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Trade unions fight the military junta in Myanmar

A strong and broad alliance has taken up the fight against the military junta in Myanmar. At the forefront are female textile workers with leaders such as Khaing Zar Aung. On Wednesday 12 June, she receives the "Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights" during a ceremony at Rockefeller in Oslo. The trade union movement in Myanmar is central to the fight against the military junta, which took power through a coup on 1 February 2021, and which is responsible for several thousand deaths in a bloody civil war.

The war in Ukraine and Gaza dominates the headlines in the mass media. At the same time, under the media's radar, a bloody civil war has been going on in Myanmar for more than three years, in which at least 4,600 people have been killed and 25–30,000 have been arrested. Many of these are trade union activists.

A broad civil and military resistance

A broad civil and military resistance struggle is taking place in the country. After the military coup, a strong alliance has emerged between various ethnic groups, youth, students, political groupings and trade unions demanding real democracy and a federal state, not just the restoration of what was before 2021. A broad alliance of trade unions helped form a nationwide "Civil Disobedience Movement" in support of the democratic government (National Unity Government). In this alliance, women textile workers with leaders like Khaing Zar Aung have a very important role.

The textile brands must withdraw

Alongside the military resistance, it is crucially important to prevent the junta from gaining income through foreign companies trading with, or producing in, the country. In the last decade, Myanmar has become an important textile production country for Western clothing brands due to cheap labour. It is these workers that Khaing Zar Aung stands at the head of. She and her union have therefore demanded that the big clothing brands withdraw from Myanmar, and that the European Union withdraw its favourable trade preferences. Through continued trade, they help to legitimize – even maintain – the junta regime. Brands have also been linked to dozens of factories accused of widespread abuses, including forced overtime, wage theft, unfair dismissal, gender-based violence and attacks on freedom of association.

The brands continue to manifacture products in Myanmar

Several brands, such as H&M and Zara, have said they will pull out, but so far little has actually happened. They continue to buy clothes produced in factories that exploit the workers, and it is impossible for responsible businesses to apply normal human rights due diligence. Buyers also have no influence with the military to reduce threats against trade unions and shop stewards. Other companies, such as Adidas and Danish Bestseller, say they will not withdraw anyway. They will continue to have goods manufactured in Myanmar. They participate in the EU-backed "Made in Myanmar" programme, which has faced strong opposition, both from the Burmese trade union movement and from the global trade union IndustriALL, which says the program "effectively funds Myanmar's military junta by providing vital foreign currency that sustains the military regime and facilitates purchase of weapons, ammunition and fuel".

They state that this program is "a sham, designed to whitewash labour rights violations and provide political cover for clothing brands that find Myanmar a cheap and convenient sourcing location." The regime continues to arrest trade unionists and use military force to suppress protests and activism. Myanmar's and the global trade unions therefore demand that the EU end this programme.

Contours of a new Myanmar

In the midst of a both tragic and heroic liberation struggle against the military dictatorship, we can see the contours of a new Myanmar. Large areas have been liberated, and it is promising that the resistance is so broad, with demands not only to return to the situation before the military coup, but for the country to have real democracy, including basic labour rights. With this year's award to the trade union leader Khaing Zar Aung, the prize committee wants to shine a spotlight on this resistance struggle.

The article is a shortened translation of a chronicle published in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen 4th of June 2024.


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