The struggle against the 1 February military coup in Myanmar is entering a crucial stage. The Tatmadaw (or military) is stepping up repression to drive back the widespread and courageous opposition to their takeover. As Solidarity went to press, the death toll was well over 200, with more than 2200 people arrested.
A wave of strikes has seen tens of thousands take to the streets in Yangon, Mandalay and many smaller cities and towns across Myanmar. Several unions, including the railway workers’ and garment workers, issued a joint call for a nationwide stoppage as part of a drive for, “the full, extended shutdown of the Myanmar economy”.
The Tatmadaw are worried that they cannot maintain control and have imposed martial law on a number of working class suburbs, including Hlaing Thayar in western Yangon.
Thomas Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur, noted: “There is video of soldiers and police systematically moving through neighbourhoods, destroying property, looting shops, arbitrarily arresting protesters and passers-by, and firing indiscriminately into people’s homes.”
Until last November’s election, a massive landslide to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), the military had happily shared power with her. The deeply undemocratic 2008 constitution guarantees the military 25 per cent of all seats in both houses of the national parliament, as well as the power to call a state of emergency.
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 gets out of hand.
Many of the more lucrative enterprises are 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.
He also knows the workers’ movement threatens both the military’s control and its profits. On 26 February the regime declared most unions illegal, a decision that so far remains a dead letter despite the repression.
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.
The strikes are also disrupting 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, ceased 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.
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 the 2008 constitution, with growing demands for the rights of Myanmar’s numerous national minorities.
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. Global fashion brands like H&M and Zara are being targeted by the militant Federation of Garment Workers, which represents many of the industry’s 700,000 workers.
Woodside Energy, Australia’s highest-profile business operating in Myanmar, was forced to announce it would “demobilise” its operations. But other Australian companies like Myanmar Metals, Transcontinental Group, ROC and Tap Oil continue to operate.
The civil disobedience movement’s emphasis on disrupting the system via strike action shows the strategic centrality of the working class.
Now workers need to step up the organising. They need to take over the state-run media and 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 can’t be relied on not to take the bait.
The workers leading the struggle need to push beyond the political boundaries laid down by both the military and Suu Kyi and fight for better wages and conditions, more jobs, better and universal education, healthcare for all and the right of self-determination of all the people of Myanmar.
By Mark Goudkamp