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Howard tunes in as Burma rises against military

2 October 2007

BURMA IS rising up again. Monks, students and workers are showing extreme courage in challenging the police and army. Mobile/internet technology sends images of their bravery around the world almost as it happens.

The military has ruled since 1962 and current strongman Senior General Than Shwe has dominated since 1992. The last great uprising began in Rangoon on August 8, 1988. Like today, it was in response to a mix of economic hardship and political oppression.

Then the army killed thousands of people to regain control. Thousands of activists fled into the border regions. Half a million are still refugees in Thailand or on the border.

There are a small number of ‘8888 Uprising’ refugees in Australia who also need our solidarity.

The 8888 uprising led to the first open elections for 30 years in 1990. But the generals ignored results that saw them win just 2 per cent of the vote, while Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy gained 60 per cent.

Suu Kyi has been under house arrest most of the time since and is a powerful symbol for the democracy movement.

The current protests were kicked off by the removal of fuel subsidies in mid-August, leading to price rises of up to 500 per cent. The Burmese economy is facing a Zimbabwean-style implosion. Prices are rising with real incomes falling fast and the exchange rate is starting to collapse.

The dictatorship has wasted the country’s wealth on military hardware (supplied by China), obscene private extravagance and flashy monuments. Recently it built a completely new capital city at Naypyidaw. Meanwhile most of the people barely survive on rice and eggs. Forced labour to build mega-projects for mining and highway construction is a common from of taxation for poor peasants.

Transparency International recently ranked Burma the most corrupt country in the world.

But endemic corruption does not occur because the junta won’t open up the country to the market, as most economists argue. In the last 20 years the junta has allowed multinationals from the US, Britain and its ASEAN neighbours to enter the country. Oil companies such as Total and Unical moved in to build a pipeline between Burma and Thailand. Firms like Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne have invested in sweatshops in Rangoon.

Despite the investment, the regime remains starved of the funds needed to support its 400,000-strong army and the luxury consumption of its top officials.

So it is also dependent on drug money from Opium, heroin and amphetamine sales in Thailand, Laos, India and China.

The drug economy is larger than the legal economy and tragically HIV is spreading fast as a consequence.


Monastic resistance

Howard tunes in as Burma rises against militaryThe militant role of the monks is not as strange as it appears. Lack of development has meant that industrial workers have not played a revolutionary role, except to support the resistance of other classes. So the 1988 uprising was sparked by students but quickly drew in workers and peasants.

All young Buddhist men in the country are required to spend some time training to be a monk, so the monasteries are a central part of the community drawing in thousands of boys from the towns and villages.

Until the reprisals of this week, the monasteries had been off limits to the army and police, making them ideal centres for resistance.

This is not a new phenomenon. Buddhist culture was a rallying point for Burmese resistance against British colonialism.

Early in September three monks were attacked for supporting the economic protests. When the government refused to apologise, the monks announced an indefinite spiritual strike, withdrawing their ceremonial labour from members of the military.

The protests have inevitably raised the question of whether Aung San Suu Kyi can lead the movement to victory. If she succeeds, this would be a huge boost to democracy struggles in the region.

But there is no point in worshipping her as an idol. The NLD is not opposed to neo-liberalism. While Suu Kyi has spoken out against corporations that deal with the junta, she is not opposed to dealing with the garment and oil multinationals herself.

During the 8888 uprising, she only took part in the protests after her supporters demanded it.

Even though the NLD had overwhelming support, its rejection of extra-parliamentary struggle meant that it soon lost courage in the face of adversity and disintegrated.

Today, we cannot rule out that Suu Kyi might accept a power-sharing deal should the military offer one to save itself.

But the military has so far continued to attack protestors. As Socialist Worker went to press, the movement has continued to grow in the face of the crackdown.


Talking tough

Howard is talking tough against the Burmese military. But he couldn’t care less about the struggle for democracy.

Since 1996, Australia has had a policy of “constructive engagement” with the junta. There are a handful of Australian investors operating joint ventures in Burma, mainly in oil exploration. The Department of Foreign Affairs has made it clear that any sanctions “are not targeting Australian businesses.”

Howard and other western leaders know that there is billions to be made should the pro-China government collapse.

Australia is only interested because it represents a window of opportunity to expand its imperialist influence in the region.

By Bruce Knobloch and Tom Barnes