Burma: Behind the calls for democracy, imperialist conflict

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When the protests in Burma started in the middle of August the issue was price rises, specifically the end to fuel subsidies that caused a fivefold price rise that inevitably affects the cost of everything else. And this was still the concern when Buddhist monks first took to the streets in support. But this concern has been rapidly eclipsed by the talk of democracy in what had become largely a movement of the monks, and with it has gone any visible expression of the needs of the poverty-stricken population and the tiny working class of the country. Instead we have the high politics of international influence and imperialist interest.

These protests have been met by a wave of repression across the country. The initial fuel price protests led to at least 150 arrests. However, the monks' protests escalated for several weeks before the crackdown at the end of September. During this time there has been much media talk of peaceful protest, of monks as the conscience of the country, of the attempt to go and pray with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The monks' banner "Love and kindness must win over all" was widely quoted. We were led to believe we were witnessing a ‘saffron revolution' after the style of the democracy movements in former Soviet Republics (although Burmese monks wear oxblood red, not saffron). We do not have reliable figures for the victims of the repression, since the official figures for both death and detention are totally unbelievable when you had well armed troops attacking unarmed protesters and thousands of monks, often bearing injuries, fleeing across the borders.

Caught in the imperialist conflicts

Burma's largest land border is with China, its most significant trading partner and supplier of General Than Shwe's military government with cut-price military hardware. China is rebuilding the old British road to India, bringing in 40,000 construction workers, and parts of Burma are completely dominated by their powerful neighbour, using Chinese currency and language, as though it were a province ruled from Beijing. Burma supplies China with listening posts and a naval base on the Indian Ocean, just where it needs it to respond to its Indian rival as well as any other ocean-going power. It is one of China's ‘string of pearls', the satellites key to its imperialist strategy. As well as owning Tibet, China has influence in Nepal, Burma, Cambodia and Laos with a view to extending towards Vietnam and Indonesia. Its ambitions lie to the west in Central Asia as well as south to the Indian Ocean. China's bellicosity towards Japan and Taiwan shows another dimension of this rising imperialist power. Nevertheless, Shwe has allowed the Russians to gain some influence, much to China's annoyance.

All China's neighbours are worried. Australia has expressed concern about China's expansion towards Indonesia, while India is also trying to get influence in Burma. Britain, the old colonial power, may not be able to send journalists in legally but still has substantial investments. And the USA is not far away from any hotspot and, like the others, keen to limit China's ambitions in the area.

The western powers base their hopes on Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy. She is the daughter of Aung Sang, the Prime Minister put in place under the British, and possibly murdered by them just before independence for being too friendly to the Japanese. In any case democracy is the imperialist battle-cry used by the USA and Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan to such destructive effect. Clearly China is not going to be allowed a free hand in Burma or anywhere else.

Our media have emphasised Chinese responsibility for the Burmese military junta, the repression meted out and the lack of development in the country. After all they and Russia have previously vetoed sanctions against Burma over the issue of human rights; while China and India have major trade and investment in the country that could be used to pressure the junta into more humane behaviour - as if those who run Abu Ghraib and camp X-ray were really worried about that! However, while China is the major power in Burma today, it did not invent the junta. Military rule has lasted over four decades, long before China gained such influence. It was back in 1990 that the junta refused to accept the result of the last elections and would not allow parliament to sit. The renewed interest in democracy in Burma relates to its greater strategic importance on the imperialist chess board today. But unlike the period before 1989 each area of conflict is attended not by two imperialist blocs, but by a whole dangerous and unstable cacophony of competing interests, as Burma is today.

The revolt by the poor over fuel prices took Britain, America and all the other western powers by surprise, but it has given them an opening to play the democratic card in order to assert their own imperialist interests and make things difficult for China and its ally, Shwe. But nationalism and democracy are simply the rallying cry for the bourgeois opposition and their imperialist backers. They offer no way out of the poverty suffered by the vast majority of the population, and no way out of the dangerous conflict between China and the various other imperialist powers in the region. Alex 6.10.07