Bread and Butter Issues behind Myanmar Protests

By Stephen Gowans

Before discussion on Myanmar becomes another demonizing ritual led by the White House, and actively subscribed to by the respectable left, it would be prudent to consider recent mass protests in the country in the context of surrounding events and independent of the frame set the US government.

In his address to the UN General Assembly, US President George Bush denounced Myanmar as a “brutal regime” (along with Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Syria, north Korea and Zimbabwe), an echo of the 2006 National Security Directive, which called the same countries “outposts of tyranny”.

While media accounts – in step with the US state — have fostered the impression that the mass marches in Myanmar are “pro-democracy” protests against political tyranny, they have, on the contrary, been provoked by bread and butter issues. As the New York Times explained in the concluding paragraphs of a September 24 report, the protests began “August 19 in response to sharp, unannounced fuel price increases of up to 500 percent, immediately raising the prices of goods and transportation.”

The protests were initially led by students, and only recently by monks, after the police beat some monks at a small demonstration.

The monks have denounced the government for “impoverishing and pauperizing” the people — language devoid of the references to freedom and democracy much favored by the US state and firmly rooted in day-to-day economic concerns.

Washington’s real beef with Myanmar isn’t that it is a “brutal regime” or “outpost of tyranny.” Such US allies as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Israel are brutal regimes, but they’re showered with US aid and given diplomatic protection. The real problem with Myanmar is that its markets, land, resources and labor aren’t completely open to exploitation by US corporations and investors.

Myanmar practices protectionism. The government owns enterprises, rather than letting private capital (especially US capital) totally run the show. Like Cuba, north Korea and other US designated “outposts of tyranny”, it is not the kind of place the investment bankers, CEOs and corporate lawyers who dominate the US state can cozy up to — or make a buck in.

The US Department of Commerce complains that Myanmar has restrictive trade policies and sets the prices of staples below market value, including gasoline. Ironically, it appears Myanmar’s efforts to bring gasoline prices up to market value – something the US government would applaud – sparked the protests.

“The state totally dominates some sectors, including mining and power, and state-owned firms have an important role in transport, trade and manufacturing,” according to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit.

What’s worst from Washington’s point of view is that the country restricts foreign investment. Worst still, it fails to protect private property.

Those who are ready to jump on the demonize-Myanmar-bandwagon should understand whose agenda they’re advancing — and what its goals really are.

3 thoughts on “Bread and Butter Issues behind Myanmar Protests

  1. Jyri,

    Looking at America’s goals in this situation, and thinking about Burma’s people, are hardly mutually exclusive.

    What do I think of Myanmar’s government? It’s economically nationalist.

    Are you asking whether one should oppose the government, or oppose its use of violence to crackdown on protests?

    And what, in concrete terms, do mean by “oppose it”?


  2. Mmm… Instead of looking at America’s goals in this situation, shouldn’t one think about Burma’s people? Right?

    So what do you think about the regime in Myanmar? Shouldn’t one oppose it, no matter what American government thinks about the whole thing?

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