Imperialism and the Burmese Cyclone

It’s a quandary for the western left: the same countries that have invaded Iraq and visited much suffering on many other poor countries now want to do good in Cyclone-ravaged Myanmar/Burma. Has US and British imperialism suddenly become a force for good? Don’t be fooled, says John Moore, who argues that we need to question the motives of those countries now offering aid. What they really want is to open Burma up to western investment and political control.


The disastrous cyclone that hit Burma in early May has once again placed the concerns of this county on the international stage. In New Zealand political organisations ranging from the Labour Party through to the Greens and the far-left have made statements condemning the brutal military regime’s appalling handling of the crisis, tied with calls for tightened sanctions and/or New Zealand disinvestment. The military regime’s handling of the cyclone disaster should be condemned. Its incompetence, coupled with unconcern for the victims, will merely strengthen the majority of the population’s hatred for the ruling junta. However, leftists who want to support the people of Myanmar/Burma should cast a critical eye on increasing calls by Western leaders for some form of “humanitarian” intervention and the continued imposition of sanctions. Leftist groups who continue to call for some form of economic boycott and don’t pose the dangers of Western “humanitarian” intervention risk the danger of acting as a leftist/liberal fig leaf for imperialist manoeuvrings in this troubled area.

Imperialist motives towards Myanmar/Burma

The rapid condemnation of the ruling junta in Myanmar/Burma by the American, British and French regimes should raise alarm bells for leftists and opponents of imperialism and capitalism. Questions need to be asked about the motives of Western powers in their sudden rush to show concern for the victims of the cyclone. A clear motivation on the part of American and Anglo imperialism is the desire to open up Myanmar/Burma to Western investment and to have a government in Myanmar/Burma that is compliant to imperialist bodies such as the IMF and World Bank.

Alongside this desire for a compliant regime is a desire to challenge the interests of the most significant power in the region, China. China has close ties with the military regime and sees its relationship with Myanmar/Burma as crucial for developing and maintaining access into the Indian Ocean. Clearly, imperialist powers wish to counter China’s geo-political interests.

It will be no surprise to most leftists that imperialist powers such as America and Britain, alongside their junior partners including New Zealand, would wish to use the current natural disaster in Myanmar/Burma to push for opening up the country economically, and possibly installing a “friendly” regime. It is perplexing then that New Zealand leftist groups such as Socialist Worker and Socialist Aotearoa centre their comments regarding the cyclone disaster on condemning the military regime, while calling on imperialist powers such as New Zealand to tighten the noose around the generals through such moves as economic disinvestment.

America’s, and other imperialist powers’, desires towards Myanmar/Burma have been explicit since the early 1990s. Back in 1990 the Clinton administration started exerting greater pressure on the generals. The motivations for this were clear in a report given by Bill Clinton to Congress, which was reported in New Sources of Opposition – July 2000:

“The United States mounted a tougher stance against the State Peace and Development Council junta in May when President Clinton reported to Congress over their continued failure to end its repression of the NLD [National League for Democracy]. The report blamed repeated flouting of IMF and World Bank recommendations for the parlous state of the economy and recommended the suspension of economic aid and the withdrawal of Burma’s eligibility for trade and investment assistance. An embargo on arms and investment, the downgrading of diplomatic representation, and visa restrictions on senior figures and their families were also proposed.”

More recently, arch rightwing neo-con John Bolton, in his role as US Ambassador to the UN, agitated for the situation in Myanmar/Burma to be placed on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) agenda. Bolton made clear the stance of the US administration when he indicated, after a UNSC meeting in 2006, that the US would “… work to seek a UNSC resolution later in the year, demanding the release of political prisoners and a democratic movement toward an inclusive national reconciliation.” (The UNSC Backlash? – Nov 2006)

Opposition leaders align themselves with imperialism

Burmese opposition groups, often hailed by Western leftist and liberal groups, have generally welcomed these moves by the US Government. In the same article quoted above the willingness of the Aung San Suu Kyi led National League for Democracy (NLD) to work with American imperialism was illustrated by its endorsement of the US position in the UNSC: “The NLD and the so-called 88-generation students leaders (most of whom were released from long prison sentences last year) went public calling for political dialogue, release of prisoners and national all-inclusive reconciliation, while welcoming the discussion of Myanmar issues in the UNSC.”

The Manifesto of the NLD, issued in 1989, is telling of its stance towards international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and of the right-wing restructuring programme it intends to carry out. The NLD’s intention to work closely with the IMF and World Bank in terms of implementing a right-wing restructuring programme is made clear with its manifesto statement that it aims to have, “firm and close relations with the United Nations, World Bank, IMF…etc.” Furthermore, a future NLD led government would open up Myanmar/Burma to investment by multinational companies and would “revise and amend foreign investment laws for setting multiple increases in foreign investment.”

The NLD is an openly pro-business party. The extent to which it would reshape the Myanmar/Burmese economy in the interests of capitalists, both local and foreign, is spelt out in its policy statement that, “…enterprises in the economic sector must completely base themselves on the market economy. Special encouragement shall be made for a quick development of private enterprises.”

The NLD, although having mass support amongst workers and peasants in Myanmar/Burma, is clearly a party that stands for the interests of capitalism. This pro-capitalist agenda is most apparent in its policy of handing back nationalised industries to their former owners. In this regard the 1989 manifesto states:

“The nationalised economic enterprises that are included in all the above sectors of economy shall be given back to their original owners respectively and for those enterprises whose original owners can no longer take responsibility for them, the state shall try and get the economic expertise and financial investment to continue to run the business.”

The NLD does not offer a progressive alternative to the despised generals. It is a party that openly stands in the interest of local and foreign bourgeoisie, and so is opposed to the interests of the working class and oppressed groups in Myanmar/Burma.

The Socialist Aotearoa group’s call for sanctions against Myanmar/Burma and for New Zealand capitalist and state disinvestment are partly rationalised by the position of the Burmese Federation of Trade Unions. The Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) is an underground trade union in Burma which has faced heavy repression by the military regime. Any solidarity work aimed towards the plight of its leaders and general members, including those who have been imprisoned and even sentenced to death, should be applauded and actively supported by New Zealand workers and leftists. However, anti-imperialists should be weary of whole-heartedly supporting the political line of the FTUB, which shows deep illusions in the “humanitarian” gestures of Western imperialist powers. The FTUB openly calls for Western economic sanctions against the regime and has recently raised the possibility of supporting a future western military intervention.

In a recent posting on its website the FTUB seemed to be indorsing a statement by The National Council of the Union of Burma supporting the call by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that the UN should consider invoking its “responsibility to protect” to deliver aid directly to Burma with or without the approval of the junta. An article it posted by The National Council of the Union of Burma stated:

“On Wednesday, the French Government suggested that the United Nations invoke the Responsibility to Protect doctrine as a means to bypass the military regime and begin to deliver immediate assistance.

“The National Council of the Union of Burma wholeheartedly supports this suggestion by the French Government. The international community has widely recognized the military regime’s responsibility in creating conditions for this disaster. It cannot now sit by and watch hundreds of thousands of people suffer as the regime stalls assistance and obscures the facts related to this unprecedented disaster.”

Any imperialist manoeuvrings in the area should be strongly condemned, regardless of the position of union and opposition leaders in Burma/Myanmar. If imperialist powers use the cyclone disaster as a rational for some form of invasion, this must be strongly condemned by workers and leftists in New Zealand. Any resistance to an imperialist attack should be welcomed, even if the current military junta initially leads it.

The issue of sanctions

The implementations of sanctions by Western governments, including the US, have clear motives behind them. A careful reading of statements issuing out of Washington show that imperialist powers wish to open up Myanmar/Burma to further capitalist exploitation through a combination of greater foreign investment and IMF and World Bank restructuring programmes. The policy statements of the NLD indicate it is more than willing to comply with these dictates. It is therefore surprising that groups such as Socialist Worker and Socialist Aotearoa in New Zealand are so willing to push the pro-boycott stance. Although their motivations are in contrast with those of imperialist powers, they do, in their own small way, offer a left cover for western intervention in Myanmar’s/Burma’s affairs.

From Clinton to Bush, American presidents have consistently called for a trade boycott against the Burmese military regime, and have to some degree enforced sanctions. As such, questions should be asked about the usefulness, and the dangers, of lining up with imperialist powers against third world dictatorships and despots.

Various local organisations and trade unions have campaigned for what are effectively “imperialist sanctions” against the Myanmar/Burmese regime. New Zealand’s Socialist Worker organization, has called for all New Zealand, as well as the Government, to divest from Myanmar/Burma:

“All NZ companies who profit from slave labour in Burma should be the targets for future protests- NZ does 4.4 million dollars of dairy business with the Myanmar regime, and the Super Fund invests in Total Oil’s exploitation of Burma’s reserves. Helen Clark wants to sign a free trade deal with the regime. All should immediately be stopped. There can be no trade with a slave labour regime.” (From: Burma – One Solution: Revolution!)

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU), representing over 350 000 workers, has made similar calls (see: CTU calls for Support for Burma Democracy Movement).

Calls for western governments and organisations such as the United Nations to boycott reactionary regimes sow real and dangerous illusions in the progressiveness (or potential progressiveness) of these bodies. [Also, such calls act to blur the sharp distinctions between capitalist and imperialist interests and the interests of the working class.] The US state has had a clear agenda in campaigning for sanctions against Burma/Myanmar. The Clinton Administration’s demand for sanctions in the 1990s were partly based on the military regime’s flouting of IMF and World Bank recommendations. The US aimed to open up Myanmar/Burma to capitalist exploitation and hoped to impose on its economy a strict neo-liberal structural-adjustment programme. This was made clear with Clinton’s address to congress in 1990 when he condemned the military regime flouting of IMF and World Bank recommendations (See: New Sources of Opposition).

US neo-con John Bolton, clearly not an ally of the oppressed of Myanmar/Burma, has campaigned for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to place Burma/Myanmar on the top of its agenda. Ostensibly Bolton’s concerns about Burma/Myanmar were centred on issues of international peace and security (See: The UNSC Backlash?).

Those concerned for the plight of those suffering under reactionary regimes should oppose general boycotts because these measures only hurt the oppressed in those countries. Such generalised boycotts often result in greater unemployment and further impoverishment of the masses. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq throughout the 1990s resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens. The impact on the regime itself was highly questionable.

In 1998, the outgoing co-ordinator of the UN oil-for-food deal in Iraq, Denis Halliday, made a scathing attack on the policy of sanctions branding them ”a totally bankrupt concept.” Firstly, he said, “it doesn’t impact on governance effectively and instead it damages the innocent people of the country,” and secondly “it probably strengthens the leadership and further weakens the people of the country.” Halliday also cited the devastating impact on the population when he emphasised the “4,000 to 5,000 children dying unnecessarily every month due to the impact of sanctions because of the breakdown of water and sanitation, inadequate diet and the bad internal health situation.” (See the BBC report Middle East: UN official blasts Iraq sanctions)

Economic boycotts should also be opposed because of their impact on the ability of the masses in these countries to organise. Sanctions act to atomise workers, through unemployment, and so decrease the ability of workers in that country to struggle against their rulers. Although boycotts can sometimes be used to force concrete concessions, normally they only succeed in weakening working people’s capacity to struggle.

Calls for generalised boycotts against reactionary third world regimes, from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF Government to the post-coup regime in Fiji, and now against the generals in Burma/Myanmar, are often based on a false liberal dichotomy between “democratic” capitalist states and dictatorships. Liberals often show no problem lining up with their “democratic” rulers, whether in America, Europe or New Zealand, against “nasty” countries such as Burma/Myanmar or Fiji. Yet, the absurdity of such positions is easily highlighted when the reactionary role of imperialist powers such as the United States and Britain, supported by minor imperialist powers such as New Zealand and Australia, is weighed up against the actions of third-rate despotic regimes such as Burma/Myanmar. Hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered due to western aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet there is no widespread call by leftist groups for a general boycott of goods produced by the powers whom are involved in those conflicts.

Calls by much of the NZ left for a generalized boycott of Myanmar/Burma clearly do not serve the interests of workers and the oppressed of that country. An independent strategy is needed, one that stands in strong contrast to the New Zealand state, the UN and other capitalist bodies.

The choice for Burmese workers

The devastating cyclone in Myanmar/Burma, exacerbated by the neglect shown by the ruling regime, poses the question of what is the way forward for workers in that country. Neither isolationist national capitalism nor unfettered free-market capitalism are systems that offer anything for the Myanmar/Burmese masses. That the junta offers the former and that an NLD-led government would serve up the latter, points to the quagmire facing workers, students and peasants fighting for change in that country. This points to the desperate need for a radical socialist movement in Myanmar/Burma, dedicated to leading a real revolution that would fully smash the current state apparatus. This is a basic prerequisite for any radical transformation of that society in the interests of workers and oppressed groups.

Note: I have deliberately referred to the country as Myanmar/Burma. The anti-junta opposition and imperialist powers deliberately refer to the country as Burma. Their argument is that Myanmar is the name given to the country by the illegitimate military regime, and so should not be used by ‘pro-democracy’ advocates. However the name “Burma” can be seen a racist one as it refers to the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar/Burma.

John Moore has travelled extensively through Myanmar/Burma


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