Myanmar (Burma): Former dissidents, new government elect, fail to oppose ethno-religious persecution

Richard Abernethy

Summary: As the National League for Democracy (NLD) takes over the government of Myanmar (Burma), its credentials as a force for freedom and human rights have been tested by the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority people in this predominantly Buddhist country. So far, the NLD is failing that test by not denouncing this religious and ethnic oppression or standing up for minority rights — Editors

As the National League for Democracy (NLD) takes over the government of Myanmar (Burma), its credentials as a force for freedom and human rights have been tested by the persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority people in this predominantly Buddhist country. So far, the NLD is failing that test by not denouncing this religious and ethnic oppression or standing up for minority rights. It is not too late. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the NLD, could draw on her immense prestige and popularity to champion civil rights for all the peoples of Myanmar, most urgently the Rohingya. If she will not, NLD activists could and should do so. Failing that, the NLD’s rule is degenerate before it even begins and the struggle for basic human rights — as well as deeper social change — must pass to new forces of opposition.

Myanmar has a population of about 60 million, though demographic and economic data are unreliable. Much of the periphery is remote and beyond the effective authority of the central government. Large portions of the economy are either illegal per se (cultivation of opium and processing it into heroin) or concealed to evade taxation. Moreover, statistics are manipulated for ideological reasons.

Myanmar is a land of many peoples. Territorial states almost invariably contain national minorities, but Myanmar is an extreme case both for sheer diversity and lack of integration. The majority and politically dominant people are the Bamar (Burmese) who occupy the Ayeyarwady (Irriwady) river delta in the south and the central plain around the middle reaches of the river. Historically and to a considerable extent still today, the Bamar live by cultivating rice in paddy fields. Their surplus product sustained the classic Burmese civilization of royal palaces, Buddhist temples and monasteries.

The minority peoples live mainly in the hill country or in valleys and coastal tracts separated from the centre by mountain ranges. The government recognises 135 nationalities within the country.
The principal indigenous minorities are the Shan, the Kayin (Karen), Kachin, Rakhaing (Arakanese), Chin and Mon. Some minorities have practically autonomous statelets in their own territories, financed by exports of gems or opium/heroin, with their own armies, alternating between periods of fighting and ceasefire with the central state.

After half a century of military rule, the armed forces (tatmadaw) are relaxing their grip on power to the extent of allowing a limited form of bourgeois democracy. The elections of November 2015 were held under the constitution of 2008, which retains one quarter of seats in parliament for the military. Winning a landslide in the seats open to democratic election, the NLD obtained an overall majority. This time the military accepted the election results. The constitution contains a clause preventing a citizen who has a spouse or children who are foreign nationals from becoming president. This was devised to exclude Aung San Suu Kyi. Crucially, the tatmadaw are autonomous and will not take orders from the president, but only from their own commander-in-chief.

About 80 percent of the population live in the countryside and almost 90 percent follow the Theravada Buddhist faith. Buddhism is pervasive in everyday life. Buddhist temples are not only places of worship but community and information centres, guest houses and providers of welfare to the poor and ill. Young men live for a while as monks on coming of age. In this land of many ethnic divisions, where the masses have long been excluded from political power and are last to benefit from economic development, the military regime has used Buddhism as a unifying ideology and a token of Burmese identity.

As adherents of another world religion, Myanmar’s Muslims are excluded from the concept of a Buddhist nation and state. In the case of the Rohingya, it is also claimed that they are not indigenous to Burma, having migrated from what is now Bangladesh during the British colonial period. The Rohingya, the main Muslim group in Myanmar, live as a minority in the coastal state of Rakhine (Arakan). The Rohingya themselves and their supporters point out that there has been a Muslim presence in the area since the fifteenth century at least. Whatever their historic origins, the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations and have no other home. After independence they were a recognised ethnic group but were deprived of that status after the military takeover. In 1982 the military passed a law taking away their citizenship. In 2012, mobs attacked and burned Rohingya districts in Rakhine state. Thousands of Rohingya fled, some trying to reach neighbouring countries by sea, only to be turned back by unsympathetic governments unwilling to accept refugees. Many remain confined in squalid camps guarded by troops. Their plight has received considerable attention from the international media and international NGOs have been able to offer some help, but their situation remains very bad.

Myanmar and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) are two countries where Buddhist chauvinism has become a potent force, driving persecution of ethnic and religious minorities. The change of name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka (Holy Lanka) was part of the alignment of state power with Buddhist identity. Sri Lanka retained parliamentary government, but dominated by rich Sinhala landowners, who are Buddhists. The primary targets of oppression were the Tamils, who are mainly Hindus. Ceylon once had a remarkably promising Left, but the main parties gravitated towards Sinhala chauvinism. While the island was divided by civil war, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (Tamil Tigers) persecuted Muslims and others in the areas they controlled. After the defeat of the Tamils, a new Buddhist-versus-Muslim oppression has emerged.

In Myanmar, the 969 movement was set up by Buddhist monks, in its own words “to oppose a jihad against Buddhists in Burma”. (969 is an auspicious number in Burmese Buddhist numerology). It claims that this jihad, though sometimes violent, is more often financial, consisting of overseas subsidies to Muslim businesses, and demographic, as Muslims with their “huge polygamous families are rapidly outbreeding the indigenous population”. 969 has been able to organise an extensive boycott, calling on Buddhists “to shop only at outlets displaying the 969 sign, which authenticates them as jihad-free businesses”. 969 has expressed support for the English Defence League, which likewise deals in Islamophobia.

Connections between 969, the military and the NLD are complex. The monk Wirathu who leads 969 was imprisoned by the military between 2003 and 2010, but more recently President Thein Sein has said that 969 is “just a symbol of peace” and Wirathu is “a son of Lord Buddha”. 969 has accused NLD of being infiltrated by Muslims, but apparently has sympathisers within the NLD. At all events, NLD has been reluctant to criticise 969. This is a marked regression from the outlook of Burma’s independence leaders, including Aung San, father of Suu Kyi, who wanted national unity in a secular state. We do not know why Aung San Suu Kyi, who is renowned internationally as a champion of human rights for her many years as a dissident and political prisoner, is apparently willing to abandon the Rohingya to their fate (despite being urged to help them by the world’s most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama) but we must take account of it in our analysis of the country and its prospects.

Ever since the military took control in 1962 they have dominated the economy, though the form of this domination has varied over time. The “Burmese Road to Socialism” from 1962 to 1988 was an attempt to build national state-capitalism, isolated so far as possible from the world system. After the popular uprising of 1988 this course was abandoned. From being nationalised, enterprises passed into the private ownership of officers, their relatives and associates. Multinational corporations entered the country by way of joint ventures with the state. Both systems retarded the rise of an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. Neither permitted independent unions of workers or peasants.

While basic infrastructure was neglected, the regime built a lavish new capital, Naypyidaw (“Abode of Kings”). In complete contrast to the crowds and bustle of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay, Naypyidaw is described by visitors as an empty city, lived in mainly by the elite, civil servants and the service workers who tend to their needs. Presumably that was the point, to distance the rulers from the masses. That may begin to change under the new government.

Under Burmese law, the state is “ultimate owner of all lands and natural resources”. Land is leased out by the state to millions of small farmers, most of whom still use traditional methods, ox-drawn ploughs and scythes. The government may stipulate the type of crop to be grown, and has the right to buy a certain quantity at a price which it sets. If the tenant fails to meet this quota, the government can take back the land. In practice this power is not always used, especially in cases of flood or crop failure, but its very existence is a cause of insecurity to the peasant farmer. The rural infrastructure is very undeveloped. Most homes are not connected to the electricity grid and the poor condition of the roads makes transport of rice from farm to city very expensive. Low prices for rice in recent years have pushed farmers into distress as they simply cannot earn enough to cover their costs. This leads to borrowing from money-lenders at extortionate rates. The state has tried to address this by expanding credit, making high-quality seeds available and encouraging farmers to grow secondary crops such as bananas and mangos. Nevertheless, many farmers are abandoning the land, often to join the exodus of migrant workers to other countries. Peasants are also being dispossessed by land grabs, where the land is wanted by the state or corporations for other purposes, such as mineral extraction. Where they are close to mining operations, peasant farmers also suffer from pollution.

Industry is mainly extractive. Natural wealth includes rubies, emeralds and jade, gold and copper, oil and natural gas, and teak. This has brought great wealth to the elite while conditions for the workers are harsh and dangerous.

According to United Nations figures, more than one third of Burmese children aged from seven to sixteen work for a living. One such child worker is eleven-year-old Chit Toke, who unloads baskets full of gravel from boats, to supply the booming construction industry in Yangon. Each basket weighs more than 19 kilograms (42 pounds). If he can haul that basket 100 times each day over a 30 metre (100 foot) path, including a narrow wooden gangplank, he can earn 3,500 kyats ($3.70). (Esther Htusan, Huffington Post, 12 June 2015).

Because Myanmar lags behind other South-East Asian countries in development, many Burmese go abroad to seek work, so that there is an external proletariat of over three million workers, chiefly in Thailand but also in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. A minority are educated and qualified Burmese who work in professional, technical and administrative jobs. Most have to take arduous or menial work, especially in fishing, fish processing, construction, agriculture, restaurants and tourism — and the sex industry. The many problems of this life include unsafe working conditions, lack of employment rights, abuse or extortion by officials, and in the worst cases modern day slavery, people trafficking and violence.

The NLD has announced five “pillars” of its economic strategy: fiscal prudence, lean and efficient government, revitalising agriculture, monetary and fiscal stability and functioning infrastructure. It aims for “an investment friendly environment and will encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) so long as it complies with domestic laws and is committed to international human rights standards. The vision is of a “normal” (or idealised) capitalism; how much the NLD can or will do for workers’ rights remains to be seen.

In 2012 the Federation of Trade Unions — Myanmar (FTUM) and its leadership returned from exile. Since then, according to IndustriALL Global Union, more than 1,400 local unions have been set up and membership is growing rapidly. This seems to be part of a wider trend across South-East Asia for unions to grow. We must welcome and encourage this trend so that the working class becomes a real power in the region.

We may hope for the emergence of a real socialist movement, within and around Myanmar’s burgeoning trade union movement. A movement for real socialism, understood as a free and classless society, would need to differentiate itself very sharply from the so-called “Burmese Road to Socialism”, which far from giving control to workers and peasants, placed them under the command of the state. The social basis for this movement would be an alliance of radical intellectuals, workers and peasants. It would no doubt include people currently on the left of the NLD. Such a movement could push back against the Buddhist chauvinists and campaign for civil rights for all, most urgently the Rohingya.

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