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The Burmese way crumbles

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The Burmese way crumbles

Burma’s military regime is in crisis. Julian Scholefleld explains the background and argues that neither the ‘Burmese Way” nor the plans of the liberal opposition can break imperialism’s stranglehold on the country

Sustained mass mobilisations in Burma have rocked the decrepit military regime. Burma’s rulers have responded alternately with promises of reform and with further savage repression.

Last month the aged General Ne Win, ruler for 26 years, resigned as Chairman of the ruling party, the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), only to be followed 18 days later by his replacement Sein Lwin. Now, civilian President Maung Maung is seeking to stave off the popular revolt. On the one hand he pledges to call a special party congress and hold a referendum on allowing more than one party. On the other, he unleashes the military to continue its massacre of demonstrators and political prisoners.

The BSPP ran into crisis in August as demonstrations begun by students spread to most areas and most sections of the population including both workers and the middle class. Demonstrators demanded economic and political reform’ Young people risked death as they threw themselves against the military.

Meung’s promised reforms are a last ditch attempt to placate this mass discontent. But even if he pursues his course towards a multi party state, and this is by no means certain, it will not solve the crisis facing Burma’s economy.

The recent uprisings were sparked off by a 400% rise in the price of rice a staple for many Burmese. Last September the No Win government tried to offset an inflationary spiral by abolishing the three largest banknotes 25, 35 and 75 kyats. Overnight 75% of all money in circulation was made worthless, in an attempt to curb the profits of Burma’s black marketers. Their trade had caused unofficial inflation to be triple that of the official figure of 5%. These measures provoked the widespread protests which have swept through Burma ever since.

Today Burma is plunged into an even deeper economic crisis. Rice exports, Burma’s leading foreign exchange earner, have been virtually wiped out this year doe to the fall in commodity prices on the world market. Burma has been unable to extricate itself from economic dependence on imperialism; it is indebted to the tune of $3 billion. The United Nations has declared Burma a “least developed nation” among the poorest 15 countries in the wont The western media has seized on this opportunity to expose yet again that “socialism” doesn’t work. The Daily Mail talked of “the blight Burma shares with Brent”!

Indeed the present Burmese regime has claimed the mantle of socialism hence the ruling party’s name. The economic policies of the BSPP since the army, under General No Win, seized power in 1962 have been officially called the “Burmese Way of Socialism”.

In reality the Burmese military and the bourgeoisie have used the name socialism ever since achieving formal independence from Britain in 1948 as s device for winning popular support for their policies. These were aimed at developing Burma’s own indigenous capitalism free from economic dependence on world imperialism.

The present crisis exposes the failure of the Burmese ruling class to carry out this task successfully. It was hardly surprising that Burma’s post independence rulers talked in anti imperialist terms.

Britain’s colonial rule meant that Burma supplied oil to the Empire and to grew rice. It was administered by the
Indian Civil Service. No wonder that Le Nu, the first Burmese Prime Minister declared:

“The wealth of Burma has been enjoyed firstly by the big British capitalists, next the Indian capitalists, and next the Chinese capitalists. The Burmese are at the bottom, in poverty and have to be content with the left over and chewed over bones and scraps from the table of foreign capitalist.” (Towards Peace and Democracy, p2, Le Nu 1948)

Indeed, Burma’s 1947 draft constitution states:

“Private property may be limited or expropriated if the public interest so requires.” (Section 30)

The intention of Burma’s new rulers was to carry through industrialisation and the unification of the Burmese nation, protected from foreign interference. They wished to develop their own Burmese capitalism.

But the Burmese bourgeoisie was too weak to do this on its own; hence the military takeover in l962 and an even greater role for the state in the “Burmese way”. All foreign firms, banks and private Burmese companies were nationalised. Prices were fixed bureaucratically. Low prices were imposed on peasant agricultural produce. The BSPP sought to use these measures to force greater productivity from Burmese workers. There was not even a semblance of workers’ democracy allowed. The regime’s answer to disaffected national minorities and all other opposition was continuing repression. Far from being a form of socialism, the “Burmese way” was a form of state capitalism.

Burma did not become, as Militant claim, a degenerate workers’ state like those of Eastern Europe. Despite the massive nationalisations, its economy remained securely tied in to that of world imperialism. Its trade in rice end oil is largely with the imperialist world, Its brief period of expansion and growth in the 1960’s was linked to that of the world imperialist economy, and ended in 1973.

With the onset of the world recession, Burma was obliged to apply for its first loan from the World Bank. Now deeply in debt, it finds its imperialist pay masters, particularly Japan, demanding economic liberalisation’ in exchange for a new loan package of $200 million.

At the same time, a huge informal economy (black market) has grown up via the opium trade and importation of restricted goods. This now rivals the official economy indeed some estimates put it as larger than the latter.

The “Burmese way” has signally failed but the alternatives offered by imperialism and the existing Burmese opposition provide no way forward either. The imperialist powers are still casting around for a suitable candidate amongst the forces ranged against the old regime. However, the imperialists fear the continuation of mass action which could witness further mobilisations by the working class. If it is necessary to stave off revolution, they will stick with the BSPP.

For the masses of Burma, economic “liberalisation” would mean further exploitation whether carried out bye pro imperialist wing of the BSPP, or by a new leadership emerging from the opposition. It would mean more price hikes through deregulation, further attacks on wages as the imperialists sought to rake in super profits, and the turning over of state run assets tube run for profit.

None of the existing oppositions, however, have a programme which could take Burma forward and truly challenge imperialism’s stranglehold.

The recent demonstrations have been led by clandestine student organisations, in particular, the umbrella All Burma Students Democratic Association.

The Association has pushed militant tactics, end in many towns the students have sought and gained open support from the working class. It has tried to distance itself from openly pro imperialist policies by declaring its opposition to “dependence on foreign powers”. But it has put its faith in winning support from disaffected officers and finding a benevolent wing amongst the military.

As the mass mobilisations developed, middle class professionals became increasingly prominent within the opposition as have Buddhist monks. At the end of August, Mandalay was reported to be in the hands of a “council of monks” and Taroy was being run by a “peoples’ democratic front”. Opposition leaders were calling for an “interim government” prior to holding a general election. These forces may wish to see liberalisation in Burma but they do not want to see thorough going challenges to capitalism and imperialism which would threaten their own position. The new opposition has also found allies in the coalition of movements of national minorities such as the Karen; Shone and Kachins. These have been involved in entrenched guerrilla warfare for years, pursuing secession or limited self government, and have suffered brutal repression at the hands of the Burmese army.

But the leadership of the majority of these movements, notably the coalition of the National Democratic Front, lies with pro imperialists. Many of the guerrilla movements have been sustained by black market trading, including in the massive opium trade.

Revolutionaries should of course support the right to self determination of the national minorities, but the existing leaderships of these movements could end up opening the door to imperialism and to super exploitation of the already oppressed groups.

Another component of the opposition is the pro Chinese Communist Party of Burma (CPB) which commands a guerrilla army of some 14,000. Its programme, however, is limited to achieving bourgeois democracy a multi party system, freedom of speech, assembly and worship, self government far the national minorities and so forth. Its economic programme stays firmly within the bounds of capitalism, calling for loans, not only to small traders and peasants, but to factory owners!

A reformist and thoroughly pro capitalist programme like this can do little to liberate the oppressed and exploited masses of Burma from the root cause of their continued misery, oppression and exploitation the continued domination of their country by world imperialism.

The “Burmese way” of autarchic state capitalist development was no way out. “Liberalisation’ as supported by the opposition including the CPB, will bring further exploitation at the hands of world imperialism. Evens period of temporary growth and an “economic miracle” would not succeed in permanently raising the country and the majority of its people out of the unending spiral of poverty and crises that imperialism imposes on the semi colonial world.

But there is an alternative road - that of permanent revolution. This means uniting the rural masses of Burma with the much smaller, but powerful Burmese working class around a programme which is both committed to resolving the most burning national and democratic demands as wall as smashing the entire system which gives rise to this oppression and misery capitalism and imperialism.

In answer to the calls for special party congresses and “interim governments” socialists call for a convocation of a sovereign constituent assembly, elected on the basis of universal suffrage. At the same time, recognising that democratic measures in themselves will not free the nation from capitalist domination, the revolutionary programme must call for the mobilisation of the working class in factory committees, workers’ councils and armed militia and for seizing state power. The factories and estates, far from being handed over to private capitalists and landowners, must be taken over and run by urban and rural workers themselves. Credit and technology must be made available to small peasants to help increase production. There must be a guarantee of self-determination for the national minorities; but far from advocating the further fragmentation of the country, revolutionaries call for spreading the socialist revolution throughout the region, and establishing a socialist federation of South East Asia.

The most urgent task facing the Burmese masses today is the building of a Trotskyist party which is committed to fighting for such a revolutionary programme.