Spotlight Interview with Maung Maung (Burma - FTUB)

"Burmese legislation is always used against the workers"

Two years have gone by since the Saffron Revolution that saw tens of thousands of Burmese take to the streets, and nothing has changed: forced labour and the repression of basic freedoms remain part of the day-to-day reality in Burma. Maung Maung, general secretary of the FTUB (Federation of Trade Unions - Burma), explains how trade unionists are nonetheless battling on, operating as best they can within this oppressive climate.

The FTUB is banned in Burma, but you are able to count on a clandestine network of activists. What kind of action are they carrying out inside the country?

Our members are currently gathering proof of cases of trade union rights violations, rights that do not exist in Burma. They are also keeping up the fight against forced labour, by organising short training sessions explaining what constitutes forced labour and how cases can be reported to the ILO. It’s important, because there is a degree of ambiguity around the definition of forced labour in Burma: in many cases, the authorities call on people to do "voluntary work", once a week or once a month, for example, to maintain such and such a place. The community has to do this work for free, and although it is not always seen as forced labour, people know that if they protest, there will be quarrels with the soldiers and repression will follow.

In addition, we have our own internal structure that carries out trade union activities, that educates the workers about what a trade union is, about how we can all work together, etc.

Do you have to organise this kind of training because Burmese workers have no idea what trade unionism is?

The military regime has managed to close the eyes and block the ears of the Burmese, to isolate the nation. People are familiar with the word "trade union", but they don’t know what it means, how trade unions work, operate, etc. They think trade unions are under the government’s thumb, that they do what the authorities ask. We have to explain that, on the contrary, people are free to choose, that they have the right to form an independent union.
We have been able to educate tens of thousands of people in different parts of Burma. This trade union education has been progressively stepped up in the last five years, as it took us quite some time to lay the foundations of our network within the context imposed by the regime. Our members do not always know where to start the discussion in these training sessions, or what subjects it will lead to. In one of the rural regions, for example, people told us that they wanted to organise an activity for May Day, but they did not know anything about its history or what it represents. So the session was devoted to this subject. We have already managed to bring 500 people together for May Day activities. In Rangoon, our training sessions sometimes bring together between 10 and 30 people, who we talk to about May Day, the history of the trade union movement, trade union solidarity, etc.

How do you manage to gather 500 people without the authorities noticing?

We cannot say that the police and the army’s intelligence service do not notice, because there are arrests. However, if our members restrict themselves to working on trade union matters, issues related to workers’ rights, it is very difficult for the regime to imprison them, because the ILO and the ITUC will intervene, as they did last April, when those who took part in our first congress were arrested. So what the junta attempts to do is to try them on charges of terrorism. Based on charges such as these, it can imprison them for 20 or 30 years, or for life. If it doesn’t manage to charge them with terrorism, it attempts to try them as criminals, and if that doesn’t work, as political activists.

We have to take great care that our members limit their action to trade union matters and workers’ rights. In this case, we have a small space that we can operate within, although not in total safety. Our members know that they are under constant surveillance and cannot make the slightest mistake.

How long has it been since there was an authorised independent trade union in Burma?

Twenty-eight years.

Has this long absence given rise to a kind of apathy among the workers, who know nothing about their rights if they haven’t followed your training?

They know that there are labour laws, but they are only used against them; they have never seen them applied in their favour. The workers do not have the education needed to utilise these laws, they don’t know how to demand their application. They do not have the strength to stand up and demand respect for their rights, because the junta has repressed all those who have done so in the past. We try to organise them within the framework of our discussions, so that they can unite and be stronger together.

The latest arrests of FTUB members took place in April, when five delegates to your first congress were imprisoned shortly after returning to Burma. Other members were arrested at the same time. On what grounds?

The authorities asked them questions about the congress and trade union activities. When they came to the first FTUB congress, held in Thailand (as it couldn’t be held in Burma), in March, we spoke about the fact that they might be arrested on their return. We told each one of them that if they were arrested, there was no need to lie in response to the questioning, because they have done nothing wrong; they would be free to say that we talked about workers’ issues, about how to form a union. They would also be able say that the foreigners they met at the congress were also genuine trade unionists, that there were not even any journalists or NGOs at the congress. When they were arrested and interrogated, all of our members said the same thing, they were not lies, so the regime could not accuse them of being terrorists or criminals. When the ILO and the ITUC exerted pressure, they were released.

There are 30 FTUB members in prison at the moment. In what kind of conditions are they being held?

In some cases, the conditions are really bad, in others, they are so so. Myo Aung Thant, a member of the FTUB central executive committee, has been in prison since 1997. We are told that he is suffering from high blood pressure after so many years in detention at the Myitkyina prison, in the north of the country. He has to cope with a lot of difficulties in the region, which is one of the coldest in Burma. Another member, Pho Tote, was sentenced to 24 years in prison on December 2008, then to eight additional years after protesting in prison on behalf of other prisoners who had been mistreated. He himself was beaten.

Are they able to receive visits in prison?

It depends. Most of them have been sent to prisons far from home, so it’s very difficult for their families to go and visit them, as they do not have the means to pay for the trip. We try to help them with this. The prison in Myitkyina, for example, is over 1300 km from Rangoon, and it takes three days to get there. In addition, their families have to show the police a document stating the reason for their journey, where they are going and who they are staying with. If they have no money, they cannot stay at anyone’s home; no one will take them in, because members of their family are political prisoners, which creates fear. It’s a serious social problem for the prisoners because, aside from keeping up their spirits, visits are a vital way of getting some decent food and medication to them.

The military junta is known for its massive use of forced labour. Have international pressure and the ILO programme succeeded in reducing its scope a little?

The problem is that the regime’s mindset has not changed. It wants everyone to think that it is doing everything it can to fight against forced labour, but it is not, in fact, mentally prepared to stop using it, as it is not only to its advantage on the ground, but also on a psychological level: if someone can be persecuted by a person in a green uniform, it means that the latter is "superior". Forced labour is also, therefore, a way of telling soldiers that by wearing the uniform they become members of the ruling class. It was seen once again during the recent military offensives against ethnic groups in Karen, Kachin and Shan States, and last August, against the Kokangs: all the military equipment had to be carried by villagers.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

- The ITUC has also published a new "Union View" on anti-union repression and forced labour in Burma. Based on firsthand accounts and on-the-ground reporting, this 12 page report entitled "Trade Unionist Walk the Tightrope"