Three weeks on from the military coup, Myanmar’s crisis-stricken working class is playing a key role in the escalating popular uprising, writes Susan Ram
It’s now three weeks since Myanmar’s military leaders – collectively known as the Tatmadaw – struck at dawn to end the country’s brief encounter with an army-supervised semi-civilian rule.
Quite what the generals had in mind when, on February 1st, they rolled out the troops, blockaded the streets, bagged the first haul of political detainees (including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi), and declared a year-long state of emergency remains opaque. No doubt they anticipated more than a spot of trouble ahead, but within the usual parameters and amenable to the threats, repression and crude displays of army muscle that brought earlier anti-military popular uprisings, in 1988 and 2007, to heel.
Three weeks on from the coup, however, the situation confronting the Tatmadaw could hardly be more alarmingly off-script. Tens of thousands of furious and defiant people are converging daily on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, of Naypyidaw, its purpose-built showcase capital, of Mandalay and of scores of towns and urban centres the length and breadth of the country.
On February 22, a day of strikes and struggle dubbed the ‘five twos’ (a reference both to the date – 22.02.2021 -- and to the ‘8-8-88’ student-led anti-junta day of rage back in August 1988) this immense human sea swelled to encompass hundreds of thousands of protestors.
Large-scale work stoppages, involving government employees, other public sector workers and medical employees, are wreaking havoc with the country’s administrative system and disrupting its industries. The downing of pens and tools is being compounded by multiple acts of civil disobedience, from the mass deployment of ‘broken-down’ cars to block roads to the hacking of the military’s own computer websites.
On the streets, there’s that wanton, ‘undisciplined’ mixing together of people that are the nightmare of any far-right militaristic regime. Students rub shoulders with farmers; the young with the old; trade union veterans with novice workers (many of them women) from the country’s light industries and garment sector. People from dominant ethnic groups pound the tarmac with those from oppressed minorities.
Global media coverage
Adding to the generals’ woes is the intense, unswerving coverage of the unfolding uprising by the international media. Where lethal force has been deployed, as in Mandalay on February 20, when police fired live rounds at striking shipyard workers, killing two demonstrators, the result has been instant global headlines, an intensification of demands for trade boycotts, and a stiffening of resistance on the streets.
At the same time, the ‘story’ being conveyed through this blitz of media attention has a particular slant – one which does only partial justice to what is compelling so many people to take to the streets. The dominant narrative -- that of ‘liberal democracy in peril’ -- keeps the focus on elements palatable to mainstream analysts: the ‘heroic’ figure of Aung San Suu Kyi, back under house arrest; Western-style electoral politics crushed by the military jackboot in the wake of successfully conducted democratic elections.
That Suu Kyi continues to exert immense authority, moral as well as political, across Myanmar is evident in the slogans, banners and placards that currently enliven streets everywhere. It would be premature to characterise the emerging struggle as striking out in new directions, at least on the basis of what we currently know.
At the same time, analyses by researchers and commentators with on-the-ground experience of contemporary Myanmar are revealing aspects of the current struggle routinely overlooked by mainstream accounts. Specifically, this alternative information flow is shedding light on the role being played by Myanmar’s new working class, now confronting an existential crisis in the context of Covid and army-backed emergency powers.
Myanmar’s new working class
Over the past three decades, a voracious process of economic liberalisation has taken hold in Myanmar, transforming an economy traditionally dominated by subsistence peasant agriculture.
Set in motion by the generals back in 1988 and speeded up under the conditions created by the ‘democratic opening’ begun in 2011, neoliberalism has resulted in substantial inflows of foreign capital, particularly from richer south-east Asian nations and China. A second feature has been the rapid onset of crony capitalism within the ranks of the military itself.
In combination, these processes have worked to push huge numbers of peasant producers off the land. Escalating indebtedness, rapidly rising cultivation costs and land grabs, often army-enforced, have been forcing hundreds of thousands of peasants off the land and into the sprawling slums and shantytowns that now surround Yangon and other big cities.
To make ends meet, this new proletariat has sought employment in the new light industries conjured into being by overseas and home-grown investors with an eye for ultra-low wage costs. While some workers have found employment in food and other processing factories for the domestic market, others (women in particular) toil in the multiple garments, textile and footwear factories concentrated around the port city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
More recently, garment factories have been set up in Kayin state, close to the Thai border, where labour costs are even lower. New tax structures under the Myanmar Investment Law provide five- and seven-year tax holidays for factories in “less developed” towns and cities.
Garment production has been a spectacular feature of Myanmar’s rapid-fire insertion into global capitalism. By 2018, more than a million workers – the bulk of them young women – were employed in this sector. Long before that, however, garment workers had begun challenging their poverty wages and atrocious working conditions by forming unions and going on strike.
Unionisation and strikes
As soul-stirring stories go, there is little to compete with the gutsy, combative history of Myanmar’s garment workers. These are women who, even before the right to form unions gained a measure of recognition by the military back in 2011, had disrupted their nascent sector through collective organisation and waves of strike action.
As Stephen Campbell, a Singapore-based anthropologist with a particular focus on the working class of Myanmar and Thailand, notes,
“Since around 2009 there have been recurring strikes, mostly in the industrial zones around Yangon. Factory workers have repeatedly expressed indignation about wage theft, forced overtime, managerial harassment, the firing of workers’ organizers and poor working conditions.”
While striking workers have had to contend with multiple forms of repression, the ‘democratic opening’ launched in 2011, and in particular, the lifting of emergency powers has provided a degree of space for union-building and collective organisation. In 2019, garment workers conducted a wave of coordinated strikes for better conditions.
Then, a year ago, the Covid pandemic struck its economic fall-out as catastrophic for workers across Myanmar as its implications for their health. By September 2020, more than 200 factories in the garment and footwear sector had filed for closure following a government-mandated lockdown. Employers seized the pretext of the pandemic as an opportunity to fire unionised workers. In the absence of any effective social safety net, unemployed workers found themselves unable to feed their families and facing destitution.
This, then, was the reality confronting hundreds of thousands of young workers, many of them unionised and steeled in strike action, even before the coup struck.
A struggle for survival
Viewed in this context, the mass protests currently erupting on a daily basis throughout Myanmar are deriving strength and impetus from a forceful, determined working-class component, including thousands of hard-pressed, militant young workers.
For workers on the breadline, taking to the streets is less an expression of enduring faith in a liberal democracy than a necessary response to an existential crisis and the reversal of gains made in recent years.
“For many workers”, notes the Spanish journalist Philippe Alcoy, “the coup is synonymous with a setback, a loss of their gains, however, limited, especially in terms of an independent organization.”
A great deal more than liberal democracy is currently at stake on the streets of Myanmar.
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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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