The recent military coup in Burma/Myanmar has quite rightly shocked and angered many ordinary people. Protests by Burmese expats and Thai democracy activists were immediately held outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. True to form and true to their shared interests with the Burmese military, the Thai junta ordered the police to attack this demonstration under the pretence that it was against emergency Covid laws. Two Thai activists were arrested.
The solidarity between Thai and Burmese pro-democracy activists is a beacon of hope. This is because the real hope for Burmese democracy does not lie with Aung San Suu Kyi or the West. The so-called “international community” will blow meaningless hot air over the coup, but nothing of substance will change. International sanctions have never brought about democracy. It was mass working class and youth uprisings which ended apartheid in South Africa. The same can be said about the collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their half democracy system. In addition to this, in the 8-8-88 mass uprising against the military, she demobilised the student and workers’ movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and diverting the movement into a base for her electoral hopes. Burma then remained a military dictatorship for the next three decades.
Suu Kyi is also a racist, an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. She cannot be trusted to lead a genuine movement for democracy.
The hope is that the new generation of young people in Burma will rise up, taking inspiration from Thailand, Hong Kong and Nigeria.
One good sign is that there are reports that hospital workers inside Burma have been taking action to protest against the coup.
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 a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament and other oppressive measures.
Right-wing political views try to push the false idea that deals by important top people and foreign powers can gradually bring about democratic change. A recent article in the New York Times implied that the development of Burmese democracy was seriously damaged because Aung San Suu Kyi failed to cooperate and compromise enough with the military [See http://nyti.ms/3cPanUD ]. In fact she spent the last five or more years compromising too much with the army.
It may be that after Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in the recent elections, 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.
Back in 2016 I wrote a post about mainstream views on democratisation. I wrote that:
“Recently I had a conversation with a researcher associated with the British Foreign Ministry and I was surprised and shocked to hear him say: “Burma is the most democratic country in South-east Asia”. He went on to say that the worrying thing about Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi might be too inflexible to work with the military.” [See http://bit.ly/3jc3VrI ]
I then posed the question: “So what accounts for this absurd idea about Burma?”
“The views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. In fact they are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of the population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.
Reading through political science literature about democratic transitions in the days before the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia or before the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, you can see that the idea that these dictators might be overthrown by mass movements from below is totally lacking. But this is in fact, exactly what happened. The same can be said of the Arab Spring uprisings and uprisings against the military in Thailand in 1973 and 1992. And the most important social force which can push forward and develop democratisation in all these countries, including Thailand, remains mass movements of workers and the poor.”
The fact that a generalised mass uprising, involving workers, of the kind that we saw in Burma in 1988, did not get rid of the military junta in recent years, means that the military were still in control of the levers of power. Without destroying this power, the tough and poisonous vines of a full dictatorship could easily grow back.
In Thailand the military are still in control because the mass movement has not yet harnessed the power of the working class. [See “Rubber ducks cannot defeat the military” http://bit.ly/3tmU5YB ].
Both in Thailand and in Burma, we still need mass movements of young people, allied to the organised working class, in order to achieve a democratic transition. Military regimes don’t just gradually dissolve by polite negotiation.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn