Spotlight Interview with Maung Maung (FTUB –Burma)

‘There is a continuing, and expanding, round of oppression within the country.’

General Secretary, Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) and National Council Union of Burma (NCUB). Maung Maung denounces the current repression and repeats his call, with the support of the international trade union movement, for stronger economic sanctions against the Burmese dictatorship.

What is the current state of oppression in your country, Burma?

There is a continuing, and expanding, round of oppression within the country. Initially it was only the monks and the monasteries. But now it has spread to the houses of activists.
The military have taken the videotapes and camera shots (of the October, 2007 demonstrations) and used them to identity people at the local level and even in the rural areas. So this is where the circle is expanding.

Would it be fair to say that the international trade union movement and the FTUB are right at the fore of fighting for human rights and democracy inside Burma?

What we’ve been doing over the last 18-years is trying to raise the awareness of the people. They have the right to express themselves and stand up to the rulers and say ‘this is not fair’. We’ve been doing workshops, training programmes within the community, within the work places, factories and various work zones. For example, we’ve talked about how workers should be represented by an organized trade union, and therefore it’s rightful for you to ask to have independent trade unions in the workplace.

We are also working with the ILO and ITUC running training programmes on the rights of workers, the responsibilities of trade union members and how the fight for worker rights is also a fight for human rights.

Then most of this work has been conducted clandestinely, at great risk to the organizers?

Well, there are two phases. First we have workshops and training sessions in bordering countries. These are open workshops, they are not advertised. But the members come out from within Burma. They’re given basic trade union rights awareness, basic workers’ rights issues, international labour standards.

Then when these people go back again they continue the work clandestinely giving secret programmes and training.

So your trainers and activists are actually risking their lives by doing this kind of work?

Well recently we had six young people arrested and sentenced to 28-years in Burma because they were trying to hold discussions at the American Center. Before that 13 people were arrested because they were trying to organize a workshop. And back in ’96 we had the same problem where the regime arrested two of our leaders and jailed them for life.

They are risking their lives, they are risking their lives everyday. People have been tortured. They are under intense pressure. Trade unionists are treated even worse than political prisoners from the NLD (National League for Democracy) or the students. They’re separated and treated very harshly by the regime.

What kind of punishment and torture have trade unionists been subjected too?

They are never allowed to have any representation. Their families are threatened. Some of the guys were put in dog cells. They were put together with the prison dogs. Their hands were tied behind their backs so they couldn’t eat with their hands. They were forced to eat with their mouths like dogs. These are the things that our people have to go through.

So, they’re treated like dogs or worse than dogs?

They were forced to sit down like dogs. At roll-call they couldn’t stand like a man, they had to sit like a dog and bark like a dog. This is the kind of inhuman treatment given to our people.

Why are the international trade union movement and the FTUB calling for a complete economic boycott of Burma as a weapon to defeat the junta?

We have to do this. Opponents of sanctions say people will starve to death, people will lose their jobs. That’s correct some people will lose their jobs. But people will not starve to death.

Almost everything that goes in and out of Burma has to pass through something called Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings. This was set up by the military and is 100-percent owned and operated by the military. Everything — from importing a needle to an airplane, everything – has to go through this system.

If you look at jade mining, for example, the gems’ business, even tourism, you’ve got to get a license from the military. So it’s the military that’s getting the end profits. That’s why we are saying that sanctions on exports and imports do have an impact on the military. And that is why we are asking for these sanctions.

We have been told this by people from the very, very ground level, the factory workers, people on the work floor. They have said look just shut it down. Maybe we’ll all go hungry for a month. But it’s better to change the system now, than go on suffering like this.

What about foreign investors and companies doing business in Burma?

They say they are giving an income to the people. But you’ll see that employers are cheating the workers. They’re working hand-in-hand with the military regime. They’re not paying workers the correct amount for working regular hours. Workers are forced to do compulsory over-time just to make up their basic wages.

Workers are being hurt. They do not have the right to any trade union representation. In the textile or garment industry you don’t get maternity leave. If you go for maternity leave you’re out of a job. If you don’t come for overtime three times, you’re out of a job. This is not the kind of workplace that any worker wants.

In US dollar terms, what is the average wage for a manual worker?

A day is less than 30-cents. You get less than 30-cents a day.

So in fact foreign investors are just lying and exploiting the people of Burma?

That’s correct. They’re exploiting the people, and I’ve had discussions like this in The Netherlands, in Europe and other parts of the world. And I’ve asked them to explain why they agree with the kind of wages being paid, and they don’t have any answers.

Do you feel that your campaign for total economic sanctions will succeed?

It’s already starting to show an impact. The regime is scrambling hard for foreign currency. They’re having a hard time finding US dollars and Euros. Despite all the investment from China, India, Japan and other Asian countries, the export market is in Europe and America. We’ve managed to block most of the imports into America and now we’re looking to Europe. And if we get Europe and Australia on board we should be seeing results pretty soon.

The key element is that everybody wants to have a stable Burma, especially the neighbouring countries like China, India and Thailand. I believe that with the wave of support that the international community is showing and with the way that things are taking place in Burma, China and India are starting to realize that they cannot support the regime for ever.

What do you think the individual trade unionist could do to help your cause?

First, is to try and keep an eye on what their governments are doing. There needs to be monitoring of who is doing business with Burma. Trade unions should try to keep an eye on whether goods made in Burma are coming into their countries, and if so report it as a breach of sanctions. For example, Dockers can refuse to handle ships carrying goods to and from Burma. Airline workers can refuse to refuel planes coming from Burma. People in the financial services could monitor anything that has to do with the regime. If they see anything to do with Burma, then put up a red flag.

Interview by David Browne (Parachute Pictures)