Spring Revolution: Workers, Women, and Youth Continue the Fightback in Myanmar

Phil Hearse analyses the ongoing resistance to the coup and the implications for world politics.

Associated Press reported on Wednesday 17 March continued mass defiance of the military coup in Myanmar, after six weeks of repression in which more than 200 people have died. AP said:

Protesters in Myanmar fired slingshots and threw Molotov cocktails toward lines of security forces after apparently coming under fire on Wednesday, a rare incidence of anti-coup demonstrators fighting back against a relentlessly violent crackdown… after security forces apparently shot at them in the country’s largest city of Yangon, demonstrators initially fled – but then crept back to hunker down behind sandbag barricades. Some hurled firebombs, while others took aim with slingshots…

This new defiance comes after the military last weekend escalated violent repression. Last Sunday (14 March) at least 73 people were shot dead by security forces across several major cities, including Myingyan, Mandalay, Thabeikkyin, Monywa, Bogo, Govbingauk, Aunglan, and Yangon.

On Monday, another 23 were killed. Over the same weekend, Chinese-owned garment factories were torched in several districts of the main commercial centre Yangon, ostensibly to protest at Chinese government support for the Myanmar military regime. But local people claimed that the fires were started by agents of the regime, to justify the violent crackdown.

The overall pattern of the conflict is now clear. After the 1 February military coup, the huge mass protest movement took the regime by surprise. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was quickly outflanked by a bottom-up Civil Disobedience Movement, which first organised street protests, quickly followed by strikes among government employees, hospital workers, garment workers, and others.

The merger of mass street protests with mass strikes tipped the regime decisively towards clampdown and repression.

According to Kevin Lin:

In one of the earliest mobilisations, medical workers from over 110 hospitals and health departments in 50 townships across Myanmar were among the first who rose up and went on strike, two days after the coup… The trade union federations were quick to mobilise. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the largest trade union federation in Myanmar, called for the first general strike on 8 February. Despite threats of arrest and growing repressive tactics from the government, workers in a wide range of sectors, including garbage collectors, firefighters, electricity workers, private bank employees, and garment workers initiated waves of strikes, and many joined street demonstrations.

Teachers were quick to join the movement with their students, as well as employees from municipal governments and the ministries of Commerce, Electricity and Energy, Transport and Communications, and others.

Striking workers managed to shut down the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, Myanmar National Airlines, mines, construction sites, garment factories, and schools, creating an economic crisis for the military regime.

As Stephen Campbell points out, labour militancy has been built dramatically over the past decade among the mainly women garment workers in factories circling the centre of Yangon. They were among the first to mobilise in support of mass protests.

The 21 February general strike was a turning point, the moment when the military decided on mass repression. This has included shooting demonstrators, mass arrests, torture of prisoners, invasion of hospitals and other health facilities (seen as centres of resistance), and nightly attacks on rebel neighbourhoods. The full repertoire of reactionary terrorist repression is being used and is now targeting journalists.

A global uprising?

Myanmar is not a bizarre exception to the world political process, but clearly demonstrates key aspects of it. From Turkey to Uganda to Myanmar, utterly corrupt ruling classes are increasingly turning to the handbook of creeping fascism and the Global Police State to impose their will. By Global Police State we mean not just repression, but the international network that enfolds the increasing centrality of military and police forces in political life, the stepped-up importance of arms sales and production, and the growing role of war and paramilitary repression in both profit-making and political power.

Against the power of the depraved and sinister Myanmar military elite, defending their billionaire business interests, the array of forces ranged against them is part of a growing world trend: workers and students in rebellion, but above all women and youth. The brutal slaying of 20-year-old Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing in the capital Naypyidaw is symbolic of the leading role of women in the struggle. As an anonymous feminist activist told Open Democracy, ‘the current wave of protests started with a general strike by factory workers a few days after the military coup – most of those workers were women’.

The conflict has spurred a growing unity against the regime of different ethnic groups. The idea that ethnic Chinese all support the regime was dramatically repudiated by the 14 March shooting of four ethnic Chinese demonstrators in the North Dagon suburb of Yangon.

The 1 February military coup led by top general Min Aung Hlaing occurred because the junta were afraid that the November 2020 electoral victory of the National League for Democracy would mean the loss, or curtailment, of their huge business interests. The new mass movement threatens an even more radical defeat of military-bureaucratic economic and social power. The stakes in this conflict mean it is likely to be protracted and bitter.

The last year has seen a significant upsurge in popular struggle and advances globally. In Sudan a giant movement against the regime started in 2019, centrally involving women leaders and an extensive network of self-organisation from below. The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement in the United States sent shockwaves worldwide. This was quickly followed by mass movements in Lebanon and Tunisia.

A process has begun of reversing the offensive of the Right in Latin America, with the victory of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) in the Bolivian election and the return of deposed left-wing leader Evo Morales; the overthrow of corrupt governments in Peru and Paraguay; the victory of the pro-abortion movement in Argentina; and the overwhelming defeat in the Chile referendum of the old neoliberal constitution. And now we have the upsurge of opposition to the coup in Myanmar.

The Spring Revolution is international. Every day brings news of more rebellion and more Global Police State repression. In the shadow of the pandemic and rapidly advancing climate catastrophe, a new generation of revolt is being assembled.

This is the first of a four-part article. Part 2 on the situation in Latin America will be published soon, followed by Part 3 on the crisis in Africa, and Part 4 on how anti-capitalists must arm themselves for the coming conflicts.

Phil Hearse is a joint author of System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution, just published by Resistance Books.

Phil Hearse is a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance and joint author of both Creeping Fascism and System Crash.

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