Aung San Suu Kyi: the bourgeoisie’s icon of peace unleashes barbarism

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Since the end of August the army of Burma (Myanmar) has been persecuting, torturing, raping and killing thousands of inhabitants of the state of Rakhine (traditionally also called Arakan), people from the Muslim Rohingya minority. This is a particularly impoverished area to the west of Burma, a country where the great majority of the population are Buddhist. Rejected and deprived of civil rights for decades, the Rohinigya have been victims of even more extreme violence since the attack on around 30 police stations by an armed group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). In this conflict the population, as ever, pays the highest price, while imperialist interests serve to aggravate the violence:
  • In the name of the “struggle against terrorism”, the central power in Burma has used the opportunity to resume control of a strategic region, rich in minerals, and coveted by a whole number of imperialist vultures: the USA, India, China, Britain...
  • The rebels themselves, like the mass of the ethnic group, have always served as pawns, manipulated by this or that power in the region. They were used by British imperialism as a “loyal” force against those calling for independence, from the 19th century until 1948. Today the rebels are widely suspected of being financed by Saudi Arabia; and there seems to be a rallying to the Rohingya cause throughout the Muslim world, from Morocco via Iran to Indonesia.

After months of violence, officially there have been 1000 killed and half a million forced to flee towards neighbouring Bangladesh. These now join the 300,000 Rohingya refugees already living in miserable and unhygienic camps in Bangladesh, having fled Burma after previous waves of persecution, such as the terrible military repression of 2012. This minority now joins the long list of minorities subjected to state violence in the region. Since 1948, for example, the Tibetan-Burmese Karen minority has suffered persecution on a scale where it is not an exaggeration to talk about genocide.

Ethnic cleansing, exclusion: specialities of capitalism

Burma itself is no exception when it comes to persecution and massacre. History is full of the most horrible examples, from the colonisation of Africa and Asia by Britain and other imperialist powers, passing through the very formation of the USA through the genocide of the native Americans to the methodical extermination of Jews and gypsies during World War Two. Since its origins, the life of capitalism has been marked by the extermination of whole populations. Although the democracies loudly chorus that the Holocaust must never happen again, fill scholarly books that call on us never to forget, make themselves the champions of freedom against the persecutions of Nazi or Stalinist totalitarianism, “ethnic cleansing” has continued and has even multiplied in the last few decades:  Chechnya, Darfour, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Tamils in Sri Lanka...and these are only the most emblematic examples, the ones that have witnessed the  worst atrocities and the most hypocritical reactions from the democratic powers, who in some cases were directly implicated in the massacres (most notably Rwanda, with France backing the Hutu killers and the US the Tutsi rebels who came to form the present government).

The decadent, rotting state of capitalism today can only accelerate and amplify this process of persecution and destruction of peoples and ethnic groups accused of being the source of all that is wrong with society, an obstacle to the development of “civilisation”. They are the easy scapegoats that no state can do without.

Aung San Suu Kyi: an icon of peace in the service of war

For a month or more, the bourgeois press and numerous political, religious and artistic figures have been appealing to the sense of responsibility of Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been in power in April 2016, asking her to put a stop to the massacre. Initially there was total silence from Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991, and known as an “intransigent” opponent of the Burmese military junta for nearly 15 years. Her imprisonment by the junta gave her a halo and when she was freed, she initiated a “democratic opening” for the country. When in mid-September she finally spoke, it was to deny the reality of the massacres and to denounce the “fake news” being put out by the western press. Presented yesterday as the Asian Nelson Mandela, a white knight for democracy, this is someone who declared that she had been born for no other reason than to “protect human rights, and I hope that I will always be seen as a champion of the Rights of Man”; someone who said that “all the repressive laws must be repealed. And laws must be introduced to protect the people’s rights”. Now she has fallen from her pedestal.

Yesterday, the whole humanitarian and diplomatic milieu, from rock stars like Bono to cineastes like Luc Besson and John Boorman, to former world leaders like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Jacques Delors, all of them saluted the determination of this “Mother Courage”. The following declaration is typical: “it’s not said often enough that the strategy of active non-violence (which is also at the roots of ecology) followed by Aung San Suu Kyi and her partisans is the real success story.  Perseverance, patience, the will to understand and to reconcile, the capacity for compromise....but also firmness and inflexibility as regards the objective, all this Aung San Suu Kyi shares with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Vaclav Havel...and today the Dalai Lama...In the face of totalitarianism, peace and democracy are possible one day, especially when you know that ‘the most patient wins out in the end’. And indeed, the evolution of Burma and the freedom of expression and action of the ‘Lady of Rangoon’ are signs of hope for the whole of Asia, for all the non-violent combats on the planet. Signs of hope for freedom, for solidarity, for ecology” (June 2012 communiqué of Europe Écologie-Les Verts (EELV).)  Are we dreaming?

Has the brave “Lady of Rangoon” betrayed, given up her principles? Is this someone who has deceived the whole world? Not at all. The reality is more down to earth. Aung San Suu Kyi is merely a representative of the capitalist world, an expression of the bourgeois class, no more, no less. This Nobel Prize winner is indeed the daughter of the general Aung San, protagonist of Burmese independence and Burmese nationalism, which from the start has always excluded the country’s ethnic minorities. Continuity, tradition....in mud and blood! She herself has declared proudly: “I have always been a  political woman. I didn’t go into politics as a defender of Human Rights or as a humanitarian worker, but as the leader of a political party”. This has the merit of being clear. The icon of peace has simply taken up her role at the head of the Burmese state, cooperating without problem with the very same soldiers who put her in prison, then put her in power, mainly with the aim of giving themselves a more respectable image and currying favour with the US

Certain people, aware of her role as a “politically correct” face of the Burmese state, have waited for at least a few worlds of compassion, an “appeal to reason” faced with the killings. But no: she salutes the army for its struggle against terrorism and in defence of the general interest. But for the bourgeoisie, defending the general interest, the national interest, means defending the capitalist state and its violence, whether democratic or not. Aung San Suu Kyi has always been loyal to her cause, the cause of capitalism and her class, the bourgeoisie. At root the stunning communiquéof the EELV is right: Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed in the tradition of all the other apostles of peace: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Lech Walesa, Desmond Tutu, Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter or Obama. A few examples:

  • Mandela was freed after 27 years in prison and came to power to found a “new South Africa”; he was made a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1993. And despite the fact that the extremely demanding role he was called upon to play demanded a person of a different calibre from Aung San Suu Kyi,  “South Africa remains a ‘third world’ state where certain high-performing sectors, diminishing in number and mainly run by whites,  sit over an ocean of poverty, corruption, and violence...the social climate is poisoned by the crying inequalities nourished by the ‘Black Diamonds’, the black nouveaux  riches, insatiable and corrupt profiteers who insolently flaunt their luxurious life-style[1]. No comment.
  • The ‘historic victory’ of Obama, the first black president of the USA, gave rise to the same kind of rhetoric: at last a black man in a command of a country ravaged by social inequality and racism. “Together we will change this country and change the world”. On 10 December 2009, Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Eight years later, according to the organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), the USA is one of the countries with the biggest gap between rich and poor. More than 30,000 people are gunned down every year in the USA, very often black people. From the military point of view, Obama continued to defend US imperialist interests in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, while involving the country in areas where it had previously been more or less absent: in Libya, in Mali and Nigeria. He set up drone bases in Niger which has frontiers with Nigeria and Mali and is close to Cameroun, while “targeted” air strikes have been carried out in Somalia and Pakistan.

Each time, these icons thrust forward as symbols of hope have played on the illusions of the exploited and diverted them from the collective, conscious struggle against capitalism and its barbarity.

Buddhism bolsters the capitalist state

We should also look at the religious dimension of the situation in Burma. The most violent rejection of the Muslim Rohingya has been expressed within the majority Buddhist population. Buddhist monks have themselves been stirring up this hatred and calling for pogroms. They haven’t hesitated to engage in physical aggression themselves, led by the ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim monk Wirathu or the “Venerable W” as he is known. This person was himself imprisoned for several years by the junta for preaching hatred.

There are some who defend Aung San Suu Kyi whatever she does. According to Alter Info, September 2017, “the great lady follows a very pure Buddhist path, and she does her best despite all the insults and lies propagated by the western media...what can she do? Favour a minority which endangers the majority? Let the US destabilise the country through the Rohingya who, for many, are really Bengalis? No, she is doing what she can for the country and the majority of its inhabitants are certainly not responsible for the crimes attributed to them”.

In reality, the “purity” of Buddhism in Burma is being used in the interest of the capitalist state, a state based on religious identity and on national chauvinism. But here again, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like many of the world religions, Buddhism originated in a revolt of the oppressed against the existing order, in particular the Indian caste system. Hence, like the religion of ancient Israel, early Christianity and Islam, it was characterised by high moral values based on an emerging vision of a common humanity. But unable to offer a real solution to the sufferings of mankind, these movements were transformed into state religions which expressed the interests of the ruling class, and even their best ethical insights were turned into justifications for preserving the existing class-divided order. In decadent and decomposing capitalism, however, the religions of the world have increasingly become naked apologists for exclusion, racism and war. Buddhism, still widely reputed to be a religion of tolerance and peace, has not been able to escape this destiny.

The situation in Burma is only a further episode in the bloody agony of the capitalist system. Behind all the indignant noises coming from the bourgeois world, imperialism’s confrontations and alliances continue. Concretely, despite the denunciations, support for the Burmese state and its army will not be dropped by the western states because it can act as a barrier to the advance of Chinese imperialism  - its push to gain direct access to the Gulf of Bengal and from there to the open sea, and  its new “Silk Road” towards Europe.

Only the proletarian struggle, the development of international class solidarity, can put an end to the scourge of scapegoating and ethnic cleansing. The road ahead is long, very long, but there isn’t another one. 

Stopio, 2.10.17



[1]. UN Economic Commission for Africa, 2013