Women factory workers took to the streets and catalysed a mass movement
By Ko Maung. Published 12-15-2021 by openDemocracy
A year before the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar, striking workers from the Tai Yi shoe factory protested in front of their workplace to demand an increase in their daily wages. To raise their spirits, the workers sang the revolutionary anthem, ‘Thway Thitsar’.
In Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, the mass movement against the 2021 coup, ‘Thway Thitsar’ could be heard all over the country. “The present is critical, brothers and sisters. We must have solidarity.” A regular feature of workers’ protests, the anthem had now become part of the revolutionary movement. I say this not to highlight the song itself, but to call attention to the history of worker organising and struggle in Myanmar – a history that laid the groundwork for the Spring Revolution. Simply put, had workers not previously organised unions inside their factories, the protests that catalysed the Spring Revolution would not have happened. The February 6 protests ignited the anger of people across the country and led to nation-wide protests in the days that followed.
A history of worker organising
In 2011, as part of a wider reform process, trade unions were legalised in Myanmar after close to 50 years of being prohibited. Labour rights organisations and union federations sought to inform workers of their legal right to association. But it was workers themselves who organised unions in their workplaces. In most cases, this occurred following a workplace dispute that coalesced into a collective struggle to better wages or working conditions. With support, at times, from outside activists, hundreds of thousands of workers in the industrial zones around Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, established workplace unions in just 10 years.
Union drives in the factories often began with workers wearing union t-shirts and red headbands, or engaging in sit-down strikes. If the employer refused their demands, the workers would organise a protest inside the factory or picket to disrupt production. These steps are simple. The objectives are clear. But union organisers in the factories had to work hard to mobilise their fellow workers. Factory-level union leaders needed to reassure workers that if problems arose, union leaders would take responsibility. And by organising campaigns, factory union leaders risked being dismissed or attacked by thugs. There have been many such incidents over the past 10 years.
Government mechanisms established to resolve workers’ grievances and address workplace abuse have been ineffective. Strikes have therefore been the most successful tactic for factory-level unions to achieve workers’ legal rights in the workplace. It has only been when workers have gone on strike that they have gained power to influence factory management. In this way, unionised workers have won the right to participate in workplace decision-making. Factory-level unions have put a stop to forced overtime and workplace harassment. And unionised workers have compelled managers to go through worker-controlled committees to resolve disputes.
In Myanmar, there are two trade union federations that privilege the strike as a tactic for advancing workers’ demands. These are the All Burma Federation of Trade Unions (ABFTU) and the Federation of General Workers Myanmar (FGWM). Twenty-one factory-level unions founded the second of these in the Hlaingtharyar industrial zone, on the outskirts of Yangon, in September 2019. Since then membership has steadily increased. It was FGWM workers who led the anti-coup protests in Yangon and catalysed the Spring Revolution. Thousands took to the streets. In response, people across the country were moved to support the protesting workers and to join the mass movement against military rule.
From the February coup to a mass movement
Military authorities shut down Myanmar’s internet soon after the coup d’état on 1 February. Recalling that first day, Ma*, a factory-level union leader, told me, “I couldn’t believe it when I heard. But later, I realised it was true. Our president and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been arrested.” Civil society organisations, including labour rights groups and unions, denounced the coup, issuing a joint statement demanding that political prisoners be released and that the results of the 2020 election be honoured.
FGWM issued its own, similar statement, and later joined with several groups to establish the Anti-Junta Mass Movement Committee. Other democratic forces were also organising against military rule. The day after the coup, doctors employed as civil servants in the Ministry of Health initiated a civil disobedience movement by refusing to work in government hospitals. And ordinary people across the country began hitting pots and pans each night at 8:00 pm in protest.
Faced with this groundswell of anger, conservative social influencers and moderate politicians began spreading a rumour that street protests would give the military junta justification to hold onto power. The claim, which was untrue, was that the military could legally hold power for 72 hours under Myanmar law. During this time it would have to inform the United Nations of the reason for the coup and present the president’s signature accepting a transfer of power. Failure to do so, it was claimed, would nullify the coup and require a transfer of power back to civilian authorities. Street protests would thus ostensibly give the military justification for holding onto power. Even people opposed to the coup believed this erroneous claim, and some politicians in the ousted National League for Democracy urged to people to remain in their homes. The result was that, in the days after the coup, many people became wary of taking to the streets to protest.
Worker organisers and factory-level union leaders in FGWM still wanted to take action. First they initiated anti-coup campaigns inside the factories using the tactics they normally reserved for pressuring their employers: workers wore their union uniforms, issued statements denouncing the coup, and sang revolutionary songs during their lunch break. They then decided that, if at least 3000 members agreed, FGWM would mobilise a protest. “When we had all arrived at the factory to start our day, I called a meeting as chair of the factory union with union members to discuss opinions regarding a protest,” Ma recalled. “I explained that under a military dictatorship we would lose our rights and that there would not even be workers’ unions in the factories. All the workers agreed to participate in the protest.”
In the end, even non-union workers joined the protest. On the morning of 6 February, around 4000 workers rode factory trucks from the Hlaingtharyar industrial zone to three locations in downtown Yangon. The vast majority were women in their late teens and twenties. One participant told me she would never forget her experiences that day, and she was grateful to the union leaders who safely returned the workers to their dormitories that night. Chanting slogans in downtown Yangon with their lunchboxes in hand, these protestors made it clear that they had come on their own volition as oppressed and exploited workers from garment factories on Yangon’s industrial outskirts to take their stand against military rule.
A debt that must not be forgotten
Factory workers faced violent retaliation because of their role in mobilising protestors and in catalysing the mass movement against military rule. On 14 March, the military and police killed at least 58 people in the Hlaingtharyar industrial zone. Politicians in Myanmar must surely know the debt that they owe to the workers who led the protests against military rule and who sacrificed so much as a result.
However, some commentators have instead claimed that the 6 February protests were led by high-profile politicians and activists, as though workers could not organise themselves. This is a misrepresentation of history. It neglects not only the role of workers in organising the protests, but also the self-organised struggles of workers in the 10 years of Myanmar’s so-called democratic transition. During those years, workers had to organise and strike to secure their livelihoods and their legal rights. Since the coup, workers in Myanmar have risked their lives in the struggle for democracy. This must not be forgotten.
* Ma is a pseudonym to protect their anonymity.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.