Myanmar: a balance sheet of the 1988 uprising

The 1988 Uprising of Myanmar was a turning point in the country’s history. For the first time in over a century, the Burmese masses directly confronted a military dictatorship and toppled it. During the mass struggles against the military coup in 2021, many activists looked to the experience of 1988 for inspiration. Unfortunately, however, the 1988 uprising ultimately ended in defeat, similarly to what happened this year. In order to move forward, we have to ask ourselves what factors led to the 1988 movement’s failure, what mistakes were made. Were any of these present in this year’s movement as well? We need to make a serious analysis of this uprising to draw historical lessons and the correct conclusions.

Historical circumstances in the lead up to the movement

Myanmar entered the 20th century as an extremely backward country greatly dominated by British imperialism. During the Second World War, it was also ravaged by the invasion of the Japanese. The most valiant fighters for national liberation, particularly those around the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), were able to help beat back the Japanese and win independence from Britain at the end of WWII. However, due to their Stalinist class-collaborationist outlook, which stemmed from their perspective of ‘democratic revolution’ as a stage in the long-term struggle for socialism, the CPB helped put the national bourgeoisie in power in the hope of developing a so-called ‘progressive’ bourgeois democracy. 

The Burmese bourgeoisie – as was the case in all colonial and former colonial countries – were unable to develop Myanmar on the basis of capitalism, and incapable of developing the country independently of the major imperialist powers. Because of this, they were far more interested in holding on to their position as loyal servants of imperialism and, therefore, in putting down the CPB, which they viewed as a threat to their class rule. However, rather than mobilising the masses in the cities for a fightback, the CPB – using the excuse that they had been banned by the new regime – abandoned the cities in a bid to wage guerilla struggles in the countryside, hoping they could replicate the peasant war that had brought China’s Mao Zedong to power. This incorrect perspective only led to their ties with the urban masses being cut off, and thus leaving them unable to play a role in providing leadership to these layers.

Although the CPB lost its influence, the Burmese bourgeois government remained completely unable to develop Myanmar, and the country reeled in chaos and poverty. The situation came to a head when a wing of the Burma National Army, led by General Ne Win, led a coup d'état in 1962 and established a military dictatorship. As it was the capitalist class and their market economy that stifled the development of Myanmar, the army officers opted for widespread nationalisations and effectively established a planned economy.

However, unlike the healthy planned economy established through the Russian Revolution of 1917, which was based on a worker’s democracy and control, the way events unfolded in Myanmar led to a bureaucratically planned economy with a dictatorial police state at its head. Although this regime under Ne Win explicitly refused to refer to itself as either ‘social democratic’ or ‘communist’, it was, in essence, a ‘deformed worker’s state’, a phenomenon in which a planned economy is dictatorially commanded by a bureaucracy rather than run democratically by the working class. Marxist theoretician Ted Grant explained why this was the case for Myanmar in his pamphlet Colonial Revolution and Sino-Soviet Split, written in 1964:

“The weakness of imperialism, the balance of forces nationally and internationally, led to a situation where the officer caste posed the problem before itself of finding some stability within society. In all these countries, the development of the bourgeois revolution, a bourgeois democratic state, and a development towards a modern bourgeois democracy, given the existing relationship of class and national forces and with the pressure of the world economy, at any rate for any lengthy period is impossible.

“Consequently, some form of Bonapartism, some form of military-police state, was inevitable in Burma. The army officer caste saw itself in the role of the only strata which could ‘save’ society from disintegration and collapse, as the feeble bourgeoisie obviously offered no solution. Consequently, the officer caste which had participated as one of the ‘socialist’ factions, decided that the only way forward was on the model of ‘socialist’ China, but called a ‘Burmese model’ of ‘socialism’. They have moved rapidly on familiar lines—a one-party totalitarian state, and the nationalisation of foreign-owned interests, including oil, teak, transport etc. They have begun the expropriation of the indigenous bourgeoisie. They even threatened the nationalisation of the small shops. They based themselves on the peasants and the working class. But they do not have a model of scientific socialism, on the contrary, their programme is one of ‘Burmese-Buddhist socialism’.”

Despite its deep deformations, the planned economy under the military proved, for a period, to be far more effective in developing the country than the previous capitalist economy had been. In some years, the country’s GDP even reached double-digit percentage annual growth, peaking at 10-13 percent. This provided the regime with a degree of stability and legitimacy.

General Ne Win Image public domainGeneral Ne Win led a coup in 1962, following which industry was nationalised and a planned economy was implemented. This led to high levels of growth for some years, but the bureaucratic regime eventually undermined this impressive growth, leading to a sharp contraction in the late 1980s / Image: public domain

Nevertheless, this level of growth was never going to last. As Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky previously explained in his work Revolution Betrayed, if the working class fails to politically overthrow the bureaucratic dictatorship and run the planned economy democratically, while spreading the revolution internationally, then the bureaucracy would over time be unable to effectively manage an increasingly complex economy. The inefficiencies, mismanagement, and corruption under these circumstances would eventually become an absolute fetter on the system, leading it to be outpaced by imperialist countries’ developments and threaten its existence. This explains why countries like the USSR and Eastern Europe collapsed, while others like China and Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party regimes preemptively restored capitalism as a means of maintaining their political dictatorship.

In Myanmar, this process took place in a concentrated form. The Ne Win regime was not only undemocratic but also extremely brutal and corrupt. By the 1980s, the economy began to decline. In the years 1986-88 GDP contracted sharply, in 1988 alone by 11 percent. 

Ne Win’s own personal superstitions also led to disastrous policies. Over the years, the state would arbitrarily abolish and reissue different denominations of currencies, many times based on the whim of Ne Win. In 1985, the state suddenly issued kyat notes of 25, 35, and 75. The 75 note was issued to commemorate Ne Win’s 75th Birthday. Two years later, the state issued the even more bizarre 45 and 90 notes, because these numbers, divisible by 9, were considered lucky by Ne Win

The sudden reissuance of currency meant that tens and thousands of people’s savings would be wiped out overnight should the cash they held be suddenly decreed by the state to be worthless. This chaos, caused by these demonetisation policies in particular, paved the way for the social explosions that the movements unleashed in 1988. As the events that sparked the mobilisations took place on 8 August, the movements would also be known as the ‘8888’ revolution.

How the movement took place

As Hegel once said, necessity expresses itself through accident. To superficial eyes, the 8888 uprising seemed to begin with an 'accident': a brawl between RIT (Rangoon Information Technology) students and the son of a high-ranking bureaucrat from General Ne Win's party, which occurred on 12 March 1988. The official’s son was arrested for injuring a student, but was then released. This angered the students, who gathered to protest outside the local police station. But they faced a violent reaction, with police officers killing one of them. This was the spark that ignited the powder keg of decades-long accumulated anger, frustration, and hatred toward the one-party military Bonapartist regime led by General Ne Win. 

On the following day of 13 March, RIT students took to the streets in protest. The army then brutally cracked down, killing one student on the spot and another the next day. This brutality further enraged the youth, and led to the expansion of the student movement over the course of several days. Four days later, the military massacred the students near the 'White Bridge' on the banks of Inya Lake in Rangoon (today known as Yangon). Dozens were killed and hundreds arrested and imprisoned in this incident, which came to be known as ‘Red Bridge.’ The government shut down all schools and universities in the hope of stemming the movement. 

But the regime miscalculated. Dispersion of the students in various directions led to the revolutionary fire spreading over the whole nation. When the schools and universities were reopened in June 1988, the youth organised more protest movements for several days. The regime once again sent the army to crack down on them. Still, the movement continued to gain momentum, and masses around the country began to participate.

The pressure from below forced a temporary concession from the top. The military Bonapartist Ne Win had to resign from the position of head of the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), officially giving up state power on 23 July 1988. This was a diversion, however, as Ne Win handed power to the notorious General Sein Lwin, known as “the Butcher”. On the one hand, the military dictatorship promised a move to multi-party democracy, on the other, they also issued a threat that “the guns were not to shoot upward but to fire on the dissidents directly”. Despite this threat and continuing brutality, the masses didn't give in, bringing down the Butcher after only 14 days. 

Here, we see the role of students and the youth who are very similar to a barometer reflecting or measuring the accumulated pressures within the society. This explains why they fought at the forefront. But the student movement alone was not enough. When the main student leader called for nationwide general strike action, via a broadcast by BBC Burmese, on the night of 6 August 1988, the working masses answered on 8 August. This nationwide, general strike and the mass demonstrations transformed the student and youth protests qualitatively by posing the question: who should run the society? 

Lack of revolutionary leadership

Both the 1988 mass uprising and the 2021 spring revolution had strong and weak sides. And though the former went a lot further (as we will explain), ultimately, both failed due to the absence of a revolutionary leadership with the correct ideas and methods to carry them to their necessary conclusion: the seizure of power by the working class.

The objective conditions for the conquest of power in 1988 were very favourable. As Lenin explained in Left-Wing Communism, for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes. For a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way either. The 1988 uprising occurred just when both of these conditions coincided in Myanmar: the masses were prepared to struggle, and the ruling elite had reached a point where they could see the methods they had used to rule over the country were no longer viable. 

Notably, when General Ne Win massacred hundreds of students on 7 July 1962, a revolution did not take place. Similarly, when in 1974-76 movements of workers and students took place, a nationwide mass struggle did not arise. Even when the BSPP government declared the illegality of currency notes, a mass uprising did not ensue.

From all this, the sectarians and empiricists, looking only at the superficial facts, drew the wrong conclusions. They saw the Burmese masses as suffering from false consciousness, that they were overly religious and indifferent to state oppression and injustices. The irony is that the bourgeois liberals would repeat more-or-less the same idea with their cliché: ‘the people get the government they deserve’. These people fail to see that the very same masses that they regard as ‘politically backward’ engaged in two mass uprisings in the space of just a few decades, making huge, heroic sacrifices in the process. Those who approach revolution from a superficial point of view cannot also explain how and why such mass uprisings take place. 

When the military regime was going through a government crisis in 1988, the Bonapartist Ne Win himself had to declare publicly that they could no longer go on in the old way at the BSPP’s annual congress. When both the conditions essential for a revolution – as outlined by Lenin – had matured, a spontaneous nationwide mass movement broke out. But we also have to understand that the 1988 mass uprising could not have arisen ‘spontaneously’ without the masses having gone through the experience of the 7 July student movement in 1962, and the 1974-76 workers’ and youth movements. The ultra-lefts and the bourgeois liberals fail to see that nothing is wasted in history, and the masses learn from their experiences. 

Despite the mobilisation and organisation of the youth activists, however, the 1988 mass movement as a whole remained of a semi-spontaneous character. This was due to the lack of a mass revolutionary party, which ultimately led the powerful mass uprising to a dead end. A large part of the fault for this can be laid at the feet of the CPB, who pursued an utterly bankrupt strategy and manifestly failed to provide any direction to the mass movement. For decades, the CPB, following the principles of Stalinism-Maoism, had been trying to lead ‘an insurrection from the countryside’, seeing organising the ‘rural armed struggle’ as their primary objective. All other considerations, including the mass struggle of the working class, were considered secondary to their ‘sacred’ armed struggle.

After so many years of following the road of ‘rural’ armed struggle, the CPB then raised the slogan of ‘multi-party democracy’ in a resolution at its third congress in 1985. According to the report of the CPB's General Secretary at the time, they sent the resolution as an appeal to nearly the entire previous generation of Myanmar’s bourgeois politicians, including the former prime minister, U Nu, the home affairs minister, U Kyaw Nyein, along with other political activists and leftists in the main cities to participate in the struggle against Ne Win’s military regime. 

At this time, the Stalinist CPB was faithfully following the ‘stagist’ theory of revolution, which holds that the tasks of communists and workers today is to struggle for the ‘democratic’ capitalist stage of the revolution alongside the so-called progressive bourgeoisie, while the struggle for socialist revolution is relegated to the distant future. In the past, Stalinists around the world would refer to this bankrupt theory as the ‘two-stage theory.’ The CPB, however, added a third stage! According to the CPB's conception, their task at the time was to topple the military regime and win a “liberal bourgeois democracy,” after which they would then struggle for “people’s democracy/new democracy”, before struggling for socialism. These theoretical acrobatics ultimately served to justify the class-collaborationist policies of the CPB.

Despite this incorrect perspective, the old Stalinists sensed that an imminent mass movement in the cities was coming and hurriedly prepared by building an underground network of ‘4828 party committees’, the name of which was based on a previous uprising under their leadership known as the “people’s democratic armed struggle” on 28 March 1948. Logically, having abandoned the cities for so long, their preparation was not sufficient. The CPB failed to train the advanced elements of the urban working class and the revolutionary youth to become the steeled cadres, ignoring what Lenin and the Bolsheviks actually did in practice in Russia. Thus, the movement as a whole lacked the necessary revolutionary leadership to carry it to victory. 

Despite this, during the 1988 mass struggle, as opposed to the 2021 revolution, the strike committees were very strong in the respective townships, thanks to the preparation of activists on the ground, and the creative power of the struggling masses. And although the military regime tried to portray the 1988 uprising as an episode of violent killings, as a matter of fact, it was a very peaceful mass struggle, at least in terms of the masses’ conduct. There were no violent riots nor chaos during the period of power vacuum after General Ne Win and his successor General Sein Lwin were deposed. 

People’s power was exercised on the streets, with the township strike committees organising and leading the masses in struggle. These township strike committees were similar to the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies that arose after the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. Although they never reached the level of coordination that we saw in Russia, they were nevertheless democratic and fighting organs of the striking masses. A provisional revolutionary government could have been organised based on these township strike committees, turning them into genuine instruments of workers’ power. 

During the 1988 mass uprising, the township strike committees exercised power on a local level, while the head of the military regime was forced to step down, the soldiers went back to barracks after the butcher General Sein Lwin fell. It was a moment when worker’s power could have been built up by the struggling masses on the streets. So why did the working masses fail to take political power? One can see clearly here that the most important factor, the revolutionary political leadership and party were missing. 

This absence of a revolutionary party of cadres capable of coordinating and organising the mass movement on a nationwide scale created a vacuum. In the heat of mass struggle, various groupings emerged. An advanced layer of students formed the ABFSU, the All-Burma Federation of Student Unions. There was the  journalist Hantharwaddy U Win Tin who organised the union of writers and intellectuals. There were many others, but none of them had a sufficient perspective to drive the movement forward. Meanwhile, the BSPP government destroyed all the militant mass organisations. Under these conditions, the masses were trying to organise and seek leadership in the heat of the struggle.

There were also various personalities who tried to portray themselves as “leaders of the people”. For example, ex-general Aung Gyi, who was second to Ne Win, proclaimed himself as the leader of the uprising, but the fighting masses rejected him. Although the masses could sweep away such a reactionary opportunist from the leadership position, it was another matter to create the required revolutionary leadership in the heat of the moment.

Aung San Su Kyi Image Claude TRUONG NGOCIn the absence of a clear revolutionary leadership, liberal intellectual, Aung San Su Kyi, was thrust to prominence / Image: Claude TRUONG-NGOC

Others attempted to fill the void. Some leftists, under the leadership of the ‘4828 party committee’, tried to draw Daw Khin Kyi – the late national leader Aung San’s wife and mother of Nobel prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi – into a public leadership position, but she died unexpectedly. The liberal intellectual Aung San Suu Kyi, who had arrived in Burma to care for her mother, was then catapulted suddenly into becoming a public figure overnight. This was only possible due to the absence of a mass revolutionary party. 

In ‘The Class, the Party, and the Leadership’, which analysed the failure of the Spanish revolution in the 1930s, Trotsky explained the impossibility of creating a new leadership in the fire of revolution as follows:

“But even in cases where the old leadership has revealed its internal corruption, the class cannot improvise immediately a new leadership, especially if it has not inherited from the previous period strong revolutionary cadres capable of utilizing the collapse of the old leading party.” (The Class, the Party and the Leadership – Why Was the Spanish Proletariat Defeated? [Questions of Marxist Theory], 1940)

The incorrect strategy of the CPB meant the lives of many radicalised youth and students were sacrificed in the subsequent armed struggle, with power ultimately falling to the liberals years later, who have now been overthrown by the military. 

The 8888 Movement: some important gains

Although the 1988 uprising was defeated, things could not go back to what they were. The movement had a certain impact. Its main slogans were ‘down with the one-party military dictatorship' and ‘abolish the 1974 constitution’. Under pressure from the uprising, the military eventually was forced to loosen up and grant some form of bourgeois-democratic rule. Also, the BSPP collapsed as it became evident it had no mass social base, although the striking masses had only limited their demands to calling for a multi-party democracy in which the BSPP would compete with others peacefully.

The 1988 Revolution not only overthrew the one-party military dictatorship under General Ne Win, but it also managed to defeat the attempts by the Butcher General Sein Lwin to take back power. Decisively, the rank-and-file soldiers showed solidarity with the fighting masses on the streets when they were ordered to crush them. Some sections of rank-and-file soldiers and police showed sympathy with the masses and some even participated in the movement, although they could not engage openly in outright mutinies as they were still tightly controlled by the military dictatorship. 

On the other hand, the ex-generals, including ex-commanders in chief, organised the “patriotic ex-soldiers group” – who later became one of the founding sections of the NLD (National League for Democracy, the recently-deposed liberal party) – and made a revolutionary appeal to the soldiers to side with the fighting masses. Their statement had a widespread echo among the soldiers. The military clique was clearly aware of the danger this posed, and moved to reconsolidate the army back under their tight control.

The impact of the 1988 mass movement was greater than that of 2021 because the masses played a more decisive role in terms of their own self-organisation, strike committees, and so on. Understanding this central fact will help develop a strategy that can actually lead to victory in the future. Unfortunately, the role of the masses during the 8888 Revolution is often ignored or downplayed by the ultra-lefts of today. 

Meanwhile, the 2021 revolution has so far not achieved even such partial gains. The INUG (Interim National Unity Government), also known as the ‘online' government, convened a so-called 'third' parliament meeting according to the 2008 constitution, which they had previously declared repealed. The irony is that the military junta led by General Min Aung Hlaing is also using the 2008 constitution as a legal cover, despite the fact that they violated the military-drafted constitution several times. And far from being disbanded, the present military party, the USDP is still operating as a network of informants and agents provocateurs and is organising paramilitary fascist gangs relying on the Buddhist ultranationalists and lumpen elements.

When assessing the limitations of the 2021 movement, we should point to the legacy of the 1988 uprising, in which we vividly see the enormous power of the mass movement on the streets, and of the general strikes. We must hammer home this point in a period when the ultra-lefts downplay the revolutionary role of the mass movement. 

Revolutionary strategy

The months of February and March this year are often referred to by the ultra-lefts as the honeymoon period. They see the general strikes and mass movements on the streets as mere peaceful demonstrations, whereas the real revolution for them started with the assassinations of the state officials and the waging of guerrilla warfare in the name of the ‘armed struggle'. Consequently, the debate on revolutionary strategy is framed in terms of non-violence versus armed struggle.

Let us be clear: we Marxists are not pacifists, despite our criticism of the Stalinist-Maoist fetishism for the ‘armed struggle’. We Marxists are also not bloodthirsty terrorists as the ruling class would like to portray us. We do not advocate violence for the sake of violence. In our view, to win the revolution, the mass of workers and peasants must be mobilised in an all-out general strike in the cities, combined with generalised land occupations by the peasants in the rural areas. If the full force of the working people were mobilised then the revolution could be a relatively peaceful affair. 

However, that does not mean the question of self-defence of workplace and neighbourhood armed groups, and of armed peasant groups is ignored. In fact, mobilising the full force of the masses, combined with self-defence groups would be the way of reducing violence to a minimum. That is why framing the debate in terms of ‘non-violence versus armed struggle’ is a mechanistic, reductionist view, which leaves important questions out of the equation.

As noted, the Communist Party of Burma adopted the Maoist line during the 1988 revolution. They and other guerrilla groups based on ethnic lines had waged a ‘rural armed struggle’ for three decades (from the 1950s through to the 1980s). The aim of their insurgency was to overthrow the military dictatorship by force. These guerrilla forces applied the Maoist strategy of ‘insurrection from the countryside to encircle the cities.’ We have to honestly ask ourselves whether they achieved their aim. The answer is self-evident: not in the slightest!

It was only in 1988, when we saw a mass uprising across the whole country, that General Ne Win’s Bonapartist regime was finally brought down. We do not deny the role of rural peasant guerrilla actions in certain conditions, but if these remain isolated from the mass struggle, they will not achieve their aim. If one substitutes the so-called armed struggle for the organised movement of the working class, rather than subordinating it to the latter, one ends up with a kind of Robin Hood scenario, where bands of courageous fighters intervene ‘for the masses’, but fail totally to actually organise the masses and raise their own consciousness and make them aware of their own potential power.

National unity or class independence?

The late Stalinist leader Bo Kyin Maung (also known as Comrade Tun) of the CPB drew the conclusion that the 1988 uprising was defeated due to its failure to build ‘national unity’. In fact, what he was saying was that the failure was due to the lack of a ‘Popular Front’, i.e. an alliance which would include the various groupings leading the movement, particularly the liberal bourgeoisie who would later go on to promote the NLD.

888 Image KwantongeMarxists must make an honest balance sheet of the 8888 Uprising. The truth is that that movement decisively showed the bankruptcy of the class-collaborationist methods of the "popular front". But it also showed that guerrilla armed struggle methods alone are not enough. What is necessary is a clear revolutionary leadership of the working class / Image: Kwantonge

What these people fail to understand is that, in the age of imperialism, the national bourgeoisie in the backward countries is incapable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Lenin explained this fact 120 years ago before the 1905 Russian Revolution. The experience of two revolutions in Burma (1988 and 2021) have also confirmed this analysis. The bourgeois liberals usurped the leadership position in both the 1988 and 2021 revolutions, but they failed both times and betrayed the masses who followed them.

What happened when the bourgeois liberals, who the Stalinists wanted to unite with, took the position of leadership? They threw away all the favourable conditions to take power. After the butcher Sein Lwin fell, the soldiers went back to the barracks. The declaration of the “ex-generals group” appeared, appealing to the soldiers to side with the people. At the same time, the fighting masses were exercising the people’s power on the streets.

In those conditions, what was necessary was to form a provisional revolutionary government coordinating the rank-and-file bodies that the masses had thrown up in the course of the revolutionary movement at  local, regional, and national levels. Instead, the bourgeois liberals, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, called on the falling regime to form a provisional government. They wasted the revolutionary opportunity, failing to take advantage of the splits that had emerged among the rank and file soldiers. This gave the military clique the necessary time to regain control over the army, which had been slipping from their hands.

We must ask ourselves honestly: are the class-collaborationist policies of the Stalinists capable of preventing the liberals from betraying the revolution? The history of the movement in Myanmar, going right back to the 1940s, shows that such policies not only fail to prevent a betrayal by the liberal bourgeois, but actually facilitate such a betrayal! The real problem is not the lack of national unity or popular front, but the lack of a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class capable of showing the masses the way forward, a party that is determined to lead the working masses to power.

While the Stalinists have drawn the conclusion over and over again that what led to the defeat of the revolution was a lack of unity with the bourgeois liberals – the so-called progressive bourgeoisie – some ultra-left sectarians have drawn another – equally incorrect – conclusion, that the 1988 mass movement failed because it did not adopt the line of the armed struggle. 

We must insist here that no amount of armed struggle can solve the question of leadership. If the revolution is led by people whose objectives are confined to the so-called ‘democratic stage’ of the revolution, capitalism will remain intact and with it also the capitalist state. In the conditions of Myanmar, this means a continuation of the present state, with all its brutality.

After 1988, some of the most courageous revolutionary youth attempted to go down the road of the ‘armed struggle’ but they failed in their objectives. We must understand the ultra-left errors that pushed the advanced layers of the uprising to “do something now”, rather than patiently building the party of cadres necessary to carry the revolution to victory. As Lenin explained, this kind of “ infatuation for the narrowest forms of practical activity” is ruinous for the revolutionary struggle (Lenin, What is to be done?). 

In the words of George Santayana: “He who does not learn from history will forever be doomed to repeat it.” Let the new generation not repeat the mistakes of the past, for if we do, we will fail yet again to build the necessary revolutionary vanguard party and will not be ready when the workers and youth inevitably arise again in the future.

The preparation for the next revolution starts now!

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