Mayanmar Today

Revolution Fighting Counter-Revolution

Robert Narara & Carlos Sardina Galache

Counter-revolutionary violence has reached new heights in Myanmar, as the Tatmadaw (the country’s military) attempts to terrorise a nationwide uprising into submission. Beginning with the Battle of Hlaing Tharyar—a four-day showdown of workers and students against the armed forces in March, which claimed the lives of at least 60 demonstrators in a working-class district of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city—the terror has continued, producing new massacres as the anti-coup movement continues to paralyse the economy with strikes in most key sectors and resists the junta by whatever means necessary.

In late March, during Armed Forces Day celebrations, which commemorate the beginning of the military’s resistance to Japanese occupation in 1945, the Tatmadaw—accompanied by representatives from Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand—paraded through the streets of Naypyidaw, the capital. Meanwhile, demonstrations in major cities and regional centres across the country were gunned down by police and security forces. (The official death toll that day was 114, but the real figure is likely higher.) According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, more than 4,000 people have been arrested and more than 700 killed since resistance to the coup began on 1 February.

 Despite the terror, the movement to topple the junta continues to find ways to resist.

University students have been boycotting the higher education system, calling on staff to join the anti-coup movement. “Our education system supports fascism. It must be resisted by whatever means necessary”, James,* a student activist and Marxist, says over the phone from Yangon. James has been on the run from the Tatmadaw since early April, after he and other student activists and trade union leaders were issued arrest warrants on the charge of inciting mutiny in the armed forces..”

Across the major cities, the indefinite general strike continues. But it has lost much of the momentum that characterised earlier weeks of the struggle. While core sections of the strike movement hold out, others reportedly are being forced back.

Despite the general strike, the state coffers continue to be filled by sectors that have yet to be affected by the movement: extractive industries, such as oil, gas, rare gem mining and illegal logging, as well as the Tatmadaw-controlled organised crime networks, which include exotic wildlife trading and narcotics production.

Throughout April, regional cities and rural centres have become a key site of confrontation between the movement and the Tatmadaw. These areas have attempted to draw the armed forces out of the major cities and spread their resources thin. Across the Mandalay region, several townships and smaller cities mobilised under the slogan: “We are scared, but the demonstrations must not end”. (Buddhist monks have been sighted marching at the front of mobilisations, in the hope that the armed forces will be more hesitant to carry out repression against religious figures.)

In the Sagaing and Magway regions, locals armed themselves with homemade hunting rifles and clashed repeatedly with regime forces. Despite being heavily outgunned and sustaining large casualties, locals reportedly ambushed military convoys in town after town, holding up their forces for several days. Dozens of soldiers and police were killed in the fighting, with many dozens more wounded. A prominent slogan raised throughout the confrontations proclaimed:

“An attack on any town is an attack on our own!”
“But for many, civil war has arrived.”

In recent weeks, many of the country’s ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) have ramped up attacks on police and military outposts. The Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers have reportedly routed several police battalions in the northern borderlands near China. They also seized the Alaw Bum base, previously held by the Tatmadaw. (According to reports since then, the KIA has defended the base from Tatmadaw soldiers, killing more than 100, including their commanding officers, as well as capturing dozens of deserters in the aftermath of the fighting.)

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) seized the Thee Mu Hta military base in Mutraw, in the south-east of Myanmar, and several other EAOs in the Shan and Rakhine regions have been providing armed protection for demonstrations. In an official statement, the KNLA said:

“We cannot accept inhumane acts, not only in Kayin [Karen] state, but also in other areas.”

In retaliation, the Tatmadaw has launched airstrikes and shelled several ethnic-controlled areas. Dozens have been killed and tens of thousands have fled their homes. Most refugees are now stranded in camps for internally displaced people along the Thailand-Myanmar border. To consolidate a new state machine in Myanmar in the event that the Tatmadaw is overthrown, as well as to gain the support of the EAOs and ward off threats from striking workers, the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)—a group of parliamentarians largely drawn from the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was ousted in the 1 February coup—have announced a National Unity Government (NUG).

The NUG has published a charter to rewrite the country’s constitution, which will allegedly enshrine rights for all ethnic minorities and establish a Federal Union Army based on the pre-existing EAOs. But the charter offers no guarantees that the persecuted Rohingya will not be excluded from a future nation state. Nor does it offer any commitments to dismantling the Tatmadaw. And the NLD-led government in waiting, as representative of the liberal sections of Myanmar’s capitalist class, has no interest in building the forces many believe are necessary to overthrow the Tatmadaw before the conflict descends into a highly militarised civil war that could open the door to intervention by imperialist and regional powers.

A New Myanmar?
Myanmar never had a ‘functioning state’. The army had been waging several civil wars against the ethnic minorities living in the country’s borderlands since its independence in 1948. Now the Tatmadaw is bringing to Myanmar’s heartlands–where the Bamar majority live–the brutal tactics it has been using for decades in those wars, making little to no distinction between armed combatants and civilians. Yet the violence has a different purpose depending on who is at the receiving end: in carrying out their military operations, soldiers kill Bamar for what they do (opposing its rule); they kill members of those ethnic minorities regarded as ‘national races’ for what they are (as part of a project of political domination and cultural assimilation); and they kill the Rohingya (widely regarded as foreign interlopers from Bangladesh) simply for being in the country. In response to this shared experience of repression, many Bamar protesters are developing a new sense of solidarity with the ethnic minorities–at times even including the Rohingya–while ethnic minorities are joining the civil resistance movement in states like Kachin, Chin and Kayin.

As the repression continues, very few believe the assurances made by the State Administration Council (SAC)–the new junta led by the Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing–that they will hold elections after a year or two and restore the ‘discipline-flourishing democracy’ that was designed by the previous ruling junta and launched a decade ago. The Tatmadaw’s experiment with democracy is effectively dead. If the military prevails, any return to a semblance of democracy is likely to give even more powers to the generals –who already enjoyed full autonomy from civilian oversight, 25 percent of seats in parliament and control over the three key security ministries under the 2008 Constitution. Moreover, no one in the civil disobedience movement is willing to accept a return to the status quo. The opposition of ethnic minorities to the country’s centralised model remains particularly unshakeable.

That status quo was a fragile pact between two Bamar-dominated elites–the military and the old pro-democracy camp led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)–which unraveled after the election in November last year and came to a definitive end with the putsch on 1 February. The causes of that unraveling are still unclear, but after ten years of military-guided democracy and five years of Suu Kyi’s government, it has become apparent that the differences between the two elites are not ideological. Both have fundamentally similar visions for Myanmar, from the question of national identity (most dramatically excluding the Rohingya) and national unity underpinned by a sense of Bamar supremacy, to a neoliberal model of ‘progress’ that ignores the poor masses and preserves the inequalities of the extractive economy, largely controlled by the generals and their cronies. Tensions between the NLD and the Tatmadaw, both of which claim ultimate legitimacy to rule the country, are about power–not about what to do with it.

It remains to be seen how long the anti-coup movement can endure the brutal repression of a well-armed Tatmadaw. As the possibility of a rebellion within the military becomes more distant by the day, given its strong espirit de corps, the only chance to tip the balance is the creation of a unified front of ethnic guerrillas. Such forces, combined with the ongoing protest movement in central Burma, would seriously overstretch the Tatmadaw. A government in hiding formed by NLD MPs elected in November–the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)–is already engaged in negotiations with the ethnic armed organisations to form a ‘Federal Army’; but uniting them would require overcoming historic distrust that runs much deeper than the divisions created by the coup.

After independence a democratic period gave some autonomy to the minorities, but the project of nation-building was mostly an affair of Bamar elites, suspicious of the minorities who they saw as collaborators with the colonial overlords. Even before the general Ne Win took power in 1962, inaugurating five decades of military rule, this state-building project was taken up by the Tatmadaw against the backdrop of a permanent state of war, as it fought off the Bamar-dominated Communist Party and several ethnic insurgencies. That project intended to expel the putative foreigners that arrived during colonial times: the Indian diaspora of laboruers, businessmen and colonial civil servants in central Myanmar, and the Rohingya (whose precolonial roots in Rakhine were denied). Most of the Bamar population were either indifferent to those conflicts or tacitly adhered to the ethnicist conception of the nation, even as they resented military rule.

The democratic transition did little to change the situation, despite the signing by a dozen armed groups of a national ceasefire agreement (NCA), which still did not entail a political settlement, during the administration of the former general Thein Sein. Conflicts flared up again, including the war with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), reignited in 2011 after seventeen years of ceasefire. Following the NLD victory in 2015, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi showed little willingness to make political concessions to the ethnic minorities or criticise the military’s heavy-handed tactics.

More ambiguous is the position of the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine ethno-nationalist organisation created as recently as 2009 which in the last two years has engaged the Tatmadaw in a bloody war. The AA signed an informal ceasefire two months before the coup and then kept silent for weeks. The junta has wooed the politicians of the most powerful party in Rakhine state, the Arakan National Party (ANP) giving them positions in its administration, and Rakhine is the only state where the civil disobedience movement has not taken hold, despite several civil society organisations expressing their disgust at the ANP’s collaborationism with the junta. For now, as the majority of the population faces a long and protracted conflict with the Tatmadaw, the creation of any Federal Democracy remains a distant possibility. The only hope of defeating the junta led by Min Aung Hlaing lies in the borderlands. The ethnic minorities do not share a common history of anti-colonial struggle, but now they face a common fight against the Tatmadaw which could create an altered image of Myanmar nationhood.

[Courtesy: New Left Review and Australia based Red Flag]

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Vol. 54, No. 7, Aug 15 - 21, 2021