Trade unions in Myanmar called for a general strike on Monday, as the country entered its sixth week of mass protest since the military staged a coup d’etat on 1 February, arresting key politicians and imposing martial law.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in defiance of police and soldiers, who are terrorising urban neighbourhoods with arbitrary arrests and violence, including the fatal shooting of at least 50 people.
While street protests are the most visible expression of opposition, at the heart of the movement are labour strikes. The resistance began last month with a mass walkout by doctors and other civil servants, in what has become known as the civil disobedience movement (CDM). Since then, state bureaucracy, hospitals, railways and banks have been struggling to run at a low capacity – and the rebellion is now growing, as private-sector unions call for a mass strike that could bring the country to a standstill.
Novara Media talked to Htar Nwe*, a feminist, labour activist in Yangon, about the powerful role workers have to play in resisting the coup.
Earlier this week, an alliance of almost twenty trade unions and civil society groups called for a general strike by all workers in Myanmar. Strike committees are now mobilising across the country to show the military that any state without democracy is unworkable.
In Yangon’s industrial district, striking workers have already mobilised and begun to march through the streets, equipped with safety hats, gas masks and goggles. Those at the front are clasping improvised shields made from scrap metal with the words “PEOPLE” written across the front. Those behind them hold banners that say “we want democracy” and proudly wave flags representing their unions.
When you’re in the crowd you feel all sorts of emotions. There is an anxiety that you could get arrested or shot, but there is also an energy, as if you are walking towards victory.
Elsewhere, other workers have staged sit-in strikes at their factories and, with support from local residents, they chant slogans calling for the end of military rule. People are calling this the ‘Spring Revolution’, but the weather is hot enough for summer already.
I’ve felt paranoid almost every night since the coup, some days I feel hopeful but other days I feel helpless. For the workers of Myanmar, this has been a crucial time to make our voices heard. Even under the so-called democratic government of the NLD, workers were targeted for demanding their basic rights, protesting salary cuts or being involved in union activity. Workers were not the priority of the previous government, but now, under the military coup, things are going to get much worse. However, we are ready to fight against oppression and injustice, just as we always have.
We have been able to strengthen and grow the movement very quickly, particularly in the garment and manufacturing sector. This is very much a feminist struggle: 90% of workers in manufacturing are women. These are the leaders in Myanmar’s struggle for workers’ rights.
Workers have been increasingly angry at their treatment since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic last year. The factories were shut down without warning and workers were left without salaries from their employers or social welfare from the government. The coup has fuelled this anger, as workers anticipate more hardship, more poverty, under a military dictatorship. While this week’s strike is on a larger scale, workers have been staging intermittent strikes and sit-ins since the week after the coup.
In Myanmar, workers organise their own basic labour union in their factory and these unions elect members to represent them at the township or district level within union federations. The representatives make decisions, like taking strike action, releasing joint statements etc. Many people who work with unions say that they are the most democratic organisations in Myanmar.
Yet demonstrations and protests have also revealed the precariousness of workers. In the past month, workers have been desperate to march on the streets, but have also risked being fired for doing so. Organising the strike this week was logistically difficult. Union leaders and activists had to raise funds and support for striking workers, including negotiating with factory owners to safeguard their jobs. Factory workers, many of them migrants from rural areas, are still taking an enormous risk to their safety and livelihoods in order to oppose the military. As a result, not all workers are striking yet. Some of those who are on strike have stationed themselves at the factory gates, directing their chants at their fellow workers, urging them to join the walkout at this vital time.
Almost everybody opposes the military. But there is a mixed opinion among workers and unions on the NLD – the main opposition party – and whether we are striking to support party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or solely against the military. Suu Kyi remains highly popular among many workers. Yet throughout their term in government, the NLD made alliances with business cronies and capital rather than supporting the grassroots movements of workers, students and civil society.
Our unions are calling for support from unions and activists abroad. We want them to reach out and connect with Burmese unions and workers, to forge formal or informal bonds that will lend themselves to more practical and material support.
We are also asking international unions and activists to pressure major fashion labels that source their production in Myanmar not to make redundancies or punish workers for striking and to cut ties with military-owned business. More generally, workers can support and advocate for causes such as the Asian Floor Wage campaign that would guarantee a living wage to all workers in the region.
Moral support is absolutely essential and is much appreciated too. One worker told me she was so happy to know that people outside were supporting them and showing solidarity.
Some days it feels like a struggle to make people understand that the workers are at the centre of any fight for freedom. But I think this is an opportunity to both resist the coup and to educate the general public and raise class consciousness. We need to help each other in this resistance movement, in order to achieve total freedom and liberation.
Htar Nwe is a pseudonym for labour and feminist activist based in Yangon, Myanmar.
You can donate to the strikes and CDM movement in Myanmar here.
To support independent Burmese media, you can donate to Myanmar Now, which is trying to raise money to fund its continued live coverage of the protests. Myanmar Now’s tweets are embedded throughout this piece.