Protests in Burma (Myanmar)
In August this year some 100,000 protesters were seen pouring on to the streets of Mandalay to protest against a 500% increase in the cost of fuel as a result of a government decision to abolish its fuel subsidy. This has led to prices of many basic necessities rising very fast:
Since last week, rice has risen by nearly 10%, edible oils by 20%, meat by about 15% and garlic and eggs by 50%, according to aid workers based in the city
who monitor local market prices. A standard plate of Burmese noodles has nearly tripled in the past week …
“‘These prices are crippling for most residents in Rangoon … They could hardly afford food before. Now their weekly budget for essential foodstuffs is going to buy even less – their purchasing power has been reduced by more than 25% virtually overnight'”
(Larry Jagan, ‘Fuel price policy explodes in Myanmar’,
24 October 2007).
The protesters included not only poor workers and peasants who will be the hardest hit by the price rises, but also thousands of monks.
The media of the imperialist world presented these protests not as what they are – i.e., protests against the withdrawal of the fuel subsidy and rising prices – but as demands for “democracy” and regime change in favour of the pro-US National League for Democracy which supposedly won elections in 1990 whose result the Burmese military refused to recognise.
Burma’s military junta eventually responded to these protests by force – killing several protesters, including a freelance Japanese journalist – and rounding up and arresting hundreds of others. A month later it would seem that the protest movement has been contained.
It has to be admitted that if fuel prices in Britain were to double overnight, there would undoubtedly be mass protests here as well, which all progressive parties would support. Such protests are quite likely to be met with repressive measures, such as the mounted police charges, truncheon assaults and mass arrests we witnessed at the time of the heroic 1984-1985 miners’ strike, and naturally this state violence would be robustly denounced by us. But, in relation to Burma, if one factors the realities of the international class struggle into the equation, it immediately becomes clear that the knee-jerk reaction adopted by the so-called left, with its unreserved condemnation of the Burmese regime’s crackdown on protests, instead of serving the interests of the Burmese masses, merely gives succour to imperialist designs on Burma.
What makes this conclusion most obvious is the fact that the greatest political representatives of western imperialism, and the biggest enemies of the working class and oppressed peoples of the world, including those of Burma, have seized on the Burmese protests as an excuse not only to condemn the Burmese government but also to subject it to swingeing sanctions, in the name of protecting human rights in Burma, of course. It is hardly possible here in a short article to list all the countries where George Bush and western imperialism generally ignores the whole question of human rights, and indeed positively encourages their breach, such as in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc., to say nothing of the gross human rights abuses perpetrated directly by US imperialism in Guantanamo Bay, as a result of which the whole world is aware that when imperialism talks of human rights in any given country, it is purely and simply an excuse for their intervention in the internal affairs of that country – at best a stick to beat its government with, and worst a call for forcible regime change.
Anglo-American imperialism, with the blood of over 2 million Iraqis on its hands, is hardly in a position to condemn the Burmese junta for the killings, however regrettable, of a dozen protesters. At the time these lines are being written, British imperialism is busy rolling out the red carpet for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whose government subjects its citizens to unbearably medieval conditions of existence. The regime regularly beats up women who dare to go out in public without a head scarf or to get behind the wheel of a car, never mind about the denial of the franchise to its citizens, and the right to elect their own government. The Saudi autocracy denies several million foreigners, who have lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for decades, the right to Saudi citizenship. They do not have the right to practise any religion other than Islam and, along with Saudi citizens, are denied trade-union rights and basic civil liberties. Yet these issues were not even raised by the ever-so-democratic Gordon Brown government with his autocratic Majesty King Abdullah, lest it offend the latter and put a spoke in the wheel of lucrative oil and armaments and other commercial deals secured by British monopolies with so much effort, and so much bribery. While itself committing mass genocide, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, while ignoring massive human rights violations, as in Palestine, Saudi Arabia and many other places, the Gordon Brown government, just like its Washington counterpart, chooses to target, almost as a diversionary tactic, the violations, real or imagined, of human rights in countries such as Burma, Iran, Syria, the DPRK and Sudan (Darfur). This breathtaking hypocrisy is so patently obvious that one would be embarrassed even to have to mention it if it were not for the fact that there are enough gullible people around who fall for it, especially the ‘left’ in the centres of imperialism.
What is it then that US imperialism in particular wants from Burma which the current regime is refusing to supply? The answer lies in Burma’s riches and strategic position on the globe. Burma is well supplied with not only oil but also gas in addition to diamonds, other precious stones, gold and forestry resources. Through the sale of oil and gas in 2005 Burma made $1.5 billion (30.2% of its total exports). It has 30 trillion cubic feet of untapped gas in its Arakan province alone, and is known to have further huge deposits of hydrocarbons. The principal customers for this oil and gas are first and foremost Thailand, but also China and India.
But Burma has never refused to sell oil to the west. The reason that it is at present not supplying the west is down to the fact that US imperialism’s sanctions on Burma have forced certain western imperialist companies to withdraw from the country. Until recently Premier Oil, a Scottish company, was happily exploiting Burmese gas under Production Sharing Contracts on sites M13 and M14 in the Yetagun gas field located in the Andaman Sea, 200 km offshore. Chevron still has major interests there. Texaco and Nippon Oil were also awarded a Production Sharing Contract. But in 2002, as a result of sanctions pressure from the US, Premier was forced to sell out its interests to the Malaysian company, Petronas, and to withdraw its operations from the region.
So it seems that it is definitely not the Burmese government that is preventing western companies exploiting Burmese hydrocarbon resources, but only sanctions unilaterally imposed by US imperialism. These sanctions were originally imposed in 1997 by Bill Clinton, and subsequently endorsed by Bush when he took office, and have at least twice since then been strengthened.
It is therefore not exclusion from access to Burma’s gas and oil which is causing the imperialists to attempt to bring about regime change in Burma – in that sense the situation is different to that prevailing in Darfur – what imperialism desires is not mere access to Burma’s riches but exclusive access. In addition, there is the question of Burma’s geostrategic position at the western end of the Straits of Malacca that run between Malaysia and Indonesia. Through this particular sea lane, 80% of oil destined for the far east, including Japan, South Korea but most especially China, is shipped. It is, however, a very narrow strait that would be very easy for US imperialism to blockade provided it had adequate military naval and aerial bases in the region from which to do this. It has been seeking such bases for many years but all countries, including Burma, have refused (with the exception of Indonesia which has allowed an air base at Banda Aceh in the northern part of that country). This is the real ‘crime’ of which the Burmese generals are guilty and the reason why they are being targeted for regime change. For all their faults, the Burmese generals reflect their countrymen’s strong national pride and determination never again to be subjected to the foreign domination which caused them untold suffering from 1874 to 1948, the years of British rule, with a period of Japanese occupation in the Second World War.
The sanctions war
For this ‘crime’, not only the Burmese government but also the Burmese people are to be severely punished by a vicious sanctions regime designed to undermine their attempts to build up their economy. Because of US sanctions one of Burma’s most labour intensive industries [i.e., one which provided jobs and incomes to thousands of ordinary Burmese people], its garments manufacturing industry, has been drastically reduced.
However, the sanctions regime (pursued not only by the US but also the EU) has not affected the Burmese economy nearly as much as the imperialists had hoped, because whatever income Burma has lost, it has more than made up with increased sales of gas and oil. In fact in 2003, Burma saw its traditional trade deficit turn into a trade surplus for the first time (thanks in large part to a pipeline opened in 2000 to pump gas direct to Thailand). Contracts for export to China and India have increased and are likely to increase further in the future.
Because of sanctions, the United States has succeeded in driving Burma more comprehensively into alliance with China. Far from persuading Burma to give the US military facilities on its seaboard, it has on the contrary seen Burma affording various facilities to China. Above all, a pipeline from China straight through Burma to the Burmese shore is under construction that will enable China to pump the oil it purchases from Africa and the Middle East, etc., direct from the Burmese coast to China, saving over half the sea voyage that oil currently has to make to China from the Middle East, and avoiding having to pass through the vulnerable Straits of Malacca. In the circumstances, one can understand why the White House is incandescent to the point of incoherence in its fulmination about human rights in Burma!
US interference in Burma
In its struggle to encircle China, the US secret services have been working flat out, and there is no question that the protests in Burma recently were to a large extent engineered by the US. Even the price hike in fuel prices which sparked off the process was “recommended” by US imperialism’s financial arm, the IMF and World Bank. As F William Eghdahl writes in the
of 17 October 2007. (‘The geopolitical stakes of ‘saffron revolution”)
“The tragedy of Myanmar… is that its population is being used as a human stage prop in a drama scripted in Washington by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the George Soros Open Society Institute, Freedom House and Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution, a US intelligence asset used to spark ‘non-violent’ regime change around the world on behalf of the US strategic agenda…
“In reality the US State Department has recruited and trained key opposition leaders from numerous anti-government organisations in Myanmar. It has poured the relatively huge sum (for Myanmar) of more than $25 annually into NED activities in promoting regime change in Myanmar since at least 2003. The US regime change effort, its Saffron Revolution, is being largely run, according to informed reports, out of the US Consulate General in bordering Chain Mai, Thailand. These activists are recruited and trained, in some cases directly in the US, before being sent back to organise inside Myanmar. The US’s NED admits to funding key opposition media including the New Era Journal, Irawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio”.
By its efforts to bring about regime change in Burma, US imperialism is succeeding most effectively in consolidating Burma’s alliance with China which does not harbour such intentions but has a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Democracy in Burma
The harm caused to the interests of the masses by the US’s efforts to undermine the Burmese economy at their expense – albeit on the pretext of bringing democracy to Burma – does increase local resentment at Burma’s unelected bourgeois military regime. But, the US alternative of an elected comprador bourgeois civil regime could hardly improve the lot of the Burmese masses, and indeed, the calls by opposition parties, such as Aung Su Kyi’s National League for Democracy for sanctions to be strengthened, or for IMF discipline to be imposed, do limit mass enthusiasm in support of the opposition.
Even if one accepts the argument that the Burmese regime is less than desirable, the right to change this regime belongs exclusively to the Burmese people and not the self-appointed imperialist crusaders whose own conduct is marked by an unbroken chain of massive genocides and ceaseless predatory wars to safeguard the maximum profits of their respective monopoly corporations.
As for China, its main concern is to ensure that Burma remains a part of its ‘string of pearls’ (i.e., friendly countries surrounding it) and outside the deadly grip of US imperialism, thus preventing the US from seizing control of the Straits of Malacca. Chinese support for Burma is aimed at strengthening Burma’s capacity for an independent existence, free from imperialist intermeddling, and is no way an endorsement of the Burmese regime’s internal policies on questions such as elections, etc.
In Burma the military regime is probably not as unpopular as it is made out to be by our imperialist media. S D Muni, an opponent of the Burmese junta, in ‘Monks, masses and military’ in
Indian Foreign Affairs,
is forced to admit that “
the labelling of the rebellious monks as externally inspired eroded their credibility in the socio-political context of Myanmar, in the apolitical sections of society, where foreigners have historically been looked upon with distrust and suspicion. This helped the Generals to mobilise stage-managed but impressive rallies in their support”
19 October 2007).
Even Burmese monks are not overwhelmingly supporting the protests – only a minority of younger monks, many of whom have gone back to civilian life now the protests seem to be over, which does give credence to the accusation put forward by the junta that many of these were not genuine monks but
‘made in America’. The Sangha (i.e., the Buddhist establishment) continues to support the Generals as it has done throughout.
And the ordinary people who naturally protested against the fuel price hikes do not necessarily seek their emancipation through the comprador elements that US imperialism is supporting, while at the same time the possibility of a genuine people’s democratic revolution is for the moment remote. There was a communist insurgency in Burma between 1948 and 1989, but this gradually lost its momentum (because of errors made by the communists on the one hand and the cunning, as well as brutal, policies pursued by the Burmese bourgeoisie on the other) and finally collapsed in 1989 when the party masses rebelled against the leadership.
In view of this, at the present moment the only alternative to the Burmese junta would be the installation of a pro-imperialist comprador regime put into office through the ballot box in the style of the Orange and Rose ‘Revolutions’ in the Ukraine and Georgia respectively, all the better to serve the interests of imperialist exploitation of the Burmese people and tightening the ring around the People’s Republic of China. This is not a democratic result that anybody who has the interests of the oppressed people, as well as the proletarians of the west at heart can desire.
The military junta’s increased trade with neighbouring countries has brought benefits to Burma in the form of the trade surplus it now enjoys, but of course cheap imports – which benefit ordinary people as purchasers – are also undermining local economic activity – causing ordinary people loss as producers. In order to boost the economy and create thousands of jobs, the junta has resorted to Keynesian recipes of public spending, building a new capital at Naypidaw and a massive new internet and communications technology centre called Yadanapon Cyber City near this capital. This has produced inflation, as Keynesian practices invariably do. This in turn has led to demands for increases in wages which have had to be met, as a result of which the government’s increased income from its gas revenue has been quickly dissipated. Hence the ill-starred attempt to balance the budget by slashing fuel subsidies.
Any bourgeois government of Burma, whether military or civil, would face exactly the same problems, as indeed would an elected comprador government. Burma’s problems cannot be solved within the framework of capitalism.
It does have a long communist tradition, and it is on this tradition that the communist movement needs to be renewed in Burma. Only such a movement would stand a chance of being able to lead the Burmese people out of the clutches of the Generals, imperialism and the latter’s comprador puppets alike.