Myanmar’s political situation continues to rapidly evolve. On 16 April, the committee representing its dismissed parliament announced the formation of a national unity government including MPs from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), protest leaders and politicians from national minorities.
The government is seeking international recognition. But the Association of South-East Asian Nations, with its policy of “non-interference” into member states, instead invited coup leader General Min Aung Hlaing to its 24 April meeting in Jakarta.
The former parliament has adopted the protest movement’s demand to scrap the undemocratic 2008 constitution. Protesters celebrated by publicly burning this document, which had guaranteed the military (Tatmadaw) 25 per cent of seats in parliament.
Despite the military’s overwhelming election loss in 2015, the NLD was unwilling to challenge the Tatmadaw’s power, corruption or oppression of minorities. In November 2019, Suu Kyi even defended the military’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in the International Court of Justice. But last November’s even more humiliating defeat prompted the generals to launch the 1 February coup.
Given the scale of the revolt, Hlaing might regret shattering an arrangement that allowed him to profit via two enormous military-controlled business conglomerates (Myanmar Economic Corporation and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited).
Three months on, inter-ethnic solidarity is propelling Myanmar towards a federal democracy in a way unimaginable before the coup. National minorities had felt betrayed by Suu Kyi and the NLD’s tendencies towards Bamar chauvinism. Now they have pledged to fight the coup. Thousands of protesters (and some defecting soldiers) from the Bamar majority have sought refuge in ethnic rebel-held territory.
Meanwhile, Myanmar’s civil disobedience movement is showing incredible defiance in the face of repression. As Solidarity went to press, almost 750 people had been killed by the junta. More than 3200 had been detained.
The Tatmadaw’s crackdown has been especially severe in working class hubs of strike and protest activity. Yangon’s townships of Hlaing Thayar, Shwepyitha, South Dagon and North Okkalapa are all under martial law. Following the 14 March massacre of 60 workers and students in Hlaing Tharyar in West Yangong, home to around 300 garment factories, some 100,000 migrant workers fled to their rural communities of origin.
Armed Forces Day on 27 March saw 114 people slain across the country, while representatives of Russia, China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan and Bangladesh watched an elaborate military parade in the capital, Naypyitaw.
That evening, in response to the Karen National Liberation Army seizing a military outpost, the junta used Russia-supplied planes to bomb Karen villages. Thousands fled to the Thai border, only to be pushed back by Thai authorities. The Tatmadaw subsequently conducted air strikes against Kachin-controlled areas bordering China.
The military is targeting protest and strike leaders. On 15 April, Wai Moe Naing, a leader at the Monywa strike committee, was run down while on a motorbike protest convoy and detained without health treatment. Daw Myo Aye, director of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar, was arrested in her office while Moe Sandar Myint of the garment workers’ union has a warrant out against her.
Nonetheless, civil disobedience continues under the slogan of “no recognition, no participation”. Strikes by railways workers, bank workers, teachers and public servants continue to cripple the economy.
Western nations (but not Australia) have imposed sanctions against Myanmar’s military heads, their families and army-linked businesses. On the other hand, Russia and China have been widely condemned by protesters as having supported the coup (China, which prospered under Suu Kyi’s government, has denied this).
The left should unconditionally back the strikes and protests, support calls for an arms embargo and expose companies continuing to operate in Myanmar. APHEDA (the ACTU’s international wing) and Amnesty International pressured Woodside Petroleum to cease operations. The South Korean union movement recently forced a similar commitment from steel-making giant POSCO.
Some critics in the West portray the resistance as beholden to Western funding and dominated by calls for Western intervention. Such demands have emerged, but they are marginal. Many movement leaders don’t trust Western governments, remembering how they prematurely lifted sanctions during “democratisation” last decade so corporations could profit from Myanmar’s natural resources.
Genuine socialists stand with the self-activity of Myanmar’s workers, students and minority activists, whose bravery has encouraged defections, even among some journalists from state-run media.
According to a Tatmadaw officer who recently defected, three-quarters of the country’s 400,000 soldiers oppose the crackdown. Convincing them to break ranks is no easy task but it will be crucial if the revolution is to win.
By Mark Goudkamp