Economic and political challenges imposed on the Myanmar labor movement by the military junta

The road to the military coup

To explain the main reasons behind the military coup on 1 February 2021, its impact on Myanmar, and its main actors, it is essential to examine the events leading up to it.

For nearly five years (1 April 2016–1 February 2021), Aung San Suu Kyi’s government had delivered mixed results. Despite its victory, her National League for Democracy (NLD) faced several political and institutional constraints imposed on it by the military-dominated political system and the military’s lack of interest in making major concessions to the NLD. In addition, the leaders of the NLD struggled to overcome their lack of both governing experience and ministerial competence. The government’s Minister of Labor, for example, was a former military officer with no previous labor or industrial relations experience. Nevertheless, despite some interesting and positive socio-economic results, the limits of a difficult and poorly tolerated coexistence between the military and civil power could not be overcome

During the NLD’s rule, one of the most important changes from a political point of view was the shifting of the GAD (General Administration Department) from the military-led Ministry of Home Affairs to the Myanmar leader’s cabinet. This was a big change and gave significant power to the civil government, as well as state and regional governments – down to the 330 townships and 17,000 wards and village tracts. Under the NLD, a series of major investments led to changes in the daily lives of millions of people across the country. Electrification in the country improved from 33% to 50% in four years, and the construction of roads and bridges also increased. The school sector saw a dramatic rise in investments: from USD 251 million in 2012 to USD 1.2 billion in 2016. The same was true for the healthcare sector, which went from an investment of USD 20.2 million in 2012 to USD 840 million in 2017/18 (Nan Lwin 2019).

However, insurmountable problems persisted, including the seeming impossibility of reforming the constitution, the complex peace talks, and relations with ethnic minorities, which are firmly connected to the previous two issues.

The military never had any intention of downsizing its political role – least of all its economic role, particularly in the ethnic states: gas and oil, mining, teak, jade, etc. At the same time, the thorny tripartite peace talks between the army, the civilian government, and ethnic representatives continued with fits and starts. The sides did not grow closer, especially given the military’s increasingly violent activities in the Kachin and Rakhine states.

The most severe backlash caused by the Rohingya crisis resurfaced on 25 August 2017, the day after Aung San Suu Kyi and Kofi Annan had presented the final report of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The report’s proposals included rewriting the law on citizenship, granting freedom of movement to the Rohingya, closing internal refugee camps, promoting decent work in productive investments, advancing gender equality, and implementing a series of measures to overcome ethnic and religious discrimination.

Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, has always railed against this commission and its recommendations because normalization would lead to a decrease in military importance (Irrawaddy 2017).

On that day, the military’s response to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks on 30 border police positions in Rakhine was so violent that its actions were condemned as acts of genocide: 800,000 people had to flee to Bangladesh (Simpson 2017).

This was also the beginning of attacks on Aung San Suu Kyi, which the military used to undermine her status and international credibility.

In this difficult and obligatory coexistence (not often understood by the international media, which have tended to paint the relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military as “idyllic” or one of connivance, to the detriment of ethnic nationalities), the electoral results of 8 November 2020, which showed the NLD had scored an overwhelming victory, were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The state counselor’s party gained 83% of available seats, while the USDP, the military’s puppet party, got only 7%. This was too little for Min Aung Hlaing to be elected president of the republic, which would have protected him from prosecution for war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court.

On 29 January, Min Aung Hlaing’s deputy tried without success to appoint him as president. In the three months between the election and the coup, the military made a series of serious threats against the government to persuade Aung San Suu Kyi’s government to act according to their wishes.

The coup did not come as a surprise. The landslide victory of the NLD would have jeopardized not only the status of the commander-in-chief but also the enormous economic interests of the army. Min Aung Hlaing and a small group of generals controlled 80% of the economy, and these are the most profitable sectors (i.e., mining, gas, oil, precious stones, industry, etc.) under the two large holdings, UMEH and MEC, which have 120 companies under them.

During the NLD regime, new laws were passed to align the country with international standards of transparency and anti-corruption, as well as compliance with basic environmental and social standards. Regulations were obstacles to the implementation of major infrastructure projects and works that China should be able to develop in Myanmar to guarantee the former access to the sea and connect Myanmar to China’s Yunnan region. Thus, the alliance between the military and China also responded to the need to cut short all the procedures of democratic governance, consultation, transparency, and “accountability” imported from international institutions.

Moreover, by joining the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the NLD government was starting to erode the military’s profits and decided to follow social and environmental guidelines for all the major infrastructure projects planned and agreed on with China. New laws were planned to frustrate the huge drug sector, which was generating big profits that never arrived in the state coffers (but rather in foreign military accounts) and the International Monetary Fund estimated to total around USD 6.7 billion per year (Adam Smith International and MDRI-CESD 2015).

The role of labor in the fight against the coup

From the outset, the entire country reacted strongly against the coup. Residents of major towns and villages went out onto their balconies and into the streets and banged pots in protest. The freedom they had savored after 50 years of dictatorship would not be easy to suppress again. Immediately before the coup, on 30 January 2021, the Confederation of Myanmar Trade Unions (CTUM) had declared its intention to oppose any kind of coup. On 1 February, the CTUM again declared: “Since we have already tried these devastating experiences, we, the CTUM, declare that we will not collaborate with the military junta on any issue related to labor. Therefore, we, the CTUM, announce our resignation from all tripartite mechanisms” This decision was also supported by the MICS-TUsF trade union.

The CTUM immediately mobilized its 110,000 members all over the country, becoming one of the backbones of the brand-new Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). This was made possible thanks to the unions’ long experience of clandestine organizing under the previous dictatorship and because they could count on a large network of labor activists that began to organize strikes and demonstrations in most economic sectors throughout the country, bringing all the ministries’ functions to a halt. Railway workers, as well as 900 oil and gas enterprise workers, were dismissed and evicted from their government homes (ILO 2022).

In response, on 8 February, the military regime announced a prohibition on freedom of association and penalties for those who broke the rules.

The CTUM called on the international trade unions and their members to isolate the military attaché offices in foreign countries and start shareholder actions against investors working with military-owned enterprises. Inside the country, there was a call to boycott all goods and services produced by military companies, and a list of their names was published and disseminated. The response was huge and is still continuing more than a year later. Every day, hundreds of thousands of workers across Myanmar participated in large, peaceful rallies against the unlawful military coup, risking harassment, violence, detention, and being shot.

On 17 February, 11 members of the Myanmar Press Council and more than a dozen other Myanmar Times journalists resigned in protest against the junta’s new restrictions on press freedom. The military accused the media of instigating the protests, and its new directives required not using the words “regime” or “junta” to refer to the State Administrative Council (SAC). The military was already in a corner and did not know how to get out of it. They did not plan for the resistance to be so robust or long-lasting.

The streets continued to be overrun by demonstrators, workers, and people of all ages and social backgrounds. Young people and women also played a key role during this time.

Private banks closed for days and are still facing huge problems due to employee strikes, while the military began to arrest the ministerial staff. Factory workers continued to strike. Train drivers who refused to work were arrested and forced to drive the trains.

Already on 18 February, the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) appealed to international brands to respect workers’ rights: “As workers sacrifice themselves into restoring democracy in the country, we call upon all suppliers in the Myanmar garment, shoe, and leather industry to respect workers’ fundamental freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, and to refrain from imposing disciplinary actions on workers for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement, and maintain dialogue with the trade unions to resolve differences and address the current crisis.”

A total of 77 investors responded positively by issuing a declaration calling on companies across all sectors to map their activities, address the human rights impact of their activities, and support the staff and employees instead of retaliating against them (BHRRC 2021).

COVID-19 and the coup have had a serious impact on the garment sector, in particular. According to an MGMA survey, around 600 factories are still operating, while between 170 and 200 have been closed since January 2020 (MGMA 2022). The European Chamber of Commerce in Myanmar (2022) reports that more than 150 foreign brands sourced from Myanmar in the past. In 2020, the country’s garment exports to the EU totaled around USD 2.5 billion (USD 2.63 billion if footwear and accessories such as leather goods, handbags, and travel goods are included).

The military regime prosecuted the Central Committee members of the CTUM, as well as trade union leaders, under section 505 of the penal code, which does not allow bail but recommends a jail sentence for a minimum of two years.

Cabin crew, civilian aircraft tower personnel, and civilian aircraft engineers stopped working, thereby paralyzing the airports; however, maps recording flight data showed an intensification of flights between Kunming and Myanmar. Despite denials by the Chinese ambassador to Myanmar, concerns mounted about Beijing’s active support for the Myanmar military. At the end of February, in the industrial townships, the military continued to harass workers at their homes or other places where they were staying. They threatened the hostel owners with losing their license if they harbored activists, trade union leaders, etc. Meanwhile, hundreds of civil servants at all levels inside the ministries received orders to return to work if no action was taken.

Thousands of people were dismissed from their jobs. Others who were working in the field did not reply to the warning letters, but because they were skilled workers who could not easily be replaced, they were not dismissed. Train drivers, mechanical train signal operators, oil and gas production teams, engineers, and crude oil refinery workers continued to block their activities and, in so doing, blocked production. In those weeks, all sources of energy extraction stopped, including the Nyaungdon gas production plant, which had been generating about 270 million kyat (MMK) per day, and the Ayadaw gas production plant, which produces the gas to run the turbines of military-owned factories in Wazi township (Magwe region). Production at many other factories was impeded, including companies that print bullets and banknotes, which compelled the SAC to buy these products from China. Since the Thanpayakan refinery was also blocked by workers, the military, which had anticipated this action, took away three weeks’ supply of processed fuel a few weeks earlier, leaving no reserves.

The military attempted to divide the civil service workers and the unions, but because most of the leaders had a minimum of 20 years of service, it was not possible to dismiss them. The military tried to phone trade union leaders and frighten them, and the Ministry of Labor, Immigration, and Population issued an order to the private sector factory owners to reopen by the end of February, pay salaries the next day, and dismiss those who did not arrive on time at the factory gates. As a result, the World Bank informed the regime that all drawdowns had been suspended.

On 7 March, 18 labor organizations published a statement organizing an “extended nationwide work stoppage against the military coup and for the future of Myanmar democracy” and declared, “We are not and will never be slaves to the military junta.” The statement called for an “expansion of the CDM to all Myanmar people starting on 8 March and a full extended shutdown of the Myanmar economy.”

The labor movement succeeded in paralyzing the nation. The day after the statement was published, the labor movement shuttered all workplaces across the country, and hundreds of thousands of people went out onto the streets. In response to the country’s paralysis, provoked by trade unions and CDM, the military banned 16 labor unions by declaring them to be “illegal organizations.” The SAC arrested or filed arrest orders for at least 71 individual union leaders (Conradt 2021).

In 135 confirmed collective cases, workers were fired for participating in street protests, while thousands more had their factory jobs threatened if they participated any further in the CDM. On that day, more than 60 people were killed and some 2,000 arrested. There were more arrests during the general strike on 14 March, when many Chinese-owned factories were set on fire. Following that terrible day, the Mandalay and six Yangon industrial zones (Hlaing Thar Yar, Shwe Pyi Thar, South Dagon, North Dagon, Dagon Seikkan, and North Okklapa) were placed under martial law, which gave and still gives full administrative judicial authority to the military. Since then, workers can be sentenced to many years of jail and hard labor for no reason.

Since March 2021, between 150,000 and 200,000 workers from the Hlaing Thar Yar (Yangon) industrial zone, which has more than 500 factories in operation, have fled due to random killings, arbitrary arrests, violence, and arson attacks on houses and factories.

The IWFM, which was part of the ACT agreement,[1] discussed and agreed with the ACT members’ brands that suppliers should not punish those workers who exercise their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and join the demonstrations. The agreement put in place a Fast Track Dispute Resolution Mechanism through which workers or their representatives can contact the IWFM to file complaints about the (lack of) respect for workers’ rights, including termination without severance pay. The IWFM has been proactively documenting labor rights violations and negotiating through the dispute resolution mechanism as much as possible, particularly on wage payment. Despite the severe restrictions imposed on trade unions by the military junta, the IWFM has submitted cases with proposed remedies to IndustriAll and ACT for negotiations with the brands. However, while the mechanism facilitated agreement on arrear wage payments with some suppliers, major violations cannot be solved due to the continuous harassment of workers and the human rights restrictions imposed by the dictatorship.

Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs after 14 March, since the factories asked workers to return to work even though the industrial zones could not be reached because of security issues. The IWFM tried to protect workers from losing their jobs by demanding the brands oblige suppliers to allow unpaid leave since there were too many cases that could not be solved through the mechanism. But there was no positive answer, and in April and May alone, hundreds of thousands of workers in the garment sector lost their jobs. The ITUC denounced the suspension of nearly 150,000 university and basic education teachers and hundreds of thousands of public employees and bank and health service workers due to their participation in the CDM. The junta has continued to pressure businesses to fire workers involved in the demonstrations.

On 9 June, a list of 77 investors with more than USD 3.9 trillion in combined assets under management or advisement declared that they expected companies to uphold their corporate responsibility to respect human rights. To this end, companies should undertake enhanced due diligence to address and prevent human rights violations and, in so doing, mitigate the risks associated with such violations. These investors called on companies across all sectors with business activities or business relations in Myanmar to assess and address all actual and potential human rights impacts of their business activities and relationships and take steps to reduce and prevent them (BHRRC 2021). According to the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, businesses operating in Myanmar failed to take sufficient action to listen to workers and communities, which continue to suffer disproportionately under the rule of the military junta, and neglected to respond to allegations of abuse inside their Myanmar operations.

The CTUM’s international campaign succeeded in blocking the SAC from gaining access to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conference in 2021, where a strong resolution against the military coup was passed.[2]

Unfortunately, other calls and resolutions have not been as strong, especially because of China and Russia’s veto power at the UN Security Council and the shyness of governments around the world, including the EU. Diplomatic and political action has been weak and partial, and the restrictive measures that have been passed have not sought to strangle the junta’s financial and economic resources.

Following the ILO Conference, the 343rd Session of the ILO Governing Body in November (2021a) reaffirmed its “profound concern that the military authorities have continued with the large-scale use of lethal violence and with the harassment, ongoing intimidation, arrests and detentions of trade unionists and others.”

A huge amount of data collected over months has confirmed a series of human rights violations committed by international brand suppliers.

Nearly two years later, hospitals are still not functioning properly because healthcare workers have continued their boycott of state-run hospitals. Some 70% of these workers have abandoned their jobs and joined the CDM, building a shadow health system supported by the NUG (Head 2022). The junta has issued arrest warrants for hundreds of healthcare workers, forced them into hiding, raided charity and health facilities, and destroyed, damaged, or confiscated medical equipment while abducting, beating, and arbitrarily detaining doctors, nurses, and other colleagues.

According to verified data collected by the CTUM among the workers, 130,000 teachers, and 11,000 university professors have been suspended from their jobs this past year due to their participation in the CDM, while more than 250,000 workers in the garment and footwear sectors lost their jobs due to the coup. Thousands more from 140 factories that are temporarily closed are still jobless.

The military continued to carry out searches at workplaces and went door-to-door at hostels and the workers’ homes. To this day, company managers continue to provide telephone numbers, addresses, and photos of union leaders to both the military and the police.

The factories announced a pre-employment warning that workers would be fired if they joined a union or participated in union/labor support activities. After the first months of closure, many companies reopened but clearly stated they would not hire labor activists. All the workers have to work excessive hours and on Sundays or official holidays without receiving overtime pay, in contravention of the labor laws. Workers who joined the CDM do not get any paid leave.

All collective agreements have been canceled, and social dialogue is not possible since trade unions have been banned. Workers have no employment contracts. The Mandalay and the six Yangon industrial zones continue to be subject to martial law with judicial power transferred to the military. In many factories, the payment of wages was delayed, with the excuse of political instability and the impossibility of withdrawing cash from banks. Children are also being recruited to work. Salaries are below the minimum wage fixed by law (MMK 4,800, approximately EUR 2.30, a day) and are not negotiated with trade unions or employer organizations.

Despite the third wave of COVID-19, many factories have no protective measures, and workers have had to do their jobs without PPE masks or safety equipment. In many Chinese companies that work for international brands, the workers are not recognized as permanent workers after three months of probation. Most factories have requested military or police presence in front of their gates to threaten workers who are frightened when entering the workplace. The reality is that most Myanmar employers are using the dictatorship to suspend all workers’ rights inscribed in the national laws and do not follow international human rights or labor standards. Nothing can prevent the military from targeting, arresting, torturing, or killing trade unionists or workers cooperating with trade unions and reporting violations of labor rights and laws in the factories.

The struggle for companies’ responsible withdrawal from Myanmar

Nineteen out of the 31 manufacturers listed as violators during that period attracted the ACT initiative’s attention, as they were linked to specific brands that had signed the ACT agreements. They should have been held liable for such violations by the brands unless they worked to correct them, but in the end, a positive resolution was reached in only 10 cases.

As a result, the IWFM requested brands to leave the country if they were not in a position to respect the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights or the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises, of which one of the fundamental conditions is freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Hundreds of collective cases of deep human rights violations have been collected by the IWFM and published on its Facebook page. These include a decrease in the minimum wage to less than EUR 2 a day, the use of forced labor due to compulsory overtime work until late at night or early in the morning, which goes unpaid, the obligation to sleep on the premises due to the curfew, impossible piecework quotas, refusal to grant sick leave, nonpayment of social security benefits, sexual harassment, verbal and physical assault, and salary reduction, among others.

The military continues to arbitrarily stop workers from handling their phones and compels them to pay fines. They conduct inspections to search for trade union representatives, making the situation impossible for those who try to denounce labor violations. Moreover, terminations and suspensions targeting civil and public servants and workers in state-owned enterprises who are supporting the CDM have continued.

For this reason, given the impossibility of obliging suppliers to respect international labor standards and carry out their due diligence as provided by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the IWFM has called on brands to withdraw from Myanmar and on the EU to suspend the Everything But Arms (EBA) facilitations to prevent the military from profiting off of exports to the EU.

The withdrawal procedure starts with an implementation decision adopted by the commission after consultations with the EU Member States. Following a six-month monitoring and evaluation period, the EU Commission has three months to submit a report of findings and conclusions to the beneficiary country, which then has one month to comment on it. Finally, within 12 months after the start of the procedure, the commission decides whether to go ahead with the temporary withdrawal.

Despite a similar call by the European Parliament resolution of 7 October 2021 and later approved a resolution by the EU Parliament on 7 March 2022, the EU Commission is still strongly opposed to suspending the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement, arguing it would harm workers and not the military.

It should be noted that the Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP) is part of the EU’s trade policy toolbox, including development objectives, which have been in place since 1971. Under the GSP Regulation, EBA preferences provide the world’s least developed countries with duty-free, quota-free access to the EU market for all products except arms and ammunition.

Such preferences are conditioned upon the beneficiary country respecting the principles of the 15 core UN and ILO conventions on human and labor rights. Article 19 of the GSP Regulation spells out that the preferential tariffs may be withdrawn temporarily in respect of all or certain products originating in a beneficiary country. Following the EU procedures, in 2020, after a verification process that had started on 11 February 2019, the EU suspended EBA assistance to Cambodia (EU 2020) for violating the principles laid down in UN/ILO human rights and labor rights conventions.[3]

According to the ILO’s rapid impact assessment of the labor market (ILO 2021b), an estimated 14% of working hours were lost in the first half of 2021, which is equivalent to the working time of at least 2.2 million full-time workers. The estimates indicate that total working hours in 2021 had decreased by 18% year on year and 30% in comparison with 2019. In 2021, more than 1.6 million workers had lost their jobs in comparison with 2020.

Agriculture, which covers half of the country’s employment, was heavily impacted, as was the construction sector, which shed 350,000 jobs. According to a SMART survey, although 68% have an employment contract, there is increasing use of casual/day labor and piece-rate hiring.

Workers are suffering from rising inflation caused by a devaluation of the national currency of approximately 50% (by February 2022, inflation had reached 60%) and are less able to send remittances to family members.

Owing to the increase in violations of fundamental human rights at work and as a follow-up to the resolutions adopted by the ILO Conferences, the ILO Governing Body at the end of its 344th session in March 2022 decided “to establish a Commission of Inquiry in respect of the non-observance of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87), and the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29)” (ILO 2022).

Since February 2021, nearly 28 big multinationals have left the country or temporarily suspended their activity as a result of the military coup. Among others, they include the Amata Corporation (construction sector), Telenor, Electricité de France, Petronas, Sembcorp, the Woodside V Power group, Moattama Gas Transportation Company Ltd, Myanmar Metal, Toyota, Suzuki, Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone Ltd., and Metro.

In October 2021, a coalition of 183 organizations led by the Myanmar Labor Alliance, including workers, farmers, students, teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, youth, and women’s organizations, requested that international institutions and governments adopt comprehensive economic sanctions: “The requested comprehensive economic sanctions call for the stopping of international financial services (international bank transfers and bank credits), stopping the insurance and reinsurance services, effectively stopping arms and weapon selling and related support goods trading and dealing, oil, and gas exploring, excavation, exporting and trading of natural resources of Myanmar such as gems, woods, and other forest products” (Comprehensive Economic Sanctions 2021).

Despite the great limitations on and the rampant repression of labor activists and trade unions, the Labor Alliance (starting by the CTUM) is continuing to play a central role in the democratic opposition movement.

It has representation on the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which consists of 28 democratic organizations, including the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, the interim NUG, ethnic resistance organizations and ethnic political parties, CDM groups, general strike councils, and civil society organizations. The NUCC drafted the Federal Democracy Charter through a consensus-based approach and is finalizing the new Federal Democratic Constitution, which includes a specific paragraph on labor rights and social dialogue. In the first meeting of the People’s Assembly, Daw Phyo Sandar Soe, Deputy Secretary-General of the CTUM, was nominated to the People’s Assembly Presidium to represent the Labour Alliance. She was also required to read the NUCC and NUG’s endorsement of the People’s Assembly.

In July 2022, a Business & Human Rights Resource Center report analyzing 100 collective cases of human rights violations involving 60,800 garment workers denounced the “widespread and systemic abuse in the international brands’ supply chain” (H&M and Marks & Spencer 2022). This is not the only recent report to condemn the rampant violations of human rights at work. The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) commissioned an in-depth assessment of human rights risks in the garment sector value chain exporting to the EU and the UK between February 2021 and July 2022. The assessment highlighted a massive use of forced labor, forced and excessive use of overtime, financial penalties for refusing work, a high rate of harassment and abuse of workers paying for recruitment and jobs, lack of access to remedies, etc. The report does not explicitly recommend that brands leave the country, but it suggests that, in this case, brands should plan a responsible exit to mitigate the impact of their withdrawal on workers and suppliers (ETI 2022). Some brands, like Marks & Spencer, declared that their due diligence sectoral assessment showed it was impossible to respect their Global Sourcing Principles; therefore, they decided to execute a responsible exit from the country through joint work with the ETI and other partners.

A similar request has been made by the NUG, which requested a socially responsible disengagement policy (NUG 2022). While garment sector workers are often in the media, other key sectors remain in the shadows despite their growing global importance.

This is the case of the mining sector and jade, copper, and rare earth mines. Myanmar is the third-largest producer of rare earths in the world, and a recent Global Witness study showed a rapid expansion of illicit heavy rare earth mining in Kachin State (Global Witness 2022) fueling human rights abuses, deforestation, environmental contamination, and land expropriation. A similar situation is linked to jade, gem, and copper mining, where human rights abuses at work are constantly called out by trade unions and environmental NGOs.

After 20 months, pervasive military repression and violence have caused the collapse of the Myanmar economy and led to a large-scale social and humanitarian crisis. Poverty levels doubled while the SAC increased defense spending even as it reduced allocations for education, health, and social welfare (UN 2022). In a country with more than 1.347 million internal refugees, 15,901 civilians arrested (400 of whom are trade unionists) and 2,376 killed by the military, with 1,927 trade unionists and labor activists in hiding due to arrest warrants, the world’s attention has been distracted by the brutal and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine and increasing tension in the Indo-Pacific region. Nevertheless, the Burmese trade unions through the CTUM have not underestimated the potential negative impact on Myanmar and are proposing that some of the important economic and political sanctions against Russia also be imposed on the Burmese military junta, including blocking it from using the SWIFT payments system.

Further restrictive measures, including against arms brokers and Myanmar banks, as well as the inclusion of fuel and gasoline in the dual-use goods list, have also been recommended in response to the latest deals concluded between Russia and Myanmar.

In the past few months, the Myanmar junta’s commander-in-chief signed important and dangerous trade agreements with Russia to import arms and Russian gasoline and fuel oil in order to ease supply concerns and rising fuel costs. In turn, Russia is seeking new customers for its energy in the region to mitigate the effect of Western sanctions. Fuel shipments started arriving in Myanmar in September 2022. The recent fuel and oil import agreement with Russia entails serious negative geopolitical impacts at both the regional and international levels. The alliance with Russia, in particular, could be defeated by expanding the list of dual-use goods to include fuel and gasoline, thereby blocking these kinds of imports. In addition, the Myanmar military regime and Russian state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom signed a roadmap for further atomic energy cooperation, including the possible implementation of a modular reactor project in Myanmar.

The inclusion of fuel and gasoline in the dual-use goods list should be accompanied by decisions to freeze international financial flows toward the junta through the Myanmar Foreign Trade Bank, the Myanmar Investment and Commercial Bank, and the Myanmar Economic Bank, which currently enable the junta to pay for the oil and fuel imports.

Conclusion

It is very difficult to predict the best possible way out. But the wait-and-see strategy adopted by international institutions, the EU, and other governments – often hamstrung by the vetoes of China and Russia at the UN Security Council, the divisions within ASEAN, and the weakness of the EU Commission – have failed to deliver results.

The work of the Myanmar Labour Alliance and the CTUM is not confined to requesting economic sanctions, however, and they recently requested the Financial Action Task Force, which is the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, to blacklist the SAC in order to prevent its organized crime, corruption, terrorist, and other illegal activities.

A new strategic approach consisting of a clear diplomatic initiative by like-minded countries should open a formal dialogue between the main international actors and the NUG, which should be recognized as the legitimate representative of the Myanmar people, including at the UN General Assembly. This approach should be accompanied by strong economic and politically restrictive measures. The adoption of generalized sanctions targeting the junta’s financial interests, as well as banks and insurance companies insuring the transport sector (airports, flights ships, ports, etc.), together with robust financial support to the NUG and civil society organizations, could contribute to weakening and ultimately defeating the military junta. Only by innovating and acting with courage can international institutions and governments breathe life into the stillborn five-point consensus that ASEAN approved in April 2021.

What is clear is that, after more nearly two years, the military coup does not have any chance to strengthen itself or rule the country for another 50 years, as workers across the spectrum – from the least to the most qualified – will simply not accept it.


References

- (2021a), Governing Body 343rd Session, 15 October, Follow-up to the resolutions concerning Myanmar adopted by the International Labor Conference at its 102nd (2013) and 109th - (2021b), Employment in Myanmar since the Military Takeover: A Rapid Impact Assessment Sessions, Brief, July. Available online at: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—asia/—ro-bangkok/—ilo-yangon/documents/publication/wcms_814681.pdf.


[1] The Action, Collaboration, Transformation initiative between global brands, retailers, and trade unions seeks to transform the garment, textile, and footwear industries and secure living wages for workers through collective bargaining at the industry level.

[2] It deplored “the arbitrary arrests, detention, intimidation, threats, and acts of violence against trade unionists and others peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, as well as the destruction of factories and other workplaces.”

[3] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) (‘ICCPR’); Convention concerning Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, No 87 (1948) (‘ILO Convention 87’); Convention concerning the Application of the Principles of the Right to Organize and to Bargain Collectively, No 98 (1949) (‘ILO Convention 98’); and International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (1966) (‘ICESCR’).


 

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