by Ruben Torres, 23 Apr 2021
WORKERS versus the military. You would think there is a very clear mismatch in this struggle.
The workers’ organizations in Myanmar have been spearheading the struggle against the military in Myanmar since the February 1 coup d’ état in that country.
In response to the imposition of military rule, the workers immediately held protest actions in the form of civil disobedience, demonstrations, and workers’ strikes. The Myanmar military and police countered with arrests and brutal violence against the peaceful demonstrations.
The military and police forces are using heavy firearms, including rocket-propelled grenades, against protesters and demonstrators carrying only placards with pro-democracy slogans and messages.
As of this week, at least 728 protesters have lost their lives and more than 3,141 people have been arrested and detained. As the protests grow in number and intensity, we can expect more arrests and extrajudicial executions.
The Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar (CTUM), the biggest organization of workers in the country, has rallied its affiliates to undertake protest actions throughout the country and to campaign for the restoration of democracy. The CTUM is an affiliate of the Asean Trade Union Council (ATUC). Brother Maung Maung, the president of CTUM, is a vice president of ATUC as well. Maung Maung is a brave and staunch pro-democracy crusader and, as trade union leader, a defender of workers’ rights.
The CTUM has membership from all industries. It has more than 100,000 members. The CTUM engages employers who are dismissing workers simply because they join the civil disobedience movement.
The response of the military to the call of CTUM for workers’ protest actions was fast and forceful. The military ordered the immediate arrest of the labor leaders who oppose the military dictatorship. Access to the internet was prohibited and a social media blackout imposed. Also banned are gatherings of more than eight people.
Maung Maung is no stranger to dangers to his life and liberty. In 1988, when the military mounted a coup and placed Myanmar under military dictatorship, he was able to escape arrest and lived in exile in Thailand and then in the United States. He returned to Myanmar and resumed his trade union work when a semblance of a democratic government was established with the participation of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy.
Unions are natural opponents of dictatorships. Unions can thrive only in a democratic environment where freedom of organization, collective bargaining and direct union actions are allowed or guaranteed by law, if not by the constitution. Indeed, free unionism means that workers organizations should be free from control or influence of the employers and of government.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 87 explicitly provides in Article 2 that “workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and subject only to the rules of the organization concerned, to join organization of their own choosing without previous authorization.”
There are, of course countries where, by their governments’ ideological orientation, unions are not free from government control or influence. Where the ruling party is a communist or socialist party, the unions are integral parts of that party and of the government, following the theory that workers (the proletariat) are the vanguards of the socialist revolution. Workers in these countries are even obliged or compelled to join unions. The union leaders are often also in leadership positions in the ruling party.
Myanmar is a member of the ILO and should abide by the provisions of its Convention 87. However, the military junta that now rules the country knows very well that organized labor constitutes the most potent and serious threat to the dictatorship. If undeterred, the unions, with a nationwide and all-industry strike, can paralyze the national economy of Myanmar. Even legitimate strikes waged by unions as a weapon in collective bargaining or to redress grievances resulting from employer’s commission of unfair labor practices are now considered protests within the meaning of the military junta’s order.
What is now happening in Myanmar with respect to the curtailment of workers individual and collective rights is a reprise of how the Marcos dictatorship intimidated organized labor by arresting labor leaders, banning strikes, demonstrations and gatherings of more than five people. Labor leaders, especially the more militant, were arrested, incarcerated, killed or simply disappeared.
We have no doubt, however, that despite the brutality and violations of human rights being continually perpetrated by the military junta in Myanmar, the workers, in solidarity with all the forces of democracy and freedom in the country, will prevail. Democracy will eventually be established in Myanmar.
Martial law in the Philippines lasted for 14 years until it was toppled down by the “People Power Revolution” of 1986. During the years of the Marcos dictatorship, there were more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 documented tortures and 70,000 incarcerations. Hopefully, the struggle for democracy in Myanmar will not be as long and as brutal in its disregard for human lives and human rights.
For after all, labor matters.