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U.S. strategy toward 1988, 2007 uprisings


Published Nov 1, 2007 9:24 PM

Myanmar is the most ethnically diverse state in mainland Southeast Asia. The Burmese nationality comprises around 68 percent of the population. A third of the population are historically oppressed nationalities. The government recognizes eight major nationalities and 135 distinct ethnic groups.

Myanmar’s multiethnic character and the ethnic minorities’ struggle against Burmese domination is a recurring theme in Myanmar’s history. So also was the deep anti-colonial sentiment and opposition to decades of British colonial rule.

In 1989 after brutally suppressing a popular national uprising, the military dictatorship renamed the country “The Union of Myanmar” in an effort to gain some popular support and reflect the many nationalities instead of just the Burmese. Government officials said the change in the country’s name would better reflect the country’s ethnic diversity and provide a release from the British colonial past.

Myanmar and its capital city Yangon were the original names before the British Colonial Administration renamed them Burma and Rangoon.

The United Nations and many individual states have accepted Myanmar as the country’s name, as they have many other countries that renamed themselves. Only Britain, the former colonial power, and the U.S. insist on using the name Burma, as do some opponents of the military junta who are more closely tied to the West. In referring to the country’s history before 1989, Burma is the appropriate name.

Anti-colonial history

There is a long history of resistance to the British conquest and occupation of Burma in the 19th and 20th centuries that still resonates in Myanmar today. From 1822 until 1947 the British Empire fought five wars of conquest in Burma. Throughout this struggle the British used differences among the many different national and ethnic-linguistic groupings to benefit British rule.

As in many other national liberation struggles, the opposition to racist colonial rule drew in a broad spectrum of the population. Along with millions of workers and small peasants, all of the liberation struggles drew in the religious leaders, poets, artists, intellectuals and the local business and merchant classes. Buddhist monks were the leading symbol of many protests against British rule. The current monk-led protests are part of a tradition of Burmese/Myanmar popular action to unpopular and repressive regimes.

The movement for national liberation in Burma included a broad communist opposition to imperialism and a bourgeois national opposition of local business interests opposed to colonial rule. Where, at the end of World War II, the British, French and U.S. could no longer maintain the old colonial domination, they instead tried to guarantee that bourgeois forces tied to imperialism, forces that would continue the established economic relations, would be recognized as the new emerging governments.

Revolutionary communists led the political awakening that swept Asia, especially the Chinese Revolution and the National Liberation struggles in Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In Indonesia and Malaysia, communist movements were brutally repressed. All of these political currents were reflected in Burma. A Burmese military regime without a popular base nevertheless yielded to mass pressure and nationalized most of the industries and resources. The regime suffered a series of military coups.

After independence there were many different uprisings and rebellions against the new Burmese government. The Karen, Kachin, Shan, Mon, Arakan, Chin and other national and ethnic groups fought armed struggles to assert their rights. Peace agreements and ceasefires have been signed from time to time without resolving issues of autonomy and federalism.

The Burmese Communist Party was active against the British and Japanese occupations, and after independence in 1948 they launched a rebellion against the government that lasted for 40 years in the rural areas of the north along the Chinese border. There were powerful urban movements, workers’ movements with socialist leadership, peasant uprisings, pro-democracy protests and popular rebellions.

The ‘8888’ Uprising

The most significant revolutionary uprising against the regime took place in 1988. U.S. imperialism took a much different attitude toward the 1988 uprising from its support of the demonstrations last month. It showed that imperialism evaluates these struggles based on whether they threaten or support imperialist interests.

Similar to this year’s struggle, the 1988 demonstrations began with opposition to sharp price increases for food and fuel and with student actions against political repression and religious processions. This was known as the “8888 Uprising” because after several months of escalating actions, the active forces set Aug. 8, 1988 as the beginning of a national general strike against the regime.

At eight minutes past eight on Aug. 8, dock workers in the port of Rangoon walked out and began a march into the city. They were joined by processions that brought the whole city into the streets. Tens of thousands of peasants came in from the countryside. Simultaneous demonstrations and strike actions broke out throughout the country—in Mandalay, Sagaing, Shwebo, Moulmein, Taunggyi and many other towns. The military fired into the demonstrations and hundreds were killed.

A revolutionary upheaval followed. People established Popular Councils in cities and towns across the country. The state apparatus disintegrated. There were mutinies of military units and police forces crumbled. People stormed prisons and released thousands of political prisoners, seized warehouses and distributed rice. Mass organizations and revolutionary committees sprang up that took over essential tasks of urban life—from running hospitals to directing traffic.

The National Democratic Front—representing 10 armed guerilla organizations of various oppressed nationalities—issued a proclamation calling for a coordinated military offensive and raising their own demands of autonomy and equality and solidarity with the revolutionary upheaval.

Unlike their favorable coverage of the monks’ demonstrations this past September, the corporate media in the U.S. warned in 1988 of rising anarchy and said that Burma was spiraling into chaos. Imperialist governments ordered their embassy staffs to evacuate. No one arrived from the U.N. to support this democratic movement. No one called for sanctions against the generals.

The generals responded by seeking to divide the movement and regain the allegiance of the property owning and middle-class elements. They promised to lift business restrictions, open the economy to foreign investments, negotiate new loans and restructure the economy. U.S. and Japanese banks quickly granted $3.8 billion in loans.

U.S. corporations such as Unocal, today Chevron, quickly moved in to take advantage of the military’s brutal repression by getting big concessions from the military dictatorship for the gas and oil fields. Myanmar has copper, tin, tungsten, iron, along with petroleum and natural gas. It has large forests of hardwood trees and—once the world’s largest exporter of rice—it has rich agricultural land. All of these resources are of great interest to multinational corporations.

The generals promised new elections. The dictator U Ne Win resigned. There was a new shuffle of faces among the generals. Then on Sept. 18, 1988, the regime declared a State of Emergency. The martial law crackdown was so severe that 3,000 to 10,000 leaders and grassroots activists were killed within days and tens of thousands rounded up and imprisoned for years. Repression and military rule have continued for 19 years.

The 1988 uprising did pave the way for the 1990 People’s Assembly elections, the first held in 30 years. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won over 60 percent of the vote and over 80 percent of parliamentary seats in the election. Senior General Saw Maung’s government subsequently annulled the election results.

After 1988’s brutal repression and with the more revolutionary leadership of the 1988 movement dead, in jail or on the run, the U.S. began funding an opposition to the generals that was deemed friendlier to U.S. corporate interests.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the George Soros Open Society Institute, Freedom House, the Albert Einstein Institute and the U.S. State Department have helped in funding, training and providing material support and communication for a new generation of opposition to the general’s rule.

NED funds of $2.5 million annually since 2003 have focused on regime change. The NED admits to funding the key opposition media such as New Era Journal, Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma radio. The U.S. Consulate General office in neighboring Thailand, now under a dictatorship that is friendly to U.S. interests, has provided key logistical support and training. Whether these subversive organizations can control Myanmar’s mass movement remains to be seen.

U.S. covert support for the opposition in Myanmar is based on a rapidly expanding U.S. involvement back into South Asia. Growing U.S. corporate concern with China’s growth and the Pentagon’s drive to implant a new generation of U.S. bases to control the Straits of Malacca is leading to a renewed U.S. involvement in the region. Some 80 percent of the oil bound for China passes through these straits.

The real attitude of U.S. imperialism toward the movement in Myanmar will not be guided by Washington’s concern for democratic change. It will depend on U.S. economic interests and strategic military plans in the region.