The Burmese people ask the international community to stand up, to tighten sanctions, and to strangle the military junta and the resources that feed it. There is no more time to waste. The people in Myanmar are starving. The junta has targeted trade unions, a key force in the mobilisation of the nonviolent opposition, and prohibited the freedom of assembly and association. Trade unionists have been detained, injured, or killed during protests.
Lethal violence and forced labour - harassment, arrests and detentions of trade unionists
February marks one year since Myanmar’s armed forces took power and declared martial law in Mandalay and Yangon, both major industrial hubs producing clothes worn by many Westerners. In March, it will be one year since 150,000 to 200,000 workers fled Yangon in the face of random killings, arbitrary arrests, and arson attacks.
The situation compelled the ILO’s Governing Body last June to express profound concern over ongoing practices of the military authorities including the large-scale use of lethal violence and the use of forced labour, as well as the harassment, ongoing intimidation, arrests and detentions of trade unionists and others for exercising their human rights, and called on the military authorities to cease immediately such activities, and to release from detention and drop any charges against trade unionists, who have peacefully participated in protest activities.
A report from the UN Human Rights Council late last year put it even more succinctly: “The coup has evolved into a human rights catastrophe that shows no signs of abating.”
The Burmese people ask for tighter sanctions
After a year of stalemate in international action, the Burmese people ask the international community to stand up, to tighten sanctions, and to strangle the military junta and the resources that feed it. There is no more time to waste. The people in Myanmar are starving.
Those who oppose increasing sanctions on the grounds that they will worsen the already dire humanitarian situation overlook the peculiarity of the Burmese case: sanctions have been repeatedly requested by the Myanmar political and social opposition. They would be imposed on Myanmar in accordance with our will rather than by foreign governments alone, giving them strong legitimacy. And, in the past, they have been effective. Myanmar people are already boycotting products made by military-owned companies and refusing to pay electricity bills and other taxes in order to shorten the lifespan of this dictatorship. They are ready to accept further sacrifices, including those made necessary by Comprehensive Economic Sanctions, and believe restrictive measures must be generalised.
On 7 October 2021, the EU Parliament adopted a strong resolution requesting the EU Council to freeze assets, block transfers to state-owned banks, and place the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise on the sanctions list. This enterprise is, according to the resolution, “the junta’s single largest foreign currency inflow”.
These decisions respond in part to the call for comprehensive economic sanctions launched by 200 civil society organisations in Myanmar. To illustrate the breadth of the coalition making this call, it includes the Labor-Alliance comprising 16 labour organisations, nurses’ organisations, women’s organisations, university student unions, teachers’ unions, the Printing and Publishing Workers’ Union, the Electricity Distribution Workers’ Union, the Myanmar Railways Workers’ Union, various medical networks, and the LGBT Alliance. These groups, and many more, are all requesting comprehensive economic sanctions.
The 183 signatory organisations are aware of the concern that previous sanctions on Myanmar had negative humanitarian impacts. In response, the signatory organisations wrote:
We understand that Comprehensive Economic Sanctions (CES) can cost millions of jobs in Myanmar and possibly further decimate the situation in the country. However, the long-term presence of the military will only worsen and prolong human rights and workers’ rights violations, forced labour issues, unemployment, food shortages, refugee crisis, and other oppressions. To escape from these crises and oppression, uprooting the military regime completely is the only way. Comprehensive Economic Sanctions (CES) can destroy pillars of the military, and shorten their lifespan. Therefore, it is the choice we must make, to build a new federal democracy, that people desire.
Sanctions must be comprehensive and ban all commercial activities with the Myanmar regime
These organisations are asking international institutions and governments, including the EU and USA, to block international financial and insurance services, paralyze airports and docks, and strangle trade in arms, petrochemicals, and other natural resources. To be effective, sanctions must be comprehensive and ban all commercial activities with the Myanmar regime. Combined with diplomatic action toward China, Russia, and other governments feeding the junta, it will be possible to starve the regime and drive it out. All governments should understand that only a democratically-elected government can stabilise the country and bring prosperity for all.
Governments and international organisations should listen to the Burmese voices currently calling for international sanctions. The Industrial Workers’ Federation Of Myanmar, which is leading the Comprehensive Economic Sanctions Campaign, had been working for a year now to oppose the military coup, with strikes and demonstrations that saw workers, and particularly women, in the forefront. They deserve to be heard. And they know that sanctions will hit their country hard. But they are asking for them anyway because, when they did so in the past, their heeded calls helped topple the junta government.
Alone though sanctions are insufficient. To overcome the stalemate, they must be accompanied by strong diplomatic action that brings ASEAN, China, Russia, the EU, and the USA to the table with the National Unity Government of Myanmar to envisage a possible way out. This must also be accompanied by a decision at the UN Security Council on an arms embargo. Only when the big decision makers join hands can the junta can be defeated and the transition toward a real democracy be started once again.