In Burma in mid-August, a new crop of activists joined with veterans of a heroic 1988 uprising to oppose drastic increases in fuel prices – in a country where 90 percent of the roughly 50 million people live on less than a dollar a day. Because there are no democratic freedoms in Burma (Myanmar), their protests were a direct challenge to the sadistic military dictatorship that has ruled the country since 1962.
Paramilitary troops attacked the demonstrators and hundreds were arrested. But this brought monks out into the streets in solidarity at the beginning of September. From that point, both the repression and the protests escalated.
Rallies at the end of the month grew to more than 100,000 monks, nuns, students, and workers. The military killed at least 60 people (some estimates are much higher) and jailed about 3,000.
The emptying of the streets was accomplished in large part by raids that emptied monasteries around the country; many of Burma’s 400,000-500,000 monks have simply disappeared. Young men have flocked to the priesthood in recent years to get an education, since the regime has closed many universities, or just to keep body and soul together (the monks live on alms).
The junta clearly has the upper hand – for now. But with the economy continuing to deteriorate and the people seething over the repression of protesters, renewed rebellion cannot be far off.
Insurrection against military rule. The generals have had enormous influence since Burma achieved independence from Britain in 1948.
They came to prominence largely due to the destructive legacy of colonialism, which fostered divisions among ethnic and national groups, as it has done everywhere. These tensions meant that the country emerged from the devastation of World War II only to enter into a civil war lasting nearly 50 years – during which the central government was fighting communist rebels as well as national minorities demanding autonomy.
The generals overthrew the civilian government in 1962 and established an insular regime that nationalized the entire industrial and commercial economy. They raked off the profits for themselves. By 1988, they had run the economy into the ground so thoroughly and caused such immense hardship that the people had no choice but to rise up against them.
The 1988 revolt, which included a general strike, was led by students, joined by monks and people of every description. As a writer for a Burmese union federation in exile expresses it today, “Knowing that the students were saying what their parents were suffering, the workers came out in their support.”
The junta met the protests with horrifying brutality, killing 3,000 people and imprisoning and torturing thousands more. Still, the students and workers were winning major concessions, and new opposition groups were springing up all over.
The movement was subdued when the army promised elections and Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy, a major figure of the liberal opposition then and now, told demonstrators to go home. Representatives of her party swept the 1990 elections, but the junta, rather than allow them to take their seats, threw them in prison.
Although Suu Kyi has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest, she is still asking people to hope that the generals will step aside short of revolution. In early November, she began “reconciliation” talks with the junta.
Meanwhile, summary trials inside the prisons of the detained protesters have already resulted in more than 300 sentences of five to 20 years.
Down with the junta! Many exiled Burmese activists and their supporters call for increased sanctions by the U.S., the U.N., and Burma’s trading partners.
But sanctions are a failed strategy. Countries that have vast oil and other economic interests in Burma will not be the deliverers of its people. What is needed is the support of workers in neighboring countries, many of whom have large populations of Burmese exiles and refugees, to build a strong regional alliance against the dictatorship.
Working people elsewhere can help by demanding:
• Place nationalized industries under workers’ control
• Stop military and paramilitary violence against national and ethnic minorities.
• Open the prisons to health and relief workers. No more summary trials. Free all political prisoners!
• Recognize the right to organize independent labor unions, political parties, women’s organizations, and student groups – and the right to strike.
• End state control of the media and internet. For full democratic rights!