Mar 29, 2021
Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the newspaper of the revolutionary workers’ group active in France.
The February 1st coup d’état, which sent Aung San Suu Kyi to prison after five years in power, touched off a powerful reaction by the Burmese population. Escalating repression has caused at least 183 deaths among protestors to date, and led to thousands of arrests, without curbing the opposition movement.
On March 14th alone, no fewer than 50 were killed in the industrial zone of Hlaing Tharyar, where the army invaded, burned barricades, and openly fired on the opposition. Martial law was declared there as well as in other worker residential communities. The repression falls particularly on places where workers are concentrated because workers, in particular young textile workers, play an important role in this mobilization.
Burma, or Myanmar, a former British colony, is among the poorest countries in the world. But its industry has seen spectacular growth over the last decade. Alongside the existing exploitation of natural resources, capital has been invested in light industry starting in the early 2000s, attracted by the low wages—as low as three dollars a day.
Just about every big-name clothing brand produces there now: Adidas, Benetton, C&A, The Gap, H&M, Lidl, Primark ..., subcontracting through companies based in China or Singapore. Today, the textile and food industries together count at least a million workers, often women, in this country of 54 million.
The Burmese working class has grown rapidly over the last decade. Many are peasants driven from the land by expropriations, or due to the destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 [a “cyclone” is what a hurricane is called in the Indian Ocean]. They are so-called “domestic migrants” and live in shanties and shacks on the edges of cities. Over the last decade, they have gone on strike many times, fought, and organized unions.
Even before the coup d’état, many factories used the pandemic as an excuse for mass layoffs, focusing these on unionized workers—the army was already coming in to shut down strikes and arrest organizers.
According to testimony from militants, the announcement of the coup d’état was taken to be a direct threat to the workers. “With the army in power, it would be like before, we would lose our rights, and the employers would once again oppress the workers and lower their wages. That’s what we can expect,” said a worker from an industrial zone.
February 6th saw one of the first open demonstrations against the dictatorship, after calls for a strike and for civil disobedience. Workers organized it, as told by a union militant: “We held a meeting for all workers and started talking about labor rights, rights that we are losing under the dictatorship. On February 5, the workers decided to march.”
According to another militant: “In Hlaing Tharyar there are about 300 factories. Almost all of the factories participated. If a factory has a union inside, the union organized the strike, and the workers all joined. In the factories without a union, the workers individually got their leave and also participated in the protest. So the crowd was huge.”
China Labor Bulletin, a web newsletter for Chinese unionists, quoted a white collar worker who had never before supported a strike: “In the first few days after the coup, there was no obvious response. We were waiting for someone who could lead us and denounce the military…. It was inspiring to see that the garment workers took to the streets, potentially in the face of bullets and batons. That gave us courage to do the same.”
It’s difficult to gauge the degree of mobilization and the level of class consciousness of the Burmese working class, given how little information trickles out. In any event, it is clear that a segment of the workers saw the coup d’état as a threat of worsened exploitation and decided to react using their own means. A worker at Bogard Lingerie said as much: “For us, the first priority should be to take down the dictator. Under military rule, there will be no rights for our workers.”