Tag Archives: Burma

Struggles for democracy either side of the border

The people of Burma are waging a heroic fight against the brutal Burmese military. Over three hundred unarmed protesters have so far been murdered in cold blood since the coup at the beginning of February. Yet, every day we see reports of more mass protests up and down the country. The general strike is having an impact on the economy, shaking the junta. In their anger at the strikers, the military have been threatening to throw people out of their workplace accommodation unless they return to work. Many have chosen to move out of their homes rather than submit to the junta.

Railway workers, hospital workers, civil servants, garment workers and bank workers have all joined the general strike. In stepping up the action, workers councils really need to be formed, as they were in the general strike of 1988. These workers councils could then start to organise the distribution of food and essential services to people, thus creating the beginnings of a functioning parallel government controlled by workers. Trade unionists in other countries could also make solidarity donations to help the workers of Myanmar.

In a challenge to the determination of those on strike, a recent article in the Financial Times argued that business leaders in Burma are saying that “protesters are playing a dangerous game with the Myanmar economy” This shows that strikes and civil disobedience are starting to have a real impact and worry the bosses. That is something to be celebrated. Working class strikes which cripple the economy are vital to overthrowing the military dictatorship and are potentially less dangerous than confronting the military and police on the streets. Yet, not surprisingly, bosses in Burma claim that these strikes and the many demonstrations that are occurring “could wipe out a decade of economic gain”. They are only worried by about their profits. In the past, these bosses were quite happy to go along with the military controlled sham democracy before the February coup and have turned a blind eye to gross human rights abuses throughout the country. Western governments were also happy to talk about “progress towards democracy” under the military constitution which allowed the military to hold real power even before the coup. The concerns for the wellbeing of ordinary people because of the strikes and protests expressed by bosses and even the UN are merely crocodile tears. Bosses and the so-called “international community” cannot be relied upon to liberate the people of Myanmar from military rule. And ASEAN certainly cannot be relied upon to do anything to stop the Burmese military. Most ASEAN countries are ruled by authoritarian governments.

In Thailand, prodemocracy activists look at events in Burma with a mixture of huge respect for the protesters and absolute horror at the actions of the military. Many Thais are really hoping for a victory against the Burmese junta which would invigorate the struggle in Thailand.

But important lessons from Burma are not being learnt by Thai activists. So far there have been no real attempts to build a strike movement against the Thai dictatorship and activists are stuck on a strategy of repeated demonstrations, which are smaller in size than those held in 2020. There have been sectarian comments against a group of more militant protesters calling themselves the REDEM movement. This movement takes internet polls from participants about where and how to organise protests. Their marches have been brutally attacked by police and royalist thugs. Some conservatives are criticising them for being “violent” when they defend themselves. But the violence of self-defence cannot in any way be equated to the violence of the Thai military junta, which uses crowd dispersing weapons, intimidation and kidnapping and the courts and prisons against those calling for freedom and democracy.

The junta has long sensed that the movement is stalling and this has given the military confidence to attack numerous protest leaders using the draconian lèse-majesté law and other undemocratic laws in the junta’s legal arsenal. If the democracy movement does not change tactics and increase pressure on the Thai junta, many leaders will be jailed for merely peacefully expressing themselves during protests. Some are being held in jail anyway after being denied bail.

The protesters are quite right in being critical of the odious King Wachiralongkorn, even if they exaggerate his powers in relation to the military. He has continued with his disgusting behaviour flaunting his wives in public and giving military ranks to his many women. This is going on even when he is engaged in a “charm offensive” to counter all the public criticism by touring the country and spending more time in Thailand instead of Germany.

Meanwhile, the total disregard by the military, for the welfare of Thai citizens in relation to the lack of Covid vaccinations, can be summed up by the news that one of the young princesses received her vaccination ahead of the elderly “because she has to meet lots of people while carrying out her duties”. In addition to this, the head of the army suggested that golf caddies on military golf courses be given the jab as a priority! The generals obviously feel that they can say any old rubbish because they are in power and no one can hold them accountable.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

See also:

Wachiralongkorn’s mythical power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL Rubber Ducks cannot defeat the military https://bit.ly/3p3LlnI

The real hope for the people of Burma lies with a movement from below

The military coup in Burma/Myanmar is being opposed by tens of thousands of activists in towns and cities throughout the country.

These protests show a glimpse of what needs to be done to overthrow the military. The most important actions have involved organise workers. They are important because workers have the potential economic power to bring the military to its knees.

Railway workers in Mandalay
Hospital Workers

There are reports that hospital workers at up to 70 hospitals have been taking action against the coup. In the southern city of Dawei and at Dagon University, on the outskirts of Yangon, students have held protests. Teachers, academics and civil servants have also been protesting. There are also reports of railway workers joining protests in Mandalay and according to “The Irrawaddy”, hundreds of workers at the Chinese owned Kyisintaung copper mines in Sagaing Region have joined the civil disobedience movement. In addition to this, residents in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Rakhine, Mon and Shan States have joined anti-coup nationwide rallies, temporarily putting aside their differences with Burmese politicians.

Copper Miners (photo from The Irrawaddy)

The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy. The Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained many oppressive powers, a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament. Opposition to the coup also means opposition to this fake democracy.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains a popular figure inside the country, but she is not the kind of leader who is willing to overthrow the dictatorship. She has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their sham democratic system. She is also an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. This is why she refused to condemn the atrocities carried out by the army against the Muslim Rohingya. Within her party (the National League for Democracy) she has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies towards her opponents and tried to ban Muslims from holding important posts. During Suu Kyi’s time in office, there were over 200 political prisoners and her government continued to allow the junta’s laws to restrict free speech and assembly. Yet, despite this, we must stand with all those who demand her release from detention and an end to military rule. But this is not the same as supporting Suu Kyi’s leadership.

The demands of the democratic movement cannot just be confined to ending military rule. Self-determination for the various ethnic nations within Burma has been a key issue since British rule. The British encouraged ethnic divisions along the lines of the empire’s “divide and rule” policies. There can be no peace or genuine democracy without addressing the ethnic question. Yet, most Burmese nationalist politicians since independence have opposed full self-determination for all ethnic groups, favouring a unified country, which has often involved “unity by military force”. There has been continuous armed conflict between separatists and the central government in various parts of the country since independence. At one point Burmese pro-democracy students also tried to use armed struggle against the regime after being brutally repressed in 1988. In no case has armed struggle resulted in victory.

Despite talking about freedoms for ethnic groups, in general, Aung San Suu Kyi has a condescending attitude towards the non-Burmese who make up a significant proportion of the country. She opposes the right to full self-determination. Suu Kyi once wrote in her book “Freedom From Fear” that the Karen “made good nannies”, the Chins were just a “tribe” and the Kachins, while being “handsome people” only worship spirits. She contrasted this to the “highly cultured” Buddhist Burmese, Mons and Shans. It is no wonder that many ethnic groups do not trust her!

Ne Win

Between 1962 and 1988 Burma was ruled by the military dictator General Ne Win, who claimed that he was a socialist. Yet in reality his regime was a nationalist “State Capitalist” regime modelled on the various Stalinist regimes throughout the world. This had an effect on the stifling the development of a genuine socialist movement.  

Right-wingers try to argue that deals done at the top, with the help of foreign powers, can gradually bring about democratic change. This is a dangerous myth. The so-called “Burmese Road Map to Democracy”, applauded by the West, merely allowed for a façade of democracy while the military held real power. Aung San Suu Kyi was only allowed to take part in elections because she was prepared to compromise. This façade of democracy was enough for the West and mainstream commentators to declare that Burma was returning to “democracy”.

The so-called “international community” will blow hot air over the coup and threaten sanctions, but this will achieve very little. Apartheid in South Africa was not ended by sanctions. It was ended by mass uprisings of youth and militant strikes by the black working class. The Arab revolts ten years ago managed to overthrow repressive leaders through mass uprisings. The dictators Suharto and Marcos were overthrown in Indonesia and the Philippines by mass revolts, not by international pressure. In fact the international community are only interested in ensuring stability and “business as usual” despite their meaningless words about democracy and human rights. 

It is likely that the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures. The Burmese military has huge economic interests and behaves like an armed mega business corporation.

There is a rich history of mass uprisings from below in Burma. On 8th August 1988 a great uprising took place against the military, led by workers, monks and students. This was met with terrible brutality from the security forces who fired live ammunition directly into the crowds. But the defiance continued. On 22nd August a general strike was announced, with strike centres in most towns and cities. The regime began to wobble and the ruling class party disintegrated. This was the window of opportunity to seize power and overthrow the military. Yet on 25th August Aung San Suu Kyi addressed 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and urged protesters to forget what had taken place and not to lose their “affection for the army”!! Thus Suu Kyi helped to demobilise the movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

A further mass uprising led by monks took place in 2007 in response to economic hardship and students demonstrated against the military in 2015. Both these revolts were crushed by the army. Monks have a history of radical politics in Burma and this was strengthened when students entered the monasteries after the 1988 revolt was crushed. The monasteries provided an opportunity for education and some freedoms for political debate when the universities were shut down or tightly controlled. 

Over the last 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has moved to divert radical movements towards parliamentary politics. Every time a revolt takes place she attempts to place herself as the figure-head or personification of Burmese democracy, rather than encouraging mass action from below. This has only protected the military’s power. While opposing the military dictatorship run by the generals, she often expresses admiration for the army, which her father Aung San established after independence.

The real hope for democracy in Burma is that the new generation of young people, independent of Aung San Suu Kyi, will rise up, taking lessons from Thailand and Hong Kong, but also teaching and inspiring activists in those countries. Success in overthrowing the military will depend on involving the working class, both inside the country and also the millions of migrants working in neighbouring Thailand.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Keep up to date with the latest news from Burma at Myanmar Now and The Irrawaddy

Not the tortoise and the hare

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

There are a number of Thais who watch political developments in Burma and despair when comparing things with Thailand. The above cartoon about the tortoise and the hare sums up such feelings. Some academics have been warning that Thailand is moving backwards while Burma is moving forwards.

This is just not true. The reality is that the political systems of the two countries are converging.

The Burmese junta has made a great show of “handing power” over to Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD). But this has only come about because the Burmese generals are convinced that Suu Kyi is not a threat to their long term interests. Rather than a naked military junta, why not have Suu Kyi fronting a civilian government while the military retain key and powerful ministries, retain the power of veto by their appointed representatives in parliament and by writing a pro-military constitution? It is obviously a “win-win” situation for both the military and Suu Kyi, but those who have lost the right to freedom and democracy are the citizens of Burma, and especially Muslims and other ethnic minorities.

Recently Suu Kyi was overheard complaining about being interviewed by a Muslim BBC news presenter. She had been grilled about her islamophobic position over the violent Buddhist pogroms against the Rohingya people. Her Foreign Ministry has asked the US to stop referring to “Rohingya”. In the past she has been patronising towards other ethnic groups, for example writing that “Karens make good nannies”. Those who defend her say she needed to refuse to support Muslims so that the military would not block her rise to a key position in the government. So Suu Kyi has proved that she is a trustworthy Burmese politician who won’t threaten the military and the Burman Buddhist hold on power in the country. The military have used Burman Buddhist nationalist ideology for years. The Thai military use a mixture of Monarchy and Buddhism in their version of nationalist ideology.

The Thai generals have been keenly watching the Burmese drama. They are busy giving instructions to their hirelings to write a similar constitution to the Burmese military constitution. They want to enshrine the power of the military into the future and emasculate the power of any elected government. Generalissimo Prayut promises elections, perhaps around July 2017, but at the same time says “give me 5 more years to sort things out”!! He also expects his despicable political “road map”, guaranteeing the power of the military, to last at least 20 years. They are using terror against those who oppose this and the Internal Security Operations Command are prepared to mobilise non-state right-wing extremist thugs to support the dictatorship.



Thai junta arrests people opposed to its constitution (photos from BBC)
Thai junta arrests people opposed to its constitution (photos from BBC)

Before the recent elections in Burma, the military turned a blind eye or supported Buddhist extremist thugs who rampaged against Muslim villagers. People can still be punished for insulting Buddhism while Buddhist extremists enjoy impunity. The double standards of the Thai court system have often been discussed in this blog. The latest being the acquittal of various royalist thugs while jailing and harassing pro-democracy activists. In the past the Thai Constitutional Kangaroo Court punished the elected Yingluk government for trying to build a high speed rail system. The doddering judge whined that it would be better to upgrade the dirt roads in the provinces. However, there has been silence from such fools now that Prayut’s junta has announced a similar but inferior version of the rail project.

For the Thai generals, the attraction of the Burmese model is that they can create an image of democracy and hope to silence any criticism from outside and inside the country. Ordinary Burmese people seem to have been very enthusiastic about the recent elections there. What is more, if things go badly in Burma, the NLD civilian government can be made to take the blame. The Thai junta is currently starting to be blamed for economic problems and needs to off-load this blame on to civilian politicians while still maintaining power.

In Thailand opponents of the junta are being threatened daily and many are dragged into military camps for attitude changing sessions. The use of lèse majesté to lock up the government’s opponents continues. The junta are trying to soften up some politicians from the Taksin political wing so that they can become domesticated tame creatures, willing to compromise with the military.

So it isn’t a matter of the Thai hare being left behind by the Burmese tortoise in the race for democracy. It is more a picture of two gun-toting gangsters walking off hand in hand into the sunset and a dark future without freedom looming.

Yet there is one ray of light on this darkening horizon. The Thai junta have become increasingly worried that the vast majority of citizens are switching off their television sets during the junta’s daily broadcasts on all channels after the news. The level of electricity consumption is said to dip significantly at this time.


The Thai junta and its friends

The Thai junta and its friends

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai junta has proudly announced that friendly neighbouring nations have approved of the coup and the subsequent destruction of human rights and democracy. The junta’s closest friends are (yes, you guessed it!) China, Burma and Vietnam….. all models of democracy and freedom. This comes on the 25th anniversary of the bloody suppression of the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square. The Burmese generals are still firmly in the driving seat while window-dressing their fake democracy. The Vietnamese dictatorship sends plain clothed security thugs to beat up and jail bloggers and pro-democracy activists. What a nice little authoritarian club.


Meanwhile, Indonesia, one of the two south-east Asian nations that does have a political system which corresponds roughly to democracy, has shown concern about the coup and its “undemocratic nature” and this comes from the elected president of Indonesia who is an ex-general!

Back in Thailand, the (independent) Counter Corruption Commission has announced that ex- Prime Minister Yingluk has not filed her report of her income on “leaving office”. But they also state that there are no laws stipulating that the self-appointed junta members need to declare their earnings on taking office!!

The Thai university “Vice Chancellor’s Committee For Dictatorship” has announced that the coup is a great opportunity to “reform” the education system to instil morals into students, perhaps army discipline too. The education permanent secretary agrees, saying that for too long universities have been under “political” influence. What is needed, according to this self-important clown, is reform to bring universities up to “international standards”! …. Just don’t discuss politics or have any freedom of expression and these “high standards” will be reached.

Finally, just to let readers know that I have been summoned to “report” to the military in Bangkok on 9th June. Given that I already have a warrant for my arrest, out since 2009, for writing a book against the 2006 coup, it sounds like a game of Monopoly: “Go straight to jail and do not pass Go”.