In November 2015 the pro-democracy NLD (National League for Democracy) won a crushing majority in national elections held in Burma (Myanmar)
Interview with a Burmese student activist by Vincent Kolo
The NLD, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate and daughter of martyred independence leader Aung San, won almost 80 percent of the contested seats. But it is forced to rule in a system designed by the former military dictatorship that guarantees the generals control over key areas such as the army and police, government bureaucracy and Burma’s abundant natural resources.
chinaworker.info spoke to Burmese student Ye Naing about the situation today. We asked him what has changed since the NLD’s election victory.
“Not much has changed, which is ironic given that the NLD’s election slogan was ‘It’s time to change’. Many people still argue that we must give the government some time, it might be too early to judge them,” he says.
Disillusionment is evident among democracy activists, among youth and ethnic minorities. By-elections held in April to fill empty seats in the upper and lower chambers of the legislature as well as some regional seats registered a drop in support for the NLD in minority regions. It won 47 percent of the vote in these by-elections compared to over 60 percent of the popular vote in 2015.
Ye explains he voted for the NLD not expecting them to deliver revolutionary changes or lead a struggle against Burmese-Buddhist nationalism and organisations like the Patriotic Association of Burma (PAB), a chauvinist force led by Buddhist monks, but in the hope the NLD would at least bring free speech and freedom of worship, and grant autonomy and decentralisation to the ethnic minority regions wracked by civil wars against the Burmese army.
“I hoped the NLD would protect the vulnerable, the weak, the poor such as the workers who are forced to work as many as 13 hours a day, the farmers whose lands were robbed by the military and also the ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs) fleeing from the civil wars in Shan State, Kachin State, etc.”
These hopes have not been fulfilled, says Ye. Everyone including most NLD supporters were taken by surprise by the size of the party’s victory in 2015, he says. The USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party), the party formed in 2010 by the former military dictatorship, played the racist card before the election.
“Sponsored by the USDP, these Buddhist monks went around rural areas of Burma and threatened that an NLD victory would turn Burma into a ‘Kalar’ country (Kalar is a derogatory word generally used to refer to dark-skinned Indians but also, in this case, to Muslims).”
But these efforts were outrun by the popularity of Aung San Suu Kyi, he explains. There was also widespread election fraud by the military but the number of bogus votes didn’t surpass the number won by the NLD. Now, however, frustration is growing over why with such a large majority the new government maintains many of the old repressive laws and methods of rule.
“The NLD has an overwhelming majority in parliament meaning they have the power to abolish and amend any laws. But NLD MPs have refused to scrap the notorious section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which is similar to laws used by the military regime to imprison its critics. NLD politicians are suing people using section 66(d) for example for mocking Aung San Suu Kyi and other party leaders on Facebook. This shows that they do not really stand for free speech, which is a central tenet of democracy.”
We want to know what changes have occurred since the elections to improve the lives of the masses. Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia – average income is lower than in North Korea. Child labour is rife, with many working in Chinese and Korean-owned garment factories. Only around half of school-age children complete their primary education.
“School is supposed to be free but actually it’s not. School uniforms, our traditional longyi, a lunch box every day and books all cost money and many of the poorest pupils drop out because they can’t afford these things.”
Labour laws ignored
Workers get very low wages and work long hours with union organisation still weak or non-existent in most factories. Burma is ideal prey for the big global multinationals like H&M and Gap. A new minimum wage was set at 3,600 kyat (18 yuan) per day in September 2015, before the NLD’s election victory. But a survey by labour NGOs last year showed 61 percent of workers complaining of “negative impacts” from the minimum wage law, which has been used to impose tougher conditions and punish those who won’t work a six-day week.
“Most factories don’t care about the minimum wage law. The enforcement of all labour laws is very weak. Factory owners threaten to close down and move to other countries. Even government departments don’t follow the law; they don’t pay overtime rates or respect workers’ entitlements to holidays or weekends off. If the government doesn’t bother about the law, why would private companies?”
One month after the NLD government was formed, the police cracked down on a workers’ strike at a wood factory in a township outside the capital Naypyidaw. The workers were protesting mass sackings after they had demanded to be paid overtime. The police made mass arrests and charged the workers with “unlawful assembly and rioting” under laws unchanged since the days of the old regime.
“The police are under the military-controlled Ministry of Home Affairs. But the NLD was silent on this issue instead of speaking up for the workers. The NLD shows the same nonchalant attitude when there is a clash between farmers and activists and the police.”
Recently the government announced it would cut the New Year holidays every April from ten to five days. These holidays are when workers, most of whom are migrants from other parts of Burma, go home to their villages far away. “Now this simple luxury has been stripped away,” says Ye.
He believes the NLD government has sought an accommodation with the USDP and military, which has led to a convergence of views on economic policies and on dealing with Burma’s ethnic minorities.
“Aung San Suu Kyi seems to favour the military generals too much. She has met with the crony capitalists who multiplied their wealth by robbing the lands of farmers, received government buildings and public lands almost for free and monopolised the market. She told these cronies that she wants to reconcile with them because they are also citizens of Burma.”
There are clearly problems with the internal structures of the NLD itself, which for a pro-democracy political force is not so democratic as Ye explains.
“The NLD has been criticised by ex-party members as too authoritarian, with power concentrated in the hands of a few people. Since the party was facing the pressure of the military dictatorship, these criticisms were muted and met with a degree of sympathy and understanding that this must be the only way to survive in such political conditions.
Plight of the Rohingyas
“But the NLD’s authoritarian internal methods started to show in the election season. There were no Muslim candidates running for the seats in parliament for example. NLD headquarters deliberately weeded out all the potential Muslim candidates. Next, the candidates chosen were those showing complete loyalty to Aung San Suu Kyi and the party leadership. As a result, candidates who are not in agreement with Aung San Suu Kyi were barred from standing.”
The national question in Burma, where ethnic Bamars make up 57 percent of the population, is a tinder box. Ethnic minorities voted for Aung San Suu Kyi hoping for moves towards local autonomy and a more federal system to be placed on the table in negotiations to end the country’s protracted civil war.
“The minorities including Rohingyas, Muslims and other groups feel betrayed. Aung San Suu Kyi herself blames both sides – the Burmese army and the ethnic armed forces – for the perpetuation of the civil war. But it’s the former military regime that carries the main responsibility for this situation. The military has plundered the natural resources in the states where the ethnic minorities live without giving anything back to them.”
“Aung San Suu Kyi is maintaining the status quo and has not stood up for minority rights. When she came to power, the Rohingyas, Muslims, and war-torn Kachins looked up to her with hope. But none of her policies, actions and speeches show sympathy for the minorities. For instance, she visited IDP camps and told the camp dwellers there are only two ways: to join the peace process or the IDP way.”
This was the NLD’s way to put pressure on various ethnic armed groups to accept a peace agreement that falls short of their expectations. She urged the war victims to choose peace as if it is they who are waging the war, says Ye.
The plight of the Rohingyas has captured worldwide attention and embarrassed Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. The Rohingyas have been described as “the most persecuted minority in the world” by the United Nations.
“Rohingyas are the indigenous Muslim population living in Rakhine State. They are regarded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh by the government and the majority of the population. There is a history of tensions between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas.
The actions of the Buddhist-controlled army amount to ethnic cleansing against the Rohingyas, to drive them out of their homes, a problem that has continued and even worsened under the NLD government. Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi shocked many among her worldwide liberal following when she flatly denied reports of rape being used as a weapon of terror by soldiers and Buddhist chauvinist gangs against Rohingya women.
“There are reports women were gang-raped by the security forces. Rohingya women are not alone – the Burmese military has used rape as a weapon during the civil war too. So it is quite revolting when I saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s official Facebook page denying these incidents as ‘fake rape’.”
“Before the election the media reported her silence on the Rohingya issue, but we thought it was a tactic [to avoid a sensitive issue] and that she would give them rights including the right to citizenship once she got the power. But now, it is becoming obvious that she is not interested in fighting for the Rohingyas and will just let them rot in the concentration camps or perish in the seas.”
No freedom on a capitalist basis – our view
By Dikang, chinaworker.info
The NLD’s victory in 2015 and the seeming defeat of a brutal military regime were welcomed around the world. The dictatorship had crushed mass movements against its rule in 1988 and again in 2007.
Western governments and multinational agencies like the UN and ASEAN hold Burma up as a model for the ‘reform’ of authoritarian states. But despite the generals stepping aside and focusing on their vast business interests, the power of Burma’s military is undiminished. And as our interview shows, the NLD leaders want to accommodate themselves with this power rather than seeking to challenge it.
“We have to give a guarantee that military enterprises will continue,” the chief of the NLD’s economic committee, Han Tha Myint, told the Wall Street Journal in December 2015 after his party’s landslide win. “We don’t need to turn the present bureaucracy upside down,” he added.
This once again highlights the main problem in the struggle for democracy, which applies to all the ‘emerging economies’ – it cannot be realised within the framework of diseased capitalism and imperialism. The only force that can sweep away an authoritarian regime and replace it with a genuinely democratic form of government is the working class supported by the other poor and oppressed strata of society. This is the great lesson of the Russian Revolution 100 years ago.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s programme embraces capitalism, globalisation and the economic prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank. Implementing such policies, which everywhere make the rich richer and poor poorer, requires a continuation of repressive measures and a state machine under the control of the elite to hold the poor majority in check. The struggle for real democracy must reject this road or it will meet with failure and even a possible return to dictatorial rule. The way forward is by building a workers’ alternative – a mass socialist party under the democratic control of its members – and overthrowing capitalism.