The eruption of mass protests against the February 1st military coup represents an upping of the stakes for Myanmar’s junta, writes Susan Ram
In just a matter of days, a powerful eruption of mass protest has transformed the political topography of Myanmar, stirring tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in urban centres across the country.
The popular uprising follows the abrupt re-imposition of military rule in the early hours of February 1st, accompanied by the detention of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (the country’s de facto civilian leader), President Win Myint, and other political leaders.
The coup, the latest in a series to have disfigured Myanmar’s post-Independence experience, was conducted with all the familiar hallmarks: troops on the streets, blockades by military vehicles, and media-borne blasts of propaganda, including appeals for unity in the face of ‘threats to the nation.’
But it was quickly evident that the coup, along with its feeble justifications, had few takers. Early indicators of popular fury included the mass floating of red balloons over Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the country’s commercial capital and largest city, and the nightly banging of pots and pans (a practice traditionally associated with driving out evil spirits) in multiple urban centres.
Then, on February 6, tens of thousands of protestors poured onto the streets of cities and towns across the country. In Yangon, those marching on the city centre raised slogans calling for the release of Suu Kyi and other democratically-elected lawmakers. As chants of "We demand democracy" echoed through the streets, the military authorities responded by slapping down an internet blackout, which only intensified public rage (it was lifted the following day).
To the surprise of some outside commentators, militant protests involving thousands of demonstrators also erupted in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s purpose-built national capital, with its concentration of civil servants and heavy military presence.
Thousands also marched in the southern city of Dawei and in Myitkyina, capital of the norther state of Kachin. In Mandalay, convoys of hundreds of cars and motorcycles paraded through the city at night, honking their support for the protests.
The scale of the protests
Along with its impressive geographical reach, Myanmar’s uprising in defence of democracy is revealing staying power and a capacity for growth. The presence of large numbers on the streets has continued for several days now, despite the army’s deployment of tear gas, water cannon and most recently rubber bullets.
Calls for a general strike on February 8 drew further sections on to the streets. Nurses, teachers, lawyers and government workers were among those marching in Yangon and Naypyitaw, bearing placards stating ‘Say no to dictatorship!’ and ‘We want democracy!’
The scale of the protests has drawn comparisons with an earlier surge of anti-military mobilisation in Myanmar: the ‘Saffron Revolution’ of 2007. Over a three-month period that year, thousands took to protest the decision of the country’s military rulers to remove fuel subsidies, resulting in immediate, eye-watering price hikes: 100% for petrol and diesel and 500% for compressed natural gas. While students, political activists (including women) and other civil society organisations figured prominently in the protests, leadership was largely in the hands of Buddhist monks, resulting in what was essentially a campaign of non-violent resistance, with pronounced moral overtones.
Military repression, including killings and mass arrests, eventually put an end to the 2007 mass mobilisation.
The prospects ahead
Since 2007, Myanmar has experienced substantial socio-economic change, much of it the fruit of neoliberal ‘reforms’ and the opening up of the country to foreign capital, from China as well as the West.
As we follow the unfolding situation, it’s useful to keep certain questions in mind.
Firstly, there’s the question of who exactly is participating in this fresh pro-democracy uprising? To what extent is Myanmar’s working class, including new sections created during the years of Suu Kyi’s two-step with her military custodians, involved in the new upsurge of protests? For instance, what role is being played by the million or more women working in the country’s garment sector (which has witnessed particularly rapid growth over recent years)? Are reports that workers on at least one offshore natural gas platform have joined the protests indicative of a wider trend?
Next: the question of leadership. As the mass mobilisations build, are the shots still being called primarily by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), a political formation geared primarily (although not exclusively) to the interests of Myanmar’s capitalist class? Or can we see evidence of the emergence of new, more militant formations, including ones pursuing a more class-oriented strategy? In short, what does the struggle have to tell us about the prospects for building the left in Myanmar?
Finally: this time round, how will the military respond? Thus far, repression has fallen short of resort to deadly force. A state of emergency is in place; a curfew has been imposed; and the army has slapped a limit on gatherings, now restricted to a maximum of five people. Promises of fresh elections at some unspecified future time continue to waft around.
Nobody on the streets on Yangon or Naypyidaw or Mandalay or any other corner of Myanmar will nurse any illusions about the iron fist waiting to strike. At the same time, the immense tide of protest currently washing across Myanmar has significantly upped the stakes for the country’s aging generals and their project of perpetual power.
Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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