THE DAILY protests against the Burmese dictatorship grew to number more than 100,000 people in the biggest city, Rangoon. And, according to TV reports, every layer in society was involved along with the monks – intellectuals, 'labourers', artists, actors, students and the poor.
The initial demonstrations against a sudden doubling of fares and fuel costs by the regime were organised in mid-August by students and activists with monks soon taking up the fight. The first demonstrations were brutally suppressed. 150 people were arrested and many badly beaten by civilian goon-squads. But the movement did not disappear. More protests were organised.
On 6 September, some monks in the town of Pakokku took a group of visiting senior government officials and army officers captive and burned their vehicles.
The delegation had gone to the monastery to apologise for excesses against the brethren and fellow demonstrators, when shots were fired in the air and monks were bound and bludgeoned by police and pro-government gangs. The delegation was eventually released and left to return home without their vehicles!
The monks of Pakokku did not encourage local people to get involved in the hostage-taking, which they said was their affair, but they had held signs on the original demonstration reading "Monks for the people!"
As the flood-gates of mass protest opened nationwide, the Buddhist clergy stepped up their calls of: "We want the people to join us!" Thousands joined in with thousands more lining the routes of the marches, linking arms to protect the participants, cheering encouragement and offering water, flowers and balm to soothe their feet!
As the Financial Times has pointed out, "There are 400,000 - 500,000 monks and novices in Burma making them members of the only institution in the country of comparable size to the military. Some monks are refusing to minister to the military and their families. 'They are younger monks and have obviously become very political,' said one Burmese commentator." (Financial Times, 24 September).
Many Burmese youth, particularly the youngest sons, are expected to serve some time in the monasteries. The church relies on the local population for their income in alms.
If the upper echelons of the Buddhist church have preferred to stay on good terms with the top generals, accepting their (substantial) alms in return for guarantees about their next life, the younger monks have been more in touch with the sufferings and anger of the people.
In the absence of a mass party based on the working class, poor farmers and labourers, they have been filling the vacuum and 'spear-heading' the movement, as they did, along with students, in 1988, before workers and other layers of society entered the struggle.
The young monks have been further radicalised by the movement they initiated. They began by making demands like: "We want national reconciliation" and, "We want dialogue". They also included demands for the freeing of all political prisoners. But, emboldened by the growing support for the movement, the monks' leaders shouted through megaphones: "Our uprising must succeed!"
According to Reuters news agency, the All Burma Monks' Alliance has, "for the first time, urged ordinary people to 'struggle peacefully against the evil military dictatorship' until its downfall". The protests will not stop, they declare, until they have "Wiped the military dictatorship from the land"!
The generals' regime in Burma has been in power for 45 years, ruling with brutal methods inflicted by a massive 450,000 strong army. Now it has faced the biggest threat to its existence since the revolutionary events of 1988. Then, power could have passed into the hands of the working and poor people, joined as they were on the streets by soldiers and police, if the spontaneous local committees had linked up on a national scale.
There were weeks of struggle in which no party with a revolutionary leadership came to the fore that could carry through the overthrow of the regime. The baton passed to Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's 'founding father' – Aung San, who was assassinated, along with six members of his interim government, in 1947.
Aung San Suu Kyi's programme was limited, as she appealed for negotiation and cooperation with the military in moving towards democracy. In this respect, history could be tragically repeated. Then and now, only a leadership aiming to develop the mass street protests into a struggle for socialist aims can achieve a lasting victory in the struggle against dictatorship.
The heroic movement of 1988 was crushed. At least 3,000 were killed, many more jailed, and thousands fled their homeland.
In the elections conceded by the junta in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi's party - the National League for Democracy - won a landslide victory. The generals immediately moved to annul the results and re-impose their one-party rule. Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and imprisoned. For most of the last 17 years, she has been held in jail or under house arrest, with cruel restrictions on any contact with the outside world.
On 22 September up to 1,000 protesting monks made their way unmolested to the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, linking their protest to the pro-democracy movement. She came out to the gates to meet them, waving and weeping. Fearing the effect on the movement of more contact with the NLD leader, the regime promptly changed tack and deployed barbed wire, water cannons and rows of police to prevent any further demonstrations reaching her house.
The National League for Democracy, the main opposition party, is denied the basic right to organise publicly, let alone contest elections. But its leaders went onto the streets to join the mass protests, risking arrest, imprisonment and torture. They will need to go far further than demanding concessions from the junta or even insisting on full democratic rights.
To guarantee a massive improvement in people's lives, a socialist democratic plan on the basis of state-owned production, with workers' control and management, would need to be introduced. An appeal to workers in nearby Asian countries to follow suit would be vital. A party with such a programme could grow rapidly in today's conditions.
It is far from clear how events will unfold in the next weeks. The crackdown may succeed, or the regime may bow to the pressures from below and make concessions. Such a move can encourage broader layers of workers and oppressed to become involved in challenging the old order.
Burma has one of the worst records of human rights abuses in the world, including the systematic use of rape and torture, forced labour and violent national oppression (of the Karen and other peoples).
While the military absorbs 40% of the state budget, spending on health care is minimal and, in a country that once had a high literacy rate, education standards have plummeted through lack of government funds.
The level of poverty and hunger means millions of families having no more than one meal a day. Once known as Asia's rice bowl, Burma cannot sustain its own people. One third of the population are malnourished or physically underdeveloped.
Yet the top 12 military officers who form the junta live in luxury in the newly-built capital city – Naypyidaw - carved out of the jungle, 320 kilometres north of Rangoon.
Much of the generals' income derives from bribery, corruption and drug trafficking, especially of heroin. Anuj Chopra, commented in the Sunday Telegraph, that the new capital "offers a secure bolt-hole should the ongoing protests escalate in Rangoon… They are running away from their own people".
Will the mass demonstrations of the last few weeks resume? Will the workers, students and poor peasants move en masse onto the scene of history in a new attempt to bring down their military overlords?
Tumultuous events lie ahead in which the genuine ideas of socialism, as opposed to the monstrously distorted ideology of the regime, can regain their rightful place amongst the oppressed workers and poor of Burma.
DESPITE REPEATED public utterances by Blair and now by Gordon Brown condemning the Burmese military, UK companies continue to trade with the murderous regime.
According to the Burma Campaign UK, under Labour, imports from Burma into Britain more than tripled from £17.3 million in 1998 to £62.2 million in 2003. Between 1993 and 2003 British companies alone invested £756 million in Burma, making the UK the second biggest source of foreign investment.
UK companies trading with the regime include Lloyds of London and Rolls-Royce.
Total, the French based oil and gas company and fourth largest in the world, is one of the biggest investors in Burma, earning the regime hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
When recently questioned about its involvement, Total said that leaving Burma "would only aggravate the situation there"!
WHILE THE Burmese population is braving the bullets and tear gas of the military junta, the world's leaders merely talk of applying (ineffective) sanctions or firm diplomacy.
The long-suffering Burmese people cannot look to the leaders of the US, the EU countries, Russia or China or the (dis)United Nations for support. Why? It's because these countries' governments or their giant corporations are directly engaged in commercial and arms trade with the Burmese military. They are also concerned with maintaining political influence within the region at the expense of their imperialist rivals.
Only the Burmese working class, allied to the rural workers and other oppressed layers, have the collective strength and class interests separate to the regime and imperialism to achieve a genuine revolution. Overthrowing the military and establishing a democratic workers' and poor farmers' government - together with socialist measures to utilise the country's oil, gas and other natural resources - can end the poverty, inequality, and corruption which blights Burma today.
On the 90th anniversary of the October socialist revolution in Russia, Burma's democracy movement must grasp the key historical lessons. No compromise with the regime, no faith in the world's powers but generalised strike action, armed workers' defence committees, democratic workers' councils and, above all, the construction of a revolutionary party with a socialist and internationalist perspective.
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