With the recent military coup in Myanmar, the army officially took back power. But had it really ever left? The Myanmar army, a central institution of the state and, historically, the gangster in chief, has been imposing its dictatorship and making the most of its position for decades. It is, in fact, the only force still able to maintain order, stability and unity in a country of more than 130 different ethnic groups, where ethnic divisions and conflicts are legion. Because of this the imperialist appetites of powers such as China, Russia, the US and India focus on the army, which only serves to intensify tensions in this highly strategic region of Asia. The Myanmar army has usually asserted its interests by force, with open support from Chinese and Russian imperialism.
Despite the 2015 election and the handover to a façade of democratic government, the first since 1961, the February 1st coup was part of the logic of permanent military domination by an all-powerful army that has never ceased to be a state within a state since independence in 1948. Burma (as the country was known until 1989) has been ruled without interruption by generals like Aung San Suu Kyi's own father who was assassinated by rivals in 1947. The icon of democracy, supposedly the face of peace, has now been overthrown by soldiers who previously arrested her, then imprisoned her for many years, finally bringing her to power in 2015. Aung San Suu Kyi was able to come to an accommodation with these same soldiers without a moment's hesitation, unscrupulously supporting the bloody repression of the Rohingyas in 2017. In fact, the Burmese armed forces have never relinquished power, granting themselves key ministries and a substantial percentage of seats in parliament.
An expression of sinking into decomposition...
On 22 December 2020, the head of the Tatmadaw (the official name of Myanmar's armed forces) reaffirmed that the armed forces must also play a leading role in the defence of "national policies, the sasana [Buddhist religion], traditions, customs and culture". He could have added that the Burmese army's power is not only military or "cultural" (sic), it is also economic. The army has had control of the country's economy since the coup of 1962. Today, officially, it has 14% of the national budget, although in reality it's much more, when corruption and largely opaque financing are taken into account.
In addition to its involvement in jade mining, the teak wood industry, precious stones and (the icing on the cake), the highly profitable drug trade, the Myanmar military also benefits from the dividends reaped by a conglomerate it owns, the Myanmar Economic Holding Public Company Ltd (MEHL), one of the country's most powerful and corrupt organisations. MEHL has expanded its influence into virtually every economic sector, from breweries to tobacco, mining and textile manufacturing. Historically, for the capitalist state, it is often the army which, as a last resort, ensures national cohesion and the defence of bourgeois interests in situations of internal division and confrontation. Myanmar is certainly no exception, but it is a caricatural example. If the army has ensured a certain unity of the country in the face of ethnic divisions, its interests remain in "divide and rule", to guarantee its profits, to maintain the dissensions of the various bourgeois factions in order to maintain its power.
The coup led by General Ming Aung Hliang is the latest incarnation of the process of growing chaos and decomposition where it is sometimes difficult to get one's bearings in such a maelstrom of confrontations, violence, ethnic cleansing and barbarism... And all the street demonstrations of the population in defence of the bourgeois clique of Aung San Suu Kyi, this faith in democratic illusions, all this only promises ever more chaos and repression. Every crisis in Burma, as in 1988 or 2007, has, in practice, led to bloody repression with thousands of deaths each time. This is still a possibility today with live ammunition being used by the forces of repression which have already claimed their first victims. So, why a coup now?
Many bourgeois commentators consider this coup d'état to be unexpected, incomprehensible, in view of the military domination that has never wavered, including in recent years with the opening up of democracy under military control, and the coming to power of Aung San Suu Kyi in April 2016. Hypotheses are put forward in the media: the army chief, Min Aung Hlaing, soon to retire, could have been brought before the International Court of Human Rights for crimes against humanity. Another explanation: the latest crushing victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's party in the legislative elections would have been a bitter setback for the military junta, which was not able to accept it... All these elements, however plausible they may be, express above all the exacerbation of the struggles between the different factions of the bourgeoisie within the Myanmar state apparatus, all this to the detriment of the stability and rational management of the state itself.
In other words, the respective interests of each faction, whether dressed in military uniform or in the cloak of democracy, take precedence over the overall interests of the national capital, increasingly fuelling corruption at the top of the state as well as at all levels of the functioning of society. Myanmar's already precarious economic situation has worsened dramatically with the pandemic. In addition to rising unemployment, historically always high, and the impoverishment of the population, and while GDP has fallen dramatically in recent years in one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the IMF, there's a growing humanitarian and health crisis, which has already caused the emigration of hundreds of thousands of people to Bangladesh and Thailand. Ultimately, the events in Myanmar are an expression of the same decomposition that permeates every pore of bourgeois society, from the assault on the Capitol to the global health crisis...
… and the sharpening of imperialist tensions
But these disputes between factions are not enough to completely explain the situation. It is above all in imperialist rivalries and tensions that you find out what's at stake. The main western powers, starting with the US, have unanimously condemned this military operation. Immediately after the coup, the US asked the UN for a resolution to this effect and demanded sanctions against Myanmar. This resolution was not adopted because of the vetoes of Russia and China. In the context of the growing confrontation between China and the United States, Burma remains a key strategic area. At stake is the control of the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Bay of Bengal. Chinese imperialism has absolutely no interest in allowing any "stabilisation", particularly with any democratic pretensions, which would benefit the US above all. Maintaining the mire in Myanmar is a Chinese strategic choice in Asia, access to the Bay of Bengal being a major objective for China, as well as India. It is therefore in China's interest to maintain instability by, for example, supporting guerrillas in the north, for instance in Rakhine (Arakan) State, while at the same time treating the military in the right way, notably by calling the latest coup a "ministerial reshuffle"! One of Beijing's objectives is to complete the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), which will allow access to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Straits of Malacca, which has always been controlled by the US Navy. It is committed to maintaining stability in trade and political relations with Myanmar. Above all, it is a major strategic pawn in its "Silk Road" project, along which Beijing needs to secure points of support, notably in the form of future military bases and diplomatic alliances. Following Beijing's expression of support for Pakistan, strong support in the region for Myanmar's military regime is an opportunity to defend its interests while blocking proposals for embargoes and sanctions on the Myanmar military regime demanded by the United States.
Russian imperialism has implicitly endorsed the coup. "A week before the coup, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu travelled to Myanmar to finalise an agreement on the supply of ground-to-air missile systems, surveillance drones and radar equipment, according to Nikkei Asia Magazine. Russia has also signed an agreement on flight safety with General Ming, who is said to have visited Russia six times in the last decade". India finds itself in a trickier situation: while it resolutely opposed the putsch of the Burmese military regime 30 years ago, it did not stop forging links with the Burmese regime, both with the junta and with the Aung San Suu Kyi faction. Today, Modi's government is tempted to continue the dialogue with its neighbour. But it wants at all costs to avoid giving up even an inch of ground to China.
In the trap of the defence of democracy
Faced with this third coup d'état, and in a context of crisis where 60% of people live in extreme poverty, the whole population reacted, particularly the younger generation. Numerous street demonstrations and even strikes have occurred. This movement of "civil disobedience" with acts of sabotage in transport, telecommunications and information technology, with the aim of "restoring democracy", will not put an end to this situation of chaos and violence. Even if it is clear that the army has underestimated the civil resistance by provoking an unprecedented movement of rejection, especially among young people, the social movement that is developing on the purely bourgeois terrain of democratic demands does not contain the seeds of a better future.
Young people have many illusions in the bourgeois democracy of recent years. But the defence of the democratic state, the defence of the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, an accomplice in the crimes perpetrated by the army against the Rohingya people, is a trap that can only bring them serious disappointments. Despite the poor economic record of four years in power of "State Counsellor" Aung San Suu Kyi, she remains popular with a population marked by the years of dictatorship (1962-2011). However, the democratic party and the military junta are two sides of the same coin, that of the bourgeois state. The latter is a body whose function is to maintain social order and the status quo in order to preserve the interests of the ruling class and not to improve the lot of the exploited and oppressed. As a result, the hundreds of thousands of youth and workers participating in these demonstrations are prisoners of a movement that only reinforces the capitalist order. The defence of democracy is a trap and a true dead end. Worse: fighting on this terrain can only lead to impotence and bloody sacrifices for the working class as well as for the whole population.
Stopio, 27 February 2021