I’ve followed the Moderate Rebels podcast for years now and it’s generally been a breath of fresh air when it comes to geopolitics. The hosts, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, have an appreciable wealth of knowledge when it comes to geopolitics, in particular the actions of the USA and the myriad hidden and plain sight institutions it uses to promote itself as global hegemon. As someone with deep links to Myanmar, I was interested to see that MR was doing an episode on the country, following the military coup this year. I’ve been following the news in Myanmar mostly through talking to my friends and former colleagues there. One thing that has come through quite clearly has been the tactics of fear and intimidation from the military government. Friends have been arrested for doing nothing but peacefully protest, have watched police and soldiers conduct midnight raids on innocent neighbours, and have seen villages burned down by airstrikes. This week, the junta began posting photos of protesters they had arrested to state media. The cruel twist to this was that rather than hide the brutality they had inflicted, the photos depicted young men and women, their faces swollen, battered and bloody. The message was clear: keep protesting us and you’ll be next. So it was with profound disappointment that on listening to Moderate Rebels and their guest Brian Berletic I was presented with what was perhaps the worst take on the Myanmar coup yet. That because the USA doesn’t support the Tatmadaw, then that must mean the Tatmadaw are the good guys.
As we’re deep into spirit of ‘56 territory here and we may have actually found a group that genuinely deserves the epitaph of tankie. According to this logic, in order to assess a political situation, you must first look to who or what the USA supports and then choose whatever the opposite is. For the seasoned anti-imperialist, this has generally been a winning formula, especially in the realm of Latin America where it generally does work to see who the US is supporting to find out who you shouldn’t. But this crude logic certainly doesn’t apply to Myanmar.
The frustrating thing is that Blumenthal, Norton and Berletic’s analysis at times even seems to approach something making a good point, for instance, identifying US geopolitical strategy towards hindering China’s Belt and Road, but then, because they lack a nuanced knowledge of in-country politics, veers off into the territory of the ludicrous and speculative. It’s two steps forward and then one mistimed leap backwards into a canyon of insanity. So while, the Moderate Rebels crew are entirely correct to bring up the fact that US involvement in Myanmar is problematic, this does not mean that “Tatamadaw good actually”. The enemy of my enemy is my friend should not be the foundation of any serious analytical work on Myanmar. In lieu of writing out an entire transcript of this shitshow, I have selected a few choice quotes to highlight this.
Host Max Blumenthal then makes a frankly ludicrous statement, claiming that ‘it’s hard to hear the Tatmadaw’s side of the story” before referencing some offhand remark that a Burmese General apparently made 20 years ago in which he claimed that they can’t allow Aung San Suu Kyi to become president because it would “turn the country into Bosnia”. Blumenthal then goes onto speculate that perhaps this is the reason why the military launched a coup this year? Unfortunately, we never get a chance to hear Berletic’s “expert” response to this gibberish but Blumenthal’s intervention sets a dark tone for the discussion in which we are invited to consider that maybe the Tatmadaw aren’t so bad and maybe what they are doing is for the good of the country. This suggestion, that the Tatmadaw are the only thing left between civilisation and civil war ignores the glaring fucking elephant in the room..that Myanmar is already at civil war, and it’s the Tatmadaw who are the main instigators. Those who have any experience in the country whatsoever would know this. In Northern Kachinland and Shan State, for instance, there are around 100,000 internally displaced persons who have forced to flee from their lands due to the Tatmadaw’s ongoing war against the Kachin Independence Army. These people live in camps, their livelihoods and lands in jeopardy, their lives on hold. When I spoke to a Kachin friend in February, about the coup, he told me that the Kachin’s have been subject to military violence for years.
“If you had someone with a machete running at you or trying to light you on fire, I think it’s fair to say that if the only thing you had was a rifle, you’d probably shoot them”. There are many horrendous takes in the interview but this has to rank as one of the worst. So keen is Berletic to be a contrarian that he defends the military firing into crowds of protesters for the reason that they might be scared. Firstly, the vast majority of the protests in Myanmar have been peaceful street protests, indeed this was the watchword of the early protests and it was the State forces that drew first blood, shooting unarmed protester Mya Thwe Thwe Khine on 9th February. Or how about when protesters in Hlaing Thar Yar, one of Yangon’s poorest townships were met with live rounds and sniper fire? Or how the many children that have been shot by the junta during these protests? Are we to believe the police and military were scared of them? For arguments sake, lets take the situation where protesters are fighting back against the state forces, because it is true that much of the protests have devolved into pitched street battles. Let’s put things in proportion, because protesters with homemade catapaults, motorcycle helmets and metal bin lids converted into shields are no match for a well equipped police force trained in ‘crowd control’ by the EU. Yes, unfortunately for Berletics and the Moderate Rebels’ narrative of a plucky military state fighting off the imperialist proxys, real life is much more nuanced, and it was back in the early 2010s that the Imperial EU trained the Myanmar police.
“We already have people crossing the border into Thailand, allegedly fleeing this violence”. Another incredible statement from Berletic that no one cares to question. What exactly does Berletic mean when he says “allegedly”? He is implying that the 10,000+ people who have fled from their homes did so as part of some psyop? Again, this demonstrates Berlectic’s ignorance of how real people live. Crossing the border into Thailand isn’t some jolly outing, and people aren’t going to pack up and become refugees unless they absolutely have to, because a military state is launching airstrikes on villages. Maybe they saw someone with a machete?
And this is really the problem with how the Moderate Rebels and Berletic analyse the situation in Myanmar, they simply have no clue about the lives of people. There’s nothing wrong per se with macro, birdseye-view of geopolitics and structure, indeed it is absolutely necessary to do so in a world where the tentacles of imperial capital are ever keen to exploit new markets and destabilise rivals, but you cannot simply take these sorts of analyses and drive them down to the individual level. It is a dehumanising analysis where people simply become blank proxies amidst the tides and machinations of geopolitics and where the everyday nuances of struggles and dreams do not exist. There is no concept of community or livelihood in these so-called anti-imperial analyses, no culture, no history, but merely people as empty vessels. This is not to interject on behalf of idealism either, but to point out that ideology itself is forged in the physical world of lived experience. It is those who reduce people and movements to geopolitical alignments that are the idealists.
The resistance movement to the coup is best classified as an assemblage rather than a unified force. There are certainly huge currents of bourgeois liberalism within the Myanmar resistance, especially in urban areas where the now deposed State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi retains her icon status. The Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), a government in hiding, publicly announced a rebel cabinet of ministers for a future government that was disappointingly conservative and elite, including some who are given rhetorical cover to the de-nationalisation and subsequent attacks on the Rohingya a few years earlier. Nevertheless to oversimplify the movement is to dehumanise it and ignore the struggles and contradictions. As Geoff Aung reminds us, whether it is colonialism, military rule or the so-called democratic period, there have been martyrs in Myanmar and the martyrs created this year join a pantheon that is not part of a liberal march of progress but a cultural milieu existing in idiosyncratic and heterogeneous time. Workers too form part of the resistance. They went on strike during the ‘democracy’ and they strike here too. They want neither the military nor a return to business as usual. Out in the borderlands, as we have noted above, violence is the status quo. There is also no desire for a return. There are hints too that the current conjecture is shifting old modes of thinking. Urban Bamars, perhaps too late, are starting to realise that the violence enacted on them is only a repeat of what the country’s ethnic minorities have felt for the decades. The CRPH is trying to build a federal army, a grand alliance of all the ethnic armies and has offered the promise of unprecedented autonomy in return. There are still questions as to whether such promises go far enough to untangle Myanmar’s ethnic divides, but it is certainly a positive step forward. There are clear parallels to the “Milk Tea Alliance”, the pan-Asian solidarity movement that encompasses democracy protests (and Hunger Games style hand gestures) in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and now, Myanmar. While it’s easy for leftists in the west to deride MilkTea as a wholly liberal movement, and there are certainly problematic elements to it, that sometimes manifest in outright sinophobia, again, it is better conceived as an assemblage of actors, including those on the left, still trying to figure itself out. The radical Thai-based podcast Analysand, in their interview with HK activist Brian Hioe, offer a much more balanced and nuanced analysis of MilkTea than you might find coming from the western armchairs. It is not as if those on the ground in these protests for more democracy aren’t aware of the contradictions within their ranks, but strategic unity against brutal authority seems to have served them better than the endless purity tests of western “radical” politics in which activists seem to be more concerned about who they march with than what they march for.
While the in-country analysis of Moderate rebels and Berletic is shoddy, pisspoor and dehumanising, does their general macro analysis make sense? To an extent yes, they are right to say that there is clear US and/or NATO Imperial involvement in Myanmar. US Presidents don’t just visit any country twice in two years as Obama did in 2012 and 2014. Indeed with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government giving an air of legitimacy (even though the much lauded ‘democratic’ transition was a power sharing State with the military), western capital began to court Myanmar as a frontier market with the added bonus that doing so would also hamper Chinese influence. This rush by the western state-industrial complex came with conditions of course. The EU tried to press the country into accepting “independent” arbitration courts for investment disputes, essentially ceding the country’s sovereignty to the pro-capital arms of global governance. Western garment brands came back, offering jobs to workers where they would capture the lion’s share of the value produced for western governments and corporations. Oil and gas companies such as Chevron and Total continue even now to work hand in hand to state owned conglomerate MOGE. Western governments and international agencies such as the World Bank and UNDP also participated in aid projects, some of them successful, but many favouring a growth at all costs model that put economics before people and favoured a centralising state at the expense of ethnic minority’s long fought for autonomy. Western powers are happy for Myanmar to slot neatly into a low ranked position in the global circuits of imperial capitalism with the consolation that elites in the country would gain some material uplift and the illusion of western style representative democracy would be replicated to take any debate on economic policy off the table. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy were perceived as a safe and legitimate pair of hands to guide this transition, hence it is no surprise that the US would fund groups aligned to the NLD.
So, there is no qualms at all from this author that US, European and Japanese imperialism are at work in Myanmar. But the situation is more complicated, for Myanmar is also a strategic port for China and has been the subject of extractive infrastructure and industry. In 2012, mass protests against a copper mine jointly owned by Chinese and Myanma-State companies by residents of Letpadaung fearing the environmental damage were put down brutally by police who dispersed the crowds used chemical smoke grenades. In the North, Chinese hydropower projects such as the controversial Myitsone Dam continue to be flashpoints of resistance and resentment towards Chinese involvement, as does the gas pipeline which links the Bay of Bengal to inland China, and which democracy protesters threatened to bomb in recent months in response to China’s perceived indifference to the coup.
While both Chinese and Western interests covet both the natural resources and the labour power of Myanmar, it is the West that appears to be winning the propaganda war with the protesters. China’s initial statement on the coup, that it was an “internal matter” did not help them win fans and sadly has led to an increase in sinophobia. Of course it always easy for the countries such as the USA to pay lip-service to supporting democracy, but it’s own record points towards the opposite outcomes in places it intervenes. It’s also worth pointing out that a more sophisticated material analysis here needs to point out that China and the West are not equally placed in the global division of labour and power. After all, large sectors of Chinese industry is still a workshop for Western capital to expropriate surplus value from. It’s also worth mentioning that with strategic control of many of the tools of globalisation, from social media networks to even the English language, It’s not surprising that the US and the West have an upper hand when it comes to soft power machinations.
So, at the macro-level, the MR team has a much better take on things but it’s still somewhat hampered by their chess board view of society. They are right to point out US and Western imperialism at play, but to downplay the role of China is to be dishonest as to the empirical facts. It’s also worth pointing out the various factions of Myanmar capital at play here not least the various military owned or aligned companies. Again, this is a case of going beyond the two-campist lens and seeing that, while not equal in power or resources, there are various capitals at play here battling for the right to capture surplus.
Moderate Rebels and The Grayzone have, in general been a positive force in alternative media, highlighting the hypocrisies of the US Empire in a way that mainstream media simply cannot and will not do. Their strengths are identifying the institution links between US power and what is often an astroturfed grassroots in battles for narratives. While this is a strength, when it is not coupled with a sufficient understanding of the complexities of community and the fact that no country, even America, can be reduced to the actions of its governing institutions. It’s likely that in the strategy rooms of Imperial power, the great ‘masses’ of people really are reduced to blanks, to NPCs that have no real will, but are aggregate unthinking tools of geopolitical power. In holding Empire to account, the Moderate Rebels team should be careful that it doesn’t replicate this dehumanising logic itself.
The resistance to the junta in Myanmar is fraught with contradictions and shifting alliances. As I have said above, it is better to conceive of this as an assemblage than a strict movement. A dialectic rather than an object. The US and its allies will continue to work with the most liberal sections of this assemblage, the ones that will allow a smooth transition to an export based capital state. The global left, rather than playing armchair cynic or lamenting the lack of hammer and sickle flags on the front lines, should be showing solidarity and amplifying the voices of the workers and radicals and minorities who are part of this assemblage of rebellion.
“We the multitude who have no position in life and everywhere face discrimination and lack equal rights lose nothing by marching into battle. “The most we have to lose is the life of slavery that we have presently fallen into. We who are the true owners of the world will succeed in taking back the whole world”. – “The Ogre” -Thakin Po Hla Gyi, Burmese revolutionary anti-imperialist oil field worker, 1938
William Hannah is a teacher and writer who works in the UK and Myanmar.