By Yuri Prasad
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A year of revolt in Myanmar against a brutal regime

The military leaders in Myanmar believe they can survive the opposition’s armed struggle
Issue 2791
A large crowd in the street demanding the restoration of democracy in Myanmar

A year ago a mass movement was on the streets, but it faced murderous state assaults

It’s a year since the military takeover in Myanmar and the streets today are silent. Yet in the weeks that followed the coup to remove the recently elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, they were on fire.

Hundreds of thousands of democracy protesters laid siege to its largest city, Yangon, and built barricades to protect themselves from attack by the state. Behind them mostly young activists filled bottles with petrol ready to throw at heavily armed police and army opponents known as the Tatmadaw.

The picture was repeated in town after town across the country. The military rounded up thousands of presumed activists. They included much of deposed prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, but also the far younger and more radical activists too.

Then came the strikes, led first by the doctors and medical students that had seen the terrible injuries the regime inflicted on civilians. They were soon followed by civil servants, teachers and eventually oil and gas workers.

Neighbourhoods made their own barricades to protect the community, and nightly there were fights with the police.

But over time the day to day fighting subsided. Huge numbers of people were forced to leave the cities and seek shelter and food in the countryside. The Save the Children charity estimates that more than 400,000 people, including 150,000 children, have fled their homes.

With so many workplaces barely functioning, the national economy is in crisis. The Tatmadaw regime still holds power—just. But the fighting has largely moved from urban areas to the countryside, particularly in the north of the country, which the state has long struggled to control.

In recent months, the junta has lost control of even more territory, including Chin and Sagaing states, which border India, and Rakhine, which sits next to Bangladesh.

The single most important reason the military are able to hold on is the role played by complex webs of imperialism.

China, which heads the Association of South Eastern Asian Nations (Asean), is primarily concerned with regional stability and maintaining its dominance.

It was relatively happy with the semi-democratic government of Aung San Suu Kyi, but can live with its military replacement so long as order is maintained.

Myanmar’s strategic positioning means that ethnic and national-based fighting within the country has potential to spread beyond borders and infect neighbouring states. China is determined that that should not happen.

So Asean, while banning the Tatmadaw from its conference last year, also ensured no serious measures against the Myanmar regime were passed.

The US is happy verbally to slate the military and impose limited sanctions on the top brass. But it also has regional allies that, for the same reasons as China, want calm.

With the so-called international community prepared to sit back and watch, the Myanmar junta has a free hand to carry on its war—just so long as the fighting remains contained.

And here, the democracy fighters being forced into the countryside is something of a blessing for the junta. It’s true that the state has increasingly lost control of states wrestling to be free of the regime, but so long as it controls the cities, it believes it can stay in power.

In the past, the Tatmadaw might have attempted a deal with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, just as they did in 1988. But the NLD party now has far less a hold over the most determined democracy fighters.

For those activists to win, spreading the instability across the whole country and beyond is key. But so is a return to the cities. If the military can once again be confronted there, its ability to maintain control of the country as a whole can be broken.

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