Myanmar: award for exiled trade-union leader

Myanmar: award for exiled trade-union leader
Khaing Zar Aung: EU’s Made in Myanmar project ‘a cover-up for global brands’ (IndustriAll)

12th June 2024

This is the author’s acceptance speech, receiving the the Arthur Svensson Prize to promote trade-union rights today in Oslo.

I am deeply honoured to be awarded this prize for the fight of the Myanmar people and trade unions for democracy, justice and freedom. On behalf of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) and its members and people from Myanmar, I thank you sincerely for your support and solidarity in this struggle. We are in a fight not just for our rights and freedoms but for the essence of democracy. This is a long and bitter fight that requires resilience, sacrifice and strong determination.

Since the military coup in February 2021, the military has tried to force us into subordination—with killings, torture, bombing, countless arrests and displacement. Since then, over three million people have been internally displaced. At least 8,000 civilians, including many trade unionists, have died.  Seventy per cent of the whole nation have faced armed clashes.

More than 86,000 buildings, including schools and healthcare facilities, have been attacked and destroyed. Around 400,000 government employees who joined the civil-disobedience movement have lost jobs and income. At least 26,799 people have been arrested—among them more than 500 trade unionists.

For over three years, the military has waged an open war against the people of Myanmar and the world has started to notice. Yet the oppression by successive military regimes has been continuing for decades, as evidenced by the many who had to seek refuge in Norway over many years. We thank the people and the government of Norway, the Norwegian Burma Council and LO Norway, which have supported our organisation (then FTUB) since 1992—for the many years of political and financial support and for allowing the Democratic Voice of Burma to be established in Oslo.

Constant threat

In February 2021, the CTUM condemned the coup and left the National Tripartite Forum. We organised our members and the opposition on all fronts. Members and leaders of the CTUM took to the streets and helped bring hundreds of thousands out in protest. The military issued arrest warrants against all the CTUM central-committee members, including myself. All our passports were declared void and we all have court cases against us for state treason.

The CTUM headquarters office was ransacked and everything was taken. Our family members are under constant threat—forcing many to leave the country. Many have been tortured to death or forced into hiding.

Our organisation has experience in fighting against the military regime—we did it from 1988. Comparing the progress we have achieved, we can say for a fact that today’s regime is much weaker than the one 20 years ago and the democratic forces are much stronger. The military has lost more than half of the country’s territory because of the co-ordinated attacks by democratic armed forces.

We can win and we will win. However, the international community can and must do more to support our people who risk their lives to free our country.

EU-funded project

The military denies workers all human rights and creates conditions where garment workers have to work for $1.50 per day without any chance to improve their conditions through organising. Under the Made in Myanmar project funded by the European Union, fake unions are sprouting. Made in Myanmar is a shame for the EU and must be stopped immediately! It is nothing but a cover-up for global brands that want to benefit from the cheap labour in Myanmar with the excuse of ‘providing jobs’. What they provide is slave labour!

When workers dare to organise in genuine trade unions, the leaders and their families are threatened with arrest, killing and torture. In many factories, the conditions of garment workers are close to slavery, with more than 16-hour workdays to produce garments for poverty wages—garments that go to European consumers!

It is a convenient lie for multinational fashion brands to argue that they stay in Myanmar to provide jobs for otherwise unemployed workers. In reality, they make use of cheap labour. Under this military regime, any talk of due diligence is nothing but window-dressing. Show me one brand that has prevented and stopped the countless arrests, killings and tortures of trade unionists fighting for decent work in their factories. They cannot stop it, of course, because it is not possible.

Brands claim to do ‘heightened due diligence’—but ‘responsible business conduct’ is simply impossible under a military dictatorship. Global brands that stay in the country, such as the Danish brand Bestseller, implicitly accept the rampant violations of trade-union rights. Brands can even be said to contribute to these violations through the payment of taxes and ‘protection fees’ by factories to the military, which provide funds to the regime. No more excuses: global brands have to exit responsibly from Myanmar!

ILO inquiry

The International Labour Organization formed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the violation of freedom of association and forced labour in Myanmar. The commission adopted its report in August 2023, confirming that the military authorities violated Myanmar’s obligations under these fundamental conventions and recommending actions to be taken by the ILO governing body, including within the framework of article 33 of the ILO constitution. We need not only the trade unions but also employers and governments at the ILO to back the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry with firm actions.

We, trade unions, will continue to fight against the brutal military regime by  establishing the federal democratic system that we want. As Myanmar trade unions, we are very grateful for the support of the international union movement so we can continue our struggle.  We need your continued solidarity and support, politically and financially, to remove the military as quickly as possible.

In October 2023, the United Nations news agency reported the information about the ILO Commission of Inquiry. The recommendations urge the military authorities to cease immediately all forms of violence, torture and other inhuman treatment against trade-union leaders and members; to release, and withdraw all criminal charges against, trade unionists detained in relation to the exercise of their civil liberties and legitimate trade union activities; and to restore fully the protection of basic civil liberties suspended since the coup d’état. The recommendations also urge the military authorities to end the exaction of all forms of forced or compulsory labour by the army and its associated forces, as well as forced recruitment into the army.

Yet, as reported by state broadcasting media, the junta ‘issued the notification of the effectiveness of People’s Military Service Law starting from February 10 2024’. All men aged 18 to 35 and women aged 18 to 27 are required to serve for up to two years under military command, and specialists such as doctors aged up to 45 must serve for three years, state media said on Saturday, according to Reuters.

Describing the move as a further sign of the junta’s ‘weakness and desperation’, the UN special rapporteur, Tom Andrews, called for stronger international action to protect vulnerable populations across the country.

Economic sanctions

If you observe the above happenings, it is clear that the Myanmar junta does not listen to resolutions only. Resolutions enforced through economic sanctions are the only available non-violent action to end the military regime. I stand here representing not only workers and trade unions from Myanmar. I also represent 183 democratic organisations of youth and women, strike committees from across the country, student unions and government employees, such as teachers, doctors and nurses who joined the civil-disobedience movement following our call. Together:

  • we demand a total arms embargo and comprehensive economic sanctions—with enforcement through legislation provided within the US and UK systems against the three national banks, which mainly collect foreign currency;
  • we call on multinational companies—including insurance companies and fashion brands—to exit responsibly from Myanmar and for shipping companies to stop delivering to Myanmar weapons or dual-use goods, such as fuels for military vehicles and airplanes;
  • we call on the EU to withdraw the ‘everything but arms’ trade benefits (EBA). The EU’s EBA programme was designed to offer trade incentives to the poorest countries to promote democracy and full respect for core human and labour rights. The EU withdrew some preferences from Cambodia in 2020, because it does not respect key labour rights—but it maintains the full EBA preferences for Myanmar!

The EU claims it is possible to implement due diligence in a country where industrial zones are under martial law—where freedom of association is banned and all genuine trade-union representatives are under arrest warrant, hunted, tortured or killed. The EU must stop subsidising the military with the EBA trade preferences. It must recognise the government in exile and do everything to support our liberation struggle.

Heartfelt thanks

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to the international trade unions and supporters who have helped and supported me and shared your love and care with me, to stand strong in fighting the brutal dictatorship in Myanmar. I do not have enough words to show my appreciation for what you have done for our movement and for me personally.

I would also like to thank my trade-union brothers and sisters from Myanmar, especially from the Myanmar Labour Alliance. I am so proud to represent you and I thank you for giving me the chance to represent you even though I am away. Your courage and sacrifices make me feel proud but also pained.

I want to thank the jury for awarding the Arthur Svensson Prize to me and all trade unionists in Myanmar. It means a lot to us. Thank you.

Khaing Zar Aung
Khaing Zar AungKhaing Zar Aung is treasurer of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM) and president of the Industrial Workers' Federation of Myanmar (IWFM).

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