Trade unions can only fully and freely function in democracies. It is also true that democracy cannot be complete without trade unions. In other words, no trade unions without democracy and no democracy without trade unions. Trade unions have been fundamental to building functioning democracies for over a century. That innate connection between trade unions and the fight for democracy could not be more visible than in the leading role played by trade unions in the resistance in Myanmar. Like workers and trade unions in Belarus, they are fighting for free elections and for legitimate government that reflects the will of the people.
Guest blog by Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI)
Trade unions and Democracy
Trade unions can only fully and freely function in democracies. It is also true that democracy cannot be complete without trade unions. In other words, no trade unions without democracy and no democracy without trade unions.
Trade unions have been fundamental to building functioning democracies for over a century. Examples from the last century include Solidarnosc in Poland and the trade unions in South Africa. They fought for democracy and freedom on the streets and politically as well as at the workplace.
That innate connection between trade unions and the fight for democracy could not be more visible than in the leading role played by trade unions in the resistance in Myanmar. Like workers and trade unions in Belarus, they are fighting for free elections and for legitimate government that reflects the will of the people.
Sanctions against the tyrants of Myanmar
The United States also imposed sanctions on individuals. It suspended its free trade agreement with Myanmar. In late March, the US and the UK imposed additional sanctions on the country’s two largest military conglomerates, the Myanmar Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) and the Myanmar Economic Corporation Limited (MEC). They joined Canada, which had sanctioned those two conglomerates in 2007. The US is reviewing the possibility for further sanctions.
Global unions are urging multinational companies to refuse to be complicit with tyranny in Myanmar and to disengage. Global Union Federations are discussing with companies with which they have relations with to suspend operations and withdraw investments until Myanmar ends the state of emergency and resumes progress towards democracy.
Every day, security forces are carrying out murderous attacks on and bullying of the public, wide-spread surveillance and house-to-house searches, and intimidation, detention, and torture. Given this ongoing bloodbath, condemnation of the atrocities being committed in Myanmar and the imposition of initial sanctions, while welcome, is far from enough.
The most effective sanctions against the military rulers of Myanmar have been imposed by the workers of Myanmar. They have shut down the country through strikes and civil disobedience. BWI and other Global Unions are showing solidarity by assisting strikers with a fund to support the continuation of their courageous action.
The brave people of Myanmar are putting their lives and livelihoods on the line to get their country back to progression towards democracy. Although the shocking images of the murder of unarmed men, women, and children should be enough to inspire urgent action by governments to stop this outrage, there are other reasons to act urgently as well.
Myanmar’s as a future failed state?
Myanmar’s military despots have placed the nation on a slippery slope towards a failed state. The rulers have contemptuously rejected the will of the governed and have lost all legitimacy.
They have replaced the path to democracy and hope with a road to destruction and despair. The people of Myanmar will never accept their rule. The military, with its long tradition of brutality and repression in armed battle with ethnic minorities in regions has spread conflict and chaos to the rest of the country.
Even leaders of undemocratic nations, including those in in neighbouring countries, should be concerned about the collapse of governance in Myanmar. Damage will not be contained by the borders of Myanmar. In the sub-region, it will trigger terrorism, expansion of the drug trade and other criminal activities, and a flood of refugees. The nations of ASEAN, many directly affected, cannot risk idly standing by while Myanmar melts down.
Patience is a losing strategy. The international community must act.
The UN, the EU, and many governments have reacted quickly and clearly against the coup d’état in Myanmar. Three days after the coup, the Security Council called for prisoners to be released, for peaceful dialogue and for a return to the transition to democracy. However, they have not yet imposed an arms embargo or sanctions on the military leaders responsible for the coup and their economic interests.
The European Union immediately denounced the coup. On 22 March, they adopted sanctions against 11 key individuals responsible for the coup. The EI is examining a second round of sanctions on individuals and the targeting of companies owned by the military. However, Myanmar still benefits from Everything but Arms (EBA) status of the EU Generalised System of Preferences.
A glimmer of hope?
Conflicts with and among ethnic groups in Myanmar, aggravated during British colonial rule, go back for centuries. The military coup and state of emergency have brought ruthless attacks against all groups of the population. In the face of that common foe, the need for cooperation in resistance have begun to bring them together.
On 16 April 2021, a National Unity Government was established by the “Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH). It is based on the popular mandate of the November elections. Several ethnic minorities have already supported this initiative.
Although this cooperation will not erase deeply rooted differences, the developing consensus around returning to a democratic transition is a significant shift. It will not only provide a wider and more coordinated struggle against military dictatorship but also hope for finding unity in the country.
The formation of a national unity government composed in large part of elected members of Parliament has a legitimacy that comes from a popular mandate. Legitimacy can never come from the barrel of a gun.
The National Unity Government should be recognised by the United Nations and other inter-governmental bodies, by the EU, and by governments. That would be a strong message of support for the will of the people and opposition to the outlaws who have seized power.