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FRFI 199 October / November 2007

Burma: people on the march

As we go to press, the outcome of the mass uprising against the tyrannical military junta in Burma remains unclear. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest against a regime infamous for its brutality against the poor and the indigenous populations of the country.

The spark for the uprising was a decision by the junta on 15 August to double the price of diesel and to raise the price of gas by 500% As a consequence, the price of essential food items rose by 35%. Demonstrations started on 19 August and then swelled until on 24 September marches were held in dozens of towns and cities, and an estimated 100,000 protested in the capital Rangoon. Led by Buddhist monks, marchers have been shot down, tear-gassed, clubbed and arrested.

This is not the first time the Burmese people have risen up. In both 1986 and 1988 mass protests calling for democratisation were met with savage repression and thousands were killed on the streets. Following this the Burmese army established the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), now renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Under SLORC, the country was completely militarised. Campaigns were waged against rural ethnic communities as they fought to defend their land. Thousands were murdered each year and a million people displaced. A regime of slave labour was established to undertake infrastructure projects; according to John Pilger, some two million people have been forced to work on building roads, railways, airports and gas pipelines and tourist facilities. The UN Commission on Human Rights reported in 1994 that ‘torture, summary and arbitrary executions, forced labour, abuse of women…oppression of ethnic and religious minorities’ were ‘commonplace’.

This did not stop western oil companies from signing up to exploit Burma’s gas resources. In 1995, a consortium led by US company Unocal and France’s Total signed a deal to extract gas off the Burmese coast and pipe it across indigenous lands in southern Burma. Forced labour was used to build the pipeline as SLORC brutally cleared the area it was to run through. In 1996, Labour shadow Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett supported sanctions; when in office a year later he said the government would ‘continue to provide British companies with routine advice about doing business in Burma’. As it is, many US and British companies have continued to deal with the Burmese regime through subsidiaries in Thailand and Singapore.

Today 90% of the population live below the UN poverty line of $1 per day; malnourishment is endemic and next to nothing is spent on healthcare so that the infant mortality rate is a staggering 100 per 1,000 live births. According to an unemployed economist, ‘living standards have gone down and down. The middle classes have become poor, and the poor have become destitute’ (from Sydney Morning Herald).

The struggle in Burma has now become a battle between the imperialist powers. George Bush’s and Gordon Brown’s concern for democracy has everything to do with Burma’s geo-strategic position, its natural resources and its relationship to China, and nothing to do with the interests of the mass of the Burmese people. Britain and the US are looking to the bourgeois National League of Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi to replace the SPDC junta. The NLD, which has a straightforward neo-liberal programme, is worried by the demonstrations; spokesperson Sann Aung issued a statement on 25 September saying ‘We’re not calling for the junta to step down. We don’t want it to lose face. We want it to engage in dialogue and a political settlement with Aung San Suu Kyi’. Such temporising followed the 1988 demonstrations; the consequence was elections in 1990 whose result (an 82% landslide victory for the NLD) SLORC promptly disregarded.

FRFI completely supports the struggle of the poor and oppressed of Burma and their right to determine their future free from military rule and any external interference.
Robert Clough