Another coup is denounced, but when will Burma have peace?
By Lital Khaikin
Published in Volume 2, Issue 1 of The Sparkplug
On February 1, the military in Myanmar seized power and detained the leader of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) party, Aung San Suu Kyi. Every day since the coup, protests have been raging across the country, with increasing numbers of civil servants and contractors refusing to work, crippling the state’s function. Police have shot protesters and journalists with tear-gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition from sub-machine guns, with over 50 people reported killed as of March 3.
As Vijay Prashad wrote for Peoples’ Dispatch, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) has retained significant control within the government since the 1962 coup—including veto power over the NLD—without ever transitioning to fully civilian governance. Aung San Suu Kyi disgracefully lost favour in 2018—her Nobel Peace Prize revoked, unlike Obama and Kissinger’s—following her defense of charges of genocide of the Kachin and Muslim Rohingya ethnic groups. Nonetheless, she received wide support during the November 8, 2020 elections—with the military’s rejection of her latest victory leading to February’s coup.
Prashad also writes that Myanmar’s otherwise natural economic partnership with China has become targeted by the US “New Cold War” against China. So it is that today, that the country confronts new layers of colonialism – from its emancipation from British occupation, to the interests of Chinese mining companies, to neoliberal reforms overseen by western governments, to its arms deals with Israel. Mining industry publications have also noted the impact of the military coup on China’s supply of metals and minerals from Myanmar.
From copper to gold, Myanmar is rich in natural resources and strategic minerals, so there are keen interests in maintaining control over the Burmese government and its economic policies. While Ko Ko Thett notes the chokehold of China’s Wanbao Copper Mining over Latpadaung, the mine itself was operated by Canadian company Ivanhoe Mines—which later became Turquoise Hill—until majority shareholder Rio Tinto controversially sold the mine to Wanbao and joint ownership with the Myanmar military in 2010 through a company based in the British Virgin Islands.
Canada is also pressing into exploration for Myanmar’s lithium — a strategic resource and energy transition metal which prospectors are seeking out beyond the South American Lithium Triangle.
Beyond the mines themselves, concerns around wages and protections for workers in Myanmar’s special economic zones, for example—that tool of global capitalism that relies on the exploitation of precarious, undocumented and low-waged workers — has also triggered protest in recent years.
The Canadian federal government may continue to issue statements like that of new Foreign Minister Marc Garneau on February 18. Minister Garneau announced the new sanctions as part of “a broader diplomatic effort by Canada to find a way towards a positive change in Myanmar”—such rhetoric often used to exploit conflict to coerce neoliberal reforms or compliance with NATO intervention. But Myanmar’s military rule didn’t historically stop major Canadian executives from making their profits, and all Canadians from being complicit.
Currently, Canada has once again imposed an arms embargo on arms trade and related material, as well as related technical and financial assistance. But back in 2008—following the 2007 sanctions imposed on Myanmar on account of the genocide of Rohingya Muslims—Canadian Friends of Burma identified how the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) was known to hold over $1 billion in shares in companies operating in Myanmar despite sanctions. Such companies included CHC Helicopter, TransCanada, and Ivanhoe Mines. And, as Kenneth Epps, policy advisor at Project Ploughshares, described back in 2016, engines manufactured by Montreal-based Pratt & Whitney were found in Myanmar despite the established arms embargo—highlighting how Canada has failed to take responsibility for the destination of its arms and military equipment, as well as potential for dual-use despite its lofty condemnation of the junta.
It is disingenuous for western governments to condemn the coup in isolation from their own complicity with Myanmar’s brutal military government. So while Canada and other states denounce the violent coup of February 1, what has really changed for Burma this month? Is anything really that different about the military’s power, or the interests of multinational companies in a resource-rich country? In the end, Myanmar’s fight for democracy will be permitted so long as this democracy serves the will of those who hold the whip—as K Za Win writes, ploughing with naked shoulders.