Major strike wave in Burma

An important strike wave erupted recently in the Burmese textile industry. The workers have been resisting the brutal response of the military regime.

During the last weeks more then 3,800 workers, most of them women, in the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone on the outskirts of Rangoon have been on strike demanding a Kyat 10,000 (US$10) wage increase and a reduction in working hours. This was the first major strike in the city for almost twenty years. The affected factories are the Korean-owned Opal 2 garment factory and the Mya Fashion. Workers from the Kya Lay garment factory and Tauyee shoe factory are also on strike.

The response from the military junta that runs the country was quick and decisive: riot police and military were quickly deployed and cordoned off the factories affected by the strike. No reports of progress have come out and the situation is unclear. An offer from the management of the Opal 2 factory, offering payment of Kyat 10,000 this month was turned down by the workers. This is a clear and bold statement from the workers that they are demanding a real living wage and decent standards.

Despite the fact that the constitution allows for trade unions and that Burma has ratified several ILO conventions, the independent Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB) remains banned and several of its leaders are currently imprisoned.

Workers' protests and the struggle against the military junta

The 2007 protests against the government are often referred to as the 'Saffron Revolution' due to the robes associated with the Buddhist monks that were at the forefront of the demonstrations. However, the real cause of these demonstrations was the sharp increases in the prices of basic goods and the removal of fuel subsidies. This led hundreds of thousands to demonstrate during September 2007. But a violent crackdown and the lack of proper organization led to the demise of the protests.

The double standards of the West and the imperialist powers during those protests must be exposed. Despite the fact that both the US and the European Union enforced sanctions during the protests, their representatives in the IMF and the World Bank had been pressurising the regime to remove all subsidies for years. And right now they are negotiating with the government on privatizing large parts of the government-owned industries.

This clearly shows that the Burmese people can only trust in their own forces. It is clear that the FTUB and other workers' organizations need to link the struggles for living wages with the struggle against the military junta. Although the 2007 protests were courageous they did not evolve into a general strike which could have brought the country to a standstill. This gave the military junta the upper hand after the first weeks of mass demonstrations and they were able to break up the mass movement.

It is clear that the imperialist powers are not interesting in the struggle of the Burmese people. What they are interested in is in having a loyal regime where cheap goods can be produced, like so many of its neighbours. Therefore socialists in Burma and elsewhere insist that the protests against the regime should distance themselves from the many NGOs, think-tanks and religious organizations that want to bring down the military junta and replace it with a bourgeois regime loyal to the imperialist powers. A real movement for the end of oppression, exploitation and for a genuine social transformation can only be built on the workers’ movement and together with independent and fighting workers’ organizations.

One of the major obstacles to uniting the working class and the many poor farmers is the ethnic question which is used to build up tensions that are dividing the opposition. A real fighting workers' organization must include all ethnic groups and put an end on the 'Divide and Rule' tactics used by the military junta.

Burma is a horrendous example of military and capitalist brutality and the only ones that can put an end to the misery are the workers of Burma, by putting themselves at the head of all the oppressed layers of society. Our agenda must be to support independent and fighting workers' organizations that can unite all ethnic groups into a mass movement. The latest strike wave is a clear example of what can be achieved.