leading these strikes, she said:

Against all odds, women leaders get outside of their customs, and traditions, and fight. In the federations especially, most of the leaders are young women who give their time and energy to fight for workers, and they sacrifice a lot. They are even willing to divorce their spouses. And when they go on strike, those woman leaders are not afraid of being dismissed. They overcome their fear and they commit their mind.

The strike wave led to a huge growth in union membership and subsided only with the onset of COVID-19. But it has now returned with a vengeance.

What will it take to win?

The civil disobedience movement’s emphasis on disrupting the system via strike action and the formation of a General Strike Committee (GSC) shows the strategic centrality of the working class. It’s not an argument being made on the margins by small groups of revolutionaries. The general strikes show it’s common sense for millions of people. This represents a massive step forward in the thinking of the masses and shows that they have drawn important conclusions from past experiences.

The movement’s best hope of survival is solidarity and to keep up the momentum, with more mass general strikes like the one on 22/2. One union organiser told Al Jazeera, “For this revolution to be successful, everyone needs to participate. Workers, students, even soldiers and the police. Everyone.”

The regime realises that the workers’ movement is a major threat and, on 26 February, they used national TV to declare most unions illegal. In response to this threat, the state-run media needs to be taken over by the workers. There is also an urgent need to establish self-defence groups in workplaces and neighbourhoods.

For the mass movement to succeed, it will need to go beyond restoring last November’s election. The military may well come under pressure to negotiate with the NLD for a solution and, given Suu Kyi’s history of collaboration with the military, she is likely to take the bait rather than to deepen the revolution.

The workers leading the struggle need to push for genuinely socialist solutions. Their economic and political demands for wages and conditions, more jobs, better and universal education and healthcare for all will inevitably come into conflict with the NLD’s vision for a liberal capitalist democracy.

There is also a need to challenge the NLD’s tendency towards Burmese chauvinism. An independent mass workers’ party would support the right of self-determination of all the people of Myanmar.

Despite Myanmar’s economic transformation in recent years, the country is still relatively underdeveloped. Workers and students need to make common cause with their counterparts in neighbouring countries.

In recent months, we’ve seen the mass movement for democracy in Thailand to the east and the mass farmers’ movement in India to the west. If Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement succeeds in toppling the Tatmadaw, it will further embolden these movements and inspire workers across the region, especially in those countries where the military still plays a significant role in politics.


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