The Burmese military is stepping up repression to secure the coup it launched on 1 February, but facing strong resistance – mass street protests (in their eleventh consecutive day as we go to press) plus widespread strikes and workers’ actions. (See here for our report last week, with some photos, and here for the week before.)
In the last three days armoured military vehicles have appeared on the streets of some cities. Water cannons, rubber bullets and perhaps live rounds have been used against protesters. There is an intermittent internet blackout, prominent social media activists have been arrested and prosecuted, and new laws introduced to limit the flow of news and information.
The coup-regime has suspended laws limiting the state’s ability to spy on communications, detain suspects, and search homes and private premises; and amended Myanmar’s penal code to impose a maximum 20-year prison term for those who agitate against the government or military, or obstruct the work of the military or security agencies.
Last week the military raided the home of Moe Sandar Myint, leader of the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar. She has gone on the run, surfacing to lead protests and then disappearing again. Moe Sandar Myint and the FGWM have played a central role in mobilising the anti-coup movement, as have other unions and groups of organised workers.
The distinct and distinctive role of workers and workers’ action in Myanmar’s anti-coup movement is noteworthy and inspiring – and calls for solidarity.
Under the slogan “Civil Disobedience Movement”, evidently very large numbers of workers have struck against the coup, including health workers, teachers, civil servants, firefighters (now targeted for mass arrests), electricity workers, bank workers, rail workers, and crucially garment workers.
Myanmar’s garment sector, which employs 700,000 workers, is central to its economy, growing from 7% to more than 30% of exports in the last decade. From 2019, garment workers waged a series of strikes and campaigns for better conditions and the right to organise, falling back during the pandemic but building up organisation and energy now unleashed in the anti-coup struggle (see Jacobin’s interview with Moe Sandar Myint shortly before the coup).
Garment workers’ unions have called on corporations using Burmese suppliers to publicly condemn the coup and break any links with enterprises owned and controlled by the military.
A restored National League for Democracy government will not necessarily improve workers’ situation. The NLD was in power from 2015 and promoted neo-liberal policies.
It has been widely suggested that an important factor motivating the coup was fear that the re-elected NLD would tackle the big concentrations of economic power vested in army-owned corporations. These corporations have themselves benefited from privatisation of more “ordinary” state assets: but the dominant model of “reform” is further privatisation.
We don’t know enough to go into detail, but it is clear that to maximise gains from and shape a restored democracy, Myanmar’s workers need strong unions and workplace organisation, but also their own political voice. Worker-driven struggles against authoritarian regimes in other countries, for instance South Africa and Egypt, have highlighted this problem.
The democracy protests have also demonstrated a degree of unity and solidarity between Myanmar’s many ethnic and religious communities, with minority peoples opposing the reconsolidation of a viciously Bamar- (the majority ethnic group) and Buddhist-chauvinist regime. Yet the NLD government of Aung San Suu Kyi did not challenge and even covered for the military’s sectarian policies, including its genocide against the mainly-Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine state.
Many are calling on the US and other governments for economic sanctions which target the military’s economic empire. Our focus should be on solidarity with Myanmar’s workers’ movement – first of all, spreading the word about what it is doing, and organising as much solidarity as we can get from our labour movement.
• For a useful resource with regular updates from the workers’ movement, see @AndrewTSaks, from Myanmar-based US union activist Andrew Saks
• See also the Civil Disobedience Movement @cvdom21 and “independent journalism” site Frontier Myanmar @FrontierMM