Myanmar: Opposition to military rule turns towards armed struggle
The Myanmar military continues to hold on to power through ruthless killing and repression. Since the generals’ February coup, earlier this year, over 800 protesters have been murdered and many more have been injured. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. The military burned down the whole village of Kinma in central Myanmar, reducing every house to ashes.
The junta have now banned all opposing parties and the organisations linked to protests. This includes several key trade unions. The job losses that rose with the pandemic have been further accelerated by the coup. According to some reports over 200,000 garment workers have lost their jobs. Over 125,000 teachers have been suspended by the military for opposing the coup. In addition to the hundreds of thousands of job losses, large sections of workers have also been denied their wages. This situation is worsened further by massive increases in the prices of food, fuel and other essential items. The petrol price rose by 33%, and in some places, the prices of essential items rose by around 35%. Those in opposition to the military or anyone linked to the protest movement is now banned and framed as terrorists. The largest party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been dismantled and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi is now on ‘show trial’ for alleged corruption and various reasons including illegal possession of a walky-talky. The NLD has been the ruling party since 2015 and is said to have won a landslide in the January general election this year
The opposition turns towards armed struggle
Despite the brutality, the protest against the junta carries on in many parts of the country. However, the initial hope that existed for ending the military rule by mass protest wanes as repression continues to increase. As a result, many are now turning towards armed opposition to the military. According to Frontier magazine, urban armed rebel cells are being formed in all the main cities. Secrets groups have been formed and many youths also turning to the existing militant organisations for training. Many of the civilian defence force (CDF) groups that are being formed in urban areas rely on the support of other militant groups in the borderland for training and weapons. The recent clashes in the main city Mandalay show that these military clashes are no longer limited to rural areas and a sort of guerrilla warfare could break out in the key cities. The newly formed people’s defence force (PDF) is claiming to be coordinating these armed groups along with armed militants in the border regions.
The PDF is formed by the National Unity Government (NUG) – the so-called ‘government in exile’, which is mainly organised by the NLD supporters and those in exile. However, the NUG claimed to have the support of various small parties and insurgent groups. Following the coup, many elected people came together to form a committee to coordinate against the Junta, forming the committee representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH).
Next stage of struggle
What direction the protest movement should take is now a crucial question. Replacing the Junta with the NLD is not a solution. If the NLD make another deal with the Junta to ‘share power’ to put them back into the government, the suffering of the masses and military atrocities will not end. The movement is faced with the task of bringing down the rule of the military. But it cannot limit itself to only that task – in fact, the success of that task lies in winning mass support through a programme of fighting for all the aspirations and demands that are now put forward. Achieving all the democratic rights including the national rights of the various oppressed nationalities will not be possible unless the movement organises to take power. The major obstacles to this include not just the military and their backers, such as religious fundamentalist groups, but also the capitalist class. The bourgeois class in the country, and internationally, wants a return to stability – for capitalism. It is trying to therefore limit the movement and its leadership to the simple aim of returning to the so-called “democratic government” i.e. an NLD-led government. A return to normality and some sort of democratic government would be welcomed by the majority who continue to suffer at the hands of the military. But the NLD and other capitalist parties do not represent the oppressed sections of Myanmar. In the past period, the NLD and other main parties have made no effort to reduce the political power of the military. On the contrary, the NLD leaders including Aung Sang Su Ki, went as far as defying international condemnation to defend the military, including the genocidal slaughter of the Rohingya people. Any compromise with the military will be on the basis of providing continued protection for them. There will not be a lasting solution as long as the military, and the bourgeois class that compromise with them, are in power.
The newly formed so-called “government in exile” (NUG) enjoys considerable support mainly because there exists now a need and urge for ‘united action’ against the military. It is this hatred against the military, Tatmadaw, as it is known, that has led to the formation of the fragile alliance and unity among various diverse groups and armed militants. However this unity is not only fragile but will be broken as soon the NLD finds a way back to power –which is possible through any form of compromise. This is why the questions of who takes the lead and who is in the driving seat of the movement and its direction are crucial.
Despite calling for action in words, it was not the bourgeois section that stood up against the military at the time of the coup. The initial fear against the military and inaction was broken by workers’ collective action. It was workers; health workers in particular along with teachers who showed the way and demonstrated incredible courage and determination to fight the military. This is not random but reflects the potential power base that workers hold. It is their action that gave confidence to the youth and others to take to the streets in defiance. The Civil Disobedient Movement (CDM) was born from the workers’ strength. The continued strikes and general strike of the workers gave huge strength to the movement. It is through the workers’ organisations such as the trade unions that the defence of all sections of the Myanmar population came to the fore.
Unions could not take the position of defending one section of the workers against another – or one nationality group against other. The movement quickly adopting this position, welcoming all sections of the Myanmar population, was crucial for the development of the strength of the movement. If the leadership of the movement restricted itself to the Bamar population, the main ethnic group that the military and religious establishment rely on for support, it would have given a further opportunity to the Junta to divide and control. It was the organised working class’s involvement that acted as a check on this, though the danger of this still exists. It is not possible to unite all sections of Myanmar under the leadership of the NLD and their capitalist allies as they have a history of discrimination and repression against various sections.
The NLD has become increasingly unpopular particularly among ethnic minorities. They have defended the military-led slaughter of the Rohingya people and have banned elections in 17 towns in Rakhine state. Similarly, the NLD-led government defended the brutal military operation in Kachin state. The NLD argued that the so-called “civilian government” was not “mature” enough to take on the military. But the military’s role in society was not challenged by them – they did not challenge the military operations and triumphal actions – including building new statues for generals in ethnic minority areas. Having not challenged the economic and social authority that the military built over the years, the NLD sought a shortcut to control the military by changing the constitution. This was vehemently opposed by the military and the NLD leadership recognised that the election victory alone will not be enough to bring about any changes. From mining to mobile phones, the military has a strong grip on the economy. Firms like Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) that are under the control of the military are said to be worth billions and provide the military with its ability to act independently. Instead of challenging this domination, the NLD continued with the attacks on workers’ rights and the undermining of democratic rights – including the crackdown on dissent and freedom of speech.
To truly challenge the military the key corporations and the numerous businesses that are controlled by the military should be nationalised – but under democratic working-class control and management as part of a programme for taking into democratic public ownership all the commanding heights of the economy. This could lay the basis for developing a socialist plan for the economy that could meet the needs of all. The Myanmar workers and poor masses had a bitter experience of the so-called “Burmese way to socialism” which, in effect, was military authoritarianism. As with Stalinist Russia or in China, a genuine socialist plan has nothing in common with this and would instead be linked with establishing workers’ democracy – giving more freedom and power to the workers rather than suppressing them.
Myanmar workers should continue to fight for the leadership of the movement and organise themselves to direct the movement. This is crucial for winning a lasting solution. Union bodies, such as the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM), and other democratically elected workers’ representatives, should take the central position in leading the movement. It is not an exaggeration to say that the unions and key active leaders practically led the plans and activities from the start of the movement against the Junta. It is understandable in this situation to carry out joint actions with the NUG against the Tatmadaw. Joint action with the NUG should in no way surrender the political independence of the workers. Independent workers’ representation within the opposition movement should be central even at this stage. However, this is not enough. What strategy the leadership adopts is also crucial.
The various armed insurgents that existed in the borderlands could not defeat the military in the past – not because of a lack of will but they simply don’t have the capacity of the military. The Tatmadaw is the second biggest military in south-east Asia with over 400,000 duty troops. In addition, the paramilitaries that work with the military is estimated to be over 100,000. Russia and China continued to supply modern weaponry for the Junta. Human rights watch reported that a Thai state-owned company continues to fund the military. From Sweden to Australia, various governments have collaborated with the military and provided high-tech facilities. More than 10% of the government’s expenditure in 2020-2021 – around £2.6 billion – was for defence. Though sanctions are now imposed on the Junta by a number of countries, there is no effort made to undermine the strength of the military. How can they be defeated with homemade bombs and ‘wooden hunting rifles’ and a few weeks of combat training?
The movement is going through a quick learning experience. There are many young people commenting on various media who now acknowledge that the three-finger salute modelled on the teen movie Hunger Games is not enough to get “what they want”. The so-called Z generation is very determined to show that it is indeed the “wrong generation to be messed with” – one of the main slogans of the youth. But if they are to leave their mark on history, it is not enough to turn to armed struggle. The brutal Tatmadaw is capable of genocide and horrific atrocities and will not hesitate to carry out mass killings. Its leaders are fighting for their own existence. They know well that the defeat will be their demise.
Armed opposition to the Junta is important and a necessity for the movement. But the Tatmadaw cannot be defeated with conventional military action or guerrilla attacks in the cities alone. As long as Tatmadaw leaders maintain their base, they will use this as an opportunity to further crackdown on the protest movement. The guerrilla methods used in the rural areas do not apply directly to the armed opposition in urban areas. Small groups and individual and random attacks on the military will be framed as ‘terrorism’ and will be used by the military to further clampdown on the opposition in the name of keeping peace and providing security. Democratically organised armed militia, along with a mass movement and strikes, will have a bigger impact. With this, the movement should aim to split the state machine and take over various aspects of the state machine, including barracks. The movement should aim to split the military and win sections of the army to the side of the mass movement.
However, the united opposition of the main parties and regional bodies, the general strike, and even armed attacks against the military have not so far resulted in any major setback for the military. This is mainly because the Tatmadaw still maintains a certain base among a section of the population and the military leaders still maintain authority among the majority of soldiers. A significant number of Buddhist sects have collaborated with the Junta in the past. The Theravada version of Buddhism that predominates in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka justifies violence – and the various sects often advocate violence and are even involved in heinous atrocities. The military still enjoys support among a key section of them. One of the largest Buddhist groups, Ma Ba Tha (‘defence of race and nation’) that was involved in the genocide in Rohingya, still maintains its close ties with the military. A section of the Bamar Buddhist population also sees the military as the only force that is holding Myanmar together from splintering into various territories. Some of the militant groups that worked with the military in the past also made a deal with the military.
This strength should be broken to end the military rule. A key right-wing pro-military Buddhist Monk Sitagu Sayada and his sect Shwe Kyin has been forced to ask the military to “restrain” from some attacks. There is no clear support among soldiers for the coup and the ongoing repression. According to one of the reports, only 20% of the military personnel are involved in the attacks. The report further states that 800 soldiers have joined the CDM. Some of the key military leaders who oppose the coup claim that many of the military personnel oppose the coup but “dare not speak out because doing so risks not only their lives but also the lives of their families”. They correctly ask the people not to treat the whole military as one homogenous body. Defectors from the military who have escaped to India, and those who bravely joined the opposition, spoke of how the military establishment is “monitoring every move” of soldiers and their families. In addition, the military is hunting down any defectors. It ultimately reflects the weakness of the military establishment – a small group at the head of the military and their families. Though the soldiers are asked to take shares (paid by their wages) in military-owned businesses, what the rank-and-file soldiers get is minimal in comparison to the lavish luxury life of its leaders.
Army rank and file
Rank-and-file soldiers benefit nothing from the coup – and the ongoing repression. The top of the military is protecting their own wealth and power. The movement should welcome dissent within the military. There should be an appeal to the military’s rank and file to break with the officer class and organise independently with their own programme – without any retreat from the opposition to the military’s atrocities.
There should not be any fear among rank-and-file members that there could be retaliation if they desert the military. The movement should take steps to protect their families. Democratically controlled soldiers and workers committees can be formed to lead the opposition to the Junta. A legitimate fear of and antagonism to the military exists, particularly among the nationally oppressed communities. Unless all democratic rights including cultural and national rights are guaranteed the existing fragile alliance cannot hold.
Myanmar, one of the most diverse countries in the world, remains a prison house of nationalities. Some territories are demanding outright independence and some demand federal rights at a minimum. The NUG and many parties linked to them have now agreed that the territories will have federal rights. This is a crucial step towards winning over seven different insurgent groups to support the NUG in April. However, the opposition must come forward to guarantee all language, cultural, religious and national rights to all the various groups – even those who have not yet joined the opposition. There should be a guarantee that there will not be a simple return back to sharing power with the head of the military or even with the NLD. A democratically elected revolutionary constituent assembly must be formed to bring together all sections of the Myanmar population to decide the future, with representation for minorities and a socialist programme that can demonstrate how the interests of the workers and oppressed sections of society can be met on the basis of ending the rule of the military and the capitalist class and instead of starting to democratically plan society, and internationalism.
This of course raises the question of what organisation and what kind of leadership will carry out this task. The NUG and its current leadership that act as a government in waiting have so far proved to be inadequate. They want ASIAN, the UN and other capitalist international institutions to recognise them as the legitimate government of Myanmar. The setting up of the PDF was also a result of no international “intervention” having taken place on behalf of the struggling masses. But the NUG leaders have not learnt the lesson from this. Many know that the lack of international action is to do with geopolitics rather than for any other reason. Despite repeated appeals for sanctions, the freezing of military assets, decisive and full action is not taken by many countries. Russia and China, with veto power in the UN, continue to protect the military. Despite human rights rhetoric, Biden’s US and other western governments have done nothing meaningful to stop the Tatmadaw. At this moment the West doesn’t have a closer ally that they can rely on to establish their continued interests against China. China now strongly opposes any “external intervention” in Myanmar. But China may intervene (like they did in the past) if the situation develops against their interests. China and the capitalist countries and institutions, do not represent the interests of the people of Myanmar.
Unite mass struggles!
Hoping for a solution from the capitalists remains a major weakness of the NUG leadership. They will not see the limitation of the appeal to the so-called international community. Instead, an appeal should be made to the workers and all oppressed sections in neighbouring countries and internationally to join forces with the resistance in Myanmar. Those who are in a struggle against the Chinese state in Hong Kong and those in the struggle against the elite in Thailand should join forces. Instead of handing back the power to the NLD and their capitalist allies, workers and youth and all the nationalities fighting the hard battle for a better future should recognise that that requires fighting to take power and decide the future.
This, of course, is not possible unless a mass organisation of the workers, involving the youth and other oppressed sections of society, is built. This is entirely possible to organise in Myanmar, at this stage, where numerous groups are being formed in workplaces and in towns and villages. The formation of a small group – or a committee alone is not enough. It should be organised with clear political aims of wresting power from the military and the capitalist class, building on the lessons of struggle worldwide. Delegates from these committees can be elected, subject to recall, to form a nationwide democratic organisation that can uncompromisingly advance the demands of the movement. Such a mass organisation can certainly defeat the military and start the process of establishing a state that will serve the interests of all, by planning the resources for all, rather than the small class of exploiters.