Someone to do business with

Eddie Ford dissects the moral hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie regarding Burma

Western imperialism was delighted with the results of the April 1 by-elections in Burma (or Myanmar), which saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy win 43 of the 45 seats that were up for grabs. Suu Kyi herself was, of course, one of the successful candidates.

No wonder David Cameron tacked on a visit to Burma on April 13 as part of his long-planned tour of Japan and south-east Asia - the first sitting British prime minister to visit Burma since independence was won from the British in 1948. He first met Thein Sein in his opulent presidential palace and then Suu Kyi in her rather more cramped apartment where she was held under house arrest by the dictatorship for 15 years. Before that, she had been living in exile with her half-British family in Oxford until 1988, when she returned to Burma to lead the opposition to the military regime.

The NLD, competing in its first elections since 1990, is now the main opposition force in the parliament, even though it has only six percent of the seats. There are 664 members of the lower house and the ruling United Solidarity and Development Party, together with the military bloc of 25% of the seats, constitutes an overwhelming majority. However, there is the possibility that the NLD might boycott the parliament until the government withdraws the current oath of allegiance - which was amended almost at the last minute to the effect that all MPs must swear to “safeguard” the constitution. This poses problems for Suu Kyi, given her political and electoral commitment to abolish or radically amend the 2008 constitution, with its special status for the hated military. She has asked the president, former general Thein Sein, to replace the oath with a pledge to ‘observe’ the constitution instead. But the strong odds are that the government and the NLD will come to some sort of compromise over the matter, the Burmese regime being particular keen - maybe desperate - to see Suu Kyi in parliament, so as to bolster its political legitimacy both internally and externally.

Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San - the ‘father’ of modern Burma. Having been appointed war minister under the Japanese occupation forces in 1943, he rebelled against his former employers and led the March 1945 uprising in collaboration with the British authorities in India. More interestingly, Aung San had been a founder member and the first secretary-general of the Communist Party of Burma when it was formed in 1939 - a fact, perhaps not surprisingly, that has received relatively little coverage in the mainstream press. While the current CPB membership is probably numbered in the hundreds, it claims that in its heyday it could muster around 10,000 fighters and mobilise a million peasants.[1]

Following the coup in 1962, the military persecuted oppositional forces, including communists - even though it renamed the country the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma in 1974. But for long periods the west did not raise even a pip-squeak of protest against the oppressive Burmese regime - it was only with the supposed ‘saffron revolution’[2] of 2007-08, which saw many hundreds - if not thousands - brutally killed in mass anti-government protests that Burma became a cause célèbre, with Hollywood stars and mainstream politicians suddenly queuing up to denounce the regime. Showing how the tide had changed, in 2005 US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice designated Burma one of the “outposts of tyranny”, alongside North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe ...

Now, of course, Suu Kyi’s familial association with ‘official communism’ and anti-imperialism is never mentioned - an historical embarrassment that raises too many awkward questions. Rather, Suu Kyi - just like Nelson Mandela before her - is undergoing the process of sanctification by the bourgeoisie and its media. She is viewed as a valuable asset who can help bring stability to Burma (and the region as a whole) and in general prevent real revolutionary change occurring in that country - the very last thing imperialism wants, it almost goes without saying. That is the role imperialism assigned to Mandela and the African National Congress - to bring ‘peace’ to South Africa and hence stop it from developing into a revolutionary ‘hot spot’, with the potential to upset the imperialist world order. And with the assistance, or connivance, of Mikhail Gorbachev - as the Soviet Union slid into extinction - that is exactly what happened. An imperialist-imposed ‘peace’.

Which is not say that Suu Kyi and Mandela are mere tools of imperialism, or have not endured enormous hardship in their obviously sincere struggle to bring about democratic reform and social advance. Only a callous leftist idiot who subscribes to conspiracy theories would make such a claim. Yet that in no way detracts from the plain fact that Suu Kyi is being coopted into the world capitalist establishment In other words, she is someone who imperialism can do business with - in every sense of the term.

Therefore Cameron had nothing but praise for Suu Kyi, though he had good words too for president Sein - for encouraging the reform process. Presumably he is now a good dictator, as opposed to a bad one. Clearly star-truck by Suu Kyi, posing with her for the cameras, Cameron said Britain would argue in favour of “suspending” all European Union sanctions on Burma - except the arms embargo. A monstrous act of hypocrisy, of course, given that Cameron was travelling around with British weapons manufacturers seeking lucrative new defence contracts in the region. Just as he did on his February 2011 Middle East tour to “promote democracy” - and also the interests of British arms dealers, more than happy to profit from supplying the dictatorships in the region with the means to suppress democracy. But - who knows? - be optimistic - maybe the British government will be able to resume selling arms to Burma if and when Suu Kyi becomes president.

European Union foreign ministers are likely to approve the sanctions suspension on April 23. In the lofty words of Cameron, if the Burmese regime “keep moving the ship of economic reform forward”, not to mention “the ship of political reform”, then the British government “should be prepared to respond” in an appropriate manner. Burma, Cameron righteously intoned, “shouldn’t be as poor as it is” nor should it have “suffered under dictatorship for as long as it has” (thanks to imperialist cold war politics, he might have added. He also invited Suu Kyi to return to her “beloved” Oxford in June to visit the children and grandchildren she had barely seen since 1988 - and, of course, boost Cameron’s moral credentials at the same time.

In turn, Suu Kyi welcomed Britain’s support for the suspension of sanctions rather than the lifting of sanctions altogether - because this would be an “acknowledgement” of the role played by the president and the other “reformers” in the government. For Suu Kyi, suspension would “make it quite clear to those who are against reform” that if they tried to obstruct the process then “sanctions could come back” - almost sounding like an imperialist politician now. No wonder Cameron and Barack Obama like her so much.

She also paid tribute to the “help friends have given us over these last decades” - especially the likes of Britain - who apparently have “always understood our need for democracy” and stated that she did not regard herself as “parleying with the enemy”, as her father did during the fight for Burmese independence. Instead, she believed in “progress” and “would like to think” that she was “parleying with people who are no longer my enemies”. It must just sound better and better for imperialism. Peaceful reconciliation with the ruling junta and gradual, piecemeal reform from above of the repressive state machinery. From that angle, Suu Kyi is surely a worthy Nobel Peace Prize laureate - normally awarded to those who have performed sterling services for imperialism: Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, Anwar Al-Sadat, Menachem Begin, Lech Walesa, FW de Klerk, Yitzhak Rabin, David Trimble, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama ... A dispiriting list that includes out-and-out rogues, architects of mass murder and straightforward imperialist lackeys or agents - as well as the sincerely naive.

Perfectly summing up the western attitude towards Suu Kyi and the unfolding situation in Burma, Cameron offered special help to Burma if the government abandons military rule in favour of a “flowering democracy”. To help the process of “state-building”, it will be given support on “peace and reconciliation”, using Britain’s experience during the Northern Ireland peace process. Burma will also be offered lessons on the “sound management” of public finances, the “rule of law” and the “strengthening” of parliamentary procedures and institutions. Leaving aside the utterly absurd - surreal - notion of the current British government lecturing anyone on the merits of “sound” public finances, the imperialist agenda could not be more clear: to control and manage the democratic movement in Burma and rob it of any genuine emancipatory content or power. ‘Directed democracy’, Burma-style - courtesy of British imperialism.

The imperialist attitude towards Burma also reveals once again that we still live in a US-dominated planet, even if it has been in relative decline since 1945. Cameron would not be arguing for the suspension of sanctions against Burma, or anything else for that matter, if the US had not endorsed such a move. The US administration permanently stands behind the UK government. This is the continuing reality of the world capitalist-imperialist system.



1. www.cpburma.org.

2. The anti-government protests were widely associated with Buddhist monks. However, the majority of monks in Burma wear maroon, not saffron-coloured robes.