Myanmar/Burma - A forgotten dictatorship

Nov/Dec 2007

In September, Myanmar (or Burma, as it used to be known) suddenly became a focus of interest for the media and governments of the rich countries. This was in response to a wave of street demonstrations against the regime, involving tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, across the country.

The interest in these protests was all the more remarkable as it is unusual for the rich countries' politicians to show much concern for the discontent of the oppressed living under the yoke of military dictatorship, especially when the dictators are regional allies of imperialism, like the Pakistani ruler Musharraf, for instance. But, precisely, the Burmese junta does not quite belong to this category. In fact, it has been officially in the bad books of the "international community" for almost two decades already - since a popular uprising was crushed, back in 1988.

Hence the haste displayed by Bush, Brown and their like to condemn the junta's repression of the protesters. Hence too, their strident calls for an immediate stepping up of economic and political sanctions against Myanmar. After all these years of slaughtering, directly or indirectly, the poor populations of the Middle East in the name of "democracy", the western leaders were keen to grab this opportunity and appear, for once, "on the side of the oppressed", calling for "regime change" in Myanmar and expressing almost openly their support for Myanmar's opposition figurehead, former Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Of course, the rich countries' leaders may well have been even more encouraged to make this unusual display of concern for the oppressed because of the large numbers of Buddhist monks among the Myanmar protesters. After all, as Gandhi demonstrated in the British colonial days in nearby India, combining religion and non-violence can be a way to contain the masses and to keep them in the tow of the privileged classes. In Myanmar as well, should the recent unrest threaten to turn into a confrontation between the poor population and the regime, religion could again play such a role for the benefit of the section of the Burmese bourgeoisie whose interests are expressed by Aung San Suu Kyi.

The crippling parasitism of the military regime

But we are not at that stage yet. What triggered the recent protests was the government's drastic cut in fuel subsidies, announced on 19 August. Overnight the petrol price increased by 66%, diesel fuel by 50% and bottled (cooking) gas by 400%! As the Thailand-based opposition journal Mizzima wrote in early September:

"Bus fare and taxi charges doubled immediately in Rangoon, Mandalay and Moulmein (..) The increase in bus fares has severely affected the poor. Manual workers and day labourers in the countries' main cities, who earn less than 2,000 kyat (£1) a day, now have to pay more than half their wages in travel costs (..) In some cases it may even be as much as three quarters of their daily income. (..) There are many more people living rough on the streets of Rangoon, workers who have day jobs and cannot afford to go home (..) An unofficial Consumer Price Index maintained by a leading Burmese journal in Rangoon and based on a basket of essential commodities, showed a 35% increase."

The same issue of Mizzima provides this picture of the bleak economic situation of the country: "The minimum wage in Burma is currently 1000 kyat (50p) per day (..). Currently two kilos of middle-grade rice is around 1200 kyat (60p).(..) The unemployment problem in Burma is now spilling over the region. Out of a 55 million population, more than five million are working not only in the neighbouring countries but also throughout the world."

In fact, Myanmar is at, or close to, the very bottom of the world poverty ladder. In 2005, the World Bank estimated that 44% of the country's population lived under the poverty line, that its health services were the second worst in the world and that half of its children did not even complete primary school. In short, social provisions are not just stagnating - they have been shrinking and decaying continuously over the past decades.

However, this is not due to the country being particularly resource-poor. Before World War II, Myanmar was the world's largest producer of rice and one of the world's most diversified producers of precious and semi-precious stones, such as rubies and jade, and rare metallic products, such as gold, platinum, chromium, silver, tungsten. More recently, production started in huge gas fields discovered near the Bangladeshi border. This should have increased the population's standard of living, even if only a little, but it did not even stop the rise of poverty.

The reality is that the country's resources are burdened by the cost of an enormous military machine - with an army said to be over 400,000 strong today. Together with the narrow social layer on which its power rests, the army operates like a state within the state, with its own schools, shopping facilities, living quarters, etc.. It even has its own capital, the new town of Nayipyidaw, built in the jungle, 250 miles away from Rangoon.

The junta does not only control the economy by using the levers of power (taxation, etc..), it actually owns, directly or indirectly, a large part of it, through a galaxy of companies run by people associated with the regime. Not only do these companies provide the army with direct access to the wealth produced by the Burmese working class, but in addition, they provide it with many cushy jobs which can be given to retiring officers or used to buy the loyalty of key individuals.

To make things even worse, the junta's economic decisions can sometime verge on lunacy, for instance, in cases which have occurred several times, when it has decided overnight to withdraw certain banknotes from circulation, with or without compensation, thereby literally stealing part of people's savings and causing monetary turmoil in the economy.

Between the cost of equipping and maintaining an army of that size, complete with a high-tech Air Force and Navy, and the cost of the parasitism and lunatic economic decisions of the regime, the regression shown by the Burmese economy is hardly surprising. And it is easy to understand why decisions such as the cut in fuel subsidies should cause not only despair among the population, but also anger - a combination which can be explosive!

The colonial heritage

Like many of today's poor countries, Myanmar was partly shaped by its colonial past, under British domination. In 1886, the Burman kingdom was occupied by British troops, following the 3rd Anglo-Burman war. The kingdom was merged with surrounding territories to form a province of "British India", Burma.

Burma was, therefore, an artificial entity about 3 times the size of Britain, with a bizarre shape which made little geographical sense. It comprised one majority ethnic group - the Burmans, who made up around 60% of the population and lived in the central fertile plain of the Irrawaddy river - and a large number of minority ethnic groups in the surrounding jungle, hills and mountains, especially along the province's borders. As usual in the British empire, these borders were drawn regardless of the consequences for the populations. So, on the ground, they cut right across the ranks and economic spheres of activity of many of the non-Burman ethnic groups, whether Karen, Shan, Mon, Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, etc... In total, 60 different ethnic groups were thought to live across Burma, using many more languages (today's Kachin, for instance, who exist both in Myanmar and in China, still use nine different languages).

Soon the colonial authorities switched the plain of the Irrawaddy river to intensive rice production with the aim of turning it into the rice granary of "British India". Subsistence farmers were forced off their lands because they could not afford the cost of this reconversion and big British companies stepped in to run large-scale rice plantations. Meanwhile, oil was discovered in the central Magwe division of the plain, where the Glasgow-based Burmah Oil Company and, from 1901, the US Standard Oil, were able to accumulate profits until the nationalisation of the oil fields, in 1963.

Faced with the reluctance of the majority Burman peasants to work for British companies, the colonial office imported hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers from India and Bangladesh.

At the same time, London bribed the Burman aristocratic and landowning class with honorific but powerless positions within the colonial administration in order to secure its loyalty. And thanks to the development of the colonial economy, a fledgling bourgeoisie started to emerge out of the traditional privileged classes within the limited space left open by the colonial machine.

Britain's policies towards the non-Burman ethnic minorities was somewhat different. As was often the case in the peripheral areas of the British empire, the colonial administration leant upon the most reactionary forces capable of keeping the lid on the populations (as well as raising taxes!) on its behalf. As many of these ethnic minorities had not developed feudal social relations yet (some were still nomadic semi-agricultural tribes), the British occupation reinforced the most backward tribal relations and the most cruel chieftains and warlords, thereby slowing down, if not reversing, the social transformations which had already taken place.

The British occupation did not even provide these minority populations with usable roads, let alone railways - that is, except where there were enough teak trees to fell or enough rubies and jade to mine, which only concerned a small part of the country, mostly in the Burman-populated areas. This goes a long way towards explaining the lack of basic infrastructure in a large part of Myanmar today, as well as the huge social differences which still exist between the urban population of south and central Burma and the population in the more remote parts of the country. Part of this may be due to the plundering of the junta. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that for the British empire, developing infrastructure was only worthwhile in so far as it allowed British companies to take their loot out of the country. So much for the "civilising role of colonialism" which politicians tend to hail increasingly these days!

What the colonial administration did bring to the non-Burman ethnic groups, however, was the dubious privilege of serving as cannon-fodder for the Indian army, particularly when it came to crushing unrest among Burman town dwellers. The tried and tested "divide and rule" trick, which had been proving so effective in weakening the colonial populations across the Empire was used in Burma, with the same effect - to erect lasting walls of hatred between different ethnic groups.

The rise of nationalism

Nationalism emerged in Burma more or less at the same time as it did in the rest of "British India" - in the 1920s and 30s. However it emerged in two different forms.

Among some ethnic minorities which had been left virtually to their own devices so far by the colonial administration, attempts at creating some form of centralised power in Burma during that period were met with fierce resistance. After many years of more or less bloody struggle, first against the British and then against the Burmese government after independence, the bodies which had been set up to organise the resistance in the regions where these minorities lived, became embryonic state machineries, complete with guerilla armies, economic administrations and even limited, but not insignificant, public services. For some of these minorities, like the Karens or the Shan, the struggle lasted for decades and still goes on, while their "guerilla states" still exist, hidden away in the hills or mountains of what they consider as their ethnic territory.

Meanwhile, in the towns of south and central Burma, a growing section of the Burman bourgeoisie was raising its voice, demanding a bigger role in the British colonial administration. The contempt of the British authorities towards their demands led to a rising radicalisation, particularly among the youth.

From the beginning of the 1920s, anti-tax strikes developed in several parts of the country, giving birth to various forms of anti-colonial organisation. Then, in 1930, the political radicalisation of the young bourgeoisie found a voice with the launching of the country's first nationalist party - Dobama Asiayone ("Our Burma Union"). The 1930s was to be a decade of permanent agitation. While the Dobama extended its nationalist propaganda for independence across the country, student organisations were springing up in schools, leading to the setting up of the All-Burma Student Associations. In 1933, the first trade unions were organised in the oil refineries, while nationalist students spread in the countryside to help farm hands to organise themselves against their British exploiters. By 1938, oil field workers from central Burma had become organised enough to stage an 11-month strike during which a 250-mile march to Rangoon was organised.

This last strike had been organised with the help of a group of young members of the Dobama party who were influenced by Marxist ideas. Like them, many of the most active young recruits of the Dobama movement were influenced by Marxism, with which they had come into contact through intellectuals returning from Britain or through meetings with the Communist Party of India. Among these Marxist Dobama youth were the two men who were to become historical figure heads in Burma's independence struggle. One was Than Tun, a school teacher born from a modest family, who was to be for many years the leader of the country's main communist party. The other was Aung San, the heir of a wealthy family, who was to become the leader of the new Burma on the eve of independence and to whose iconic prestige his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, owes much of her own.

From WWII to Independence

At first, the political differences between Than Tun and Aung San were not all that clear. Both took part in the formal launching of the illegal Communist Party of Burma, in August 1939. But while Aung San was never active in the new party, Than Tun threw his efforts into organising it underground - for which he was sent to jail by the British. Even before Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, Than Tun had issued from jail a statement known as the "Insein Manifesto" describing World War II as a war against fascism in which the Communists should side with Britain against Germany and Japan.

Meanwhile, Aung San had been looking for allies against the British among those who appeared as their most prominent regional enemies - the Japanese regime. It must be recalled in passing that Aung San was not the only nationalist to choose such a strategy in the British empire. For instance, the Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose made a similar attempt.

Of course, turning to Japan for help meant, at worst, merely swapping one occupation for another - which was what actually happened in Burma - and, at best, it meant jumping into Japanese imperialism's sphere of influence. In either case, it was no way of getting rid of the imperialist yoke.

Nevertheless, Aung San joined the so-called "30 Comrades" - a group of 30 activists of the Dobama party who travelled to Japan in order to receive military training and then formed a Burma Independence Army in Japanese-occupied Thailand. Finally the BIA entered Burma and started attacking the lines of supplies of the British army, to prepare the ground for the Japanese invasion, which was completed in March 1942.

On 1 August 1943, the Japanese government declared Burma "independent" under the government they had put in power. Aung San, by then sporting a general's uniform, was War minister. Than Tun, who had been released from jail by the BIA, had the Land and Agriculture portfolio. Apparently the underground CPB felt it needed a legal presence in this government, presumably in case the Japanese withdrew from Burma.

But despite its official title, this government was little more than a puppet administration with no power whatsoever, in a Japanese-occupied Burma - not even enough power to prevent the arrest and torture of nationalist activists who were being too active for the Japanese police's liking.

Eventually, in 1944, Aung San and the "30 Comrades" decided that they had had enough of this "independence" Japanese style and that they would make contact with... London, with the help of the underground CPB. Finally, on 27 March 1945, Aung Sang led the rebellion of his troops and called for an urban uprising against the Japanese occupation.

The British had promised Aung San and his government that they would eventually grant Burma its independence within the Commonwealth. But once the war was over, Atlee did all he could to avoid relinquishing anything, let alone delivering on his promise. But in this case, unlike in the rest of the Empire, the British government did not have much choice.

To start with, Britain was confronted not with a bunch of isolated nationalist politicians or a guerilla army, but a state machinery which had been operating for 3 years under Japanese occupation, with a real army at its disposal. Second, unlike in other colonies, the anti-communist argument did not apply: although allied with the CPB, the Burmese nationalist leadership was not dominated by it. Third, there was also the massive explosion of strikes which had followed the war in Burma.

Finally, and probably above all, there was the beginning of what was to become known as the "Malayan Emergency" - a full-blown colonial war against a communist-led uprising which was to last until 1960. At stake in Malaysia were the country's large rubber, oil and tin reserves and the huge strategic and economic role of Singapore for the whole of Asia. By comparison, the stakes to be defended in Burma may have seemed relatively modest.

Independence outside the Commonwealth

Meanwhile, the Burmese political scene had become dominated by two main parties. The largest was the Socialist Party, which had been set up by Aung San around his faction in the old nationalist movement. But close behind came the CPB, which had gained considerable credit during the postwar unrest. Next to them and involving members of both organisations was the People's Volunteers Organisation (PVO), a uniformed militia formed around war veterans, which drilled in public and stewarded the public events organised by the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) - a front organisation set up jointly by the Socialist Party, the CPB and figures from the Burma National Army.

This alliance between the CPB and Aung San's nationalists did not last long, however. Time and again the British had invited the AFPFL to form an Executive Council, that is a sort of colonial "government" which would attend to current affairs until the talks about Burma's future were completed. Each time Aung San turned the offer down with the support of the CPB. However pressure to yield to this offer became too strong within the Socialist Party. In September 1946, the Socialist Party agreed to form this Executive Council and, as a prerequisite, to call off a general strike which was then at its peak. Within days, Than Tun and the CPB condemned this policy and were expelled from the AFPFL, although many AFPFL and PVO local structures remained under the CPB's control.

By then, Aung San was conducting negotiations with Attlee, making it clear that he was determined to gain independence outside the Commonwealth whatever the cost. And the Aung San-Attlee agreement signed in January 1947, which provided for Burma's independence within a year, also endorsed the "cost" of this independence, which had already been negotiated separately by AFPFL delegates - in particular a provision which allowed a substantial number of British military "advisers" to remain in Burma for three years and another which guaranteed the pre-war assets of British non-agricultural companies against being taken over after independence.

As a result, however, the constituent assembly election held in April 1947 became, to all intents and purposes, a referendum over full independence. The AFPFL won 196 seats out of 202. Although this result was largely due to the first-past-the-post system and to the fact that the CPB had chosen to stand only 25 unknown candidates under the CP banner, while others stood as members of the AFPFL rather than against it, it showed nonetheless the extent of Aung San's and the AFPFL's influence in the country.

Was this influence considered excessive for the future of British interests in the region? Had some political faction decided to bid for power by getting rid of Aung San? Or was it the first act of the Cold War in Burma, played out against a man considered too close to the CPB? Whatever was the case, on 19 July 1947 a gang of armed thugs sprayed a meeting of the Executive Council with bullets from automatic hand guns, killing Aung San and six leading Socialist Party members. Nevertheless, in January 1948, Burma became the second British colony (after the US) to break all allegiance to the British monarchy.

A still-born "democracy"

But already the enthusiasm generated by independence was overshadowed by growing tensions on the political scene.

As mentioned earlier, the British had a long-standing policy of using some of the non-Burman ethnic minorities in the Indian army. The most important among these were the Karens (today, there are around 7m Karens in Myanmar, dispersed along the borders, mostly in the east, plus another half-a-million in Thailand). During the war, the British armed the Karens to wage a guerilla war against Aung San's army and the Japanese. In retaliation, the BIA and Japanese carried out massacres of Karen villagers. So that by the time the war ended, the Karens, now organised in the Karen National Union, maintained their military wartime organisation as an instrument of self-defence. And other ethnic minorities had been caught in the same sort of trap, so that by the time the war ended, Burma was, literally littered with well-armed ethnic-based militias.

But nor were the Burman nationalists, no matter how "socialist" they regarded themselves, particularly respectful of the rights of minorities. They had to tolerate a few minority politicians and officers in the postwar state machinery because they were imposed on them by the British, but the Burmans' traditional prejudices against ethnic minorities remained. And, less than a year after independence, under the Socialist Party government of prime minister Nu, Major-general Ne Win organised an irregular militia, which escaped the control of the army. In January 1949, units of this militia went on the rampage in Karen villages, setting the scene for a wholesale offensive against the country's ethnic minorities.

Another source of political tension came from the offensive launched by Nu against the CPB in November 1947. This offensive may well have been a response to the CPB's campaign against the concessions made to the British in return for independence. And it certainly became self-justifying once, following Moscow's latest ultra-left turn, the CPB adopted a policy combining the setting up of "liberated zones" in the countryside and the organising of strikes in urban areas. However, this offensive against the CPB was also a way for the Socialist Party's responsible bourgeois politicians to take sides in the Cold War, which had just started worldwide.

Remarkably, while the initiators of this post-independence wave of repression, Nu and Ne Win, were both former members of the "30 Comrades", so was also Bo La Yaung, the leader of the PVO majority which chose to join the CPB and organise militias to defend the new "liberated zones" - and so too, were the commanders of three regiments of the Burma Rifles which left the army to form the Revolutionary Burma Army and join the CPB "liberated zones".

By mid-1949, Burma's civil war was further aggravated by Mao's conquest of power in China: fleeing Mao's armies, Kuomintang troops crossed into Burma which they hoped to use as a rear-base to attack Mao. This helped the CPB to obtain some logistical help from Mao for the following 3 decades years or so, but it added another camp to Burma's civil war.

After another seven years of this war, the Socialist Party regime was hated by the population, because of its incapacity at improving living conditions, while the prestige of CPB and its allies was increasing. Cracks were beginning to appear openly within the ranks of the ruling party. This prompted the leading circles of the army to intervene directly in government's affairs. In 1958, the army leaders took over control of government policies as a "temporary" measure, in order to "guarantee the territorial integrity of the country". And in 1962, Ne Win staged a "bloodless" coup - this time, for good. To be more accurate, there was only one casualty on the day of the "coup", while hundreds ended the day in prison. But four months later, a hundred students were shot dead at Rangoon university following a protest over a minor issue.

45 years of dictatorship

After the coup, power was exercised by the army's Revolutionary Council under Ne Win. This was first and foremost a regime of civil war, which had come to power in order to crush the 20 or so identified ethnic insurgencies. But above all it was a reactionary dictatorship.

All trade unions and political parties were immediately banned, except for Ne Win's Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). In 1963, foreign-owned industries and other productive and financial assets were nationalised, as part of Ne Win's "Burmese Road to Socialism". Of course, there was nothing socialist about all this. It was a classic case of a nationalist bourgeois regime which found it convenient to ape Stalin and use socialistic phraseology to hide its own reactionary social nature - a trick used by many dictatorships in poor countries after WWII.

Hundreds of mostly CPB-linked activists were arrested, bringing the total number of political prisoners to an estimated 2,000. Thereafter, the CPB focused on the defence of its "Red zones" and became increasingly isolated from the masses, to the point of being unable to play any role in the unrest which took place in the urban areas, in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, the combination of this isolation with the junta's systematic attacks, the turn of the Chinese regime to the imperialist market and the drying up of Chinese aid after the mid-1980s, spelt the CPB's collapse, around 1989, with many of its former cadres retiring or joining Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD).

In the meantime, however, new outbursts of resistance had started to develop among the urban population. More or less every year, political anniversaries were marked by student demonstrations against the regime, in which the protesters had invariably to face the army. In 1974, however, a wave of strikes and protests broke out, following an attempt by the army to arrest strikers in a railway yard near Rangoon. Subsequently the strikes spread to dock workers and textile factories, resulting in violent repression by the army: the total death toll was estimated to have been over 300.

A new outburst, this time more like an explosion, took place during the following decade, in 1988 - what came to be known as 8-8-88 in the symbolism of Burmese politics. The trigger which led to this explosion was the regime's continuous drift towards economic collapse, as a result of what appeared as pure madness on its part - like the two decisions to withdraw banknotes from circulation without compensation which were taken in 1987. In July 1988, following the UN announcement that Burma was now classified as a "Least Developed Country", Ne Win resigned from his position as chairman of the BSPP. Earlier that year, students had already been shot dead in Rangoon, causing more protests. Ne Win's resignation sparked off a huge wave of demonstrations calling for the end of the BSPP rule and its catastrophic economic policy, through the setting up of an all-party government and the organisation of free elections. When the army began shooting on protesters, on 8 August 1988, strikes began to spread across all industries. For the first time since the 1962 military coup, even civil servants joined the strike, which lasted until 18 September - although the civil servants stayed out another month. During the movement, spontaneous organisations sprang up, in particular local strike committees which organised the general strike.

These events did not remove the military dictatorship nor did they allow the protesters to fulfill their hopes. But despite the high cost paid by the strikers (the death toll was estimated to be over 3,000) they demonstrated how afraid the junta was of the mobilisation of the masses. Because, although they did not give in straight away, the generals felt, nevertheless, that they could not avoid yielding to the demands of the protest. Of course, they did this on their own terms - which only reflected the limitations of a movement whose participants expected the army to reform itself and the political system as well, instead of setting themselves the task of taking the country's future into their own hands.

So, having taken the name of SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) and cleansed the country of all the names which might be a reminder of the British occupation - so that Burma became Myanmar, Rangoon became Yangon, etc.. - the army council proceeded to legalise political parties and organise general elections, which took place in May 1990. Calling these elections "free" was a joke, since the election campaign took place in the middle of a state of emergency. But somehow Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD won 59% of the valid votes and 80% of the seats (still thanks to the electoral system).

However SLORC refused to give way, and a new period of dictatorship started. This time there was no longer any pretense of "socialism" or such like. The army was keen to open the country's economy to western investors and even to help them use local forced labour in order to build pipe-lines - as the American Unocal (now part of Chevron) and the French Total did. As to the population, it remained as poor and oppressed as it was before.

Lessons from yesterday

In many respects, little has changed in Burma since 1988. The junta may appear to be a little bit more business-like and sussed out, and the ethnic insurgencies have a lower profile. Nevertheless the population still lives in the middle of an on-going civil war and there is no more space for political dissent today than there was then.

The "reformist" Aung San Suu Kyi, Bush's and Brown's local favourite, who, in 1990, invited her supporters to rely on the army's willingness to reform itself, has paid a heavy price for her policy, by spending most of the past 17 years under house arrest. But her policy has not changed. In fact she puts an even greater emphasis on the need to find a "compromise" with the army today. But then should this come as a surprise? As the history of the country's political establishment outlined here shows, Aung San Suu Kyi comes from the same social stable as Ne Win and his successors at the head of the army. In fact some of the NLD's leaders are former high-ranking officers, including its president, Tin Oo, who was commander in chief of the Burmese army between 1974 and 1976, at the high point of the army's repression against workers' strikes!

While one may imagine a possible "compromise" between the army leadership and people like Tin Oo and maybe Aung San Suu Kyi, such a compromise would leave no space for the vast majority of the population. It would be a compromise designed to accommodate the wishes of a small bourgeois layer which wants easier access to the channels leading to a good job in the state machinery and the economy. And this is not what will resolve the problems faced by the impoverished masses of Myanmar.

Commentators have emphasised the large number of monks among this year's protesters (just as in 1988). But there is nothing particularly remarkable in this. For the country's petty bourgeois youth whose families cannot afford much, there are only two ways of doing any studies with the hope of making some kind of career out of it. One is to join the army and the other is to become an apprentice monk - which is one of the reasons why there are even more monks than soldiers (500,000 against 400,000). In the latter case, however, like all monks, they have to live on the food they are offered by the population. Besides, as state education and health services are collapsing, these young monks often help with the provision of some limited services. Understandably, this makes them very receptive to the rise of poverty.

Does it follow from this that politics can only be non-violent in Myanmar, due to the importance of religion? This is an argument that every bourgeois politician tries to make in front of the masses. It is worth noting, for instance, the considerable effort put in by the military from the very early days of Ne Win's regime, to intersperse their "socialist" phraseology with references to Buddhist symbols (now they use 10-metre high "symbols" in their new capital, Naypiyidaw). Just as it is worth remarking on the very careful choice of venue made by Aung San Suu Kyi for her most famous speech on democratic rights during the events of 1988 - one of the country's most famous pagodas.

But these constant references to Buddhism have implications for those who want to fight the regime. For instance, last year, former leading student activists in the 1988 events took the initiative to set up a "network" called the "88 Generation Students' Group" to campaign for the release of political prisoners. In October last year they organised a national petition and collected over 535,000 signatures. This was followed in November with a "mass multi-religious prayer campaign. Participants were urged to wear white clothing and hold candlelit vigils in Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim places of worship." Then in January this year they called on people to send individual letters to the military explaining their personal misgivings about the regime. They expected 25,000 letters to be sent as a result. And this might have gone on had the regime not decided that the whole lot of them were to be locked up!

Regardless of the resilience of these activists, most of whom have spent over a decade in jail, can they seriously believe that such "non-violent" tokenism can reinforce in anyway those who really want to change things? The truth is that in the confrontation with the junta, such "non-violence" disarms only those who do not have weapons and protects the power of those who do.

Finally, there is the worn-out issue of international sanctions. The NLD, like most of the British left, see economic sanctions against the junta as an effective means to support the protesters. But this is also what the Bush's and Brown's of this world claim and this alone should act as a warning signal. The "beauty" of international sanctions from the point of view of the rich countries' leaders is that they can easily be designed so as to avoid affecting the profits of multinational companies. That Bush demands from Chevron that it stops its gas operations in Myanmar, is unlikely, for instance. As to whether these sanctions affect the populations of the targeted countries by driving them even further into poverty is of no concern to the so-called "international community".

We do not know what is left of the Marxist tradition in Myanmar. But we can only hope that a new generation of working class activists and youth will revive this tradition and, in particular, the idea that the emancipation of the proletariat can only be achieved by the proletariat itself, as part of the struggle of the world proletariat for the overthrow of the capitalist order. By the same token, it is only within the framework of this struggle that the national question, which is raised in so many different ways in Myanmar, will find a solution.