The 22,000 confirmed dead and 41,000 reported missing that followed the cyclone that struck Myanmar, formerly Burma, on Saturday, revealed a tragedy of unspeakable horror, yielding nauseating stories of impossibly strong winds, damage to life and property wrought by falling trees and, as though that were not enough, the main culprit, a 12-foot high wave that ravaged coastal areas upon which resided millions of the nation’s poor in shanty towns.
Myanmar is ruled by a military dictatorship headed by Senior General Than Shwe and Vice-Senior General Maung Aye since the 1990s, but who themselves followed in the footsteps of the original general who established rule by a coup d’etat in 1962, General Ne Win. The latter began the military dictatorship and nationalization of major industries by the name of the Burma Socialist Programme Party. This party was Leninist to the core, and had nothing to do with socialism in the orthodox sense of a classless society. Perhaps Leninist would be an appropriate term in considering the Burmese military junta’s belief in a vanguard party establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat (meaning one OVER the proletariat rather than OF it), or perhaps one could also use the term Stalinist in referring to the extreme deprivations of the people, the important role of the army and secret police, and the strong cult of personality that the Burmese generals attempt to create. Privilege, power and wealth were and remain tightly controlled by the ruling elite.
In 1988, the country was swept by student-led demonstrations in March and June, and more widespread protests later that summer (in August) that led to security forces killing hundreds of demonstrators (known thereafter as the 8888 Uprising). However, in response to these protests, another General, Saw Maung, staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which declared martial law. It was this dictatorship that changed the name of the country from Burma to the Union of Myanmar. While free elections were held (the first in 30 years) in 1990, they were really a sham to appease the disgruntled population, as the hands-down winner of the election, the National League for Democracy that won 392 of the 489 seats, was prevented from taking office by the State Law and Order Restoration Council.
The UNICEF website describes the deplorable living conditions in Burma. It is one of the poorest nations in the world, with the average worker making $1500 a year compared with the United States average of $32,000. Most of the inhabitants live in small villages comprised of hut-like shelters. The working population tends to reside in or near Rangoon, the capital. The remainder of the population resides on the land, attempting to procure the means of subsistence from yielding small crops, however 37% of these have no land or livestock at all to generate such means of life. Poverty is so extreme that many families send their children to work. Women, desperate to bring in money for the family, are known to leave their children in others’ care in Burma while seeking wage-labor in Thailand. Street children are a common sight in Myanmar, and some turn to prostitution. Malnutrition among children is increasingly commonplace. Prostitution and drug use generate high rates of HIV and AIDS, while medical conditions that are frequent friends of poverty and unhygienic lifestyles like malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, and tuberculosis run rampant. This is a country in which millions are too poor to afford a grass mat upon which to sleep, so the entire family will often huddle together on a bed of packed earth.
The rural population lives in waterless and toiletless huts. Even in the cities, workers frequently reside in small and overcrowded brick houses. The ruling military tend to absorb most of the country’s budget, while health and education take distant places. Few children go to school in the preteen and teen years. Illiteracy is common.
These were the typical conditions of life for the dispossessed in Burma when the cyclone hit. Thousands of people living in the most desperate conditions were easy prey to severe weather. Even now, after the storm subsided, 400,000 troops were made to go to work immediately on the homes of the wealthy first, according to a May 6th article in the International Herald Tribune. Buddhist monks and some international charity organizations are the only entities presently busy trying to assist the millions affected especially by the tidal wave, other than the victims themselves. These monks were in the news eight months ago when they took part in peaceful anti-government demonstrations that led thousands to be jailed, and hundreds to be killed by the military by bullets, clubs, tear gas, and even torture.
Human life comes really cheap in Burma. Capitalism reduces most humans anywhere around the globe at any given time to expendable commodities to be bought and sold by the wealthy for profit, but our brothers and sisters in Burma have it much harder than most of us here in the United States. Shame on the television news stations or programs, with all the millions of dollars they could have put to good use in reporting the recent tragedy objectively, that resorted to the usual Spectacle about the thousands who died a violent death by violent weather and the usual claptrap urging us to become charitable in hard times. Instead, those of us with limited means like your friendly socialist reporter must hunt about the internet for scrips and scraps of information. The news these days is quickly approaching the level you encounter in a science fiction novel like Fahrenheit 451, a mere cartoon to amuse us, while thousands of miles away one million (that word does not do it justice, let me write it out thus: 1,000,000) of our fellow workers sit amidst their ruins, having already lost relatives and homes following the tidal wave, awaiting the second tidal wave of diarrhea and water-borne diseases, likely to affect millions of people, children being the most vulnerable. Another example of the cruelty imposed upon children by our capitalist system which this reporter will admit to getting particularly incensed about, especially in discussion with fellow Americans without class consciousness about to vote in four more years of capitalism in November when either Tweedledee or TweedleDum parties win.
A year and a half ago, another Spectacle was seen both in that country on television where it caused a minor scandal and abroad via a video on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j8-2Ggd5Ng0). It was the story of the wedding of Thandar Shwe, the daughter of junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe, wearing a multi-million dollar stunning collection of diamond encrusted jewelry and clothing of the most extravagant nature. The wedding cost about $350,000, and the couple received gifts in excess of $50,000,000. The guests were all junta leaders and their families. This, of course, is the socialism that they are dedicated to promoting as an example of their strong socialist convictions, the sharing of their wealth amongst themselves the way the poor have had to learn the difficult task of sharing their poverty, their huts, their dying children, their diseases, and their recent bout of homelessness.
To the people of Burma, we offer our deepest sympathies after the terrible tragedy that befell you five days ago and continues to strike you now as you attempt to return to some semblance of human life again. We wish as socialists to express our solidarity with you across the globe. We also want to clarify for you the term “socialism,” so misused by the butchers who rule the country you reside in. Socialism, when NOT used by governments and dictators, means a worldwide society characterized by common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. This means that the production of all wealth would be controlled by the community, not by the state. In fact there would be no state at all, a term we understand to mean a military, legal and administrative apparatus that exists to take care of the interests of each country’s ruling class. Socialists, therefore, do not support either left-wing governments any more than they support right-wing ones. Rather, they insist upon a new paradigm in both understanding modern social problems as rooted in the control of the means of production by one class (by whatever political hue, it matters not), and in advocating a solution to those problems in the immediate institution of a truly classless society. Socialism will have neither dictators in power nor even liberal minded representatives, but rather a democracy so inclusive that the term “democracy” to characterize an entire social system (examples of democratic native societies notwithstanding) will begin to acquire real meaning for the first time in our human history. It will mean a society without wage labor in which wealth will be produced directly to meet needs.
Socialists certainly admire the bravery of the pro-democracy activists of Burma. They additionally understand that fellow workers of all nations will not be able to advocate the abolition of capitalism without also achieving minimal rights to organize and speak freely without facing intimidation and brutal treatment by the state. However, socialists do insist that a solution to the problems that befall the citizens of Burma will not be the mere increasing liberalization of that country, but the complete abolition of the market economy, and its replacement by a nonmarket economy based on production for use, and the free access of the wealth society produces.
It is this author’s contention that it is impossible to understand the events that led to the recent deaths of tens of thousands of humans in Burma without also understanding the state of dispossession of most of them that is characteristic of a capitalist economy, whether the government is as despotic as Burma’s or not. The role that poverty plays in this terrible drama will be all the more apparent as millions of affected individuals fail to receive the best that human science and ingenuity on the one hand, and economic resources and human care on the other, are able to muster for them in the wake of a potentially serious wave of malnutrition and disease, while the rich and powerful move to other locations and get back on their feet quickly because in our society it is ownership of property and money in the bank that does the walking.
dr. who (2008)