Myanmar: The Coup, Resistance, and Global Solidarity

Three years ago, on February 1, 2021, the Myanmar military staged a coup, ending nearly a decade of civilian rule, arresting countless numbers in a brutal crackdown on popular protest. The military used the unrestrained power of the army to intensify an ongoing genocidal war against the Rohingya – a Muslim minority living within a predominately Buddhist society – forcing hundreds of thousands into exile and refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Three years on, resistance to the coup continues. In Myanmar, this has taken the form of student activism, union organizing, and armed communal defense. Abroad, the exile community has focused on building support in solidarity and human rights organizations to isolate the military regime from global bodies, to gain recognition of a national unity government as the legitimate government, and to organize in order to force corporations to disinvest.

Some progress has been made. On April 8, Chevron announced that it is disinvesting from the country. A California-based multinational oil and gas company, Chevron is notorious for environmental destruction and contempt for the rights of indigenous peoples as was evident in Ecuador where it spilled tons of toxic waste on native land. Previously in Myanmar, Chevron supported the junta through payments made to the military for exploitation from the Yadan gas project (natural gas fields off Myanmar’s coast), the company using forced labour to complete the work.

Popular Pressure

Previously, in October 2023, Congress passed legislation to impose sanctions on Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) after years of delays, overcoming corporate lobbying to defeat the measure. Neither the sanctions nor Chevron’s announcement of its withdrawal took place in a vacuum; it required persistent agitation, shareholder action, and popular pressure – including over 250,00 signatures on a petition to Chevron as well as demonstrations at its California and Washington DC headquarters.

The combination of intensified opposition to the Burmese military inside and outside the country may explain the military government’s April 17, 2024, announcement of an amnesty releasing 3,000 prisoners and its decision to move deposed President Aung Su Ky from prison (“due to the heat”) and return her to house arrest. Now 78 years old, she has been subject to several trials since the 2001 coup, resulting in sentences that total over 25 years. But those concessions are more apparent than real. In fact, only about 100 or so political prisoners were amongst those amnestied (of an estimated 25,000 – 30,000), and some have already been rearrested, while Aung Su Ky is currently in an “undisclosed location.”1

Therefore, more pressure needs to be built. As Khaing Zar Aung, a textile worker from the age 16 and today a leader of the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar as well as of the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar, expressed when she received an award (the Arthur Svennsson prize) from the International Trade Union Confederation:

“The award is recognition of the relentless struggles and sacrifices of the Myanmar trade unions and people for justice, democracy and human rights. But still there are many people who can do much more to help remove the illegitimate military regime in Myanmar.

“I urge the EU, international governments, the ASEAN, trade unionists, and democracy lovers across the world to use all of your influence to stop the trade preferences, arms and financial flow to the military junta now.”2

This struggle is not new. A look back indicates what is at stake, the course Burmese resistance and solidarity has taken in past decades, and the kinds of initiatives still needed today.

Background: The Coup and Popular Protest

The documentary film The Purple Thanaka of the Angels, by French director Borit Yannick, released in early 2022, showed the defiant youthful protest of “generation Z” – radicalized youth born between 1996 and 2015 – expressed in music and poetry that emerged in the streets alongside rallies and a strike movement. The film begins wordlessly with beautiful still photos that lead into real-time news footage, narrative, and interviews, depicting the line of division between people and rulers.

Violence quelled the initial round of non-violent protest, but the military has been unable to either silence opposition or win public acceptance. The Junta’s answer was made crystal clear on July 23, 2023, when the regime executed four well-known activists who had been imprisoned on charges of treason because of their participation in street protests demanding a return to parliamentary rule.3

Those executions, however, are a sign of weakness, not strength, for in their individual backgrounds the executed reflect the broad base and deep roots of the protest movement. Kyaw Min Yu (popularly known as Ko Jimmy) was a student leader of the 1988 uprising – the 888 Movement, so named because it was launched at August 8, 1988 at 8:08 am, a seminal event in recent Burmese history that was part of a wider outburst of radicalism throughout East and South Asia.4 He then spent many years as a political prisoner, but once fully freed in 2007, resuming his political activism. Phyo Zeya Thaw was a founding member of Generation Wave, young people central to the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” which sought renewed freedom in society. A former rapper, he became a member of parliament as part of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) when democratic rights were partially restored in 2012. Aung Thura Zaw had also been a member of Generation Wave and remained thereafter an activist for justice outside of government office, while Hla Myo Aung’s activism began after the 2021 coup. A cruel twist, reflective of the mindset of Myanmar’s rulers, is that the four had been allowed visits by family members days prior, without themselves or those who came to see them aware that their execution was already planned and imminent. After they were hung, the four bodies were buried in secret.

Although previous iterations of dictatorial repression have been brutal with lethal force used to quell protests, it has been more than 30 years since anyone was executed. Likely that was a sign of frustration with the resistance that has persisted for decades.

Recalling 1990s Solidarity

Afterall, a decades long popular movement overcame a previous iteration of military rule, beginning with the aforementioned 888 movement – a mass uprising and general strike against the dictatorial rule of U Ne Win, who had seized power in 1962. The military responded with force, but though that force could suppress, it too could not gain consent. The “888” movement forced Win’s resignation, and in the elections that followed in 1990, the then newly founded NLD won 81% of the vote, and Aung Suu Kyi was slated to became head of the government. Instead, the armed forces nullified the result, placed her under house arrest (where she was held for most of the next 21 years) and installed itself to rule as the aptly named State Law and Order Restoration Committee – SLORC.

The subsequent violent repression, directed at students and workers, forced many into exile, forming the roots of a global solidarity movement centered on a call for corporate disinvestment from Myanmar until the restoration of democracy. Doing so, the activists built upon successful tactics that the then recently victorious anti-apartheid movement employed in its global campaign for divestment from South Africa. Over 200 campus groups in the United States were formed, calling on their respective administrators to stop purchasing consumer products made by companies doing business that profited by the denial of labour rights and basic civic justice under SLORC rule.

Organized local “Friends of Burma”5 coalitions introduced resolutions to preclude local governments from patronizing any corporation doing business in Myanmar. Over 20 municipalities passed such “selective purchasing measures,” including Ann Arbor, MI; Boulder, Co; Chapel Hill, NC; and Takoma Park, MD. Critically, this did not take place in isolation. For example, Takoma Park also declared itself a nuclear weapons-free zone and a sanctuary city for Central American exiles, reflective of widespread initiatives to link locally-based movements for progressive change with global concerns. This movement was strongest in California, where six cities passed such resolutions, and in Massachusetts, where success was gained in five.

In an attempt to give teeth to these bills, many included provisions to deny tax concessions or to otherwise penalize companies that violated the ban. When those proved unenforceable, a stronger state-wide measure was passed in Massachusetts with the significant help of the Franklin Institute Research (under the leadership of Simon Billeness, currently executive director of Campaign for a New Mynamar) and the Massachusetts Burma Roundtable. Potential penalties imposed by a state government – with other state governments considering similar action – did lead some corporations to pull out of Myanmar or halt planned investments in its wake. Similar corporate responsibility measures were being considered directed toward businesses investing in Indonesia (then still under military rule following a CIA-backed 1965 coup). That brought out growing opposition from transnational corporations and the global business community. The European Union and Japan issued protests and threatened to file charges with the World Trade Organization, calling such selective purchasing measures as illegal violations of global free trade agreements. Before the WTO could issue a ruling, a District Court overturned the Massachusetts law, a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000.6

Under pressure from popular movements and following passage of legislation in the Senate, the Clinton Administration did impose limited sanctions against Myanmar, banning new investments by US based corporations, although grandfathering in companies that already had major investments or production facilities there. Just prior to the announcement, Unocal – a major energy firm and a notorious violator of human rights and environmental regulations (subsequently bought by none other than Chevron) – increased its investments in the country. Those meaningful but limited sanctions, put in place only because of the strength of the solidarity movement, were later repealed by the Obama Administration, in favor of backdoor negotiations.

Taking another path, the International Labour Rights Fund, the Center for Constitutional Rights, EarthRights International, and others filed suit in 1996, in a US court, on behalf of Burmese villagers, against Unocal, under the Alien Torts Act – a 1798 law that had been unused for 200 years – which enables people outside of the United States to sue US corporations for civil damages for gross violations of their rights. In this instance, Unocal oversaw the Burmese military use of rape, torture, and murder in a community where one of its operations was located, the corporation turning a blind eye because it profited from forced labour made possible by that brutality. The aim of the lawsuit was to establish corporate responsibility overseas for violations of labour and human rights as well as environmental protection. The suit was settled out of court in 2005 with the villagers receiving monetary compensation. The Department of Justice agreed in order to avoid a possible court ruling that might have established enforceable guidelines for US corporate behavior overseas.7

Organized labour kept up the fight as well. The Oil and Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (today part of the Steelworkers) and the United Mine Workers of America took up the fight against mining companies that had major investments in Myanmar, submitting a resolution approved by the AFL-CIO that called for sanctions. They were also part of a global effort led by the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers’ Unions. This took place within a deeper challenge to corporate globalization that undermined labour protections and allowed companies to hide behind free trade rules in order to continue to profit from the anti-union practices and workplace oppression such as that imposed by SLORC upon Burmese workers.

A similar initiative emerged in the food and beverage industry, led by the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF), as multiple companies had facilities for production or distribution in the country, operating without concern for labour or human rights. Dutch-based Heineken, under pressure from unionists and “Free Burma” activists, pulled out of a planned investment in a Rangoon-based brewery and halted all export sales to Burma in 1996, a similar step being taken by the Belgian multinational Interbrew (then on its way to become the world’s largest brewing company). The depth of worker-based solidarity was expressed most dramatically in the campaign to prevent Carlsberg (the largest Danish brewery) from entering into a joint venture to build a plant in Burma. The Danish Food and Allied Workers Union – which represented Carlsberg workers – announced plans to organize a European-wide consumer boycott of the company if it didn’t back out of the deal, a threat backed by the IUF’s European regional organization. By 1996, Carlsberg had pulled out of the deal. Other corporations that disinvested under pressure from solidarity activists included Motorola, Kodak, Apple, Amoco, Liz Claiborne, Rebook, and Eddie Bauer, amongst others.8

PepsiCo, vehemently anti-union in the United States and globally, and quite comfortable investing where friendly repressive governments ruled, was the last holdout in the food and drink industry. In response, pressure was brought to bear from multiple sources – unions, human rights and consumer activists, and, of course, the Burmese exile community. As part of that initiative, Khin Ohmar, a student activist who took part in the 888 movement (and currently chair of Progressive Voice Myanmar’s Advisory Board), spoke to unionists affiliated with the IUF in North America about the need to boycott Pepsi, telling those assembled of her arrest, of the harsh treatment she and other activists received at the hands of soldiers, and thus, of the necessity for her to flee her own country to seek refuge abroad.

She gave a special talk at IUF’s Pepsi Council, composed of local union officers and active rank-and file members from PepsiCo-owned plants from across the country (and Canada too, if memory serves). These workers knew of Pepsi’s hostility to organized labour, but the depth of what working people were undergoing in Myanmar was far deeper and more profound than what these unionists were experiencing and touched a chord that came up again and again in conversation after her formal presentation was over. At the same time, it put into context the anti-union offensive that workers were experiencing. The Pepsi labour council members responded without hesitation to the appeal for solidarity with support for the boycott. The action itself was symbolic, but nonetheless, meaningful. When actions, no matter how small, multiply the impact can be powerful. In 1997, Pepsi withdrew from Myanmar.

The combination of international pressure with activism amongst Burmese workers, resistance amongst the country’s ethnic minorities, and the ever-recurring student movement led to SLORC’s decision to permit elections in 2012. Fooling themselves into thinking they had broad support, the military was unprepared for the massive defeat it suffered that year and again in 2015 – leading to its collapse. Aung San Suu Kyi and her NLD Party, with its deep roots in the country’s Buddhist majority, swept to overwhelming victory. Victory, however, was partial, based on acceptance of a continued role of the military in government, which inhibited the ability of the parliamentary government to address social and economic need, creating space for continued corporate exploitation from overseas. Moreover, the NLD government embraced a narrow Burmese nationalism that excluded “outsiders” and so, accepted the army’s subsequent genocidal attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority. Taken together, the stage was set for the 2021 coup that brought the current regime to power.

A Glance at the Past

To understand the outsized role of the military in Burmese society and the persistence, intensity, and difficulties of resistance to it, a brief look at its history can provide some context. Burma had long been a center of Buddhist teaching and learning, reflected in the high level of literacy and education the country had achieved by the 19th century. Existing at a crossroads in Southeast Asia – today, it borders India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand – it has numerous ethnicities within its population as well as Muslim and Christian minorities. Its historical development, however, was disrupted by British colonialism. Great Britain launched three wars against Burma – 1824-26, 1852-53, 1885-86 – until finally imposing its rule over the whole country. A large part of the purpose of that conquest was to protect its hold on India, and, in fact, Burma was incorporated into “British” India, subjecting its people into a kind of double colonialism and double suppression.9

Doing so meant that many civil servants and administrators were Indian and Muslim or Hindu, not Burmese and Buddhist. Moreover, typical of British colonial rule, the Karen minority (especially those who had adopted Christianity) were used as administrators and as staff of the colonial army, thereby precipitating ethnic disputes that remain to this day. And standing on top of this was the unconcealed racism of British colonialists so well described by George Orwell. Born in colonial Burma, his service there as a police officer contributed to his subsequent radicalism, the colonist’s mindset depicted in his first novel:

“Your whole life is a life of lies. Year after year you sit in Kipling-haunted little Clubs, whiskey to right of you, Pink’un to the left of you, listening and eagerly agreeing while Colonel Bodger develops his theory that these bloody nationalists should be boiled in oil. You hear your Oriental friends called ‘greasy little babus,’ and you admit, dutifully, that they are greasy little babus. You see louts fresh from school kicking grey-haired servants. The time comes when you burn with hatred of your own countrymen…”10

A reflection of that racism was British insistence that they be addressed as “Thankin” – which means “master.” The nationalist movement, repressed but never fully repressed, persisted throughout the years of colonialism, turned that meaning around in the 1930s, calling themselves the “Thankin Movement,” reflecting the desire of the Burmese people to be masters of their own destiny.

Under the leadership of Aung San – the long-time leader of Burma’s revolutionary movement and of Burma’s Communist Party (and Aung Su Kyi’s father) – Burma declared independence from Britain in August 1945, shortly after Japan’s surrender. The same week, Sukarno declared Indonesian independence from the Netherlands, and Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence from France, reflecting the interconnection of nationalist movements throughout the region.

Aung San’s announcement was followed by a supportive mass walkout that began to take shape as a general strike. In 1947, on the eve of Britain’s recognition of Burma’s independence, the Anti-Fascist Peoples League won parliamentary elections, with Aung San slated to be prime minister. Their aim was to create a federated state that would give autonomy and representation to all minorities within the country. That program was never implemented, for Aung San was assassinated, along with six other cabinet members, just prior to taking office. In the vacuum that those deaths created, the parliamentary system became unstable, riven with disputes and insurgencies, both ethnic (particularly from the Karen people) and political (by Burmese Communists who objected to the path of development being taken) that the post-colonial government was unable to resolve.

Nonetheless, under the leadership of independent Burma’s first prime minister – U Nu, a Burmese Buddhist scholar and socialist who had collaborated with Aung San – some progressive reforms were implemented, and some attempt was made to rebuild infrastructure and the civil society that had been undermined by British rule. U Nu’s government played an important role in the non-aligned movement that emerged in the 1950s, and prospects for a different and better future seemed graspable. U Thant, a close ally of U Nu (and later Secretary-General of the United Nations, where he was a principled advocate for peace), outlined the government’s goals in 1956:

“Today a whole new nation is being built in Burma — politically, socially, and economically. Part of the task is physical: to repair war damage and create enough industrial capacity to improve living standards and make out country self-sustaining; an even greater part is social and psychological: to educate a people long held down by colonialism in the ways of democracy and self-development. Because there is very little private capital in Burma, the major responsibility has inevitably fallen upon the Government. Its greatest efforts are now being applied to such fields as these.”11

Yet lack of capital and foreign investment limited economic growth and inhibited the flowering of the programs the government has hoped to implement. The inability to resolve economic difficulties and political conflict was the background for Ne We’s 1962 coup (simultaneously anti-Western and anti-Communist) who sought to resolve the country’s problem through isolation, autocratic self-sufficiency, and narrow Burmese nationalism. This laid the groundwork for continuing conflicts with the Karen and Rohingya and the insertion of the military into the center of political and economic life.

Unresolved contradictions pointed to two possible but contradictory directions – either renewed and revitalized democratic engagement demanded by the student movement or, alternatively, modernized military rule, politically neutral, friendly to capital whatever the source. In the conflict between the two, the military gained the upper hand. Economic life henceforth centered on overseas corporate investment as the economic irrationalities of Ne We’s rule were replaced by the “rational” economics of contemporary global capitalism.

Labour rights and Corporate Responsibility

Lack of labour rights and the order maintained by the military has made Myanmar an attractive place for business. Maung Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and co-founder of FORSEA (Forces of Renewal for Southeast Asia) explained the consequences:

“…high street fashion brands, Zara and others, and … textile apparel industries, they are still producing and sourcing their materials in Burma, in a country that has zero or no labour rights protections, labour laws in place or enforced. … And, you know, there is a long list of European, Japan, Australian, the Americans and even Canadian corporate interests operating on the ground, while the politicians and the foreign affairs or State Department officials come up with these grandiose condemnations, grandstanding that they are doing something moral, ethical, in principle.”12

In this, Myanmar was part of a development touching virtually every region of the globe. By the late 1980s up to the early 1990s, cross-border corporate mergers, the concentration of industrial giants to take advantage of global markets, led to increased power of business relative to national governments, relative to organized labour, relative to the communities in which they operate. This trend was first apparent in auto, steel, and other manufacturing industries but had become ubiquitous as the century neared its close. For example, the food and beverage industry, which had been relatively decentralized and rooted in regional and national markets, had become highly concentrated with even large corporations being bought out by ever larger ones – different parts of the industry dominated by a handful of corporations such as Unilever, Nestle, Cargill, and others. That, in turn, contributed to changes in food consumption habits (at the expense of the income and health of the already poor), and to the concentration and centralization of retail industry (precursor to our Walmart, Amazon-dominated world), leading to an increased exploitation of land and labour, all with a particularly devastating impact on former colonial countries in Asia and Africa where these corporate fortunes had been originally made. Corporate power that had become expressed through “branding”, i.e., spending on advertising, took on an ever-greater share of corporate expenditure at the expense of workers and national/local cultures.13

The same process was underway in the textile industry – and global corporations, either directly or through sub-contractors, in food, beverage, and clothing industries which were the ones that set up shop in Myanmar. Alongside this came growing indebtedness across the Third World, which increased structural disparities between wealthy and poorer nations, and facilitated the creation of a shadow economy fueled by illegal drug sales. Myanmar, because of the enormous market for heroin amongst US servicemen in Vietnam, also suffered from that phenomenon. Oil and gas industries, in their own way, operated as a drug as well, as a source of quick cash, albeit in a form that benefitted neither the local population, nor national industrial development. As developed capitalist countries deindustrialized to undermine domestic labour countries, Myanmar became ever more attractive for investment.14

In microcosm, the country’s direction post-1988 coincided with the emergence of neoliberalism and the financialization of the global economy – and hit upon the rock upon which both liberal and authoritarian market-based national development plans failed. One sign of this was a decision in 1988 for the United Nations to abandon plans to establish a code of conduct for transnational corporations, a code long sought by labour and socialist organizations as well as by third world governments. This decision spelled the doom of the radical proposals contained within the Socialist International’s Brandt-Manley Commission. Its report, released in 1985, sought to create alternative structures of development at a time when popular and radical movements globally seemed to allow space for them.

Corporate power and the willingness to exercise that power directly received a dramatic boost with the end of the Cold War. With the Soviet Union’s demise, the threat of an alternative that provided basic economic security (no matter how the Soviet system was otherwise judged) was lost, an absence that employers were quick to use to their advantage. An example of the change could be seen at the International Labour Organization. When the IUF in 1993 attempted to use a tripartite (business, labour, government) agreement on minimum standards of corporate conduct from 1976, to compel PepsiCo to cease doing business in Burma because of Burma’s repressive actions, business representatives, backed by the US and British governments, refused to go along. Their argument was that they would never have signed on to the corporate conduct agreement had they thought that it could stop them from doing business in a country where human rights were not respected. Tripartism, in other words, was a dead letter. The gloves were off.15

On both sides. Burmese unions were banned in the 1960s, yet labour has played a critical role in every outbreak of popular resistance, re-emerging in organized form at the Thai-Burma border in the 1990s, growing dramatically when unions were legalized in 2011. The Confederation of Trade Unions – Myanmar (CTUM) – alongside other small federations and individual unions, represented tens of thousands of workers, largely in export-oriented industries.16

In those circumstances, the international Burma solidarity movement in the 1990s was all the more important, for it demonstrated that concerted action across borders could crack through corporate strength to force concessions that companies thought they no longer needed to make. Moreover, within Myanmar, it contributed to the intimate links between demands for democracy and demands for economic justice, and is the reason Burmese trade unions, alongside students, remain central to the struggle today. Myra Dahgaypaw, a Karen refugee serving as International Justice and Accountability Officer at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, explained:

“Profits should never be put above human lives, and the world will need to transition away from fossil fuels entirely by the end of the decade if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Why not start with the oil and gas projects that are being used to enable one of the worst dictatorial regimes on the planet?

“Taken together, the arguments to hold off on sanction any longer don’t hold water. The people of Myanmar have waited too long already for the justice and democracy they deserve. The United States should go after the junta in a way that it will notice: by cutting off the billion-plus dollars it rakes in each year off the backs of the people of Myanmar.”17

Hope and New Beginnings

Corporate power does not exist in a vacuum; it is sustained by government power. The plan originally charted by Burma and other founding members of the non-aligned movement in the 1950s constituted a search for a path of development that would put people ahead of profits. The desire for such an outcome was frustrated by international institutions, which narrowed choices and ultimately inhibited the flowering of alternative models of economic and political development. So it is that today, in addition to putting pressure on corporations to disinvest, the resistance movement in Myanmar is seeking targeted sanctions to prevent foreign governments from selling weapons to the Junta and to discourage trade and investment. Many countries, in particular China, Singapore, and Thailand, for pragmatic reasons, have pursed economic and arms policies that have helped prop up the current regime, as has, increasingly, Russia. Japan, too, has been unresponsive to solidarity demands.

This is sometimes justified by the legitimate rejection of interference in the internal affairs of other societies (for such is inherently anti-democratic), yet it can constitute a false neutrality that accepts and reinforces illegal government rule. Fear of border instability due to the massive influx of refugees into Bangladesh and Thailand and concern over border instability elsewhere in the region will only be overcome when military rule is overcome. The Burmese people’s movement has not called for foreign intervention – but it has called for the United Nations, ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nation comprised of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malayasia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar), and other international bodies to reject the legitimacy of the coup’s representatives in international bodies and to isolate the government diplomatically.

The UN and ASEAN have made some positive statements – as has the US government – and Thailand and China have helped broker some negotiations, but as yet, it is far too little; as of yet, words have failed to translate into meaningful actions. As is the case with Palestine, there is a long path to move from recognizing the legitimacy of national rights and the reality of genocide, to getting international governments to act – in part, today, because of the intricacy of amoral corporate power and the narrow tit-for-tat of global politics that define progress and national security in terms of security of investment. Yet popular struggle matters – the continued resistance on the ground has begun to bear fruit.18

For its part, the popular movement in Myanmar, learning from the past, has created a National Unity Government – comprising NLD members of parliament ousted by the Junta, but also comprising representatives from the Rohyinga, Karen, and other peoples not justly represented before. So, too, the NUG includes organizations participating in building a social protest movement within the country. This broader conception of Myanmar as a country that belongs to all its peoples is evident in the political perspective that has come to the fore within the NLD and in the wider popular movement of resistance. This is expressed in an article Khin Ohmar and Thinzar Shunlei wrote in the exile paper Myanmar Now, roundly criticizing past treatment of the Rohyinga:

“The formation of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) by elected members of parliament, ethnic and civil society leaders, and representatives of the Civil Disobedience Movement and General Strike Committees of the Spring Revolution was a historic moment. For the country’s diverse communities, it offered real hope that a genuine federal democracy — one that guarantees and protects their rights — can be established. As a moral as well as a political guide, the NUG must therefore transparently communicate to the people of Myanmar what and who it stands for.”19

Such unity is hard to sustain the longer the fighting continues, making it all the more urgent for solidarity movements to gain strength. As democratic rights and social justice are imperiled everywhere by unrestrained corporate capital; as the resulting instability has turned into war; as environmental destruction, racism, and division sow authoritarian politics, we all the more need to stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar. Their quest for justice should be recognized as well as our own. •


  1. Chevron Exits Myanmar With Withdrawal From Natural Gas Project, Kimberly Kao and Ben Otto,” Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2024; “New Year, Old Tactics: Myanmar’s Junta’s Amnesty Skips Political Prisoners,” The Irrawaddy, April 18, 2024; “New US Sanctions on MOGE: Hitting the generals where it hurts?” Mike Haack, Frontier Myanmar, December 21, 2023.
  2. International Trade Union Confederation, “Khaing Zar Aung expresses ‘honour and sadness’ for global rights prize,” 4/22/2024.
  3. Burma Executes Four Activists as Resistance to Military Government Grows Since 2021,” Maung Zarni interviewed by Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, Democracy Now.
  4. George Katsiaficas, Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Vol. 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, 1947 – 2009, PM Press, Oakland, 2013
  5. According to Progressive Voice Myanmar “One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.” [I have followed the usage of my sources – ks.]
  6. Labor Link: A Publication of IUF North America, May-Nov. 1996, # 8, p15; Dec. 1996 – May 1997, # 9 pp 6-7; “Trade War Over Burma, In These Times, June 13 [or Feb. 17] 1997; Linda Greenhouse, The Supreme Court: The Foreign Policy Issue; Justices Overturn a State Law on Myanmar, New York Times, June 20, 2000.
  7. Historic Advance for Universal Human Rights: Unocal to Compensate Burmese Villagers,” Center for Constitutional Rights, October 23, 2007.
  8. Labor Link, op cit.
  9. For a thumbnail sketch of Burma/Myanmar’s history see: Dinyar Godrej, A Short History of Burma, New Internationalist, April 18, 2008. Background for developments since the 1960s are discussed in Reading Myanmar: U Nu and His Prison Novel, Tony Waters, Irrawaddy, June 5, 2024, and Thant-Myint U: What Next for Burma?, London Review of Books, March 18, 2021. For a fuller history see also his The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century, Norton Books, 2019.
  10. George Orwell, Burmese Days, a Harvest/HJB Book, 1962, p 69.
  11. Building a Nation: Goals for the Future, U Thant, Atlantic Magazine, February 1958.
  12. Maung Zarni, op. cit.
  13. See Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, Knopf Canada, 1999.
  14. Frederick Clairmonte and John Cavanagh, Merchants of Drink: Transnational Control of World Beverages, Third World Network (Malaysia), 1988 and Susan George, The Debt Boomerang: How Third World Debt Harms Us All, Pluto Press with the Transnational Institute, London, 1992 are books that reported and analyzed these developments as they were taking shape. Kevin Watkins, “GATT and the Third World: fixing the rules.” Race and Class Vol 14 # 1, July – September 1992 appeared in an issue of the journal focused on how financial institutions were undermining economic decolonization initiatives.
  15. Michael Manley, Up the Down Escalator: Development and the International Economy – A Jamaican Case Study, Howard University Press, Washington DC, 1987; Global Challenge: From Crisis to Co-operation: Breaking the North-South Stalemate, Report of the Socialist International Committee on Economic Policy, chaired by Michael Manley; President Willy Brandt, Pan Books, London and Sydney, 1985; Mike Allen and Kurt Stand, “Comment,” Global Labour, Issue 1, May 1993.
  16. Myanmar Labour Market Profile 2019, Danish Trade Union Development Agency.
  17. Want to stop Myanmar military atrocities? Sanction oil and gas,” Myra Dahgaypaw, Myanmar Now, August 26, 2022.
  18. Articles touching on these issues include: “The End of Myanmar’s Resource Boom Could Doom the Junta,” Guillaume De Langre, Frontier Myanmar, December 19, 2023; “Inverting ASEAN’s Diplomatic Inertia on Myanmar,” David Scott Mathieson, Myanmar Now, June 12, 2024; “Escalating Violence and Civilian Attacks in Myanmar, UN, Progressive Voice Myanmar, June 6, 2024; “United in Inaction,” Progressive Voice, Progressive Voice Myanmar, April 12, 2024; “Open Letter Calling on the UN General Assembly to Show Strong Leadership in Response to Deepening Crisis in Myanmar, 427 Myanmar Civil Society Organizations, Progressive Voice Myanmar, October 25, 2021.
  19. The National Unity Government Cannot Ignore Past Injustices if it Truly Seeks to Free Myanmar from Military Rule, by Khin Ohmar and Thinzar Shunlei, Myanmar Now, August 24, 2021.

Kurt Stand is a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and a Portside moderator.