The revolution in Myanmar, after months of heroic struggles by the masses, has ebbed. The regime has clamped down brutally, while the protest movement has shifted from mass strikes and demonstrations to small-scale armed skirmishes. The question has to be posed, why have we reached such a situation, and what lessons need to be learned?
After the Myanmar military launched the coup on 1 February, it faced the wrath of the Myanmar workers and youth. The masses took to the streets in huge numbers and organised strikes and general strikes in a courageous attempt to stop the military under general Min Aung Hliang from re-establishing absolutist rule. The masses did everything they possibly could to stop military dictatorship, but unfortunately so far they have failed.
The junta, realising that it had no social base, no mass support, could only rely on brute force. It understood that to make even the slightest concession would be seen as a sign of weakness on its part and would only have served to encourage and embolden the mass movement even further. That is why it decided to drown the revolution in blood. Hundreds have been killed, while some 6,421 people have been detained or sent to prison so far.
The brutality of the military officer caste knows no bounds. There are many reports of unarmed peaceful protesters being shot by soldiers in cold blood. In some cases fighter jets were even deployed to bomb entire villages of civilians.
Soldiers flooded hospitals in search of injured protesters, to the point that doctors and carers found it impossible to work. This led to an exodus of medical workers and is bringing the healthcare system of the country to the brink of collapse. The military regime also commanded Doctors Without Borders to cease its aid work, further putting thousands of lives dependent on the aid at risk.
Civilian homes are regularly stormed by soldiers seeking out protesters. If the regime cannot find their targets, the latter’s family members, even small babies, are detained as hostages. There have been cases of mothers of youth activists being arrested and imprisoned. This is a cynical approach of the military to put pressure on anyone who dares to continue participating in the protest movement.
The brutality of the military regime in reality betrays weakness and not strength. If the regime had a mass social base to rest on, it would be more stable and would have a mass network of supporters in every corner of society that it could use as a battering ram against the working class and youth. Mussolini and Hitler rose to power on the back of the frenzied petit-bourgeois layers who had been ruined by the crisis of capitalism in the 1920s and 1930s. What we have in Myanmar is direct rule by the military, precisely because they have no social mass base.
The military Bonapartist regime is corrupt from top to bottom, and rules without any significant support in society, except maybe from a very thin layer of more-privileged elements. This explains why it has to inflict such levels of frenzied violence to beat back the masses. It is deeply fearful of the masses exacting revenge upon it for its criminal behaviour and corrupt rule.
General Min Aung Hliang in particular planned to become president after retiring as commander-in-chief, hoping that the public office could shield him from being prosecuted for his years of crimes. The massive victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2020 election, however, thwarted his ambitions.
The junta’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), even with its guaranteed 25 percent of the seats in the parliament, did not have sufficient MPs to appoint Min Aung Hliang to the presidency as they wished under the previous constitution. The 2020 election showed how little support the military officers actually have in Myanmar society.
The working class, with a determined leadership, could have toppled the junta through an armed workers’ insurrection. Unfortunately, no such leadership is present in the situation. This in fact is the key factor that explains the present impasse the masses in Myanmar are facing.
Lack of revolutionary leadership
When we refer to ‘revolutionary leadership’, what do we mean? There is much debate among the most revolutionary layers of the youth and the working-class activists about what led to the present impasse. Much emphasis is placed on the fact that the masses were not armed, and the debate is posed in terms of non-violence versus the armed struggle.
To limit the discussion to these two options is to reduce the question merely to a military one. But there is more to it. It is self-evident to any thinking revolutionary worker or youth in Myanmar that, faced with such a brutal regime, the masses needed their own armed self-defence groups. It would be criminal to envisage a perspective that did not include this essential element.
However, a genuine revolutionary leadership could not limit itself to this question alone. Firstly, the success or failure of a revolution depends on the programme it is fighting for. Is the Myanmar revolution struggling for a return to bourgeois democracy and the reinstatement of the NLD with ASSK at its head, or should it go beyond that?
In order to involve and mobilise the masses, the revolution must boldly state its aims. These cannot be simply a return to status quo ante, for that was one where workers were working long hours, under constant pressure to produce more, and on low wages, with the constant threat of facing unemployment. At the same time, in the rural areas, the peasants were facing the ever-present threat that their land would be grabbed by this or that major capitalist corporation. And the ethnic minorities were being pummelled by the military.
If the revolution does not offer a solution to all this, it will fail to mobilise the working masses, no matter how courageous the protesters are, no matter how many appeals are made to participate in the armed struggle. In fact, it will leave the fighters isolated and at the mercy of the terrible military machine that now governs the country.
Therefore, the revolution must be armed with a clear programme. It must state unambiguously on its banner that the aim is to introduce genuine democracy, which can only be a workers’ democracy. In turn, a worker’s democracy can only be achieved if the workers have economic power. That means the central slogan must be for the nationalisation of the major corporations without compensation to the owners and those same corporations must be placed under workers’ democratic management and control.
On the land question, the revolution must state that it will oppose – if necessary with arms in hand – any attempt to grab the land of the peasants by capitalist corporations. And it must also state that it will end the oppression of the minorities and defend their right to self-determination in whatever form they feel is necessary.
This means that the revolution must state clearly that what is required is a socialist transformation of Myanmar, where the major corporations would be expropriated and the immense wealth and resources of the country would be used for the benefit of all the working people and not for the enrichment of a tiny privileged elite.
What must also be clarified are the methods of struggle. Had there been a revolutionary party of the working class at the head of the revolution, with cadres at all levels of society, in all the workplaces, education centres, government ministries, neighbourhoods and rural villages, it would have campaigned for an all-out general strike and an armed mass insurrection in both the cities and the countryside.
A genuine mass revolutionary party would not have limited itself to talking about an alternative army, but would have sought every means possible to actually procure arms and build up a mass workers’ militia that would have operated under the control of bodies elected by the workers in the workplaces and neighbourhoods. This would have been the way of involving the masses, not as passive observers, but as active participants.
Substituting small groups of armed fighters isolated from the masses does not bring the movement any closer to overthrowing this hated regime. It is very much akin to the Robin Hood syndrome, where a heroic band of fighters try to help the poor, where they do the fighting for the poor, but where the poor do not participate in their own salvation.
Here it is useful to recall the famous words of Karl Marx:
“That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, that the struggle for the emancipation of the working classes means not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule…” (General Rules, of the International Workingmen's Association, October 1864)
As we can see from all this, the debate cannot be solely about non-violence versus the armed struggle, but must go much further.
“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”
The heading above consists of words Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done? in 1902, and they are not of secondary importance in the present debate taking place among revolutionaries in Myanmar. In the book, Lenin further stated that, “This idea cannot be insisted upon too strongly at a time when the fashionable preaching of opportunism goes hand in hand with an infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity.”
Lenin was equally critical of both the opportunists and the ultra-lefts. Both these tendencies start out from the idea that something “practical” must be done. If we go back to the early days of Russiam Marxism we find the same debate as we have today. The Narodniks with their terrorist attacks accused the Marxists of mere “theorising”, of book learning, and they continued on their road until their methods were proven to be an utter failure.
At one point the early Russian Marxists were literally a handful – three in all – and isolated from the mass movement. It took time and experience for the best of the youth involved in the Narodniks to begin questioning the methods they had adopted. But eventually they did, and in so doing, they turned to the tendency that could provide them with a greater understanding of the processes unfolding, with a more scientific and long term perspective.
That is how the Marxists began to connect with the new generation of revolutionary youth inside Russia. History has shown who was correct and who was actually more “practical” in the long run: the “mere theoreticians”, the Marxists. Among these was to be found Lenin, who, starting with very small numbers, eventually built a mass revolutionary party of the working class and led the October 1917 revolution.
There are many on the left who claim the mantle of Lenin, even calling themselves “Marxist-Leninists”, but who refuse to learn the lessons of history. It is perfectly understandable that, faced with such a brutal military regime as the one we have in Myanmar, many youth wish to act now and do something to bring it down. That explains why some of them are looking to Maoist theories and quoting the famous “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”, attributed to Mao Zedong.
Others reject the very idea of a revolutionary party as necessary, claiming that one party cannot monopolise or lead the revolution. This is understandable and is a consequence of the domination of the mass movement by the CRPH/NUG, behind which stands the NLD. But rejecting the role of the bourgeois leaders, who are openly betraying the movement, does not mean that we have to reject the very concept of a party of the working people, of the workers and peasants.
What we have here is a resurgence of old ideas, a mix of anarchism and populism, of a rejection of theory and an emphasis on “practical” solutions. All this is combined with the idea that the immediate task is the restoration of democracy, which inevitably means bourgeois democracy.
This fits well with the Stalinist theory of stages, in which the first stage is the democratic revolution. This theory has led to defeats of revolutions many times in history. We have seen powerful revolutionary forces, with huge guerrilla armies, ending up compromising with the bourgeoisie. We saw this in Nicaragua (see our analysis here) and more recently in Nepal. In both countries, the workers could have taken power, but the leadership of the guerrillas refused to go down that road and sought a class compromise.
The adherents to these ideas should also ask themselves why is it that China today has a market economy, and why the Chinese regime that came to power through the “barrel of a gun” is not supporting the revolutionary movement in Myanmar today, but on the contrary is working with the present regime.
To return to the words of Lenin: “Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement”. Theory is not posed by Lenin as an alternative to revolutionary action. History proves that Lenin was not just a mere theoretician. But we need to study how theory was used by Lenin as a guide to action. Without this, we are lost.
ASSK and the NLD
Unfortunately, due to the lack of a revolutionary leadership, as outlined above, the Myanmar masses are a pride of lions being led by donkeys. The connivance of the bourgeois liberal leaders of the NLD is strangling the movement. Fundamentally, they share the same class position, and therefore the same attitude, as the military officer caste towards the working class. Both the army officers and the NLD liberals base their politics on the private property of the means of production, where a minority own the wealth and the overwhelming majority work for them, producing the wealth they own.
If one does not understand this, then no rational, scientific explanation can be provided for what we have seen taking place in the recent period. The military chiefs and the bourgeois liberals may come into conflict with each other; the military can arrest some of the bourgeois liberals; and in turn the bourgeois liberals can make a lot of noise about the brutality of the military, but both of them sit on top of the working people and live in privileged conditions at their expense.
The military chiefs were in effect sharing power with the NLD liberals, but have now put on trial Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK), erstwhile leader of the NLD and the nation, for corruption. The charges are likely trumped up, just like all the previous ridiculous allegations the regime levied against her. But the point here is not whether the allegations are true. The point is that, in one way or another, the generals are determined to put ASSK out of the picture at this stage.
This is not because of her own political convictions, as she has proven to be extremely cooperative with the military’s agenda in the past years, especially in covering up the genocide of the Rohingya. The reason why they are doing this is because, despite her limitations, she still has significant mass support.
Moreover, regardless of her past collaboration with the military, at the outbreak of the recent struggle, the Myanmar masses still viewed ASSK as a symbol of their cause. Her portraits have been ubiquitous in all of the large strike actions. Releasing her now or making even the slightest concessions to her would be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the military and could embolden the masses.
This means that, to even secure the release of ASSK, let alone genuine democratic reforms, would require nothing less than the total overthrow of the army. For this to be successful – as we have explained above – arms would have to be distributed to the widest possible layers of society, and workers and youth would have to be trained and organised into armed defence pickets, but the NLD leadership is unwilling to do so.
The reason for this is abundantly clear if we remember what we stated above. The bourgeois liberals are not going to do anything that endangers the continuity of the capitalist system in Myanmar. As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto:
“The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.”
The workers in Myanmar – the future grave-diggers of Myanmar capitalism – have become a powerful social force. Myanmar is still a relatively underdeveloped country, but the working class has been enormously strengthened in recent years. The composition of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is an indication of this, with agriculture now only representing around 25 percent, while industry represents over 35 percent, and services the remaining 40 percent.
The country’s labour force is now well over 22 million, with 7 percent and 23 percent employed in industry and services respectively. The fact that 70 percent of the workforce is in the agricultural sector is an indication of the relative underdevelopment, but nonetheless over 30 percent of the population now lives in the urban areas, with around 5.5 million living in Yangon and 1.5 million in Mandalay.
In recent years, thanks in large part to its connection to the Chinese economy, the country saw rates of annual economic growth of 6 percent to 8 percent (between 2014 and 2018). This strengthened the working class in terms of its social weight within society. It is also a very young and militant working class, and in the past decade or so has become accustomed to having trade unions, the right to organise and to protest, and the right to strike.
This is the class that could lead the working masses of Myanmar in a successful revolution to overthrow, not only the present hated military junta, but also the economic system they defend, capitalism. It is the emergence of this class that explains the powerful general strikes we have seen during the recent anti-junta protest movement. But the emergence of this class also explains the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the NLD leaders towards the idea of building a mass alternative army to fight the military regime. Once armed, the Myanmar workers would not be eager to hand power back to the bourgeois liberals.
People’s Defence Force or arming the masses
All this explains why the People’s Defence Force (PDF) that was formed on 5 May by the NLD-led parallel government (National Unity Government), which was supposed to be an integrated army of all existing anti-regime rebel groups, turned out to be a small militia made up of a few volunteers.
The PDF’s primary tactic at the moment centres on assassinations of army officers and small-scale clashes. Individual cases of soldiers or colonels being killed by bombs or “hit-and-run” attacks have been regularly reported. The most significant action thus far happened in Mandalay on 22 June, where the army attempted to storm a building where a squad of PDF fighters were sheltering.
The casualties from these actions tend to be in single digits, although this indeed sets the regime on its toes. However, the better-armed regional ethnic-based militias, such as in Northern Shan state or the Chin state are generally more capable of inflicting heavier losses on the army.
Concretely speaking, the PDF is just one of the many guerrilla militias that exist within the borders of Myanmar. The ethnic militias, with years of experience fighting the Myanmar military, only provide training to PDF volunteers, but no centrally coordinated mechanism between the militias and PDF exists.
Marxists recognise the immense courage of the activists that have joined the PDF in an effort to overthrow tyranny. At the same time, these fighters and their sympathisers must also understand that self-sacrificing passion alone does not win a revolution. A correct strategy is also required.
Guerrilla warfare in the rural areas can certainly play a role in fighting an oppressive military regime, but its role is ultimately auxiliary to that of the organised masses of the urban working class. The working-class masses themselves must be the driving force behind the fight against the regime. If the working class in the urban areas is kept in a passive position, with a de facto stabilisation of the situation for the military regime, then the army can work on isolating the fighting groups.
When there is a lack of coordinated and centralised structured mechanism among the various local PDFs, the military totally crushed these forces one area by one area. We have the example where a small group of armed fighters shot the military appointed village authority. The way the military responded can be seen in a facebook post, which describes how the army burned down the village and cold-bloodedly killed several people on 15 June in Kinmarwa, Pauk Township, in the Magway Region. Although many of the villagers managed to escape, several of the elderly were burnt to death by the fires started by the army.
To weaken the army’s ability to operate in such a manner means the armed fighters need to be part of a much wider mass revolutionary movement. The masses must be drawn into the fight by distributing arms and organising them where they are. During the 1905 Russian Revolution, Lenin referred to a successful example of how this was done in the Riga region to illustrate the strategy:
“See how successful the venture of the Riga revolutionaries was even from a purely military standpoint. The enemy losses are three killed and probably five to ten wounded. Our loss is only two men, who were probably wounded and thus taken prisoner by the enemy. Our trophies are two revolutionary leaders rescued from prison. This is indeed a brilliant victory!! It is a real victory, scored in a battle against an enemy armed to the teeth. It is no longer a plot against some detested individual, no act of vengeance or desperation, no mere ‘intimidation’—no, it was a well thought-out and prepared commencement of operations by a contingent of the revolutionary army, planned with due regard for the correlation of forces. The number of such contingents of 25 to 75 men each can be increased to several dozen in every big city, and frequently in the suburbs of a big city. Workers will join them in hundreds; it is only necessary to begin extensive propaganda of this idea immediately, form such contingents, supply them with all sorts of weapons, ranging from knives and revolvers to bombs, and give these contingents military training and education.” (Lenin, ‘From the Defensive to the Offensive’, our emphasis)
In a letter to the combat committee in Petrograd, Lenin further advised:
“Go to the youth. Form fighting squads at once everywhere, among the students, and especially among the workers, etc., etc. Let groups be at once organised of three, ten, thirty, etc., persons. Let them arm themselves at once as best they can, be it with a revolver, a knife, a rag soaked in kerosene for starting fires, etc. Let these detachments at once select leaders, and as far as possible contact the Combat Committee of the St. Petersburg Committee. Do not demand any formalities, and, for heaven’s sake, forget all these schemes, and send all ‘functions, rights, and privileges’ to the devil. Do not make membership in the R.S.D.L.P. an absolute condition—that would be an absurd demand for an armed uprising. Do not refuse to contact any group, even if it consists of only three persons; make it the one sole condition that it should be reliable as far as police spying is concerned and prepared to fight the tsar’s troops.” (Lenin, ‘To the Combat Committee of the St. Petersburg Committee’, emphases in original)
Even those who cannot participate in combat could be included in the operations. As Lenin advised:
“Further, preliminary activity includes the immediate work of reconnaissance and gathering information—obtaining plans of prisons, police stations, ministries, etc., ascertaining the routine in government offices, banks, etc., and learning how they are guarded, endeavouring to establish contacts which could be of use (with employees in police departments, banks, courts, prisons, post- and telegraph-offices, etc.), ascertaining the where abouts of arsenals, of all the gunsmiths’ shops in the city, etc. There is a great deal of this sort of work to be done, and—what is more—it is work in which even those who are quite incapable of engaging in street fighting, even the very weak, women, youngsters, old people, and so on, can be of immense service. Efforts should be made immediately to get into combat groups absolutely all those who want to take part in the uprising, for there is no such person, nor can there be one, who, provided he desires to work, cannot be of immense value, even if he is unarmed and is personally incapable of fighting.” (Lenin, ‘Tasks of the Revolutionary Army Contingents’, our emphasis)
Instead, what we have today in Myanmar is the PDF made up of small groups separate from the masses, even though the masses are sympathetic towards them. According to a New York Times’ report on the recent Mandalay firefight, it would appear that the PDF armed groups are not sufficiently connected with the masses:
“With sporadic gunfire resounding through Mandalay for much of Tuesday, the People’s Defense Force urged solidarity, pleading for residents to burn tires on the roads to slow the arrival of armored vehicles (…) The Mandalay P.D.F. needs the assistance of the people,’ said Bo Zee Kwat, a local resistance leader. ‘We need the people’s cooperation urgently.’”
The PDF fighters are very courageous and are doing what they can to fight this hated regime. But to achieve victory, the civilians should not be mere bystanders that one appeals to, but should be actively armed and trained. Through the setting up of neighbourhood and workplace self-defence committees, the armed actions should be under the control of the masses themselves This is achievable especially in Mandalay as a major hub of the mass struggle against the military junta.
Who is responsible for the fact that the PDF fighting groups are on such a small scale? Ultimately, this falls on the NLD. As bourgeois liberals, the prospect of arming the masses is more frightful to them than repression from the military. The NLD politicians defend the interests of the propertied classes, the capitalists, both domestic and imperialist, and the landowners.
They do not want to destroy the Myanmar military forces, for these are the “armed bodies of men” – to use a Marxist term – who defend private property of the means of production. To genuinely arm the people, and set up an alternative army, would mean placing real power in the hands of the working masses. The NLD politicians do not trust the masses to simply re-establish bourgeois democracy, but fear that once they get a taste of their own power, they would use this to go much further and endanger the very basis upon which capitalism rests in Myanmar.
It is also understandable that the regional ethnic armed organisations, despite providing shelter and training to anti-government activists, do not trust the NLD enough to join the PDF. They are not prepared to subordinate themselves to these bourgeois liberals who not so long ago worked in concert with the junta to crush the regional forces. It would be a different scenario if the urban and rural masses were led by a party of their own, that had nothing to do with the NLD.
The NLD leaders are not prepared to go all the way in establishing an armed people, but would rather seek some kind of compromise with the military. They are hoping that the military will prepare for a return to formal bourgeois parliamentary democracy.
Owing to the extremely limited base of support that the army officer caste has among the general population, as well as a need to reassure foreign investments, it is not unlikely that – at some point in the future – they would try to find some way to reapproach the NLD in an effort to form a new coalition government even more favorable to the military than before. They may not want to work with ASSK, owing to the enthusiasm she still inspires among the masses, but there is no shortage of second-or-third-rate NLD politicians who would be willing to strike a rotten deal with the military government.
The present impasse in the situation is rooted in the bourgeois nature of the NLD, which represents the capitalist class of Myanmar that sprang up in the recent period. Their class position always makes them fear the workers more than they do the regime.
The entire development of the Myanmar revolution has many parallels with the 1905 Russian Revolution. Honest Marxists, socialists, and consistent democrats in Myanmar should closely study that experience as well as the writings of Lenin during and after that time.
The most important conclusion to draw from this is that the struggle for democracy absolutely requires a class-independent workers’ party at its fore, with no illusions in or support for any bourgeois liberal democrats. In relation to those elements, Lenin explained:
“[F]or the bourgeoisie, caught between two fires (the autocracy and the proletariat), is capable of changing its position and slogans by a thousand ways and means, of adapting itself by moving an inch to the Left or an inch to the Right, constantly bargaining and dickering.The task of proletarian democratism is… unceasingly to criticise the developing political situation, to expose the ever new and unforeseeable inconsistencies and betrayals on the part of the bourgeoisie.” (Lenin, ‘Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution’)
The attitude of various regional powers has a consequential impact on the Myanmar Revolution. Thus far, two of the most significant ones, China and ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), have stood aside, which means that they are de facto backing the military regime.
However, it is also true that neither of these were happy with the Myanmar army officers for provoking the present turmoil and instability. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsian-Loong openly characterised the Myanmar military’s use of force against protesters as “disastrous”, a month after the coup had taken place. China called for dialogue four days after the coup and actively sought for reconciliation between the military and the NLD.
In the earlier stages of the events, in practical terms it made little difference to China and ASEAN whether the military or the NLD were running Myanmar, as both sides were aligned with their own capitalist interests. But as the movement reached revolutionary proportions, and as the NLD was forced to threaten a civil war, the two forces began to change their tune.
On 24 April, the ASEAN countries convened a summit in Jakarta to discuss the situation in Myanmar. Min Aung Hliang was in attendance, while no one from the NLD/NUG was invited. This detail alone determined the outcome of the summit: ASEAN countries would stand out of the way of the regime. Soon after, China welcomed the outcome of the ASEAN summit.
Both China and ASEAN cannot but take this stance, despite their displeasure with the junta. The reason for this is abundantly clear: the revolutionary character of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar fundamentally threatens all ASEAN states, which are all anti-democratic regimes in their own ways.
Some of them, especially Thailand and Indonesia, have only recently warded off mass movements within their own borders. Allowing the military regime to be toppled by the mass movement in Myanmar, even under the leadership of the NLD, risks opening the floodgates of mass movements at home once more. The same is true with China, which only recently managed to stamp out the movements in Hong Kong, but is seeing discontent coming to the surface elsewhere within its domain.
With the backing of China and ASEAN, plus a recent arms sales deal with Russia, the Myanmar military secured the support from the most influential powers in the region. However, their adventure that opened this can of worms will not be forgotten by their backers. Tacit support from China and ASEAN will continue if the regime can show that it is able to stabilise the situation and guarantee good business relations. If the regime risks pushing the situation to the limit where a revolutionary movement of the masses could be unleashed, then the foreign backing could wane.
There are also divisions that can open within the military officer caste itself. If, at some stage, continued military rule becomes untenable, some of these officers may become more amenable to outside pressures from a power such as China. In the coming period, these foreign powers may come to favour a wing of the junta over ones that they view as too unreliable.
Those with least influence in Myanmar are the western imperialist powers. They issue statements calling for “democracy” but they do nothing else. They are like the NLD leaders, and they fear the situation getting out of control and moving in a revolutionary direction. The problem the western imperialist powers have is not with military rule. They have backed many military regimes in the past.
To this day, they do good business with the Saudi regime, and with the Al-Sisi regime in Egypt, neither of which are renowned for their democratic credentials. In both these countries people disappear, get tortured and are killed simply for making the slightest appeal for democratic rights. But their markets are open for business for the US and European powers. In Myanmar, the main foreign power is China, which has huge interests in the country, having invested billions. This is what the western imperialists complain about, and through ASSK they were hoping to gain greater leverage within the country.
This explains why, besides rote condemnations, ineffectual trade sanctions, and toothless UN resolutions, the only substantial action taken by Western countries was for oil companies Total and Chevron to stop dividend payments towards Myanmar’s state-owned oil and gas enterprises, which they have a stake in. This did nothing to affect the gas and oil operations, let alone the position of the regime.
The farce of such an “intervention” from “democratic” western imperialist powers, with the US at their head, shows the relative decline of their position in the world. This means that in Myanmar they are unable to even take advantage of the situation to move against China for their own purposes.
The NLD leaders are fully aware of China’s huge dominance over Myanmar. That explains why, despite any leanings they may have towards the West, they meekly accommodated themselves with the army when they were in government right up to the coup. Only when they found themselves either arrested or forced to go underground did they issue a plea for US intervention. This, however,was not out of any naive illusions they may have had in the US government’s willingness to intervene. They are fully aware of the fact that the US are in no position to mount a military operation against the Myanmar military junta. No, their calls were but a criminal distraction from the necessary task of arming the masses.
What is most worrying the Chinese regime, ASEAN, and also the western powers is the fact that the coup and the events that followed it have devastated Myanmar’s economy.
One example is the fact that the price of fertiliser has increased by around 40 percent, which in turn impacts crop yield and prices. This will have seriously negative effects for the over 48.45 percent of the total labour force in Myanmar that still works in agriculture.
230,000 people have been displaced and are in urgent need of housing, food, and basic necessities.
According to Hong Kong’s Initium Media, many stores and restaurants in Yangon remain closed, despite the military’s pressure on businesses to reopen. There is a severe shortage of cash, leading to scenes where up to hundreds of people are queuing in front of a single ATM. The need for cash became so desperate that some would rather break the curfew and risk being arrested, just so that they could get a place at the head of the queue at 3am.
The World Bank is predicting a 10 percent contraction in Myanmar’s economy. The UNDP has warned that the poverty rate in the country could possibly double, plunging nearly half of the population into destitution.
The army chiefs will not suffer the same economic devastation as the rest of the country. They will hold on to their wealth, and they may even enrich themselves individually from this, as they have been allowing for more illegal jade mining, which is a multibillion dollar trade, in exchange for bribes since the coup.
Here we have a case of the interests of a few very rich and very powerful individuals coming into contradiction with the interests of the system as a whole. In effect, the military caste, having transformed themselves into capitalists, have escaped the control of international capital.
The responsibility for this chaotic state of affairs lies squarely on the army officers who carried out the coup, but also on the NLD, who betrayed the masses. Some have gone as far as to blame the movement of the masses for the collapse of the economy. Presumably, the masses should have remained passive, faced with a military takeover. The responsibility for the economic dislocation lies with the military chiefs and the bourgeois liberals, who are incapable of mobilising the masses in a genuinely revolutionary manner.
So long as there is an impasse, with the military holding stubbornly onto power, and with the masses rejecting the regime, the economic dislocation will continue. To break the deadlock requires the working class taking power, as the only class that can effectively handle the economic crisis through a democratic economic plan and workers’ control of production, prices, and distribution.
New stage of Asian class struggle
The fact remains that the masses in Myanmar have shown immense courage and revolutionary elan. This, however, is not enough to overthrow this hated regime. Although some brave fighters are still carrying out attacks against the army, we must openly and honestly admit that the Myanmar Revolution has ebbed. Without a clear prospect of the movement being able to bring down the regime, it was inevitable that at some stage tiredness would set in. Workers need to feed their families and pay the rent, and unless the revolution shows signs of achieving victory soon, the tide of revolution will go out again. Lessons need to be seriously drawn now.
This revolution, by its sheer scale and militancy, has already made history not just for Myanmar, but well beyond its borders. It has been an inspiration to workers and youth around the world, and especially in Asia. But it is not an isolated case, although it is the most advanced in terms of its level of militancy and participation of the masses, in particular of the working class. It is part of a process of revolutions that has been unfolding across the continent in the recent period.
It is a continuation of the same process that began with the Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Bill Movement of 2019, followed by Thailand’s struggle against its own military dictatorship in 2020. The international nature of the movement can be seen in the fact that the “Three finger salute” that began in the Thai protests was adopted by the Myanmar masses in their protests.
The qualitative difference in Myanmar, however, was the decisive involvement of the working class. There were huge general strikes with mass participation, something which we did not observe either in Hong Kong or Thailand.
Workers across the national borders of the region learn from each other’s experiences. They suffer similar conditions of low wages, pressure to produce more, bad housing and so on. To one degree or another they are also victims of repressive police measures, with Myanmar being one of the most repressive at this moment in time, but in Thailand too the workers and youth feel the heavy hand of state brutality.
Even in neighbouring Bangladesh, where formally they have a parliamentary democracy, genuine democratic rights are very limited and criminal gangs collude with the security forces with links right up to the government, while the law limits what people can actually say without risking long prison sentences. The situation in Hong Kong recently has also highlighted the oppressive nature of the Chinese regime.
The masses across the region desire genuine freedom, genuine democratic rights, the right to free speech, the right to protest, the right to strike, the right to organise and so on. The desire for such freedoms is an expression of the hatred the masses have towards the elites that rule over them, the desire for a better life, for better working conditions, a better standard of living, and democracy is seen as the means to achieve this. Thus the struggle for a better life of the masses and the struggle for democracy go together.
The recent experience of Myanmar, however, shows that even limited bourgeois democracy is seen as a threat by the rich and powerful, not because it directly threatens their interests, but because it allows the masses to organise and protest. In Myanmar, before the military takeover, the constitution granted many powers to the army chiefs, even the right to intervene directly in the situation if they perceived an emergency.
The main lesson of Myanmar is that the bourgeois liberals cannot be trusted to defend the interests of the working masses. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the situation prior to the February coup will know that ASSK openly collaborated with the military, to the point where she even covered up for their genocidal activities against the ethnic minorities. It is tragic that today she is still held up as a symbol of the movement and her picture is carried during mass protests.
What is required is an independent leadership and mass party of the working class. Such a party could unite around itself the working masses of Myanmar, and it could provide genuine leadership inside the trade unions. Today the trade union leadership tends to tail-end ASSK and the NLD party, which means they limit what the workers can do. For genuine democracy in Myanmar today can only be achieved by breaking the power of the bourgeois, both those more aligned with the western imperialist powers and the military capitalists who have immense power in the country. Unless the power of these people is broken, no lasting democratic rights can be achieved.
All this explains why what is happening in Myanmar is also keenly followed by worker and student activists around the region. A successful overthrow of the oligarchy that rules Myanmar would be a beacon to the Asian masses and beyond. And this, in turn, explains why the ASEAN ruling classes quickly fell in line with the military junta against the Myanmar working class. When they saw the revolutionary proportions of the mass movement in Myanmar they saw that it was so powerful – especially the movement of the working class – that they viewed it as a threat to the capitalist system itself, not just in Myanmar but throughout the whole region.
The Myanmar working class’s revolutionary courage and actions are an example to the workers across Asia. Its success would have set alight the whole region. Its brutal crushing will also have been observed by the masses in the region, and the risk is that pessimistic conclusions can be drawn from all this. For just as revolution has an international impact, so does reaction. But what has to be understood is that the revolution’s downfall was not a foregone conclusion. It was not inevitable, but was due to the leadership, or better the lack of leadership.
As the workers did not have a party of their own, they were limited to expressing themselves politically through a party of the capitalist class, the NLD. And so long as the Myanmar masses place their trust in these people, they will never find a way out of the impasse.
Does that mean that a return to democracy in Myanmar is ruled out? No, sooner or later this regime will come crumbling down, for it has very little genuine support among the mass of the people. Rule by the sword alone does not guarantee long term stability. Sooner or later the Myanmar masses will recover from this situation. It will take some time, but they will recover. The whole history of the world working class shows the truth of this. From Francoist Spain to Italy under Mussolini, from Pinochet’s Chile to the military regimes in South Korea, Taiwan and many more, we have seen how these regimes were brought down by the burning desire of the masses for freedom.
History also shows how the bourgeoisie behaves in such circumstances. They force the military monsters to return to their barracks, but they do not dismantle the military machine of the state. They present their democratic mask to the masses, they promote people like ASSK and attempt to channel the huge energy of the mass movement down a safe road. We have seen that happen in Myanmar before and it will happen again.
The fact that the lines of communication between the military chiefs and the people at the top of the NLD have not been completely cut off is an indication of the fact that the military chiefs are keeping their options open, at least the more intelligent and farsighted among them. When a new movement erupts in the future, in order to guarantee the continuity of the system, new openings for “democracy” will be made, but with the ever-present threat of renewed military intervention.
Marxists must patiently explain this to the activists who participated – and are still struggling today – in what was an inspiring revolutionary movement. But it is not enough to be inspiring. What is required is to find a winning strategy that will finally put an end to this cycle of movements from below followed by defeats.
This means that we need to take the first steps in preparing to make sure that the next eruption of the Myanmar masses ends in victory. What is needed is revolutionary leadership. And such a leadership cannot be improvised during a mass movement, but has to be forged long before the revolutionary events unfold. And before a mass revolutionary party of the working class can be formed, our task is to build the steeled cadres of such a party.
The mass Bolshevik party that led the workers to power in the October 1917 revolution was not built in a day but had been prepared many years beforehand by a small group of educated Marxist revolutionaries. The task in Myanmar today is very similar. We must begin!