Two women unionist activists in Myanmar were assaulted and arrested late last week after the taxi they were traveling in was rammed by a military vehicle in eastern Yangon. According to eyewitnesses at the scene, six soldiers exited a military vehicle after ramming the taxi and assaulted the unionists before loading them and the taxi driver into their vehicle and driving away.
Along with 18 others, the two union activists had participated in a march to protest the ongoing assault on civic freedoms by the military junta, which seized power from the elected government in February 2021. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the Myanmar Labor Alliance (MLA) and the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) organized the protest. (Support Myanmar workers under attack here.)
Khaing Thinzar, CTUM communications director, and Ei Phyu Phyu Myint, a member of the Glory Fashion Factory Union, were arrested and taken to an interrogation center in Shwepyithar, according to CTUM. Under the junta, physical torture, including sexual assault, is widespread weapon against dissent.
Thousands of people have been killed and many more imprisoned since the coup. The military has especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many have fled the country or are in hiding. The military has pledged to “annihilate” those who oppose the regime.
Workers–women in particular–took an early lead in the protests, with the country’s 450,000 garment workers especially active in organizing civil disobedience actions and shutting down factories. They have asked multinational fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.
Since the coup, workers have risked their lives and livelihoods to stand up for a return to democratic governance.
“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other,” says CTUM Assistant General Secretary Phyo Sandar Soe.
As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, women workers around the world are leading struggles to safeguard democracy and improve wages and working conditions, often facing arrest or violence.
Berinette, a worker who was part of the February 9 and 10 demonstrations, spoke about the shocking police violence. “We thought they were protecting us and they were destroying us,” she said. “They shot rubber bullets and they fired tear gas at us. They beat us but, despite this, we didn’t fear and we were never afraid.”
In February, General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso led the National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA) to a landmark election victory in Mexico, when the independent union won the right to represent over 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao.
In a union election with a 90 percent turnout, SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots. SINTTIA defeated the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years and derived its strength from cultivating relationships with politicians and corporations while keeping wages low.
SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso Credit: Solidarity Center
Workers succeeded in making their voices heard despite attempts to buy votes and threats of violence against union leaders and activists. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote.
“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.
In a podcast interview with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, Morales Reynoso said the union’s victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely.
“We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs,” Morales Reynoso said.
On February 1, one year after the overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government by a military junta, Phyo Sandar Soe, general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), was among five-member presidium elected by the First People’s Assembly of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). Sandar is the youngest person and the only woman elected to the presidium.
Women workers played a leading role early on in the protests against the Myanmar coup, in which the country’s 450,000 garment workers were especially active in organizing civil disobedience and factory shutdowns. They have asked international corporate fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.
CTUM General Phyo Sanda Soe, Credit: Solidarity Center
An estimated 1,500 people have been killed since the military coup, and nearly 12,000 imprisoned, most tortured. The military junta especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many others fled the country or went into hiding. Demonstrating workers continue to be arrested under the pretense of spreading Covid-19 as Cambodian authorities repeatedly abuse the country’s COVID-19 law to break up the strike
Speaking from a safehouse, in a podcast interview with Bader-Blau, Sandar spoke of the strength of workers standing together despite repression and personal danger.
“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, she said.”
In early January in Cambodia, Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) President Sithar Chhim was one of nine union leaders arrested during a peaceful strike and was violently taken away when she attempted to join her colleagues in a picket line at the NagaWorld hotel and casino.
Hundreds of slot machine workers, dealers, housekeepers and technicians are on strike to demand the reinstatement of 365 workers who were fired months earlier. While management claimed the layoffs were due to COVID-19, union leaders say nearly all of those laid off were union leaders or members.
The layoffs took place shortly after the union won a wage increase that boosted pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September 2019 for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages.
“Dave Welsh, country director for Thailand and Myanmar of the Solidarity Center, spoke with The Diplomat’s Luke Hunt about growing support for independent trade unions as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to punish regional economies, forcing businesses to restructure–which all too often leaves workers stranded without compensation.”
As Myanmar’s military junta marks the first year of its overthrow of the country’s democratically elected government February 1, delegates to a national unity assembly seeking to establish civilian control and return the country to democracy elected a five-member presidium that includes union leader Phyo Sandar Soe.
Nearly 400 delegates gathered virtually for the First People’s Assembly of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), where they elected Sandar, assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM). She is the only woman and is the youngest person elected to the presidium.
Delegates to the January 27–29 assembly included a broad spectrum of political parties, civil society organizations, ethnic states and organizations calling for unity and support for the “Spring Revolution.”
In a statement, the assembly strongly condemned “the actions of the terrorist military junta that includes the widespread and deliberate arrest, torture and murder of innocent people … breaching international human rights laws which includes Geneva Conventions, crimes against humanity and war crimes and genocide.”
Workers today staged a silent strike across the country, to mark the anniversary in defiance of military brutality.
The assembly also is calling for the release of all political prisoners and protesters, and is urging the international community to recognize the National Unity Government (NUG) as the country’s only legitimate government. The NUG includes Aung San Suu Kyi, who headed Myanmar’s government before the coup and who has been arrested and jailed by the military junta.
“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.” Sandar, a former garment worker, spoke from a safe house with podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
Workers across the country are struggling to support themselves, as some 1.6 million jobs were lost in Myanmar in 2021, with women workers hit especially hard. Working hours are estimated to have decreased 18 percent in 2021 relative to 2020, equivalent to the working time of at least 3.1 million full-time workers. Nearly 800,000 people have been displaced and an estimated 14.4 million people, including 5 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and Thomas Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar spoke to delegates to convey their support.
‘Investing in Myanmar Means Fuels Military Brutality’
“There’s no excuse for anyone who does business with this regime, and there’s no excuse for backing the bloodshed with weapons,” Burrow said on the anniversary of the coup. “That’s why we are calling on the UN Security Council to enforce an arms embargo on Myanmar and enforce the General Assembly’s resolution 75/287 with the member states.”
Despite the hardships, union activists and other NUCC members are standing up for the restoration of democracy and fundamental human rights, with the NUCC vowing to “continue the fight for the elimination of all forms of dictatorship including military dictatorship,” and build “a federal democracy union which fully guarantees democracy, national equality and self-determination with collective leadership and collective strength.”
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
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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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.
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