By Yanis Iqbal
On 12 February, 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution in which it criticized the removal of Myanmar’s democratically elected government by the military, locally known as Tatmadaw. The Council also called urgently for the immediate and unconditional release of all persons arbitrarily detained, including State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint and others, and the lifting of the state of emergency.
As the international community condemns the coup and shows support for Suu Kyi, it is important not to whitewash the latter as a savior of the Burmese masses. Neither is she a doyen of democracy nor a courageous anti-military leader; she is the face of an alternative ruling class project which aims to incorporate the Tatmadaw into a new geo-economic architecture. The coup is the culmination of that intra-elite power struggle.
Intra-elite Power Struggle
The military regime that came to power in 1988 under Saw Maung looked to capitalism to provide a solution to the crisis that had led to social upheaval, and thus set in motion a process that aimed at breaking down the old state-owned economy and moving towards greater marketization. Their plan was not to sell off to private capitalists, but to transform themselves into the owners of the means of production. They proceeded to privatize a section of the economy, while holding on to key sectors via their control of the state sector.
Eventually, the military’s plan gave rise to a clique of generals who control, through straw men, Myanmar’s biggest corporations, as well as the lucrative trade in jade and other precious stones, narcotics and timber. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) tried to re-configure this model of military-dominated capitalism by implementing an aggressively pro-market reform agenda that included mobilizing Western and East Asian investment into regular channels. Her “Myanmar Sustainable Economic Development Plan” allowed foreign capitalists to invest up to 35% in local companies, as well as holding stakes of up to 35% in Myanmar companies traded on the Yangon Stock Exchange.
The tussle between the NLD and the military reflected itself in different domains. However, the former always maintained a defensive posture – in the hope that by doing the junta a favour, it would hopefully grant them the minimal democratic reforms it wants. On the one hand, Suu Kyi took over some of the military’s positions – for instance, in the peace process. She also seemed to have taken over the military’s version of establishing a centralized state under the domination of the Bamar-Buddhist majority.
On the other hand, Suu Kyi feared the actions of the military. She avoided convening the National Defense and Security Council (NDSC), the institution responsible for discussing security matters. The 11-member body comprising the highest legislative, executive and military players has the right to take over power during a state of emergency.
Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing repeatedly demanded that Suu Kyi convene the NSCD, while she appointed her own security advisers. The NLD feared being forced to call a state of emergency (e.g. over Rakhine state), which could allow the Commander-in-Chief to take over power and dissolve parliament. Both the NLD and the military unsuccessfully attempted to increase their power in the NDSC by bringing in constitutional amendments that would have altered the organ’s composition in their favour.
Neoliberalism with Ethno-racial Characteristics
Insofar that Suu Kyi wanted to establish the complete hegemony of free market on the soil of Myanmar by striking compromises with the military, she generated a politico-economic framework that had excluded the common people. Positioned between the Tatmadaw and multinational companies, she became impervious to the concrete demands of millions of Burmese.
The majority of Myanmar’s population has not been able to see the prosperity that Suu Kyi promised. One in four remained poor in 2017, according to the World Bank. Nearly half of those polled by the Asian Barometer Survey (ABS) in 2019 were worried about losing their livelihood, more than twice as many as in 2015. Some 54% said they were unable to access basic services, such as water, public transport and health care, up from 48% five years ago.
Suu Kyi’s government repressed a surge of labor organizing over the past five years. In particular, garment workers waged a massive organizing drive that was repressed by both the bosses and the government. In May 2020, six labor leaders were arrested for leading a strike that violated COVID-19 regulations in a factory in Yangon’s Dagon Seikkan Township.
The NLD administration also remained quiet over the Tatmadaw’s continued atrocities against the working class. In jade mining sites such as Hpakan, young children are sent to gather jade while facing brutal conditions, including mudslides. An estimated 1.13 million five to seventeen year olds are trapped in child labor in Myanmar. This means one in every 11 children is deprived of their childhood, health, and education.
Failing on the economic front, Suu Kyi used inhumane ethno-racial tactics to divert citizens’ attention from relevant issues. Silent support for increasing mobilization of ultranationalist Buddhist groups contributed to the outbreak of extremist attacks and anti-Muslim sentiments. Hate speech increased, particularly via new social media communities. Sectarian violence and military clearance operations drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.
Governmental collaborationism with the Tatmadaw ensured that the Rohingya were left with no avenues for justice. One example of this is that the seven soldiers who were convicted and jailed for the death of 10 Rohingya men and boys during the 2017 military operations were released less than a year into their 10-year prison sentences. But the two journalists who reported the killing spent more than 16 months behind bars on charges of obtaining state secrets.
In the absence of the rule of law, the international community called for an independent investigation resulting in accusations of crimes against humanity. In December 2019, Suu Kyi had to defend her country from accusations of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Domestically, both the government and the military used the increasing international criticism to rally their supporters behind them and to forge a unity, which is otherwise lacking in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
On Suu Kyi’s watch, the country has seen a regression in press freedom, expanded usage of anti-defamation laws and a general crackdown on speech. In 2020, independent news organizations such as Karen News, and Rakhine-based Development Media Group and Narinjara News, were banned from local telecommunication operator’s networks by the government for allegedly disseminating “fake news”.
Yangon-based Khit Thit Media, Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar, and Sittwe-based Narinjara News faced anti-terrorism charges for publishing interviews with the outlawed Arakan Army, which has been fighting for autonomy in the Rakhine and Chin states of western Myanmar. Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 139 out of 180 in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, while Freedom House categorized Myanmar as “Not Free”.
Defeating the Military
The protest movement that has broken out since the coup took place is the biggest since 1988. But the NLD will not take this movement to its final conclusion; it will stop half-way and maintain its strategy of cooperation with the Tatmadaw. Despite popular demands to amend the existing constitution, which gives too much power to the military leaders, the NLD had largely remained silent on that issue. Even with a majority in parliament and with full authority to make legislation, the NLD continued with its non-confrontational approach.
The NLD leaders instead focused on bringing in foreign investment in an attempt to develop a stable capitalist economy, while letting the military enjoy effective government control. NLD had no confidence that its mass support could overcome the military. The party feared that if they mobilised mass support it could get “out of control” and threaten their pro-capitalist project. Now, the working people of Myanmar are going to pay the price of this failure.
During the 8-8-88 uprising (8 August 1988), Suu Kyi demobilized the militant workers’ and student movements to turn them into a base for her electoral ambitions. At that time, the pro-democracy movement hesitated in ousting the junta once and for all. Now, students and workers must build a mass movement that does not repeat this mistake.