The Guardian • Issue #1958

What’s happening in Myanmar?

The situation in Myanmar is complicated.

Such a statement should be entirely obvious. Yet, the fact (or rather, an immense bundle of facts) it represents is pointedly glossed over by mainstream media coverage.

We are given a picture where there is a pure and straightforward struggle happening in Myanmar, between good and evil – Aung San Suu Kyi, her party, and allies; and the military (known as the Tatmadaw), respectively. In certain senses, this interpretation is close to reality: the Tatmadaw is certainly irredeemable from any angle, and Aung San Suu Kyi is the figurehead of the existing mass movement against their rule. But there are considerably more forces at play which should make us consider our attitude more carefully.

What are we Australians being asked to think or do about the situation in Myanmar by our bourgeois media? The answer is twofold. Firstly, we are being primed to accept or support a possible future US-backed intervention in Myanmar and accept the threat of such a thing as normal. Secondly, we are being told to interpret this conflict in terms of the new Cold War the US wishes to conduct against China.

Are either of these reasonable? Are either of these acceptable? No, and no. It should be quite obvious that answering a flat no to these questions is correct and in no way contradictory to a firm position of condemning the Tatmadaw and its coup, at least in the Australian context. Yet, the public discourse surrounding the issue is so deliberately stunted that, somehow, this is not obvious.

The area that is now Myanmar has been home to many ethnic groups, cultures, and states for centuries. In stages over the course of the 19th century, repeated British invasions eventually led to its complete incorporation into British India until in 1937, it was declared the separate colonial territory of Burma. The British rule of Burma was especially cruel even by British standards. When Japan invaded it during WW2, many in the independence movement sought to leverage the Japanese occupation in order to guarantee freedom from the British Empire. While the British briefly regained nominal control after the war, their colonial institutions had been sufficiently weakened, and the independence movement sufficiently advanced that complete independence was won by 1948.

Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was recognised as the figurehead of this independence movement. A crucial achievement in the lead-up to establishing independent Burma was the Panglong Agreement, reached between Aung San’s government and representatives of some of the ethnic minority peoples who constitute a considerable amount of the population and territory of Burma (the exact statistics are hotly disputed). This agreement lay the basis for ethnic minority self-determination and autonomy within the state.

However, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 before he could see the country’s independence realised. Within a year, civil war broke out, and disagreements over the principles and implementation of the Panglong Agreement became a major factor in escalating tensions, resulting in the formation of many ethnic minority rebel armies and a sharp increase in Burman/Bamar ethnocentric ideology in the military. The military took over in a 1962 coup and ruled without restriction – that is, over the areas not held by the dozens of warring rebel groups, including to this day – until limited democratic reforms were won starting in 2011. The coup of February this year has undone these reforms in one stroke.

The Tatmadaw dictatorship has carried out massive human rights violations against all the peoples of Myanmar, but the ongoing genocide against the Rohingya people and the consequent refugee crisis have gained the most international attention.

Aung San Suu Kyi became a major figure during the anti-military uprising in 1988, becoming the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD). She was repeatedly arrested by the military government, spending the majority of the period 1988-2011 under house arrest. Over this period, she became an almost mythical figure both within Myanmar and the Western media.

However, many were disappointed (to put it very charitably) by her performance after coming into office as State Counsellor in 2016 after a landslide NLD victory in the 2015 election. Particularly egregious was that she not only refused to acknowledge or condemn the military’s genocide against the Rohingya people, she even spoke in their defence at the International Criminal Court in 2019. While some claimed that this is solely the result of coercion by the Tatmadaw, this explanation weakens the logic of the myth surrounding her as their fearless, principled opponent. Furthermore, she began to develop neoliberal-style reforms that would open the country up to exploitation by foreign companies – the number one interest of the US in Myanmar.

This brief rundown of a thin slice of the history is here an exercise in futility. These few snippets do not even begin to tell the whole story, and that itself is really the only point that can be well made here.

To develop an informed view on the internal struggle within Myanmar, we must presuppose enough relevant shared knowledge on the country at hand. This goes the same for any country – Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, so on. Yet the mainstream media in our country is always trying to compel us to accept a particular interpretation, which, even more ridiculously it’s always one that includes the presumption of our right to judge, interfere, invade.

Can Western news outlets be faulted just for not giving a complete picture of the subtleties of Myanmar? No, because to achieve such a thing is well outside the scope of any newspaper article. The fault is utilising these limitations to push simple answers that are deeply harmful. Again, these are: Western intervention, up to and including military intervention, might be a good choice; and we (read: the US) represent what is good, and China represents what is bad in this situation, as in all others.

In line with the Cold War mentality, all conflicts in the world are indirectly explained as US vs China, and so the false claim is put forward that China supports the military coup in Myanmar. This is a complete fabrication only justified by the fact that China refuses to respond in the same way as the pro-US interventionist camp and instead continues to apply the same principles it does to all countries, including multilateralism and non-interference. China is also wise to the US’ real intentions for Myanmar. Further complicating the picture, separatist groups in Taiwan have begun aggressively promoting anti-China propaganda in Myanmar. This includes some networks under the banner of “Milk Tea Alliance,” which has also become active in Australia.

It would be a mistake to conclude that a US military intervention is certain or even likely to materialise, but its threat is being used as a tool, and this must be opposed. The working people of Myanmar, not anyone else, will be the ones to win freedom for Myanmar.

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