Australasian Spartacist No. 234
Genocidal Terror in Myanmar
For an Independent Rohingyan State!
The following article is reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1127 (9 February), published by our comrades of the Spartacist League/U.S.
In late August, the military of Myanmar (Burma) launched a systematic campaign of massacre, rape and arson against the deeply oppressed Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, killing thousands and fueling a mass exodus to neighboring Bangladesh. Nearly 700,000 people, some two-thirds of the Rohingya population, have fled the northern part of Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine (formerly Arakan), their small villages burned to the ground. The pretext for this latest scorched-earth carnage was an attack by lightly armed Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) fighters on police posts and an army base in Rakhine that reportedly left 12 security personnel and at least 59 Rohingya dead.
Genocidal terror at the hands of the armed forces is nothing new for the beleaguered Rohingya. They have been kept subjugated and impoverished by the generals from the ethnic Burmese (Bamar) Buddhist majority, who remain the real power in Myanmar despite the “democratic transition” that began in 2011. Especially since the 1962 military coup, the Rohingya have increasingly been subjected to organized state violence—arbitrary arrests, forced labor, restriction of travel and marriage, destruction of mosques and seizure of their lands. To limit their population, the government bars them from having more than two children. In 1977 and again in 1991, the military carried out “cleaning operations” that resulted in some half million people being forced out. The latest wave of Rohingyans to enter Bangladesh’s squalid camps join some 300,000 who escaped previous attacks, while nearly a million more are overwhelmingly in other Muslim-majority countries. Many of those still in Rakhine are interned in camps, surrounded by government forces and hostile Buddhist communities and denied work, education and medical care.
Myanmar is a prison house for over 135 ethno-linguistic groups. The country’s rulers, predominantly Bamars from the central lowland of the Irrawaddy River valley, lord over a myriad of nationally oppressed peoples, including the Shan, Mon, Kachin, Karen, Chin and Wa. Since Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, many of these ethnic groups have engaged in insurgencies of varying levels of intensity to assert separatist claims or to attain some form of autonomy or greater rights. Among them are the Rakhine Buddhists, who are the largest group inhabiting the state that bears their name.
While many of Myanmar’s peoples suffer under Bamar rule, the Rohingya, with their distinctive South Asian features, language and religion, are the most vulnerable. Unlike larger ethnic minorities that have greater military capacity and occupy the inaccessible rugged and mountainous terrains of the frontiers, the Rohingya are relatively small in numbers and reside in the coastal plain of Rakhine state. Denigrated as “Bengali” foreign intruders, they are denied Myanmar citizenship—codified in a 1982 law—rendering them stateless, even though they have lived in Rakhine for generations. Bangladesh does not allow the Rohingya citizenship, either. In the mid 1990s, some 200,000 of them were forcibly repatriated to Myanmar, a process overseen by the United Nations; today, Bangladesh again wants to expel the Rohingya.
These stateless people desperately need their own independent state in what is now north Rakhine, both as an elementary measure of protection for those still there and to permit the safe return of the million-plus Rohingya now in the diaspora. Rohingya Muslims have repeatedly expressed their desire for separation from Myanmar since the time of the country’s independence, when they waged an armed struggle seeking to be part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). At other times, they have agitated for autonomy. In armed clashes between the ARSA or other Rohingya insurgents and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military), revolutionary Marxists militarily side with the Rohingya, who are locked in a struggle for existence. We uphold full equality and democratic rights for all the peoples in Myanmar, including the right to self-determination, and raise the call: Tatmadaw out of Rakhine! For an independent Rohingyan state!
The Buddhist chauvinists want to erase all memory of the Rohingya in accordance with the policy of “Burmanization,” an ultranationalist ideology based on asserting the mythical racial purity of the Bamar ethnicity and upholding the conservative Theravada Buddhist faith. (The same form of Buddhism is dominant in Sri Lanka, where it promotes violence against Tamil Hindus and Christians, and in Thailand, where it targets Muslims.) Burmanization’s loudest advocates include extremist monks of the Buddhist organizations 969 and the Committee to Protect Race and Religion (or Ma Ba Tha). But they are not the only ones inciting holy war. In October, Sitagu Sayadaw, a supposedly “pacifist” monk, gave a sermon to a group of army officers that invoked a parable about an ancient Sri Lankan king who was advised not to grieve for the many non-Buddhists he killed in battle because they were not human beings.
The monks and their organizations are backed by the Tatmadaw and Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. A darling of the U.S. and other imperialists, Suu Kyi was showered with accolades, from the Nobel Peace Prize to the Congressional Gold Medal. Liberals embraced her as a “champion of democracy and human rights.” Truth is, she is a Buddhist chauvinist who denounces the Rohingya as “terrorists” and Bengali “foreigners” and dismisses their massacre as “a huge iceberg of misinformation.” As State Counsellor, she is presiding over the terror campaign against the Rohingya. Two decades ago, well before Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and assumed office, our comrades of the Spartacist League of Australia succinctly described her role as “a very thin ‘democratic’ veneer to the continued brutal exploitation of the workers and peasants” (Australasian Spartacist No. 159, Spring 1996).
One of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has suffered from decades of economic stagnation and isolation. After the return to a nominally civilian government, large chunks of state/military-owned enterprises were sold off at rock-bottom prices, largely to a small circle of military cronies. The end of sanctions by the West and the passage of new laws over the same period have opened the economy to international capital. Major corporations from Coca-Cola to Chevron and General Electric are moving in to get a piece of the action. Textile barons are scrambling to set up poverty-wage sweatshops employing largely young female workers.
It is in the interest of the country’s small but growing working class, itself multiethnic, to take up the cause of the Rohingya and other minorities. The Myanmar regime whips up anti-Muslim fervor to deflect workers from struggle against the ravages of capitalism and the relentless violence unleashed by those at the top of society.
U.S. Imperialism and China in Myanmar
In September, the Trump administration urged the UN Security Council to take “strong and swift action” to end violence against the Rohingya. This rhetoric was pure hypocrisy. The U.S. imperialists have one overriding strategic objective in Myanmar: countering China, the largest and most powerful of the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states.
When Barack Obama first assumed the presidency in 2009, he initiated a new policy of engagement with the Myanmar military to pull the country away from China’s orbit. As Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner documented in his book Great Game East (2015):
“In early December 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to Burma, the first by a high-level American official in more than half a century. While paying lip service to democracy and human rights, it was clear that China’s growing influence in Burma was a major concern. Hillary raised Burma’s ties with China—and North Korea—in her talks with the new Burmese president, Thein Sein, and strategic interests have now returned to the forefront of Washington’s Burma policy.”
Obama himself subsequently made two separate trips to Myanmar, promoting stronger trade and security relations. In 2016, the Obama White House feted Suu Kyi, U.S. imperialism’s chief political asset in Myanmar, and lifted economic sanctions against the country. The last of these was scrapped that December, with the Democratic president declaring that Myanmar had made “substantial progress in improving human rights.” At the time, the Tatmadaw was sweeping through Rakhine in yet another savage anti-Rohingya offensive.
Beginning in the late 1980s, the imperialists imposed sanctions on impoverished Myanmar in a cynical maneuver to isolate its military regime. As a result, China became the country’s main foreign investor, gaining a foothold in every sector of the economy. In recent years, China has begun extensive infrastructure development there. As part of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, oil and gas pipelines were built from southwestern China to coastal Rakhine. A nearby Chinese-owned deep-sea port on the Bay of Bengal, now under construction, will provide China with an alternative route for energy imports that bypasses the chokepoint of the Malacca Straits.
As Trotskyists, we stand for the unconditional military defense of the Chinese deformed workers state against imperialism and the forces of capitalist counterrevolution. Despite the rule of a parasitic Stalinist bureaucracy, the overthrow of capitalism in the 1949 Revolution and establishment of an economy centrally based on collectivized property forms were historic gains for the world’s working people. Key to our defense of the Chinese Revolution is the struggle for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misleaders and replace them with a regime of workers democracy committed to the fight for world socialism.
While we support Beijing’s right to enter into economic relations with whatever capitalist country it so chooses, we recognize that the ruling bureaucracy is guided by narrow nationalist interests, which are rooted in the anti-revolutionary dogma of “building socialism in one country.” Thus, China lends its political and military support to the junta in Myanmar, which viciously represses workers, ethnic minorities and the rural poor.
Since 1988, China has been the Tatmadaw’s top supplier of military hardware, including armored vehicles, artillery, aircraft, missiles and naval vessels. (Playing both sides of the fence, Beijing has also armed, to a lesser extent, the United Wa State Army and other insurgent groups.) Last May, the Chinese navy conducted its first-ever exercises with its Myanmar counterpart. Now the Beijing Stalinists are providing cover for the murderous generals in the name of stabilizing Rakhine, where China has large infrastructure investments. We oppose and condemn China’s military aid to Myanmar’s junta.
Colonial Divide and Rule
While a comparatively modern term, “Rohingya” simply means “inhabitant of Rohang,” the Muslim name for the formerly independent Buddhist kingdom of Arakan. From the early 15th century, the Rohingya served in the Arakan court and settled as traders in its dominion. The Burmese king, having staked claims for submission, tribute and slaves across much of what now constitutes Myanmar, conquered Arakan in the mid 1780s.
Burmese control of the territory was short-lived, as the British seized Arakan in 1824 during the first of three Anglo-Burmese wars. Colonial rule, by design, greatly aggravated tensions between the Arakanese (Rakhine Buddhists) and a rapidly growing Muslim population. With Arakan incorporated into British India, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis readily emigrated there to toil in the fields, which the colonial masters had handed over to largely Indian Muslim landlords.
After completing the conquest of the Burmese in 1886, the British drew Burma’s borders and constituted it as a single province within the Indian empire. Forcibly lumping together extremely diverse and potentially antagonistic peoples in a single state, while simultaneously playing them off against one another in line with their policy of divide to better subjugate, the British stoked the fires of communal violence. Notably, Indians, both Hindu and Muslim, were promoted at the expense of the Burmese and others. The administrative units of “Burma Proper” were policed, taxed and ruled by a new layer of officials, mostly brought over from the subcontinent. British army units composed of Indian troops were deployed to suppress Burmese resistance to colonial rule. The British also relied on ethnic minorities—the so-called “martial races” like the Karen, Kachin and Chin—for military manpower.
The often-violent tensions between all these groups exploded with the Japanese invasion of Burma during World War II. Burmese nationalists, led by Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, fought on the side of the Japanese (before switching to the British at the war’s end when it became clear Japan would lose). Tens of thousands of Indians attempting to escape the country were butchered, including by Aung San’s forces. In the course of the interimperialist conflict, Arakan descended into a brutal civil war that pitted Muslims against Buddhists. By the end of that fighting, the Muslims were compacted in the north of Arakan and the Buddhists in the south.
The Communist Party of Burma (CPB) was founded on the eve of WWII, in August 1939, largely by student leaders of the militant nationalist Dohbama Asiayone (“Our Burma Association”), including Aung San. Although elected secretary-general, Aung San decamped from the CPB soon after. The CPB never had a commitment to the Marxist principle of proletarian class independence from all bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces. During the war, the loosely organized Communists lent their services to the British imperialists in accordance with the line issued by the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy. After Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the wartime alliance between Britain and the USSR was sealed, the Comintern promulgated the “People’s War Against Fascism” and all-out support for the war effort in the Allied imperialist countries and their colonies.
By helping the British reconquer Burma, the CPB betrayed the anti-colonial struggle. In fact, the Communists were the initial go-betweens for Aung San and the British at the war’s end and to that end set up a popular front, that is, a political bloc with the bourgeois nationalists. The CPB’s class collaboration had a predictable outcome. Just over a year after the Aung San-led popular front—at Britain’s invitation—took the reins of the postwar capitalist government, the Communists were expelled from its ranks and targeted for severe state repression.
From May 1945, workers strikes in the cities and peasant revolts in the countryside had come under Communist leadership. With independence negotiations underway, Time magazine (3 February 1947) reported that Aung San “liked the idea of British troops staying awhile to help him control the Reds, some of whom could not even be controlled by Moscow.” Although that idea did not come to pass, the next year the hammer came down on the CPB, which abandoned the cities, adopting a peasant-based guerrilla strategy. In 1989, the CPB collapsed.
The Fight for Permanent Revolution
Resource-rich Myanmar is marked by combined and uneven development, with stark contrasts of wealth and poverty, of new industry and unspeakable squalor. The British imperialists threw fuel on every manner of special oppression inherited from the past, and the generals continue to fan the flames of communalist terror. What is needed is revolutionary proletarian opposition to both the imperialist powers and local capitalist rulers. The way forward is shown by the program of permanent revolution, developed by Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and verified by the Russian October Revolution. Trotsky recognized that in backward, semicolonial countries, the achievement of modernization and liberation from the imperialist yoke requires smashing capitalist rule, which would clear the path for socialist development.
The socialist liberation of Myanmar, where 70 percent of the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood, requires looking not only to the fledgling working class there but also to the massive proletarian concentrations in its neighboring countries: India, Bangladesh, Thailand and China. Myanmar’s exploited and oppressed, from those of South Asian and Chinese origin to the ethnic groups on the Thai border, have significant links to all these countries. What is posed is the need to forge proletarian internationalist parties committed to the overthrow of capitalist rule in the region as well as to political revolution in the Chinese deformed workers state. Within Myanmar itself, it is vital to plant the seeds of Marxism and cohere the cadres who would struggle to build a genuinely Leninist party that acts as the tribune of the people, including by championing the right of self-determination for all oppressed national minorities.
This perspective must be tied to the fight for socialist revolution in the U.S. and other imperialist centers. We fight to reforge Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. When those who labor rule on a global scale, technology and industrial development will be tapped to lift the world’s masses out of want and misery on the road to building a secular, classless communist society free of communal, national and religious conflict.