Burma: the history behind the protests

Burma specialist Dr Michael W Charney, author of the History of Modern Burma, gives his ana

Burma (officially named Myanmar) has been under de facto military rule, in one guise or another, since 1962. In 1987, Burma received least developed nation status, inflation was out of control, and demonetization of Burmese bank notes had impoverished the middle class.

A spark was provided by a fight between students and locals at a teashop in 1988, but like the present demonstrations, which were initiated by increases in fuel prices, protests quickly coalesced around the issue of Democracy, whose introduction, it was widely believed, would invite effective government and sound economic policies.

Instead, the military reacted swiftly and harshly. In general appearance, the present demonstrations appear eerily reminiscent of those in July and August 1988.

Nevertheless, there are key differences. Of course, the current demonstrations are on a smaller scale, even given the recent crowd of 100,000 in Rangoon (also known as Yangon), but this may change over the next few days or weeks if they are not quickly suppressed by Burmese riot police and soldiers.

More importantly, while monks did participate in the 1988 demonstrations, they did not lead them, which is a unique feature of the present protests. Monastic garb provides some protection against soldiers who might easily fire on a civilian, but who would suffer a serious loss of merit in harming or even killing a monk.

Moreover, while government propaganda has for two decades portrayed Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition party the National League for Democracy (NLD) as agents manipulated by the West, hurting their appeal, monks command the respect of most in Burmese society both outside the army and within it.

Although according to the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic code, monks are not supposed to involve themselves in mundane politics, in Burmese history monks have played an important role in social activism, especially in the 1920s when they led rural opposition to colonial authorities and urban moneylenders. This is due to colonial heritage.

As the British turned the traditional intermediaries between the throne and the villager, the village headmen, into agents responsible only to the colonial state in the 19th century, Burmese communal identity and cooperation centred on monks. In a society where the two main institutions are the military and the monastic order, it is only natural, when the regime permits no other outlets for dissent, that monks should stand up and play again their historic role in voicing the complaints of Burma’s general population against military rule.

In September 1988, a military coup established the first of two military 'councils' that have ruled the country and whose members and their respective families have pillaged the economy through privatization ever since. At the time, the regime promised to improve the economy, provide peace, and ensure stability to set the right conditions for the transfer of power to an elected government. Although the regime permitted elections in 1990 it refused to recognize the sweeping victory of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, who continues to remain under house arrest.

The Western and Japanese response to the failure of the regime to recognize the NLD’s 1990 electoral victory was too slow and fluctuating to be effective. Sanctions imposed on the country in the last two decades have thus appeared to be ineffective in the short term.

A lifeline was also thrown to the regime by members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) who were more interested in gaining an economic stake in the country than supporting Democracy. As Western sanctions have expanded and ASEAN has begun to reconsider the domestic situation in Burma as a threat to stability in the region, the regime has had time to reorient itself economically to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), which was just as anxious to draw Burma into its economic orbit, gain access to its natural gas and oil reserves, and to gain more direct access to Indian Ocean trade.

However, Western sanctions may have been crucial in an indirect way over the long term. The regime’s dependence on the PRC has made it vulnerable to shifts in the PRC’s international relations. Although the PRC has played a key role in stymieing attempts to bring the Burmese situation up before the UN Security Council, it is also concerned about improving its international profile now that it is sponsoring the 2008 Olympics and is eager to counter the negative press resulting from recent problems with Chinese exports to the US and elsewhere.

Moreover, the PRC is most interested in political stability on its frontiers. Although backing the military regime in Burma has appeared to be a safe bet in pursuit of this goal, widespread domestic opposition in Burma and the promise of rallying at the UN against the regime may change this view.

Indeed, recent reports suggest that the PRC is finally pressuring the military regime in Burma to engage in serious negotiations with the Democratic opposition. Unable to turn to anyone else, the regime is increasingly finding itself stuck in a corner and will either have to fold or more completely isolate itself from the international community.

It is well past the time when the kind of increased US sanctions promised by President George Bush would have had any tangible impact on Burma’s domestic political situation. Currently, the only realistic chances for Western states to encourage a peaceful transfer of power in the country is to exert soft pressure on the PRC to persuade Burma’s military leadership to relinquish control of the state to those elected in 1990.

Michael Charney is currently Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at SOAS and is a specialist in Burmese history. His research focuses on Burmese intellectual and religious history. He is the author of Powerful Learning: Buddhist Literati and the Throne in Burma’s Last Dynasty, 1752-1885 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Centers for South and Southeast Asian Studies, 2006) and has recently completed his manuscript for The History of Modern Burma for Cambridge University Press.

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Does the working class need to ask for its Labour Party back?

The more working class voters there were in a constituency in 2017, the more it tended to swing to the Tories.

When Theresa May called the general election nearly two months ago, all the evidence – opinion polls and local election results especially – pointed to the expectation that the Labour Party would be crushed, with many of its MPs losing their seats.

The assumption was that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to win over Conservative voters, because he was too left-wing to appeal to those close to the political centre ground.

Some commentators, myself included, took this a little further, arguing that Corbyn was left-wing in a way that would alienate the very people he claimed to speak for, ie working class people, while appealing primarily to virtue-signalling middle class romantics like Corbyn himself, who have no more interest than he does in the business of parliament but love a good rally or social media spat.

The local elections that took place in May appeared to confirm the above expectation and analysis, with hundreds of Labour councillors losing their seats. However, opinion polls began to shift, and while different polling companies’ methodologies led to different estimates of support for the two main parties, all showed Labour on the rise – with YouGov predicting two days before the election that the Conservatives would win a mere 305 out of 650 seats, while Labour would win 266.

Despite a miserable campaign in support of a depressing manifesto, enlivened only by the promised revival of an anachronistic bloodsport beloved of the rural elite – indeed, a campaign so bad that political historian Glen O’Hara joked about having ‘watched and wondered whether Mrs May was a Corbynite sleeper agent’ – the Conservatives actually did slightly better than this prediction, winning their highest share of the vote since 1983 and coming to hold 317 seats to the Labour Party’s 262.

This left them only 55 seats ahead of their historic rival: a gap only very slightly wider than the 48-seat lead that they had after the 2010 general election, when David Cameron defeated the supposedly very unpopular Gordon Brown. The 2017 result would have been impossible without the activists who have stuck with the Labour Party regardless of their feelings about the leader, some of whom are now publicly expressing shame at the part they played in what is widely seen as Corbyn’s triumph.

Does the Labour Party’s unexpectedly narrow defeat refute the diagnosis of Corbynism as a middle class politics that alienates the party’s traditionally working class base, but doesn’t really care? Constituency-by-constituency analysis of the 2017 results by Paula Surridge, of the University of Bristol, suggests that it does not.

The Leave vote

We should perhaps begin with a pattern that was already apparent on election night. Parts of the country that voted strongly to quit the European Union appeared to show a swing away from Labour towards the Conservative Party, while areas that voted strongly for Remain appeared to show a swing in the opposite direction.* 

Surridge’s analysis confirms that this was indeed a trend: the higher the estimated Leave vote, the more the Labour vote share fell between 2010 and 2017, and the more the Conservative vote share rose during the same period. Blue dots represent actual constituencies; the red line represents the trend.

On the face of it, this is baffling. Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are officially committed to leaving the EU, and Jeremy Corbyn famously used a three-line whip to force his MPs to support the Tory Brexit bill in February.

The anti-Brexit parties were the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, and the Greens. There was therefore no sense in which a vote for Labour could have been a vote against leaving the EU. Why, then, should a constituency’s support or opposition to Brexit have made any difference?

This brings us to the paradox that the Labour MP John Mann has called the ‘Bolsover question’: why the second-largest Labour-to-Conservative swing in the country should have occurred in the constituency of Dennis Skinner.

Skinner is not only – as Mann observed – one of Jeremy Corbyn’s staunchest supporters in the Commons, but also  – although Mann did not draw attention to this fact  – one of the Labour Party’s staunchest advocates of Brexit. Why should a constituency that voted for Brexit by 29,730 votes to 12,242 have swung so heavily against a strongly pro-Brexit candidate for a pro-Brexit party?

Here’s a thought: maybe constituencies swung away from Corbyn’s Labour Party for the same sorts of reasons that they voted Leave, and swung towards it for the same sorts of reasons that they voted Remain? Or to put it another way: what if Corbynism appeals to the kinds of people to whom EU membership seems advantageous, and repels the kinds of people to whom it seems an encumbrance, regardless of the fact that Corbyn – as a disciple of Tony Benn  – is resolutely anti-EU?

Let’s take a look at some of the other things that Surridge found.

Educational level

Exit polling after last year’s EU referendum found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to have voted Remain. While some Remainers might like to dismiss this as ignorance on the part of Leavers, it can also be interpreted as an expression of anger at being left behind in Britain’s ever-more highly globalised economy.

So we should take note of Surridge’s finding that the higher the percentage of university degree holders in a constituency, the more it would tend to swing towards Labour from 2010 to 2017, and the lower the percentage of degree holders, the more it would tend to swing towards the Conservatives.

Ethnicity

While a bare majority of white voters opted for Leave last year, large majorities of black and Asian voters chose Remain. The reasons for this are complex – but it is notable that Surridge finds that the lower the percentage of white British voters in a constituency, the more it would tend to swing towards Labour, and the higher the percentage of white British voters, the more it would tend to swing towards the Conservatives.

While it is certainly good news for Labour that it is winning votes in more diverse communities, it should think carefully about why this is not happening in less ethnically diverse parts of the country – particularly as these are often economically struggling areas unattractive to immigrants.

Class

Now the biggest question of all. The Labour Party was set up to provide parliamentary representation for working class people, and the far left trumpeted Corbyn’s leadership as a triumph for "working class politics". But opinion polls showed something very different: under Corbyn, working class support for Labour rapidly fell to its lowest point ever.

Moreover, by-election results in the strongly working class constituencies of Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland showed swings from Labour to the Conservatives, as indeed they had during the Labour Party’s last flirtation with Bennism in 1983. Did the general election see working class voters change their minds and flock back to Corbyn’s "socialist" party?

My goodness. Surridge’s analysis shows that the more working class voters there are in a constituency, the more it tended to swing Conservative, and the fewer there are, the more it tended to swing Labour. To put some figures on that, she found that for every 10 per cent more working class voters in a constituency, there tended to have been a fall of about 3 per cent in the Labour vote and a rise of about 5 per cent in the Tory vote between 2010 and 2017.

Think about that for a moment. This is Corbyn bringing the party back to its "working class, socialist roots"?

Correlations, 2010-2017 and 2015-2017

I sense an objection: these figures show the swing from 2010 to 2017, and Corbyn’s only been in charge since 2015. Maybe it’s all Ed Miliband’s fault?

Apparently not. Surridge calculated the correlations between all the above variables and the change in the Conservative and Labour vote, both for the period of 2010-2017, and for the period of 2015-2017. And here they are:

While it is true that many correlations are weaker for the period 2015-2017 than for 2010-2017, the positive correlations remain positive and the negative correlations remain negative.

In other words, working class voters, voters not educated to college level, and voters in ethnically homogeneous areas love Corbyn’s Labour Party even less than they loved Miliband’s. Meanwhile middle class voters, those educated to college level or higher, and voters in ethnically diverse areas love it even more.

It should also be noted that the positive correlation between the percentage of working class voters and the change in the Conservative vote, and the negative correlation between the percentage of voters with degrees and the change in the Conservative vote, are both stronger for the period 2015-2017 than they are for 2010-2017, indicating a rapid growth of support for the Conservative Party among the very social groups that Labour traditionally represented.

This should worry Labour politicians with ambitions to be in government, because there is simply no way that a Labour leader can become prime minister without persuading Conservative voters in Tory seats to switch to Labour. Corbyn may have put together an unexpectedly large anti-Tory coalition of voters, but it’s largely concentrated in areas that already vote Labour – and traditional Labour voters are being driven faster than ever into the Tories’ arms.

The triumph of the "socialism fan"

In recent decades, Labour has become the party of anti-racism. It can be proud of the fact that its vote share has risen in ethnically diverse constituencies – although it seems to me that the racism many Labour supporters (and in some cases, activists and even politicians) have shown towards the Jewish community ought to be treated with rather more alarm than it apparently is.

But whatever the positives in this mixed achievement, it should be hard indeed for the party to find cause for celebration in the fact that the Conservatives are so rapidly becoming the party of the "left behind".

In the post-New Labour era – and even more so under Corbyn than under Miliband – Labour has become a party of highly educated middle class people, "socialism fans" especially. I said it before the election, and it remains the case today.

Indeed, the Labour leadership’s understanding of this point seems the most likely explanation for their manifesto pledge to end student fees (a policy that would benefit only higher-earning graduates, since people who do not go to university do not incur student fees, and people who do but end up in lower-paying jobs don’t have to repay their loans) while maintaining the Conservative "benefit cap", which negatively affects low earners, disabled people and the unemployed.

To what extent Labour’s new middle class voters will continue to back the party in the future seems unclear. After all, Corbyn can’t really do anything about their student fees, since he is not prime minister, and while he could do something about Brexit (since Labour, the anti-Brexit parties, and pro-EU Tories such as Ken Clarke now collectively hold a majority of seats in the Commons), he’s promised not to (good Bennite that he is).

Then again, he might publicly change his lifelong position on Europe just as he has publicly changed his lifelong positions on terrorism, nuclear weapons and Nato. He wouldn’t be the first leader to decide that Paris was worth a mass.

Fair play to him, though. In losing the election by only slightly more seats than Gordon Brown, he won the anticipated leadership contest in advance. So if the working class asks for its Labour Party back, he can confidently tell it to get lost.


* Canterbury is a notable exception here, having narrowly voted Leave in 2016 but swung to Labour in 2017. A very small city with two well-known universities, it hosts a very big student population during term time (when the general election took place), a large proportion of whom would typically have been expected to be resident elsewhere during the holidays when the EU referendum took place.

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