NO TIME LEFT. Myanmar democratic future is now.

NO TIME LEFT. Myanmar democratic future is now.

Cecilia Brighi ­­-General Secretary ITALIA-BIRMANIA.INSIEME
Khaing Zar Aung - President of IWFM (Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar)

January 2, 2024

Myanmar has been plagued for almost three years now, by a violent military dictatorship, which the entire population is opposing with courage and enormous sacrifices, without great tangible international support, other than the usual UN Resolutions and some US and EU sanctions, that do not affect but the vital ganglia of the junta.

The military, following the example of Putin's Russia, has intensified the war crimes, through the bombing and shelling of villages, with the clear aim of killing and terrorizing the populations, to try to weaken their morale and to force them to capitulate and not oppose any more the dictatorship.

Such atrocities generated nearly 2.6 million internally displaced people who survive without food, medicine, basic health and education services and employment. A dictatorship, supported to this day, particularly by China, India and Russia.

Last December 5, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, handed over Putin's name to Min Aung Hlaing, head of the military junta, the Order of Alexander Nevsky. On that occasion, the Russian delegation and the junta representatives discussed once again about military cooperation between the two countries, beyond the existing economic and strategic agreements.

In the indifference of the governments that support Kyiv, Myanmar has become the second most important country for Russia in Southeast Asia. The Russian fuel, which cannot be sold in Europe, arrives in Myanmar, and is transported to China through a pipeline owned by the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise and the China National Petroleum Corporation, that starts in Rakhine State and reaches the Chinese province of Yunnan. In August 2022 the junta also announced to start importing Russian gasoline and fuel oil, to ease ongoing fuel shortages and frequent power cuts[1].

While Russia was the only major power to recognize the military coup in 2021, Myanmar was the only ASEAN country to support Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The junta signed agreements with Rosatom for the construction of a nuclear reactor, wind energy production plants, the opening of direct flights between the two capitals and other economic agreements.

Until today, however, China has always adopted the two-oven policy. In addition to being the main weapons’ supplier to the Burmese military junta, Beijing has also been funding multiple ethnic resistance armies. China's great interests are characterized by strong economic and geopolitical projects in the Pagodas’ country. Dozens of key industrial and infrastructure plans, which aim for direct access to the Indian Ocean for a total value of nearly 22 billion dollars, including the extraction and export of rare earths, of which Myanmar is very rich, the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), the Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Moreover, a railway is being built transversally throughout all of Myanmar connecting the planned special economic zone EZ) and the deep port of Kyaukphyu, which it is feared could become a dual-use port for the Chinese navy, connecting the Bay of Bengal with the Chinese province of Yunnan. The budget for both the Kyaukphyu SEZ and the port is $8.6 billion[2].

This port is just in front of the Indian INS Varsha Navy's naval base under construction in the Bay of Bengal, which is expected to host India's nuclear submarines[3]. A huge geopolitical problem for India as well.

Three New China-Myanmar Cross-Border Trade Routes. ISPMapping.

Despite these strategic supports, and the ASEAN aims to implement the stillborn “5 Points Consensus”, three years after the coup, (the third anniversary will be on February 1st, 2024), the game is suddenly changing. Despite being ranked n. 38 in the Global Firepower 2023[4], after the attacks of the “Operation 1027” offensive started by the so-called Three Brotherhood Alliance, the Burmese military junta appears now like a mortally wounded beast.

Since the launch of Operation 1027 and the end of its second month on Dec. 27 [5], twenty-three towns and more than 400 junta military bases and outposts have been captured by the Brotherhood Alliance and allied resistance forces across Myanmar.

Other fighting is ongoing in six states and 5 regions, in a concerted strategy between the democratic resistance forces that seized many junta outposts. Other data indicate that armed conflicts are taking place in 221 out of 330 townships, amounting to 67 per cent of the country.

The democratic resistance forces hold the moral high ground and are determined to overthrow the junta. The turning point produced not only the impossibility of the Tatmadaw to defending and controlling the vast Myanmar territory, but also a widespread demoralization among the army ranks, with the consequent defection of thousands of soldiers. The only strong weapon in the hands of the Tatmadaw until now is still its aviation, used to bomb thousands of villages and civilians, in order to create widespread disruptions and mass killings.

A criminal strategy that can be blocked by the adoption of urgent sanctions, targeting, and therefore blocking the arrival in Myanmar of aviation fuel needed for tanks and aircrafts, and state-owned banks, to block the arrival of strong currency, used by the junta to buy arms and fuel for their planes and tankers.

Already the EU, the US and UK adopted sanctions on suppliers of aviation fuel to the Burmese military. But still now as denounced by the National Unity Consultative Council (UNCC) despite introduction of sanctions on jet fuel, shipping companies are still transporting it to Myanmar. As NUCC stated, from October until December 2023, 12 oil tankers registered to Liberia, Panama, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia transported fuel to Myanmar.

The US sanctioned also the two biggest state-owned banks: the Myanma Foreign Trade Bank (MFTB) and Myanma Investment and Commercial Bank (MICB).  Junta banks are instrumental in facilitating the regime’s use of foreign currency to procure arms and jet fuel abroad, and to access international markets using offshore accounts. For these reasons also other governments starting with the EU should urgently adopt them.

Today that the democratic forces, in a new alliance, overcoming the past divisions among the ethnic minorities and between them and the Bama majority, now control a wide part of the country, it would be essential that diplomats and the so-called experts and consultants abandon the historic skepticism and the idea of the impossibility that democratic forces can win over the junta, and above all that they can govern in harmony with each other.

They are trapped in the logic that, in any case, the Myanmar army remains the only warranty of the country's unity, against disintegrating forces, and for this reason they continue to want to pursue impossible negotiations with a junta that, knowingly, continues to massacre its people, and that will never accept, until the very end, to surrender to the evidence of having to cede its power to a democratic federal government.

The feeble EU sanctions, adopted last December 11th, show how, even today, the EU is too timid and prisoner of an old wait-and-see logic, that should be overcome by facts on the ground.

Still today, for example, despite the reiterated request of the EU Parliament, the EU Commission is opposing the temporary suspension of the EBA (Everything But Arms) scheme, conditional upon the beneficiary country respecting the principles of 15 core UN and International Labor Organization (ILO) Conventions on human rights and labor Rights. This position is justified, by saying that such a move would result in the dismissal of hundreds of thousands of workers, who without a job would fall victim to sexual exploitation and human trafficking, without any impact on the junta. Nobody mention the fact that hundreds of thousand workers in the public sector have been dismissed due to their opposition to the junta. It is the junta that is the cause of the economic, political and social abyss into which the country is falling not those organizations asking to adopt measures that would contribute to the defeat of the junta.

The economic situation has deteriorated, and uncertainty about the future is increasing.”  “High food price inflation has had a particularly severe impact on the poor, who spend a larger portion of their income on food, and who tend to live in areas where prices have risen at a faster pace." declared the World Bank Country Director for Myanmar, Cambodia, and the Lao PDR, Mariam Sherman.

The only possibility that the country does not become a failed country is, therefore, to speed up the ousting of the dictatorship and to support the Spring Revolution forces, the NUG, the NUCC the trade unions, the EROs and CSOs, part of the Civil Disobedience Movement.

Another key lever, necessary to this strategy, lies in preventing the hard currency from arriving in Burmese banks. For this reason, the Myanmar Labor Alliance has always called for the adoption of generalized sanctions, and the temporary suspension of the benefits provided by the EBA. In fact, since the beginning of the dictatorship, both the textile and clothing sector, and others as the rice sector have seen an increase in exports, especially towards Europe.

Photo - From the EU trade statistics 2019- 2022[6]

This scheme shows the increase of garments and knitted wear imports in the EU from Myanmar for the years 2019 and 2022. These data do not include footwear and leather goods. But for example, Italy alone in this last sector went from importing €49.628.728 in 2019, to €123.547.188 in 2022. While in 2022, total EU import values from Myanmar reached the overall figure of 4.323.565.618 €, compared to 2019 value, equal to 2.813.194.516[7] .

It seems therefore that after the coup the EU brands, despite their codes of conduct, and CSR policies that would not allow to work in countries with slavery conditions, increased their outsourcing in Myanmar, taking advantage of the incredibly low labor costs, of the junta's violence, of the inhuman working conditions, and the impossibility for workers to organize, to strike and to negotiate collective agreements.

The EU insists on stating that “the participation of Myanmar in the EBA arrangement continues to contribute to the eradication of poverty in the beneficiary country” [8]. This despite its contradictory declaration that: “Crimes perpetrated under the current military regime include physical and mental torture, sexual and gender-based violence, the persecution of civil society, human rights defenders, trade unionists and journalists, arbitrary detentions and unfair trials, attacks on the civilian population, including ethnic and religious minorities, and the destruction of private property. Responsibility for atrocities is routinely denied by the regime[9],” and the very critical conclusions of the ILO Commission of Enquiry.

“The Commission concluded that the measures imposed by the military authorities following the military coup, both legislative promulgations and the action taken in practice by the military, the police and the administrative authorities under their control, have had a disastrous impact on the exercise of basic civil liberties which are essential to the enjoyment of the freedom of association rights protected by Convention No. 87. Trade union members and leaders have been killed, arbitrarily arrested, subjected to sham trials, convicted, detained, abused and tortured, threatened, intimidated, subjected to surveillance, forced into exile, deprived of their basic civil liberties and oppressed at the workplace due to their trade union membership and activities. Women trade union leaders have been exposed to particularly violent treatment on the part of the security apparatus, including sexual violence.”

The Commission further concluded that there have been serious practical obstacles to the establishment and functioning of trade unions in post-coup Myanmar. In particular, union registration has been stalled and unions are being asked to return their registration certificates and to re-elect their leadership. They are also unable to collect union dues, face union-busting and have to compete with yellow unions and employer-supported workplace coordination committees. Workplace strikes are dispersed by the police or the military, strike participants are threatened and arrested and there are no independent and impartial remedies for labor rights violations.[10]

The EU Commission knows that, in the given conditions, with a genocidal dictatorship, with martial law in all industrial zones, where freedom of association is impossible, EU companies cannot carry out the necessary due diligence. This approach is not contributing to poverty eradication, but to the consolidation of the regime, while European companies increase their profits at the expense of the workers. The World Bank's most recent report underlines that: “real wages remain very low” and on average, firms operated 50.6 hours per week, out of the possible 52.8 hours in 2022[11].According to WB: “the total wage received by garment workers remains below Cambodia, Vietnam, and China.” Again, The World Bank Garment Industry Survey 2023 finds that “wages account for about one-fifth of the total cost of garment production, which means that labor costs – in conjunction with access to trade preferences and assessments of the broader operating environment, play an important role in attracting foreign investment and locating production to developing countries”.

The recent Myanmar Garment Sector Factsheet[12] highlights that: “In USD terms, a typical 2023 take-home pay of around MMK 325,000 is worth just under US$100 in mid-September 2023 at – volatile - market rates (US$155 at the official Central Bank exchange rate). In comparison, in 2019, an equivalent typical take-home pay of around MMK 285,000 would have been worth about US$210 at market exchange rates (exchange rates were only fixed in 2021)”.

Myanmar is certainly on the verge of collapse, which already has very dramatic negative impacts not only on the Burmese population, but also on other countries in the region and if we want to avoid the consolidation of another dictatorship, in such an important area of the world, it is urgent that the neighbor and democratic governments change their strategy, and adopt all the needed means to accelerate the junta fall, because the dominant narrative according to which the junta cannot be defeated, has shown its failure.

It is also crystal clear that the Burmese population does not intend to accept any mediation dialogue, any illegal elections, as proposed by the junta, and any attempt, that aims to return to the pre-coup situation and to a coexistence between military and civilians, like that before the coup.

Instead, governments, international institutions, and civil society organizations should have the courage to support the democratic forces politically and financially, concretely helping them to accelerate the fall of the junta and the construction of a democratic, inclusive federal state.

The only possibility for a stable, peaceful future for Myanmar lies in the hands of the National Unity Government, the NUCC and the Ethnic Revolutionary Forces.

- End    -

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[2] Myanmar Junta ‘SweetensDeal’ For Chinain US$ 8Billion SEZ And Port in Rakhine State. The Irrawaddy Dec. 27. 2023

[3] Project Varsha: Building India’s Secret Nuclear Submarine Base. Siddhant Sandhu SSBCracs 25.4.2023

[4] Global Fire Power 2023

[5] Myanmar’s Operation 1027 against the Junta two months on. The Irrawaddy 27.12.23



[8] Myanmar Garment Sector FACTSHEET Version 2.0 November 2023.  Prepared by EuroCham Myanmar’s Garment Advocacy Group

[9] EU Commission Report on EU Enhanced Engagement with three Everything But Arms beneficiary countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia and Myanmar. 21.22.23 SWD (2023) 360 final.


[11] Resilience amid constraints. WB. Myanmar Garment Industry in 2023. Nov. 2023

[12] Myanmar Garment Sector  FACTSHEET Version 2.0  NOVEMBER 2023  Prepared by EuroCham Myanmar’s Garment Advocacy Group