Fighting the Junta

On February 1, the Myanmar military staged a coup and seized power from the elected civilian government under the pretext of alleged election fraud. The coup leaders detained top government leaders and activists, shut off the internet, and suspended flights. This marks a dark and uncertain turn in the country's decade-long, fraught experiment with partial democratisation.

The coup threatens to reverse gains in Myanmar in democratic rights. A strong labour movement has been building for a decade through militant struggle by factory workers, preparing them for a strong showing in the current uprising. Building on the growing walkouts by public and private sector workers over the last three weeks, the general strikes since February 22 are now offering the best hope to resist the coup and to build a stronger labour movement beyond.

Soon after the coup was declared, a massive, civil disobedience movement emerged, with workers and trade unions front and centre. In one of the earliest mobilisations, medical workers from over 110 hospitals and health departments in 50 townships across Myanmar were among the first who rose up and went on strike, two days after the coup. In one government hospital , 38 out of 40 doctors and 50 out of 70 nurses struck.

"There is no way we can work under a dictatorship", said Dr Kyaw Zin, a surgeon who led one of the first strikes. "I am pretty sure we can bring down the regime. We will never go back to work until [Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader] steps down. He has no right to tell us to come to work, because no one recognises him as the leader."

The trade union federations were quick to mobilise. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the largest trade union federation in Myanmar, called for the first general strike on February 8. Despite threats of arrest and growing repressive tactics from the government, workers in a wide range of sectors, including garbage collectors, firefighters, electricity workers, private bank employees, and garment workers initiated waves of strikes, and many joined street demonstrations.

Teachers were quick to join the movement with their students. Seven teachers' unions, including the 100,000-strong Myanmar Teachers' Federation that covers primary and higher education and monastery schools, announced work stoppages.

Journalists, too, have been walking off of the job. In response to the coup and threats to media freedom, members of the Myanmar Press Council and more than a dozen journalists at The Myanmar Times have resigned.

Importantly, employees from municipal governments and the ministries of Commerce, Electricity and Energy, Transport and Communications, and Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation have joined the strike actions, leaving many departments deserted in the past week. The labour actions hit particularly hard in the transportation sector. According to an official from the Myanmar Railways (MR), 99 percent of railway employees are on strike, leading to a shutdown of train services.

Striking workers managed to shut down the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, Myanmar National Airlines, mines, construction sites, garment factories, and schools, creating economic costs for the military rulers. The workers were joined by consumers boycotting the military's extensive business interests in food and beverage products, cigarettes, the entertainment industry, internet service providers, banks, financial enterprises, hospitals, oil companies, and wholesale markets and retail businesses.

The military has responded with repression. Workers and students have been arrested for participating in the peaceful protests, and the military has started to use deadly force.

In the face of increasing repression by the military-including the issuance of arrest warrants for eight CTUM leaders earlier this week-international pressure is more urgent than ever to protect the democratic rights of workers and their Unions.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) estimates the death toll to have so far risen to at least 126 people. Amnesty International revealed that the military junta has been using battlefield weapons against unarmed protesters, firing indiscriminately from semi-automatic rifles, snipers and sub-machine guns.



Back to Home Page

Vol. 53, No. 40, Apr 4 - 10, 2021