The National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar (formerly Burma) has won a huge victory. The liberal opposition party took 80% of the vote in parliamentary elections.
This shows the tenacity and courage of Myanmar’s people in the cities, towns and countryside. It comes after 50 years of repressive military rule.
In 1988, a heroic month-long uprising lacked the necessary leadership to overthrow the army, which viciously put it down. It was this movement which threw up the beginnings of the NLD and gave prominence to Aung San Suu Kyi, its leader. She has suffered prison and house arrest for most of the years since then, with other leaders arrested, tortured and killed.
The ruling Union Solidarity Development Party (USDP) candidates are chosen by, and include, mainly army people – either retired or serving officers in suits. The electoral commissioner is an army officer and before the election openly expressed his wish for a USDP victory.
All soldiers were ordered to vote for the USDP. Their votes came into polling stations in advance and in blocks, swinging the majority in some places. In many parts of the country, no polls took place at all. This makes the NLD victory all the more impressive.
Today, there remains some scepticism as to whether the NLD will be allowed to take over. The old parliament will only finish its term at the end of January. The generals still control the main levers of power in Myanmar.
When, once before, in elections in 1990, the NLD had a landslide victory, the generals refused to hand over. They also blatantly barred Suu Kyi from becoming head of state. The president is arbitrarily not allowed to have foreign relatives – she has two English sons.
The military has said it will not stand in the way of Suu Kyi taking over, although she cannot become president. For her part, she has declared she will be “above” the president.
Myanmar’s generals have their own interests, which coincide with those of the major capitalist powers. They have their fingers, if not their whole hands, in much of the country’s commerce.
Major world leaders including Barack Obama have visited the military regime to shore up support for big multinationals. Companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola have considered building factories in Myanmar, provoking student boycotts in the US. Trade unions were officially illegal from 1962 until 2011.
The country also has strategic significance for imperialist powers, near to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China is pressing for an Indian Ocean military port.
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar’s National League for Democracy, photo by Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons) (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)
The main slogan of the NLD was “time for change”. This, along with the mood of the people, has worried the generals.
President Thein Sein exclaimed: “What more change do you want? If you want more, go for communism. No one wants communism do they?”
There is a justification for their fears. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was general secretary of the Burmese Communist Party. He led the guerrilla struggles for independence against British, then Japanese, imperialism.
In the first general election after independence all eleven parties claimed to be socialist. In 1962, even a coup d’etat – ousting pro-capitalist leader U Nu – had a certain popularity.
It was carried through by Ne Win, whose party became the only one legally permitted. Reflecting the mood in the country at that time, and the influence of the still-developing Stalinist planned economies, it was called the Burma Socialist Programme Party.
Earlier this year, garment and factory workers in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, struck over pay. This followed leaders of the country’s trade union federation being allowed back from exile in 2012. Previously, workers’ leaders faced imprisonment or death – and could again.
Trade unionists still face police violence and legal repression. But these walkouts, and reports of growing trade union membership, point to a growing appetite for working class struggle.
International capitalism will exert huge pressure to keep Myanmar safe for their system. Aung San Suu Kyi gives no reason to believe she will not oblige.
Myanmar has a workforce of over 30 million people, two-fifths of them between the ages of 15 and 29. 70% work on the land, many in logging and mining. Even under the dictatorship, there have been im-portant struggles over trade union and human rights, as well as armed struggles by persecuted ethnic minorities.
Trade unions and parties that have been persecuted and forced underground in the years of dictatorial rule will come to the surface and other new ones will undoubtedly develop.
It is urgent that Myanmar’s workers and poor people build strong, independent trade unions and political struggles. Only a socialist programme can take on international business interests, and end poverty and repression.