Burma/Myanmar 2021: a new phase in a long struggle for freedom

Richard Abernethy

Summary: Long struggle for freedom and against military dictatorship enters a new phase, as mass protests sweep the country — Editors

The long struggle for freedom and against military dictatorship in Burma (Myanmar) has entered a new phase in recent days, with mass protests sweeping the country against the coup of 1 February.

Modes of protest include clanging pots and pans (traditionally, a way of driving out evil spirits), street demonstrations, and a strike wave that involves workers in health, the garment industry and construction. The protests seem to be mostly self-organised, independently of the National League for Democracy (NLD), most of whose leaders are under arrest. It is important to recognise and pay tribute to the courage of the protesters. Similar upsurges in 1988 and 2007 were put down by the military with much bloodshed. Today (9 February), demonstrations have been attacked with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets.

One question is why Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hliang resorted to a coup at all. The constitution of 2010 allowed only limited powers to the elected, civilian government, reserving the greater share of real, hard power to the Tatmadaw (armed forces). Moreover, the NLD government, led by State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, has been compliant with the military. In 2019, Suu Kyi appeared before the International Criminal Court at The Hague in to deny the military’s guilt of genocide against the Rohingya. Even so, Min may have feared that the NLD’s landslide victory in the election of November 2020 might lead to a slippage of power away from the military. The coup was justified by a Trumpian claim of electoral fraud. If Min calculated that rounding up the leadership of the NLD would prevent widespread protest, he got it badly wrong.

The coup seems unlikely to make much difference to Myanmar’s international status. China likewise is putting down democratic stirrings in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and persecuting a Muslim minority, the Uighurs. Most neighbouring countries in South-East Asia are under some form of authoritarian rule. The Burmese military are accustomed to ignoring international condemnation.

According to Burma Campaign UK:

Governments, including the UK have issued statements of concern or condemning the coup, but none have yet announced any practical action.

The top demand of human rights activists in Burma is to sanction military companies. The military has a huge business empire in Burma including everything from beer to toothpaste, mobile phone networks and ports. International companies enter into joint ventures with these companies or provide equipment or services to them.

Sanctions on military companies would stop international companies doing business with the military and stop them making profits which pay for coups and genocide.[1]

Internationally, Suu Kyi’s reputation is in tatters due to her denial of atrocities against the Rohingya. At home, she remains popular and many of the protesters carry her portrait. Until now, there has been little sign of sympathy for the Rohingya within Myanmar. Now that may be starting to change, with some expressions of mutual solidarity passing between Rohingya in exile and participants in the anti-coup protests.[2]  In times of struggle, ideas can change quickly.

Myanmar joins an array of countries and regions around the world where popular, democratic movements are contesting authoritarian, repressive regimes – others include Belarus, Russia and Hong Kong. The workers’ movement is a core element within this protest. And there are at least early signs of a rejection of Bamar/Buddhist chauvinism and – better late than never – recognition of the Rohingya.

 

Footnotes

[1] Campaign News | Burma Campaign UK

[2] https://time.com/5936604/myanmar-coup-rohingya/

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