Khaing Zar Aung president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar, speaks to Liz Payne on the situation in her country and the role of the labour movement and people of Myanmar in the struggle against the military regime
Please can you remind us of the circumstances that led to the military coup in your country and what support those who have seized power have got?
I will start by stating that the military in Myanmar do not have many supporters inside the country or indeed outside.
Since the start of military rule with the coup on February 1, millions of people have taken to the streets of Myanmar to show that they reject the coup … There are the supporters of the military-founded Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
But their gatherings and rallies have not attracted big numbers and we are even aware of instances where some of those gathered had in fact been paid to do so.
To what extent has the recent history of Myanmar affected what has taken place?
Long years of military rule in Myanmar have had a significant impact. In 2003, during the previous military regime, economic sanctions were placed on Myanmar resulting in a financial crisis.
In order to obtain relief, the military regime had to show that it was taking steps to democratise the country.
They drew up the 2008 constitution before going on to hold elections in 2010.
At that time, the newly formed USDP was in the driving seat — the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other parties could not organise freely.
So, of course, the USDP enjoyed a commanding position in Myanmar’s parliament and politics.
The USDP set up various front organisations and structures. In this new environment, our trade union organisation began to organise to increase the people’s political awareness.
And, in the 2015 and 2020 elections, the NLD won. The military realised they could no longer hold on to power through parliament. Thus they moved to reassert their power by means of a military coup on February 1.
In what ways are the people of Myanmar resisting the military government and what are their demands?
People all over the country are united in their opposition to the new military government.
Many demonstrations and campaigns have been launched against the coup.
Most importantly, the civil disobedience campaign of the government employees has been very strong.
Because this campaign spans the work of several government ministries, the new rulers have essentially been unable to run the country over the last five months.
Our main demands are that the military regime hand over power to a civilian government as well as release the imprisoned political leaders and opposition figures.
What is the role of the labour and trade union movement in Myanmar in the struggle to end the current dictatorial regime?
The Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) is the only national-level trade union organisation in the country, and we held a national meeting on February 2, the day after the coup, at which it was decided that we would not co-operate or work with the new military regime.
Our affiliates from across the industrial sectors — transport, farming, mining and manufacturing — encouraged their memberships to attend demonstrations and show their opposition to the coup and military rule through civil disobedience, bringing public transport systems to a halt.
Many factories can no longer operate because the workers are staying away.
We are now organising public-sector workers and they are working with global union federations, like the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), so that information can be shared outside about what is happening to government employees in Myanmar — and to build pressure on the Myanmar authorities from international organisations such as the UN.
Can you say something about the situation of women in Myanmar and the ongoing fight for equality?
Right now, women are prominent and participate equally in the movement in Myanmar.
It can be observed that women are often at the forefront of the many demonstrations in the streets and are also increasingly occupying leadership roles in the trade union organisations.
So, yes, women are very active in the movement. And, as a result, they face many challenges.
For example, in the government sector, we cover about 80 factories — and the majority of the activist leaders in those factories are women.
Many of these women are now in hiding. Some are ill and require urgent medical treatment, while others are pregnant or have small children with them.
It is heartbreaking to witness the plight of these women and yet they continue to join demonstrations and take part in the movement.
What is your assessment of the longer term prospects for justice, democracy, and peace for Myanmar?
My organisation believes that it is possible to defeat this military regime.
When the movement began after the February 1 coup, there was no co-ordination or leadership to link its disparate strands.
However, the country’s democratic forces are now actively working together. We have formed the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which includes activists involved in the 2020 election, various political parties, trade unions, student organisations and some groups representing ethnic communities in Myanmar.
The NUCC co-ordinates the campaign against the coup forces and has formed the General Strike Co-ordination Body (GSCB).
We have also formed a shadow national unity government which works with international bodies.
But, however active the people of Myanmar are against the military regime, we cannot win this battle alone. We need international support.
What can the international trade union movement do in particular to help the people of Myanmar and the cause of democracy there?
We would like to ask trade unions to lobby the government in their respective countries, to reject the participation of the military regime in Myanmar at any UN body.
Secondly, we need humanitarian support for government employees who, because of their participation in the movement, have lost their jobs and homes.
We must help feed their families so they are not forced to return to work.
Lastly, trade unions should campaign for the imposition of economic sanctions. Some may say this will hurt ordinary people.
However, continuation of business as usual only consigns the people of Myanmar to continue living under military rule and the suffering they already endure.
Khaing Zar Aung will be speaking at an online public meeting organised by Liberation, on Tuesday July 13 at 19.00 BST. Other speakers include: Jeremy Corbyn MP, former Labour Party leader and founder of Peace and Justice Project, Pallab Sengupta, general secretary of All India Peace and Solidarity Organisation, and Murad Qureshi, former member of London Assembly and Stop the War Coalition. Register for the event here