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Arguments for socialism :: Democracy
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The sounds of the striking pots and pans were heard across the streets of the city of Yangon, in Myanmar in protest at the military coup d'état on 1 February. Residents in the main capital are showing their dissatisfaction and anger towards everything that is wrong in their country. There are now protests and strikes, from a younger layer of activists, including doctors, nurses and teachers who are currently leading the civil disobedience movement.
Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the deposed state counsellor (prime minister), is now once again being held prisoner. Less than three months ago her National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in Myanmar's general election.
The commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces (Tatmadaw), Min Aung Hlaing, has taken over as the country's de facto leader. He declared on the military-controlled Myawaddy TV that there would now be military rule for a year, with the vague promise of a new general election.
This coup overturns the constitution the military itself introduced in 2011, when Myanmar was finally handed over to a 'civilian' government under a quasi-democratic political structure, with an uneasy power-sharing between the NLD and the military.
Although the military bureaucracy was automatically awarded 25% of the parliamentary seats under that constitution, and had significant control over key executive positions, the conflict that existed inside the government between the military leaders and the NLD could no longer be tolerated and ignored.
In the end, the military used the NLD's weakness and the criticism it received - for instance, from Human Rights Watch, which pointed to an unfair and biased electoral process - as an excuse to grab power.
Despite protests from opposition parties questioning the integrity of the November 2020 election - which excluded a significant part of the population, especially from the conflict areas around the borders of Myanmar - Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD achieved a sweeping victory; whereas the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USPD) saw a decrease in its vote from the previous election.
But Suu Kyi had always maintained a strategy of cooperation with the military and rejected any criticisms or actions against them. Attending the International Court of Justice in 2019, she outrageously defended the genocide of the Rohingya people in Rakhine state carried out by the Myanmar military. This meant she rapidly went from being the feted democratic icon of the West to becoming an international pariah.
Despite popular demands to amend the existing constitution, which gives too much power to the military leaders, the NLD had largely remained silent on that issue. Even with a majority in parliament and with full authority to make legislation, the NLD continued with its non-confrontational approach. This received widespread criticism among the country's activists.
The NLD leaders instead focused on bringing in foreign investment in an attempt to develop a stable capitalist economy, while letting the military enjoy effective government control. The NLD leaders had no confidence that their mass support could overcome the military tops. They feared that if they mobilised mass support it could get 'out of control' and threaten their pro-capitalist project. Now the working people of Myanmar are going to pay the price of this failure.
Ever since the end of the military's direct rule, in 2011, and the transition to a free-market-friendly parliamentary democracy, the remaining military figures in politics, with their control over major assets, contributed to the unstable nature of capitalist development in Myanmar.
The influx of foreign capital and the implementation of policies that create competition between the big capitalists have led to major conflicts among the capitalist class in Myanmar.
The military's diminishing support for its political representation in the USPD, and growing competition with a new section of capitalists powered by the 'free market', has now driven the military to carry out a complete takeover.
The impotent UN Security Council, holding an emergency meeting, expressed "deep concern" over the coup d'état. The regional Association of South East Asian Nations response has been to stick with its policy of 'non-interference'.
Capitalists around the world have a vested interest in maintaining stability in Myanmar in order to continue the plunder of its natural resources and labour.
This is US president Joe Biden's first big foreign policy test. He has eschewed Trump's previous 'isolationist' policy and instead is seeking to assert 'America's democratic values'. In all likelihood the US administration will simply review its aid programmes and impose some sanctions on Myanmar's generals. US military intervention is highly unlikely.
On the other hand, predictably, China's president Xi Jinping has adopted a more conciliatory tone towards the generals and urges the 'international community' to avoid any further escalation of tension and focus on 'stability'.
China has close ties with Myanmar, with mega-infrastructure projects lined up for years to come. Myanmar is an important location where China could bypass the naval trade route in the Straits of Malacca and open a land path to India. Myanmar has a vital role in China's massive 'Belt and Road Initiative'.
Xi Jinping will use this incident to create an even bigger wedge between Myanmar and the US-led capitalist bloc to further weaken the latter's influence in the region.
The Myanmar military regime will now be more dependent on China for aid and economic opportunity as it chooses to retreat on its promise to open up its economy.
Min Aung Hlaing and the military bureaucracy will be swift to move against any rebellious action from the masses with violence and brutal repression, as was often done in the past. Additionally, they will try to divide the people along ethnic lines and continue to oppress different ethnic minorities, over 30% of the population, by fanning the flames of nationalism.
It is hypocritical that now, after the military coup, Aung San Suu Kyi is crying out to the people to protest against the brutal military regime which she previously failed to challenge.
But given the widespread anger among the Myanmar people, they are taking to the streets in their mass, as they did in 1988. However, Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD leadership have proved to be incapable of fulfilling the people's aspirations for a free and democratic Myanmar.
The policy adopted by Aung San Suu Kyi and her party offers no way forward for the working masses and youth. In Myanmar's situation, as in many other neocolonial nations, the struggle for democracy is intertwined with the struggle against the capitalist system as a whole.
The peculiarity of capitalism's growth in Myanmar, with a history of brutal military rule and constant imperialist intervention, means it will never provide for the basic needs of the country's population.
Liberal representatives such as Aung San Suu Kyi are entirely unable to challenge the international capitalist forces and deliver even basic advancement for the people of Myanmar.
On the contrary, the task of eliminating poverty in the cities, towns and villages across the country, and establishing fundamental freedoms, democratic rights and a solution to the questions of national and democratic rights in Myanmar, falls on the shoulders of the working class. It requires the building of a party with a mass base and a clear socialist programme to unify the suffering masses of Myanmar and to defeat both military rule and capitalism in the country.
Trade union leaders, opposition organisations and left forces should join hands at this moment to fight this seizure of power by the military.
Mass workers' action, such as a general strike, like the heroic protest movement in August 1988, would immediately incapacitate the military regime and could appeal to many in the nearly 70% of the population living in the countryside.
Combat organisations need to be set up in the workplaces, colleges and neighbourhoods of town and country. Representatives need to be elected from these bodies to link up on a regional and national level, and they should be subject to immediate recall if they go against the wishes of those who elect them.
An appeal would have to be made to the ranks of the army and police to join the fight against dictatorship and against capitalism - local and international.
The battle must be waged now to build a genuine socialist alternative to the corrupt and decaying capitalist system in Myanmar - not a repeat of the post-1962 regime modelled on Stalinism, but one based on genuine workers' democracy.
Such a revolution would have an appeal across the region and be the basis for the formation of a confederation of socialist states in South-East Asia and beyond.
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Article dated 10 February 2021
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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