After the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government in February, the country’s garment workers, most of them young women, were the first to stand up to defend their right to a free and peaceful society. Since then, workers have led peaceful protests for a return to democracy—often met with violent repression, evictions, arrest warrants and prison.
Nearly 1,000 people have been killed and at least 5,000 arrested, most tortured in prison, forcing many workers and union leaders to flee. Because of their important role in standing for democracy, the government banned unions.
CTUM Assistant General Secretary Phyo Sandar Soe is standing with workers across Myanmar in a peaceful struggle for democracy. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
In a special Solidarity Center summer podcast episode, host Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director, talks with Phyo Sandar Soe, assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar.
Speaking from a safe house, Sandar, a former garment worker, tells Bader-Blau that as multinationals begin to reopen in Myanmar, workers have no rights on the job without unions—including to be paid. The international community can truly help workers fighting for their rights by staying out of the country, she says. (Listen to the full interview.)
“If you invest in Myanmar, your investment money will go to the military regime,” Sandar says. “And then the military regime, with your money, they will keep controlling the country and they will buy guns and weapons, and then they will kill us.”
Like many union leaders, Sandar has her passport revoked to prevent them from leaving the country while they are being hunted by the regime. Despite the repression and personal danger, Sandar says when workers join together, they are strong.
“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other. We are finding solutions to fight back. That’s why I want to tell our brothers and sisters to endure this duration because we have very high motivation to fight back against the junta.”
Support Workers in Myanmar!
• Donate to a fund set up by the U.S.-based Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance. Your donation will go to those who have lost jobs and are struggling to survive because they stood up for a peaceful return to democracy. The link is available in the podcast notes for this episode.
• The International Trade Union Confederation is sponsoring a strike fund for workers in Myanmar.
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The Solidarity Center Podcast, “Billions of Us, One Just Future,” highlights conversations with workers (and other smart people) worldwide shaping the workplace for the better.
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This podcast was made possible by the Ford Foundation and the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Cooperative Agreement No.AID-OAA-L-16-00001 and the opinions expressed herein are those of the participant(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID/USG.
Two union leaders in Myanmar recently have been arrested for their participation in pro-democracy rallies, and unions worldwide are calling for governments to halt trade and other financial support that provide backing to the country’s military government. The total number of union leaders arrested since the February 1 military coup is at least 20, according to union leaders. (Support workers under attack in Myanmar.)
More than 750 people, including more than dozen union members, have been killed and at least 3,400 people arrested. Union members killed include Chan Myae Kyaw, a union activist and truck driver at a copper mine, who was shot dead while protecting other protestors during a peaceful rally.
Ma Myo Aye, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement (STUM), was arrested at the union’s office in Yangon in recent days and taken to prison by the military. Union leaders say she is charged for allegedly violating Section 505a of the Penal Code, which makes it a crime to cause or intend to cause disobedience or disloyalty to members of the government. Her first court hearing is scheduled for April 29.
She has been transferred to Insein prison in Yangon, which union leaders say is notorious for its torture of prisoners. Myanmar media is reporting horrific sexual assault and other forms of torture against women imprisoned by the military.
Mi Aung, the finance officer of the Hmawbe Brick Factory Union, an affiliate of the Building and Wood Workers Federation of Myanmar (BWFM), was arrested by the army in Hmawbe, where she was visiting her family. Her whereabouts are unknown. The union is vowing to carry on the struggle for democratic freedoms.
The two leaders are among tens of thousands of union members who have taken a leading role in the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to peacefully protest for an end to the military coup. Union offices have been ransacked and the military has conducted door-to-door searches for union activists, most of whom have now gone into hiding outside Yangon. Arrest warrants have been issued for at least 75 union leaders.
Military Harassing Garment Workers, Union Activists Fired
Garment workers–women in particular–have taken a leading role in the protests, with the country’s 450,000 garment workers especially active in organizing civil disobedience actions and shutting down factories.
In Hlaing Thar Yar, an industrial zone outside Yangon, factories are re-opening despite the dangers to workers. The Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) says the military is arbitrarily stopping workers on the streets, demanding they give their phones to soldiers or face arrest. If they do not have phones, the military requires them to pay a fine. During CDM rallies, the military has killed more than 100 workers in the area, burning some alive, and factories also have been burned, according to the federation.
Yet if workers do not return to their jobs, IWFM says factory management is using their absence to lay off union representatives. Because the military regime cut phone lines and internet access, workers are unable to tell their employers they cannot return to work, and so lose their severance pay.
Unions Worldwide Demand Immediate Action
IWFM and the Federation of General Workers-Myanmar are asking multinational fashion brands to ensure workers can take unpaid leave if they request it because of the lack of safety, and to enable participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.
Unions around the world are pushing their governments to take immediate action by isolating the military junta and impose sanctions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which provides the military with crucial financing.
The global union movement also is urging international financial institutions to recall all projects and loans to the military government, and initiate dialogue with the National Unity Government, which includes leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was among elected officials the military arrested.
A coalition of global union federations issued a statement conditionally supporting the Five Point Consensus statement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in which the organization and Myanmar’s junta agreed to a plan to end violence and hold a constructive dialogue among all parties.
While ASEAN’s plan is a good, partial step forward, the union federations say, it omits key concerns.
“A dialogue process will be meaningless if political leaders remain imprisoned and if trade unionists, activists and even health workers who assist the injured, remain at risk of arrest, torture and imprisonment,” the union federations say. “Trade unionists have been arrested, tortured and harassed in door-to-door searches, while others are hiding in fear. The military has imposed widespread restrictions on workers’ rights and curtailed freedoms of speech and assembly, blocked social media and declared 16 labor-related organizations illegal.”
Education International is urging the United Nations Security Council to take stronger action, including targeting military leaders, and asks national governments to use all means available to sanction the military, including through economic pressure.
IndustriALL global union is calling on companies to end commercial ties with the military and urging its affiliates to pressure governments to impose economic sanctions
In New Zealand, the Council of Trade Unions is pushing its government to not ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement because it includes trade with Myanmar. The Swedish union of forestry, wood and graphical workers called on the country’s Forest Stewardship Council to stop providing certifications to raw materials exported by Myanmar’s military junta.
Nurses, doctors and other health workers rallied in central Myanmar over the weekend, despite the government’s brutal repression against workers peacefully protesting for an end to the military coup launched on February 1.
Military and police have killed at least 249 people and arrested thousands, many of whom are subjected to torture. In February, the military arrested elected officials, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and established a ruling junta, declaring a one-year state of emergency, after which an election would be held.
Seeking a return to democratic governance, workers–women in particular–have taken a leading role in the protests, with the country’s 450,000 garment workers especially active in organizing civil disobedience actions and shutting down factories. They are asking international corporate fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.
Massive industrial factory zones outside Yangon are shuttered, bank employees and port workers have ceased work and other workers across Myanmar have not showed up to their jobs to starve the junta of financial support. (The actions are a hardship for workers who are going without pay. You can help sustain them by contributing to a union-supported campaign here.)
Workers Standing Strong despite Repression
Union leaders have been forced into hiding, and they report military checkpoints along routes out of Yangon where soldiers stop and search cars, looking for passengers who match photos of union leaders.
Workers say the military is widely using live ammunition against civilians. Images of tortured victims are circulating on the internet, as are videos of the military forcing civilians into degrading acts such as crawling in the streets or carrying sandbags until they collapse.
Yet unions refuse to back down and are planning massive demonstrations in coming days to carry on the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Workers say they do not want a return to the repressive days of military rule during which the freedom to form unions and other civil liberties were repressed. Following the more than 20-year military dictatorship, which ended in 2011, workers rushed to create unions and improve their wages and working conditions while having a voice on the job.
Global Community Taking Steps, More Needed
The international community is taking some steps to sanction the junta, although CDM members say much more is needed. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced new sanctions against members of Myanmar’s military.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and UNI Global union released the names of 23 people with close connections to the junta who should be subject to financial sanctions so coup leaders, already subject to financial sanctions, will not use them as proxies.
Meanwhile, the European Union is taking what Burma CampaignUK calls a “pathetically weak and ineffective” action, banning 11 military leaders from vacationing in EU member states, well short of the ban on business with the military Myanmar the CDM seeks.
At least two union members were confirmed killed by the Myanmar military this week and at least six workers were shot dead at the Xing Jia shoe factory in the Hlaing Thar Yar industrial zone Tuesday, according to union leaders. The factory workers, including the woman leader, were shot after the employer called the police when they demanded unpaid wages. Seventy workers were arrested and loaded onto two prisoner trucks.
Union leaders say the police and military violence against protesters in the industrial zones is much worse than is being reported because nationwide internet service repeatedly has been cut, including on Sunday before a violent crackdown.
Also this week, one union leader from the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM) was arrested while walking to the FGWM office but was released later that night.
Workers Targeted for Standing Up for Democracy
Workers, especially women, have taken a leading role in the civil disobedience movement (CDM) that began February 1, following the military ouster of elected officials, including leader Aung San Suu Kyi. At least 217 people have been killed.
Garment workers, led by women union leaders, have demanded global corporate fashion brands tell factory owners to respect workers’ rights, including the freedom to freely express themselves and peacefully gather.
The Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar (CTUM) is requesting international financial institutions freeze all activities in Myanmar, saying all activities with government ministries translate as support for the coup. The CTUM also is calling on companies to protect and respect freedom of association and the rights to assemble and peacefully protest and must help ensure that no worker or union leader will be punished for joining the CDM.
The military is now targeting workers on several fronts, moving into industrial zones and declaring martial law. The military also issued a public statement that public-sector workers must return to work by Monday or they will be criminally charged.
Nearly all factories in the Yangon area, including in major industrial zones, have closed, and union leaders report a mass exodus of factory workers from the industrial zones to their hometown rural villages.
The military is asking factory owners to disclose the names and addresses of trade union leaders to arrest them, and soldiers are going door to door in the worker dormitories and hostels in a bid to find them, according to Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM).
Key union leaders of CTUM and affiliated unions were forced into hiding after the military issued a secret list of 27 trade union leaders to be persecute, she writes.
The global labor movement has condemned the military coup, including the International Trade Union Confederation, AFL-CIO and IndustriALL, which called for the immediate restoration of democracy.