Myanmar: The return of democracy?

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar is a nation in Southeast Asia. Until late 2010 the country was ruled by a reactionary military junta. This junta started in 1962 as a Stalinist style dictatorship under general Ne Win. After 27 years Myanmar was economically ruined. General Ne Win was forced to handle power to a new military government under Saw Maung. This new general allowed free elections which were won by the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. But the junta refused a civilian government, they jailed Suu Kyi and banned her party. Myanmar was then ruled by the nepotist junta. Today civilian rule is reestablished, but the military is still a strong political force with 1/4 of all parliamentary seats reserved for them!

In the western world, the nation of Myanmar is known as Burma. This colonial name was giving by the British, who ruled over the country from 1824 until 1948. Originally Myanmar was part of India like Pakistan and Bangladesh. British imperialism decided to create the colony of Burma in 1937.  This was not welcomed by many as the Burmese feared that the British wanted to exclude them from politics in India. Still British Burma was created and overrun by Japanese imperialists in 1942!

The Japanese only ruled for three years and were driving out by American and British forces. Many Burmese nationalists had collaborated with the Japanese against western imperialism. Britain wanted these nationalists arrested and jailed, but they were very popular and it turned out that arresting them would only fuel more hatred against Great Britain. Three years after World War 2, the Union of Burma became independent but would soon find itself in a civil war between ethnic groups and political parties!

A major force before the 1962 coup was the Communist Party of Burma. This Stalinist party embraced the ideals of both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Although popular among the poor and peasants it failed to mobilize the working class, as Burma was a agrarian based society. Also its totalitarian ideology demanded total obedience from party members. Sectarianism among party-leaders led to a Maoist style; Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, that killing many loyal members. Thousands of young students ( who joined the CPB to fight )  were murdered as  ”class-traitors” and ”revisionists”. This weakened the communist party!

General Ne Win was a dictator who mixed elements of reformed stalinism, ethnic nationalism and Buddhism in his dictatorship. He was not hostile to the ideals of stalinism, but he rejected the Communist Party of Burma. Also Ne Win was a ethnic nationalist and prosecuted the Chinese minority. His economic ideals were typical Stalinist, he nationalized the whole economy but gave zero rights to workers. All economic power was centralized and only the government was allowed to run enterprises. There were no workers councils and no democratic structures for workers to participate in the planning and production. Only ( mostly corrupt ) state-managers were allowed  to run the economy!

The military junta was deeply nepotist as Ne Win promoted his own family and allies. Political and economic corruption became so high, that the United Nations called Burma the least developed nation on the planet. Ne Win did not care, he ruled as military leader unopposed. Under his reign the country was named; Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. Although supported by the USSR, the People’s Republic of China opposed him as Ne Win rejected Maoist dogmatism.

There were many student strikes, but the government always suppressed them with full force. The 1970’s were very bloody as brave students, took the streets to demand political freedom. Dictator Ne Win called these students ”enemies” and gave the army orders to kill as many as possible. Students then joined the banned CPB in the jungles. Had the Communist Party of Burma not carried out its brutal purges and killings, it could very well have overthrow the regime of Ne Win. But because of sectarianism and dogmatism, the CPB was eventually defeated!

In March 1988 there were massive demonstrations of youth, workers, students and other members of society against general Ne Win. They called for democracy and freedom of speech. Security forces killed between 3.000 and 10.000 people, but the demonstrations did not stop. General Saw Maung decided to take power and removed Ne Win as leader of the military. Under his rule, Maung agreed to hold democratic elections for the first time. These elections were won by the National League for Democracy, a  social democratic political party formed to promote democracy and human rights. Its leader Aung San Suu Kyi was to become prime minister of a democratic Burma!

However conservative members of the military junta around general Than Shwe, refused to accept the democratic outcome. They started a coup and removed Saw Maung as chairman of the ”State Law and Order Restoration Council”. General Than Shwe became the next leader of the Union of Myanmar, the colonial name of Burma was put aside. All references to socialism was removed as the new military regime embraced some market reforms. However indirectly most means of production were still owned by the state. The Transparency International said in its 2007 report, that the country was the most corrupt of all Southeast Asian nations. Military leaders around Than Shwe became very rich, while the majority of workers and peasants were very poor!

In late 2010, most members of the renamed; ”State Peace and Development Council” understood that their nation was internationally isolated. Only nations such as China and North Korea stood on their side. The western world imposed a trade embargo and sanctions, which prevented them from importing western products. So the military leaders decided to fool the world. They ended their absolute rule and disbanded the ”State Peace and Development Council”. Instead a pseudo-civilian government was created under former general Thein Sein, who left the army to become their political voice in the new civilian regime!

The plan worked, the western world was fooled into believing that this new ”civilian” government would lead to democracy. Thein Sein played his role very good as civilian president, while making sure that the wealth of his military friends was kept save.  He founded a political party called the Union Solidarity and Development Party, a right-wing party that embraces capitalism. Many western democracies lifted the sanctions as Thein Sein started with major capitalist reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to leave her house, after the military had kept her under house-arrest for 21 years!

Her National League for Democracy was allowed to participate in the November 2010 elections. However these elections were rigged in favor of the Union Solidarity and Development Party. Since 1/4 of the whole parliament remains reserved for military officials, the party of Thein Sein won a clear majority. Aung San Suu Kyi choose to start a dialogue with the government of Sein. This was welcome by western imperialism, who were very happy with the economic liberalization of the nation. Revolutionary socialists have no illusions. We reject this pseudo-civilian regime as it only serves its true masters, the military!

The military might have abandoned their junta, but still rule through the Union Solidarity and Development Party and the fact they own 1/4 of all seats in parliament. These generals are nepotistic and greedy, they don’t care about anybody but themselves. Revolutionary socialists call for the arrest of all former members of the ”State Peace and Development Council”.  People like Than Shwe must be trialed for corruption, nepotism and the killing of many innocent people. But is Aung San Suu Kyi willing to go that far? Will she brake the power of the feared Tatmadaw, which has oppressed the people for more then 50 years?

How would a democratic Myanmar look? Capitalistic and unequal like most Asian nations? Will the National League for Democracy carry out a socialist program or remain loyal to the capitalist reforms of Thein Sein? Many workers and youth look towards Suu Kyi as a symbol of resistance and hope. Her struggle for democracy makes her equal to Nelson Mandela. Revolutionary socialists fear however that she will follow the same road as Mandela did. South Africa has not become a socialist nation under ANC rule, this could also happen to Myanmar if the NLD remains loyal to capitalism!

This is why a workers party must be build for workers of all ethnic groups in Myanmar. The National League for Democracy may win the current elections, but to change the nation for good, workers need a socialist party. Not a social democratic party, but a party of the working class. A party that struggles for democratic socialism. Can the NLD become such a party? Maybe, but for this to happen it must become clearly anti-capitalist and reject the market economy and the IMF. Since the International Monetary Fund holds a great deal of power over underdeveloped nations, it is unlikely that a future government in Myanmar will challenge this capitalist institution. Workers of Myanmar therefore need to unite for a socialist alternative!


The military is still allowed to own 1/4 of the seats in parliament!

The military is still allowed to own 1/4 of the seats in parliament!