Khaing Zar Aung (left) is the President of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar and a member of the executive of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar. She spoke to Sacha Ismail on 5 March 2021. On 7 March the CTUM, IWFM and sixteen other Burmese union organisations issued a call for an "extended nationwide work-stoppage" to defeat the military coup (see here).
Could you say something about the organisations you are part of?
The IWFM organises mainly in garments, shoes, leather and household products. The CTUM is a national federation with member unions in different sectors, including agriculture, construction, mining, energy and a number of others. IWFM is one of its affiliates. We also work with other unions and labour rights NGOs which are trying to help workers.
I became involved with the trade union movement in my early 20s, in 2007, in exile, in the previous period of military rule. We did underground organising. In 2012 we could return to Myanmar and do more open organising and education for the workers and register our unions.
What are the latest developments in Myanmar?
The latest situation is really chaotic and very bad. The military is now killing a lot of people. They killed dozens the day before yesterday. They say want to disperse the crowds, but it is killing people. They are using machine guns and using planes to drop teargas into the crowds. This is happening in different cities and regions across the country, and it is going on day and night.
They have even stopped ambulances which are carrying injured people and beaten and shot the medical workers.
However, the demonstrations are continung, there are still strikes and our members are on the streets.
The military has declared many trade unions and labour rights organisations illegal, even ones that were formally registered under the laws on labour associations, in a clear move to deny workers the right of association.
It seems clear that the brutal attacks on the people will continue, but our people will continue the fight to restore democracy. It is our future, the future of the youth, of the people. But by ourselves we cannot win. We need international support and solidarity. We are asking the international community and governments to start comprehensive economic sanctions, to stop all the financial flows to the military. We are asking the international financial institutions to freeze all activities within Myanmar. Targeted sanctions are not really enough when there are so many source of income for the military. We need to cut off all these channels.
The military say they do not care about sanctions, but they do. One of the reasons they conceded more democratic elections before is that the military did not like previous economic sanctions.
People say that if there are sanctions workers from the garment sector will lose thousands of jobs – but we already suffering from Covid-19 and from the coup. We can suffer for longer, but we need to defeat the coup and have a future again.
What kind of solidarity can trade unionists and activists in other countries make?
We want trade unionists from other countries to undertake activities and campaigning to support us, including by sending letters to the embassies in their countries. They should demand the release of those that have been imprisoned. You can also help by raising humanitarian aid to support our movement. In a situation where many of our activists are on the run and in hiding, we need funds to support them.
It looks as if the trade unions and workers’ movement in Myanmar have played a very central role in the fight against the coup. How did that come to be the case, particularly when your movement is quite new?
For example, we have members in the train sector. Our members in the train sector – they all stop, together with their colleagues. So now the train service is stopped nationwide. The same in the energy sector – our members have organised to stop working, and the sector is stopped. We have members in road transport, and in aviation, the same, they’ve also stopped.
Which unions have had the most impact doesn’t just depend on numbers but on the power the workers exercise. Energy, for instance, is quite a new sector for us, with a relatively small membership, but they have a lot of power and an important role. Every sector is important, but in different ways.
Because we are organised, we can quickly spread the idea of what we want to do and organise others, even those who are not union members. Union members and other workers have organised and then come into the streets, together.
It also looks as if the garment workers have played an important role?
Yes, the garment workers joined the Civil Disobedience Movement very early, at the start of the military coup. These are mostly female workers. Garment workers’ leaders have been targeted by the military. Many of the activists cannot stay in their homes, because the military is searching for them. They can be arrested at any moment, if they are seen. In some cases the factor managements cooperate with the military on this.
We are demanding of the brands with suppliers in Myanmar to tell the suppliers not to take action or penalise any workers who join the demonstrations, who want to exercise their right to freedom of assembly.
Are trade unions a new idea for a lot of the demonstrators? Is the role of the unions leading to a growth in membership?
The movement is not led by one organisation. It is not one party leading it. People understand how cruel the military is, and in the last ten years young people have tasted freedom. Especially the young people feel they are losing their future, and they want to fight back. We have a labour alliance of different organisations, but also an alliance with the students and other democratic parties and organisations, a coordination so we can organise more people on the streets.
During the pandemic our union movement was facing very bad union-busting, but we did not give up – we organised day and night, without a break.
The CTUM has 65,000 members and the IWFM has 15,000. At this moment it is difficult for unions to recruit people directly. We are getting requests from workers at unorganised factories, to help them deal with particular problems, or because they want to join the CDM but are not being allowed. We give them help and suggestions on what to do and how to do it. However in the current situation, we do not always ask the workers to join the unions as members. In a garment factory, we might only have a small number of members out of a thousand workers, but we can ask other workers to join the demonstrations, which people want to do.
We say to become active, to organise, but later on perhaps people will join a union and join with us. If we defeat the coup there is a possibility the unions will grow a lot.
What is happening with Covid-19?
People have forgotten about Covid-19! We do remind our members to use their face masks and have proper protection, but right now no one is talking about the pandemic.
After April 2020, a lot of businesses stopped. In the garment sector a lot of factories closed and there were a lot of lay offs. As I said that is one reason why workers are not afraid of comprehensive sanctions.
Last year we fought and campaigned for factories to follow Covid-19 regulations, and for the government to deal with this, but often this did not happen.
What kind of democratic government do you want to see? In the UK we have relatively free elections, the right to protest and so on, so it is democratic in a limited sense. But in many ways the government and the laws serve the rich, not the workers. For instance there are many limits on workers’ freedom of association and the right to strike.
At the moment in Myanmar we don’t have any chance to discuss how we want our country to go, in terms of political ideology. We can see the shortcomings as well as the advantages of democracy, and we have also learnt about social democracy, which for trade unions I believe is the best ideology.
We need a lot more discussion, but what is important right now is to become a democratic country, and then we will have mechanisms to discuss what is best for the workers and the country.
I myself have to learn more, and our members have had very little chance to think about these questions. So as trade unions we are discussing how to organise political education for our members, with help from unions in other countries. We were going to organise such discussions last year, but obviously it has been delayed and now I don’t now when it will be possible.
In terms of elections Myanmar doesn’t have many political parties or parties based on ideology. We effectively have only two parties, the military-background party and the NLD. Others are small and don’t get many votes, because people see it as only two parties.
What’s your assessment of the NLD government after 2015?
The NLD argues for free markets. What kind of free market? We need regulations, or international investors and owners will be king. We need to protect our own people. It shows their weakness.
Before the military coup, our country was not 100% democratic. There were a lot of problems, but we did have the right to speak out. We did not accept the problems but fought against them; for instance we took the country to the ILO for violating freedom of association in 2018.
The CTUM has a committee to deal with issues arising from privatisation. When the government privatises businesses they do not have any discussion about protecting the workers who work there. Workers lose their rights, their benefits and there are many other problems. Our committee tries to engage with workers in departments or industries which are going to be or have been privatised, to produce demands which can be raised.
But you don’t oppose privatisation as such?
We do not always propose to stop privatisation. We are saying that if they do it, there should be discussions including about how to protect the workers there.
My last question is about the persecution of the Rohingya people and the situation of ethnic minorities in Myanmar more generally. What do your unions say about that? How have those issues come up in the protests against the coup?
First of all, we do not accept any kind of violations against anyone. We have been watching the actions of the government on these questions. The government, before the coup, was engaged in discussions about the Rohingya, and it agreed with the government of Bangladesh to bring people back to Myanmar. However, it is a complicated question, with a long history, and it cannot be solved easily. I do believe the previous government was trying to resolve it in the best way, and that they did not want to allow any violations against anyone because of their religion.
Everyone needs citizenship of a country. There needs to be a process for people’s citizenship to be restored, but we have to check who was actually a citizen and how long people have been in the country. More generally the citizenship law needs to be amended, because at the moment it is hard to get citizenship, unless you have a lot of money in which case it is easy.
If the military is successful, everyone in the country will suffer, minorities and majority. No one’s life will be secure. We see in the coup now how majority-Burmese people are being attacked and suffering too.
In our unions we have many different ethnicities and religions. At the moment there are Hindu and Muslim workers who are feeling insecure because of their complexion or their religion, and early in the military coup they contacted us to ask, are they allowed to be involved in the union. We say of course, they are workers and union members, in their factories and workplaces, and they have every right to participate in the movement – and they are happy about that.
Would you like to add anything else?
I’d like to conclude by again calling on the international community to bring aid to the people of Myanmar, including by implementing comprehensive economic sanctions to cut of all revenues to the military.
• You can donate to the strike fund organised by the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions here