National Sections of the L5I:

Topple the military regime

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Mass demonstrations in Burma/Myanmar have been defying the military dictatorship since late August, when initially small protest marches against the massive increase in fuel and natural gas prices were met with arrests and beatings by the police and army. One demonstration in the town of Pakokku was attacked by the police; several Buddhist monks were injured, causing others from the Pagoda to come out and demonstrate the next day. These actions temporarily put the regime on the back foot, not sure how to react to a demonstration led by a venerated institution in Burmese society.

The reticence of the government proved short lived. As the protests escalated the regime responded first with threats, then with force. Teargas, baton charges, curfews and rubber bullets were initially used. When these failed to disperse the demonstrators severe beatings and live ammunition were deployed, resulting in a mounting death toll. However, the demonstrators were not defeated, the protests continued and now the protests have taken on a generalised political character, demanding democratic rights and more freedoms. “Fuck the army, we want democracy” was one of the chants on the marches.

Several monks in Pakokku then kidnapped government workers and demanded an apology from the regime. More and more monks and nuns came out onto the streets, using their Pagodas as assembly points for rallies and demonstrations. Contrary to reports in the Western media, the monks neither initiated the protests nor have they been in the majority on the demonstrations, nevertheless they have played a radicalising role in the movement because they are drawn largely from the poorest young men, who use the monasteries as a form of schooling and social welfare. The young monks do not demonstrate primarily because of a religious motivation, but from the viewpoint of young students and the urban poor, demanding a decent life and freedom.

No, it was the students, especially the 88 Generation Students organisation, many of whose leaders date from the 1988 democracy movement and whose best-known figure is Min Ko Naing, who initiated the present movement at the beginning of 2007.

Whether the monks continue to play the same radicalising role is a different matter, however, as the pressure on them to act as a restraining force “for the national good” is brought to bear by their abbots and democratic politicians. Indeed, the monks and nuns’ pacifism will act as a conservative force within the movement, which obscures the need to destroy the regime and break up the army. Some sections of the religious order call for national peace and unity and for negotiations with the hated regime; this is an indication that they do not want the movement to become too radical, that is, to defeat the capitalist state.

The general trajectory of this protest movement therefore follows similar lines to other recent movements, or even historical examples. The Russian revolution of 1905 was started by a ruthless massacre of workers, attempting to hand in a petition to the autocratic Tsar; the workers were led by a priest. Economic demands become indissolubly linked up with the demand for democratic political change as a regime refuses to budge on even the most modest of reforms to alleviate the suffering of the poor, whilst itself wallowing in the most disgusting luxury. The urgent need for change is palpable; despite the bullets, beatings and arrests people still come and demonstrate in the thousands in the main cities.

The State Peace and Development Council
This hated regime came to power in Burma in 1962. Twenty-one generals, alongside military regional commanders, assumed power and have held the country in a vice-like grip since then. Burma is not alone state in the region to suffer so; most of the smaller post-colonialist countries that emerged after the break up of India in 1947 have suffered various interventions into their political system by the military, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Nevertheless the Burmese military regime undoubtedly stands in the forefront, thanks to the scale of its violations of human rights and the longevity of rule.

What is remarkable, given the loudness of their complaints about Saddam’s Iraq or Castro’s Cuba is the lack of serious attention paid to Burma by the “western democracies”. Although pop stars, like Bono, have made a point of highlighting the continued house arrest of the leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, most western governments have kept their protests verbal or employed marginal sanctions, ensuring that Burma’s natural wealth keeps flowing out of the country.

Hatred of the regime runs deep in Burmese society, despite the dictatorship and silencing of all official opposition. The struggle against the regime in 1988, led primarily by students, saw a brief period of where freedoms that are taken for granted in many western countries flourished on the streets. The military regime did not wait long, however, before drowning it in blood; around 3,000 people were killed by the army.

Burma is a desperately poor country, over 70 per cent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Household incomes barely support a hand-to-mouth existence. Drug abuse is rife, as people try to escape the misery of their daily lives. In contrast the generals and their lackeys live in opulence, having moved out of Rangoon in 2005 to the new capital of Naypyidaw, a secluded mountain, described by one Indian journalist as “the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘colour revolution’ – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography”.

The schemes of the big powers
Why has the regime been allowed to maintain its rule for so long? The Burmese junta is supported, or at least tolerated by powerful regional forces, primarily China, Russia and more recently India. China and Russia’s vetoed the UN resolution on 27 September for the same considerations that propelled the French and German governments into opposition to the Iraq war in 2002–03: business concerns. China is not in favour of economic sanctions that would target the Burmese regime and “its trading partners”. However, Beijing and Moscow have urged caution on the military. They could hardly take a censorious tone given their crimes against their own people – in Tiananmen Square and Chechnya.

The United Nations is impotent to even speak out against the massacres because of Russia and China’s veto. Thus the best UN could manage was to send an envoy to the junta to persuade the regime to restrain its violence and pursue dialogue and reconciliation. The US, EU and Japanese imperialists want to pose as sincere friends of the democracy movement but – because they have no economic or strategic reasons for intervention – will keep actions to protests and maybe (temporary) sanctions.

Despite this the NLD and other bourgeois opposition figures that want a more democratic but still exploitative system in the country call on the UN to intervene. Calls for an intervention by the imperialist powers, e.g. sanctions, however, will not aid the Burmese peoples’ struggle for freedom. These vultures will only intervene in Burma to grabs its raw materials and natural resources as they have done in Iraq, Afghanistan and threaten to do in Iran. The UN sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s did not help the people; far from it, the sanctions killed over 1.5 million, over 500,000 of them children under the age of five. Sanctions would also allow the junta to pose as defenders of the nation against the west, stoking up national chauvinism that would set the struggle for democratic freedoms back.

The political weakness of the present leadership of the democracy movement reveals itself in the limited character of their demands. Aung San Suu Kyi urged caution, when she said that people should not link the protests to the overthrow of the regime, in case it made the movement unpopular. On the contrary, despite what the NLD says, failing to link the protests more resolutely to the fight against the regime is what would isolate the present demonstrators on the streets. The hatred of the regime can be seen in the size and rapid escalation of the protests. For every demonstrator on the streets, there are many more at home, supporting the movement but afraid to come out at the present time.

Aung San Suu Kyi has real prestige because of her mistreatment and imprisonment by the regime. Nevertheless her strategy is based on a Buddhist/Gandhian method of non-violent protest linked with pressure for free elections and appeals to the international community to take action. In reality, she will be a safe pair of hands for Burmese capitalist and western imperialism, not surprisingly given that she is a member of the post-independence elite.

What strategy for victory?
The rapid acceleration of the movement from complaints about an increase in fuel prices and the cost of basic foodstuffs to demands for an end to military rule demonstrates the fragile nature of the “peace” in Burma. The desperate needs of the impoverished Burmese people cannot be met by the regime, and the political opposition to the regime is therefore fuelled not simply by a desire for democracy but for a substantial improvement in the standard of living. The danger is that the demands for democracy are used, cynically, by sections of the Burmese capitalists and the imperialists to contain the movement within “safe” parameters. The west can handle a democratic regime change to install a friendly capitalist leader; it cannot handle a revolution.

If the army high command splits – and there are rumours that this may already be happening – or if the rank and file soldiers’ discipline breaks down, due to the traumatic experience of beating and killing peaceful demonstrators, figures within the regime will doubtless try to demobilise the struggle by offering elections, as they did after the 1988 protest movements. The regime was subsequently annihilated in the elections, their political party winning only 10 seats, compared to the NLD, which won 392 seats. The regime refused to recognise the election results and carried on as before. In order not to fall into the same trap, the protests must raise as a demand, “No compromise with the regime”, and have, as a central plank of the mobilisations, a struggle that aims to topple it from power.

The Independent newspaper and The Economist magazine in Britain have referred to the demonstrations as a Saffron revolution, echoing similar pro-democracy movements in Lebanon (Cedar), Ukraine (Orange) and Georgia (Rose). All of these protest movements were in some way supported by the imperialist powers, as they tried to manipulate people’s genuine desire for a more democratic society into installing pro-western and pro-imperialist governments.

This would be a dead end for the poor and oppressed masses in Burma as any pro-western regime (the NLD included) would be unable to carry out the economic changes that are so desperately needed. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank would immediately insist on the continuation of neoliberal measures with an “opening up” to the western multinationals. The only way to implement radical changes that meet the crying needs of the people is to embody them in a programme of action that identifies working class power, allied to the rural and urban poor, as its goal.

The working class, by launching an all out general strike, can rapidly come to the head of the movement to oust the generals and punish them for their crimes against the people. This strategy is encapsulated in what revolutionaries call permanent revolution: that the democratic struggle grows over into the struggle for working class power and socialism. Any idea of stopping at a democratic regime that defends capitalism will be a disaster. It would leave the Burmese military and its high command intact – a basis for future coups and military dictatorships. The army of the generals must be dissolved into the armed people. This will make coups impossible.

Where next?
The most immediate questions are the democratic freedoms that are linked the movement, the freedom to demonstrate, meet, organise political parties and trade unions, etc. Vital is the immediate an unconditional release of the thousands of political prisoners and detained demonstrators.

A crucial next step in the struggle will be to exploit the apparent divisions within the ruling military junta. Despite the media blackout and the closing down of most of the internet access, reports are coming out of Burma that the top leaders in the junta are split over how to deal with the protests, with some sections of soldiers maybe even refusing to carry out the orders to shoot into the crowd.

First and foremost the students and young monks should go to the factories, to appeal for workers to take strike action not only in their support but for their own economic and social demands. They should propose to them that they elect workplace committees in every factory and combine their delegates on a local basis into workers councils in every town and city. In the countryside, activists should agitate for the peasants to do the same.

Protestors must do what the workers in Russia did in February of 1917: go to the soldiers barracks, talk to them, convince them that the democratic struggle is their struggle as well, that they should refuse to carry out the orders of their commanders, but instead join the demonstrators. As Trotsky wrote in 1936:

“Behind each [military] machine there are men who are linked not only by technical but by social and political bonds. When historic development poses before society an un-postponable revolutionary task as a question of life or death, when there exists a progressive class with whose victory is joined the salvation of society – then the development of the political struggle itself opens up before the revolutionary class the most varied possibilities – as much to paralyse the military force of the enemy as to win it over, at least partially.”

Workers, youth, women, peasants should organise meetings to discuss the situation, join the demonstrations, prepare to defend themselves from the police and make every effort to win over rank and file soldiers the army, persuading them to set up their own councils, and to break open the arsenals and arm the people, making a counter-revolution impossible. As soon as the forces of repression disintegrate, then millions, not just the present heroic tens of thousands will take to the streets.

But what will happen when the junta falls? Revolutionaries must win the masses to demanding elections to a sovereign constituent assembly – not some sort of government of national reconciliation and/or Aung San Suu Kyi as president. Any result which leaves even one faction of the generals with a share in power will be a betrayal – allowing a re-run of the counter-revolution in 1988. The working class and the poor peasantry must control the election to the Constituent Assembly, banning and purging all elements from the old regime. Delegates must remain answerable to assemblies of their electors.

A revolutionary workers’ party must also be built in the ongoing struggle, and contest elections to an Assembly on a clear action programme. It must popularise a few absolutely basics slogans; the land must belong to those who work it, the factories to those who work in them. The natural wealth must be nationalised, with no compensation to the likes of Total, and used for raising the living standards and meeting the medical, educational, housing needs of the poor and the exploited.

But the struggle should not stop at a Constituent Assembly. Revolutionaries must demand not an NLD government, but a workers and peasants’ government. The workers and peasants’ councils can form the basis for a new type of class rule in Burma, one that can take the necessary and urgent steps to smash the entire bourgeois order and implement radical economic changes to the country.