“What the West must realize is that in today’s geopolitical situation, particularly given the rise of China, it needs Myanmar”, declared a top official of Myanmar’s (Burma’s) military dictatorship in a recent article for the Washington Post.
The military regime has been rebalancing away from its long-time ally, China, and trying to draw in Western aid and investment — in the first place, to get EU and US sanctions lifted.
It has been spurred on by prospects of revenues from offshore gas fields and clothing exports. In January 2011, the Indian-based Burmese newsletter Mizzima reported that the number of clothing factories in Burma had increased from 120 to more than 200 over the previous six months.
To help Western investors think they can deal with a minimally predictable and open regime, the military dictatorship has been easing up. On 1 April it called a by-election for 45 vacant seats in the Parliament, and let Aung Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy win 43 of them.
On 23 April the new NLD MPs refused to take their seats in Parliament unless the parliamentary oath was redrafted and the government signalled that it would probably concede. The military still controls a huge majority in Parliament, and decisive power still rests with the military’s 11-member National Defence and Security Council.
Deeper down in Burmese society, however, the working class is beginning to move. Strikes and unions had been banned since the 1962 military coup; but in February 2012 workers at the Chinese-owned Tai Yi slipper factory struck for higher pay, and eventually won gains through an arbitration court decision.
The military government has announced a new labour law legalising unions and (conditional on notice to the bosses, and outside “essential services”) strikes. Pro-worker lawyer Phoe Phyu told The Irrawaddy magazine that the law is inadequate even compared to old British colonial labour law, because it gave no protection to workers against being sacked for union activities, and that a clause which says that strikes must have prior approval from a yet-to-be-established “Labour Federation” would “make sure that future labour unions will be boss-representative, rather than actually representing the workers”.
Yet the hold of the military is weakening.
It took power through a coup by nationalist army officers in 1962, fourteen years after Burma won independence from Britain.
The officers established a more-or-less complete “Stalinist” structure from above, by purely military methods.
They outlawed all political opposition, banned unions, took over the direct management of most educational and cultural organisations, and established an official single governing party with ancillary mass organisations. They nationalised external and internal trade, and large sectors of manufacturing.
Private capitalists were forced out, not so much because they were capitalists as because they were almost all Indian or Pakistani. All sizeable industrial and commercial enterprises became military-run. Prices were set by the government. Public works were done by forced labour, a system which continues despite being officially abolished in 2000.
Agriculture remained in private hands, but the state became the sole buyer of agricultural produce; those small industrial and commercial farms which remained were under strict government control and regulation.
More than 50% of the public budget is still spent on the military, the country’s public health services are reckoned the second-worst in the world, and only half Burma’s children complete even primary school.
The Militant tendency in Britain, forerunner of today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, was so thrilled by the nationalisations that it declared Burma to have become a “workers’ state”, albeit “deformed”.
The military turned Burma’s economy inwards, limiting trade. From being one of the less poor ex-colonies, Burma declined by the late 1990s to one-eighth of the average income per head of neighbouring Thailand.
In 1988, the people of Burma rose up, led by students and Buddhist monks.
The military eventually quelled the revolt and staged a coup-within-the-coup, reshaping military rule but, in the following years, gradually unwinding Stalinist rigours and opening up the economy to the world market.