Myanmar-Burma: the Spring Revolution against the coup

Simon Rodriguez*

The military coup d’état in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been met with a resounding response. Millions took to the streets, formed strike committees across the country and organized the general strike. In working class neighborhoods and inland cities, barricades were erected to resist the attacks of the military. Armed organizations of the oppressed nationalities agreed to fight in unity to defeat the coup. International solidarity is urgent.

On February 1, military forces under the orders of General Min Aung Hlaing stormed the Parliament to prevent the swearing in of the elected deputies. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and president Win Myint were arrested, as were hundreds of parliamentarians. Massive resistance immediately erupted in the streets against the military junta led by the de facto State Administration Council. On February 4, some 378 parliamentarians, three-quarters of the new Parliament, detained in a hotel, were sworn into office. Some of them were then placed under house arrest and managed to escape, and on February 8 they formed the Representative Committee of the Assembly of the Union (CRHP) as the legitimate government. The coup leaders responded by accusing them of treason, a crime punishable by death.

Mass mobilizations and general strike

Although most of its members are members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), this committee pronounced itself in favor of the Spring Revolution, the name given by the youth to their own process of struggle, incorporating into its proclamations democratic demands of the Civil Disobedience Movement, the strike committees and the armed groups of the oppressed nationalities, such as decreeing the prohibition of all layoffs of workers and evictions of tenants. All these sectors are trying to form a government of national unity, since the mandate of the outgoing government expired on March 31.

All this reflects that a revolution is underway. On February 22 the general strike began with massive mobilizations. As the military lost control of the streets, they restricted access to the Internet in a desperate attempt to impede the flow of information. More than 2,000 people were arrested and martial law was declared in parts of the former capital, Yangon, especially in the industrial workers’ quarters. In addition, the military, charging those who resist with treason, sedition or spreading false news, can impose death sentences, imprisonment and forced labor. The massive mobilizations were accompanied by lightning protests against offices of the UN, China and Russia, the main international supporters of the coup plotters. Commercial centers and buildings of military companies were set on fire. On March 24, a dramatic silent strike took place. The streets were deserted. In an attempt to counteract the effect, the coup leaders released hundreds of political prisoners.

While the European and US governments made symbolic announcements of sanctions against Burmese individuals and institutions, oil transnationals such as Total of France and Chevron of the US are following their “business is business” principle. U.S. hypocrisy is further evidenced by its support for the coup regime in Thailand.

Russia is the main arms supplier to the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw and provides it with advice on issues such as the monitoring of social networks. The Russian deputy defense minister was present at the March 27 military parade in the capital, Naypyido. The coup leader called Putin’s government “a true friend”. China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos also sent representatives. Simultaneously, the worst crackdown since the beginning of the coup was taking place. At least 114 people were killed by the military, totaling more than 500 fatalities since February 1, according to the Association for Assistance to Political Prisoners. The coup leaders also launched bombings against the Karen people, near the Thai border, after a rebel attack killed ten Burmese military personnel at a border post.

China is the main foreign investor in the country. Under the co-rule between the military and Suu Kyi, concessions were given to Chinese companies in the regions of the oppressed ethnic groups. Along with this process of dispossession, the military budget and repression increased. But the NLD is an electoral apparatus dependent on a messianic leadership, it lacks solid base structures and does not control the committees that have been emerging in the heat of the struggle.

Armed mass struggle

The Arakan Army, the Taang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army have jointly spoken out against the coup and for the defense of the mobilized people against repression. The Karen National Union and the Kachin Independence Army have also repudiated the coup. There are about twenty armed rebel groups, some of which have launched military operations against the de facto military government. The CRHP declared on March 17 that it recognizes the right of all ethnic groups to have their own military organization, and on March 31 declared the 2008 Constitution abolished. It has also called on governments to cut ties with the coup leaders and on businesses not to pay taxes to the illegitimate authorities. The establishment of a democratic federal republic in Burma implies a break with the oppressive nationalism that the Bamar Buddhist majority has exercised against the oppressed nationalities since independence.

Faced with persecution, some parliamentarians took refuge in the territories liberated by rebel groups. The military does not control most of the country. To these liberated territories must be added the resistance in the cities, with daily protests in more than three hundred cities of the country. There are pots and pans banging every night. With each passing day, the desertions of public officials, police and military personnel increase.

Thousands of young people and workers used homemade weapons and erected barricades to defend themselves against the military. These urban detachments, together with rebel groups in rural areas, intend to constitute a new federal army. The Kalay Region Defense and Security Force is one of the new armed organizations that has emerged as part of the process of building such a people’s army. Through internet platforms, campaigns have been conducted to fund the resistance, which raised more than $9 million in March.

There is widespread awareness of the relationship between the Burmese revolution, last year’s rebellion in Thailand and the 2019 rebellion in Hong Kong. This people-to-people solidarity has been called the “milk tea alliance” and in all these countries and processes of struggle the three-finger salute has become popular. The main expressions of international support, such as protests in front of the embassies of Burma, China and Russia, have taken place in these countries. To this solidarity of the peoples of the region, from the IWU-FI we consider that it is urgent to strengthen it with an international campaign of the organizations that claim to be democratic, of the left and the trade union organizations, in support of the Burmese revolution against the coup, raising in each country the rupture of diplomatic and economic relations with the coup government, the economic support to the revolution and the supply of arms, as well as the carrying out of mobilizations against the embassies of Myanmar, China and Russia. For the triumph of the working people, the destruction of the bourgeois armed forces and a government of the workers and popular organizations.

One third of the Burmese population is part of the oppressed ethnic or nationalities. In the case of the genocidal persecution against the Rohingyas, in 2012, the genocidal policy against them intensified. In 2017 there was a leap in the process of ethnic cleansing, with 700,000 people forcibly displaced. Since 1982 the Rohingyas have been stateless, without the right to marry or own property. Nor are the Panthay, Gurkha, Indian Burmese or Chinese Burmese recognized as citizens. But the coup d’état and the revolution brought about changes in relations between the peoples. Bamar student organizations have issued public apologies for their failure to condemn the genocide against the Rohingyas, and the Rohingyas in turn have spoken out in support of the revolution. These new bonds of solidarity are reflected in the common aspiration to create a federal republic.

A history of bourgeois military regimes

Burma, since 1824, was integrated into the British colony of India and after 1937 was administered as a separate colony. Between 1943 and 1945 it was under Japanese occupation as part of World War II and suffered terrible devastation. The Anti-Fascist People’s Liberation League ruled between 1945 and 1962, first as part of the colonial administration and, from 1948 on, as an independent government, headed by U Nu, who had previously been chancellor of the pro-Japanese puppet government. The Burmese army, led by Aung San, had also been founded in Japan and in the early years of the war fought on the Japanese side, later switching to the Allied side. The Stalinist Communist Party, applying the strategy of the popular front, tried to join the ruling nationalist coalition, although a minority sector broke away to continue the armed struggle against the British in 1946. Between 1948 and 1989 the communists developed a guerrilla war against successive nationalist governments.

Between 1962 and 1988, as a result of a military coup, a single-party Bonapartist regime was established, headed by General Ne Win and a peculiar military bourgeoisie, whose official doctrine was a compendium of nationalist and esoteric ideas called “the Burmese way to socialism”, opposed to what they considered “Marxist dogmatism”. The main industries were nationalized and autarky was the order of the day. Continued looting by the military brought the economy to ruin. Any dissidence faced arrests, torture and assassinations.

After large popular protests, in March and June 1988, Ne Win resigned from the leadership of the Socialist Program Party of Burma (SPPB) and proposed a referendum to allow the legalization of opposition parties, although the SPPB rejected it. The 8888 Uprising, so called because it began on August 8, forced the government to call an election before the end of the year. But on September 18, General Saw Maung led a new coup and proclaimed a de facto government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. He crushed the popular movement and postponed elections. When they were finally held in 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by the liberal leader Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, was the most voted party. The military did not allow the installation of the elected parliament and placed Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she received the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 1990s and 2000s were decades of major privatizations that benefited the military. In August 2007, the economic crisis led to the so-called “saffron revolution”, named after the color of the Buddhist monks’ robes. Although they succeeded in suppressing it, the military remained on the defensive. Faced with international economic sanctions, they decided to go between 2010 and 2015 through a slow controlled transition to a form of co-government under a constitution imposed in 2008 that guaranteed them immunity in civilian courts, a 25% military quota in all parliaments and control of the ministries of Defense, Borders and Interior.

The NLD accepted these conditions and participated in the 2012 and 2015 parliamentary elections, winning both times. Suu Kyi served as State Counselor, a position analogous to Prime Minister, and Chancellor between 2016 and 2021. Under co-rule with the NLD, the military continued to steal land from the peasantry and deepened oppression of the national minorities, against whom the Bamar and Buddhist majority governments have waged an uninterrupted war since the country’s independence. The military continued to run numerous enterprises and to participate in joint ventures with foreign capital. When the Party for Union, Solidarity and Development, the military’s electoral arm, lost the November 2020 elections in a landslide, the military alleged electoral fraud. On February 1, 2021, the coup was carried out. What escaped their calculations was that a revolutionary mass mobilization would be unleashed.

* Article written on April 1 for the magazine International Correspondence #46, publication of the International Workers’ Unity-Fourth International.