Myanmar: A revolution betrayed

Oct. 2017 Aung San
Aun San, early Communist leader and Burmese colonial premier.


Myanmar (Burma) was a colony of Britain from 1824 to 1948. Despite super-exploitation and trigger-happy British troops, Myanmar was known for its ethnic diversity, rich cultural life, and intellectual influences, including Marxism. Burmese Muslims participated in the fight against British and Japanese imperialism and were officials in the first post-colonial governments.

In February 1939, a well-known anti-colonial student protester, Aung Gyaw, was arrested in Rangoon and died later from a head wound. In response, a huge demonstration was organized in Mandalay on Feb. 10, 1939, during which forces of British imperialism opened fire and killed 17.

In August 1939, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was founded, destined to be the largest Stalinist party in Southeast Asia. Its first secretary was Aung San, father of today’s de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung San distanced himself from the CPB by 1947. In July 1947, Aung San was assassinated with six others, possibly with help from a British agent—six months before the country achieved independence.

In the 1930s, Aung San began a trip to China to get aid from the Chinese Communist Party but by an incredible blunder landed in territory controlled by imperial Japan. Nevertheless, Aung San and later other CPB leaders sought Japanese military training to oust British imperialism. Others trained in China.

In 1943, after Britain had been ousted from Rangoon, Aung San took a top post in the Japanese occupation government. Other CPB members joined Aung San in Japanese-occupied Burma, including the then “left” Bo Ne Win, a future general and vicious leader of the 1962 military coup. Aung San broke with Japan in 1945 to work with British forces.

Over time the CPB revealed its long-term unprincipled blocks with non-working-class forces. The CPB itself was an unstable mixture of “nationalists,” like Ne Win, and Marxists.

The CPB created the multi-class Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League. CPB leaders took high posts (Aung San) in the AFPFL colonial government. Later Aung San broke with the CPB and co-founded a pro-AFPFL party, the Burma Socialist Party, in 1945. The CPB itself was expelled in 1946 from the AFPFL pre-independence, post-war government. Nevertheless, within a few years, the CPB had organized the entire union movement and nearly 1 million peasants.

From April 1948 to 1955 was a period of intense armed struggle. The CPB adopted the Maoist-Stalinist strategy of encircling the cities with a peasant army. Some 15,000 CPB troops fought into the 1970s.

In the meantime, some 13,000 Muslims who had fled during the war were living in refugee camps in India and East Pakistan and were not permitted to return; those who did were considered illegal immigrants. Muslim rebels quickly seized control of large parts of the north and expelled many Buddhist villagers. Law and order almost completely broke down, with two communist insurgencies, Red Flag and White Flag, in addition to the Mujahidin, Rakhine nationalist groups, and the (Marxist) Arakan People’s Liberation Party in the south of the state.

In the chaos, relations between Buddhists and Muslims communities deteriorated further. Many moderate Muslim leaders rejected the mujahidin insurgency. In 1954, the army launched a massive offensive, Operation Monsoon, which captured most of the mujahidin mountain strongholds on the East Pakistan border.

The rebellion was ended by ceasefire in 1961 and the defeat of the remaining groups. The 1962 military coup led to a more hardline stance toward minorities. Today, many small armies exist, founded on dozens of ethnicities—among them, at least two armed Rohingya groups.

The March 1962 coup was led by “war hero” General Ne Win and his Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which ruled with an iron fist but with socialist camouflage. All banks and corporations were “nationalized,” but under military, not workers’, control. The BSPP published the pseudo-socialist Working People’s Daily, with no real opposition.

From August 1988 until the end of the year, tens of thousands demonstrated and conducted general strikes across the country. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were slaughtered during protests. Police, army, and military death squads hunted down student leaders and other human rights advocates.

On Sept. 18, 1988, General Saw Mung oversaw another coup, killing protesters and banning demonstrations of more than four. The State and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), was created, which ruled Myanmar from 1988-97. In a few years the military regime would drop all socialist pretensions.

In 1990, “democracy” leader Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest after decisively winning the May 27 presidential election. She was released in 2010. Her National League for Democracy (NLD) won the 2015 election and she became Myanmar’s de facto leader. She could not run for president because her former husband was British.

The CPB, for its part, largely abstained during the big student-led protests in the late 1980s, because students were “not working class” and in any case, not the peasant vanguard, according to Maoist “theory.” The ossified Stalinist CPB finally imploded in 1989, 41 years after its armed struggle began, with most leaders fleeing to China to retire from politics. CPB cadre splintered into at least five parties, some engaging in smuggling.

Tragically, as yet, no authentic revolutionary force has emerged in Myanmar, a sad tribute to the bankrupt, unprincipled nature of Stalinist politics and Suu Kyi’s pro-capitalist NLD.

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