More than two decades after a violent military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators forced thousands of Burmese activists into prison or exile, Maung Maung has returned home. The general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions – Burma (FTUB), Maung Maung spent the last 24 years nurturing the Burmese labor movement from his exile in Thailand.
“We are heartened by Maung Maung’s return to Burma,” says Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center regional program director for Asia. “We are confident that he and the leaders of the new unions that are organizing will significantly advance worker rights in the country in the coming years.” The primary mission of the FTUB—established in 1991—has been to build a democratic union movement within Burma while defending the rights of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand and India.
Maung Maung’s return was made possible by the government’s decision in August 2012 to remove more than 2,000 people from a list of over 6,000 pro-democracy supporters banned from entering the country. He arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), the former capital, on September 4.
In a first-person account of his arrival after more than two decades in exile, Maung Maung said he was first met by trade union leader and former political prisoner Myo Aung Thant and then by six members from the Special Branch police.
Afterwards, “I met my families: my wife and son, whom I had not seen all this time, and the trade union family that had developed over the last twenty years.”
“All was a blur,” he said. Maung Maung’s son was a toddler when the long exile began. His father, now 91, was “ready to discuss many issues.”
Local and regional press covered the return, including Radio Free Asia and Mizzima News, as well as international media.
On September 7, Maung Maung met with Labor Minister Maung Myint in Naypyitaw to discuss issues of concern to workers. These include minimum wages, work-related training, protection of worker rights and protection of migrants working in foreign countries.
Aye Cho, who attended the meeting at the ministry, told local news outlet Mizzima that Maung Maung and Maung Myint discussed workers affairs, but the conversation was lacking in detail.
Labor activists paid a heavy price for their efforts to bring democracy to Burma. Many were sent to Burma’s notorious jails or forced into long-term exile. FTUB Executive Committee Member Myo Aung Thant was imprisoned for more than a decade. In September 2007—after attending a training program at the American Center—six labor activists were imprisoned and sentenced to 20 years or more in prison.
In the past year, the government has instituted a variety of reforms, including the passage of a law allowing for the formation of trade unions.
The FTUB is a longtime partner of the Solidarity Center and the AFL-CIO.