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Myanmar: Interview with a Radical Activist

by Hank Pellissier
Interview with a radical activist in Myanmar who is a long-time advocate for political and economic justice
Myanmar: Interview with a Resistance Activist

I met Hein Htet Kyaw online in 2021 via my nonprofit work with Humanist Mutual Aid Network link. Initially, I knew him as a co-director of the Burmese Atheists link but I quickly realised he was deeply involved in the struggle against the military junta. His wide-ranging knowledge of activist resistance and multiple political philosophies is displayed in his answers below, relayed to me in February 2024.

Hank Pellissier: I need to know a bit about you - what is your age, education, home city, profession, etc.

Hein Htet Kyaw: I’m a 27 year with mixed religion and mixed ethnicity background, born in Yangon. I’m a working-class professional in the information and communications technology industry.

Hank Pellissier: Tell me about your activism...

Hein Htet Kyaw: I started my unpaid and organic activism in 2013-2014, when the Rohingya crisis re-emerged into the mainstream politics of Burma. As a descendent of Bengali Muslims, I became a victim of the anti-Muslim racist “969 movement.” I started my activism against Buddhist ultranationalists and the quasi-military regime.

Later, I connected with secularist movements in neighbouring countries: Bangladesh, India, Pakistan. I extended my activism to promote secularism and social justice against political Buddhism, political Islam and all forms of theocratic/clerical fascism.

I played a vital role in reviving the organic oppressed Buddhist progressive movements. I travelled around Burma, extending my network, collecting censored books, audios and video recordings of the oppressed Buddhist progressive movements. I created digital platforms for these groups, collected everything officially censored by the Myanmar governments.

I am also a Wobbly (a member of the Industrial Workers of the World) and I’m currently helping IWW’s Australasia section. I work closely with people who lead groups like Anarcho-Syndicalist Federation – International Workers Association (ASF-IWA) and Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL).

Hank Pellissier: What is the current state of the struggle in Myanmar? There are different groups - students, ethnic people, democracy advocates, military, monks - what role does each group play and how do they collaborate in the struggle?

Hein Htet Kyaw: When we say “the struggle” in Burma, we have two categories, “the state or military struggle” and “the community struggle.”

“The state or military struggle” is rather straightforward and its being reported on by the international mainstream media. It appears “the military junta” is starting to lose control of some ethnic areas due to Operation 1027, an ongoing offensive conducted by the Three Brotherhood Alliance, a coalition of three ethnic armed organisations.

When it comes to the “community or the grassroots struggle” every social class has their own self-interests. The main political theme of the grassroots struggle for mainland region where most ethnic peoples live together is now “federalism and democracy.” That’s huge progress because there was been anti-federal propaganda for decades, since the 1960’s.

Students are mostly left-leaning even though they are bourgeois and privileged compared to the working class and the peasant class. In the past, The “Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League” of U Nu (first Prime Minister of Burma) was social democratic and the second largest political party “Communist Party of Burma” was Maoist. Other influential parties include the “Red Flag Communist Party of Burma” led by Thakin Soe, a Marxist theoretician, and “the Socialist fraction from AFPFL” that collaborated with the military is also a socialist party. The “Burma Socialist Programme Party” has its own ideology called “Burmese Way to Socialism” which is similar to Ba'athism or NazBol. Almost all of these parties have politicians that used to be the members of the “All Burma Federation of Student Unions”. Even NLD Party was founded with the help of some ex-communist authors.

Most student activists these days are influenced by either Maoism or social democracy. Those who believe Mao’s dogma share the same anti-federal Burmese views as the military junta and those who are social democratic have more pro-federal political views. However, most student activists from ethnic regions have ethnic nationalism and pro-federal political views.

The monk class has very good organising power. Unfortunately, since the 2007 Saffron revolution, the military junta swallowed up a lot of the monks into their political Buddhism.

Hank Pellissier: What ideologies are are radicals most interested in? What authors do they read?

Hein Htet Kyaw: This depends on their social class, their life experiences, groups and individuals.

A great majority of the average working class and peasant class are just liberal democrats. They’re not well informed about how capitalism works and how capitalists exploit them. However, given the right leadership, the average working class and peasant class will become the least hypocritical social class, eager to overthrow capitalism and the interests of the ruling class.

The middle class and the student class - their politics are progressive. Given their privileged easy life with access to books on education, philosophy, and political ideology, the petit bourgeois middle class and the student class tend to lean progressive as long as their self-interests are not affected.

Student union activists are more likely to be influenced by Maoism, pro-China imperialism and anti-western /anti-imperialism. Even amongst Maoists, there are some unique dissidents who offer organic and rational political analysis. For example, comrade Kyin Maung, wrote a lot of analysis on the reactionary ethnic nationalism of the so-called Ethnic Armed Organisations and the drawbacks of identity politics when it comes to class struggle. Yet, comrade Kyin Maung still is a class reductionist.

Some student union members and iNGO paid activists and Burmese social democrats like to read the western left-wing narratives of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and progressives authors like Noam Chomsky, Kimberle Crenshaw, and bell hooks.

Some don’t focus on ideological approaches but on short-term political gains. Such people become pro-China imperialism and pro-ethnic nationalists due to the geographical politics of Burma being controlled by China imperialism.

There are some middle class pro-western iNGO activists who follow the reformist liberal left politics of mainstream Democratic Party of USA. These groups intentionally promote identity politics but ignore the class struggle.

There are some Trotskyist student union groups who are affiliated with the “International Marxist Tendency” of Alan Wood and Ted Grant. They can think beyond identity politics but sometimes they become class reductionist and ignorant about gender oppression, racial discrimination and minority oppression. This group, in my opinion, is right on a lot of issues because they never abandon or ignore the importance of class struggle in social justice.

In Myanmar radical thought, Stalinism, Maoism and social democracy are popular, but anarchism is seldom a thing. There are some anarchist punk music groups such as “The Rebel Riots” and some anarchist mutual aid groups such as “Foods, not Bombs” but these groups aren’t involved in the theoretical struggle, they focus on the community struggle.

Hank Pellissier: Tell me about the geography or Myanmar - what regions are each groups strongest in? Is the "hill country" controlled by ethnic rebels? Are cities controlled by the military? Where are the battlefronts?

Hein Htet Kyaw: As of now in 2024 February, the military still controls the main cities. In ethnic hill areas, Shan region is controlled by the Three Brotherhood Alliance. There are a lot of battles going on between Arakan Army and the military junta. For most Burmese ethnic regions, the People Defense Forces are struggling to push out the military junta but cannot hold the areas for long enough.

Hank Pellissier: Are people suffering from death, and dislocation? are there refugee camps? Are people starving? Are there orphans? Is the military bombing villages? Are there atrocities?

Hein Htet Kyaw: The refugee camps were bombed during Christmas. Two teenage revolutionaries from were tortured and immolated until they died. The air force of the military junta bombed the schools, many children were killed. The military junta has been committing war crimes since the 1960s. Around 2012, the world suddenly woke up to the Rohingya crisis. That’s a good thing but the same war crimes the Rohingya suffered were applied to other ethnicities too.

The war crimes committed by the military junta cannot be summarised in an article. We could publish a thousand page long book on that topic. Every gender, race, ethnic and social class suffers the similar level of oppression, but the justification varies. When it comes to Karen or ethnic groups, the justification is about separatism and enationalism. When it comes to Rohingya or other Muslim groups, the justification is about terrorism. When it comes to Christians, the justification is about colonialism and western imperialism. The military junta portray themselves as the genuine representative of Burmese ethnicity while they beat, arrest, kill, and massacre.

Hank Pellissier: What direction do you see this going? Will the left wing will have a victory? Will the military impose its power?

Hein Htet Kyaw: We have to consider what is left and what is right here in Myanmar. As I mentioned, the very root political ideology of the Myanmar military junta is left-wing, deeply rooted in Stalinism, that progressed into a totally unique totalitarian, nationalist ideology.

When we talk to a normal, average working-class Myanmar person, the average mass hates the words “communism” and "socialism." It’s easy to dismiss their fear, but without the working class, what’s the point of socialism, communism, Marxism, or anarchism?

The question of organization plays a role in Burma. We need a socialist alternative in the western world, but we need an alternative to the socialist alternative in Burma. This reminds me of a quote by James Baldwin when commenting on the Black Panthers in No Name in the Street. He advocated for,

“ indigenous socialism, formed by and responding to the real needs of the people. This is not a doctrinaire position, no matter how the Panthers may seem to glorify Mao, Che, or Fanon. The necessity for a form of socialism is based on the observation that the world’s present economic arrangements doom most of the world to misery; that the way of life dictated by these arrangements is both sterile and immoral; and, finally, that there is no hope for peace in the world so long as these arrangements obtain.”

I think we need similar intelligent thinkers in Burma. We should not let ourselves be dogmatized by German philosophers from the last century who exaggerated the class struggle as the only struggle and discounted other struggles like gender, race, and so on. Similarly, we should not let ourselves be colonized by western mainstream identity politics. We need to work together to discover a superior form of socialism that could serve the indigenous needs of the people in the area. I think “Rojava” is an example. While the western world is busy with the bipartisan politics of Biden vs. Trump, the Kurds, amidst all the offensive war crimes from Turkey and ISIS, still managed to discover a superior form of socialism, which they call “Democratic Confederalism or Apoism,” to serve the indigenous needs of the people in the place. We don’t need to copycat the revolutionary experiences of Kurds or Rojava, but we can try to discover our own revolutionary experiences which will have similar participatory democracy and secularism.

Hank Pellissier: What is the role of the monks in the revolution?

Hein Htet Kyaw: Due to the fact that only a minority of Buddhist monks are anti-military, an anticlerical mentality has increased in the Burmese population now, especially among the progressive middle class and young generations.

Even though progressive Buddhist monks tried their best to defend Buddhism from political Buddhism, many progressive elements failed to differentiate between political Buddhism and Buddhism.

Right now, the mentality among the identity politics middle class is that if you’re Burmese and Buddhist, you’re an oppressor. If you are a minority, you’re an oppressed minority and our ally, even if you hold reactionary beliefs.

Hank Pellissier: Who will win this long civil war?

Hein Htet Kyaw: I think there is almost no chance for the military junta to win this war. However, it doesn’t mean the people will win too. It’s important to keep in mind that both the National Unity Government and the Ethnic Armed Organization are also reactionary ruling classes that don’t care about the socio-economic interests of the working class, peasants, the mass, minorities, or minorities within minorities. We still have a long way to go, even if the military has lost.

I think we should dream of a revolutionary struggle where egalitarianism, grass-roots democracy, and universal human rights can be guaranteed. We should dream of a Burma where individuals who committed war crimes will be held accountable and their properties and wealth will be seized and distributed back to the people. Just by driving out the military junta from power, if generations of their cronies are not handled properly, their socioeconomic power will be used against people in the future. That will inevitably maintain the status quo.

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