Myanmar: Teachers and unionists take great risks to resist military rule and keep hope alive for democracy

published 21 March 2024 updated 21 March 2024

Unionists, public sector workers and, teachers, continue to actively resist military rule and work for democracy, despite facing incredible hardship and repression by the military junta in Myanmar. To highlight the resilience of union opposition to Myanmar's military leadership, several Global Union Federations, including Education International, released a report on the workers' struggles, the Myanmar Spring Revolution, and the crucial role of trade union solidarity.

The struggle for democracy has witnessed extraordinary resilience from local union activists, such as the Myanmar Railway Workers’ Federation (MRWF), operating covertly and organising approximately 2,700 members. The Myanmar Teachers’ Federation (MTF) strives to enhance working conditions and advocate for education reform, with its President also serving as the Deputy Minister of Education of the National Unity Government (NUG).

"The international community cannot stand by and watch the military junta continue to perpetuate serious human and labour rights violations. Over the past three years, countless lives and livelihoods have been lost. It is important for us to intensify our efforts in pressuring national governments and multinational companies to sever all ties that directly and indirectly benefit the junta, and to show our solidarity with the people of Myanmar."

Anand Singh, Regional Director, EI Asia-Pacific Regional Office

The research is a joint effort of the Building and Woodworkers Federation of Myanmar (BWFM), the Confederation of Trade Union Myanmar (CTUM), and regional branches of Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), UNI, EI, and IndustriALL.

This information-packed 11-page report also reflects on workers' unwavering determination for a democratic and inclusive future in Myanmar.

The joint research underscores the need for international solidarity and support for pro-democracy movements in Myanmar. It concludes with reflections on post-revolutionary rebuilding efforts and the importance of reconciliation among different factions within Myanmar society.

Union commitment has yielded key achievements since the coup on 1 February 2021. The civilian National Unity Government (NUG), representing the opposition, is gaining international recognition as the legitimate government, leading to progress in imposing sanctions on the military junta.

Resistance efforts have also resulted in territorial gains. Coordinated actions by the Council of Global Unions (CGU) and Burmese trade unions have prompted a favourable report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) Commission of Inquiry on non-compliance with labour conventions. Consequently, the ILO Governing Body will deliberate on a potential resolution at the June 2024 ILO Conference. This resolution would urge ILO constituents to reassess their relations with the Government of Myanmar and take measures to prevent violations of workers' rights, particularly concerning freedom of association. This could lead the nine ASEAN governments to take a stronger stand, as ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) comprises ten countries, including Myanmar.

On the global stage, Myanmar unions are represented by Mrs. Phyo Sandar Soe, BWI Deputy President and Deputy Member of the ILO Governing Body, currently residing outside Myanmar. For the upcoming ILO Conference in June 2024, she will be the Worker Delegate of the NUG tripartite delegation.

Rise of Unions before the Coup

Myanmar, long under authoritarian military rule, underwent reforms in 2011 under the civilian government led by retired General Thein Sein. These reforms, including the enactment of the Labour Organisation Law and the Settlement of Labour Dispute Law, laid the groundwork for trade union growth.

Central to this was the formation of trade unions in the country. The Myanmar Teachers’ Federation (MTF) was founded in 2015 by Zaw Min Naing, a young teacher who started unionising colleagues at his school. Alongside other teachers and university staff, MTF later participated in education reforms and campaigned against unjust policies. Despite setbacks caused by the military coup in 2021, MTF leaders continued their efforts, organising strikes and participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to oppose the junta.

Public sector workers engaged heavily in widespread protests through civil disobedience after the military coup of February 2021. Educators and members of the teacher federation MTF faced harrowing experiences. Zin Thu, president of Dagon University Staff Union, and Lina, an English lecturer at Yadanabon University and MTF committee member, had to flee their university residences to evade military persecution. “The military tried to get inside our university staff living quarters,” recounted Zin Thu. He and colleagues were able to hold off the military for about a month before having to leave in March 2021. Lina, with the help of her students, discreetly left the university compound.

The crackdown forced many union leaders into hiding or exile. They cannot be arrested as to continue organise they must live and be free. Zin Thu and his family once stayed in a restaurant close to the main road, disguising as restaurant employees. It was in a neighborhood that supported the regime, and armed policemen were frequently patrolling the area in double cab trucks. “We couldn’t get a sound sleep. When we heard a dog barking, we had to check because we were new to the environment.” After having moved to seven or eight different places across the country, Lina found herself at a monastery. She stayed hidden there for four months. However, even such a sacred place was not beyond the military’s reach.

Today, over 1,000 union leaders and activists remain in hiding across the country. Many have been separated from their families, while some have relocated to distant places, living as fugitives to escape the pursuit of the military junta.

Organising and Resisting

The research also details initiatives undertaken by union activists to organise workers, including providing skills and union training, offering medical support, and advocating for gender equality.

Zeyar Win, an organiser in the building sector, explains how he started organising workers while in detention. Despite being in jail with a broken wrist and partial hearing loss, Zeyar Win explored opportunities to organise, explaining the power of trade unions to incarcerated workers. Once settled in safe zones, union leaders could offer services to workers, including certifying skills training for job opportunities. Union training also included sessions on basic workers’ rights, dispute settlement mechanisms, and employment contracts. The military cannot shut down the internet signal where there are factories because they cannot afford to lose foreign income. So, in townships, unions provide trainings. BWI also brought to the ILO 200 instances of unfair dismissals, unpaid compensations, etc.

The Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) saw widespread participation, particularly in sectors like education, railway transportation and banking sector, leading to significant disruptions and resistance against the military regime.

To counter the regime's control over finances, alternative financial solutions like NUGPay were introduced in June 2022, enabling digital transactions outside military-controlled banks. NUGPay, a blockchain-based digital wallet application introduced by the NUG Ministry of Finances, facilitates the transfer of Digital Myanmar Kyat (DMMK), Myanmar’s first digital currency. As of November 2023, over 30,000 NUGPay accounts have been opened, with 28 billion DMMK in circulation and over 700 billion DMMK issued through the app.

Teachers and university lecturers actively provide education to the youth of Myanmar. Zaw Min Naing participates in the Basic Township Education Council under the NUG Ministry of Education, contributing to education in the local ethnic language. With support from the NUG Ministry of Education, the Myanmar Nway-Oo University (MNOU) began accepting enrolments in October 2022. Lina serves on the Administrative Council of MNOU, planning curricula and delivering lectures to master’s and undergraduate classes. CDM students from over 50 arts and science universities nationwide have enrolled in the MNOU’s courses. The university also issues certificates for the students, enabling them to apply for further study abroad.

Myanmar has grappled with decades-old disputes between ethnicities, and the new political divide exacerbates existing wounds. To emerge as a new nation, pro-democracy forces may need to engage with pro-military populations and reintegrate non-CDM workers into their communities. This process of reconciliation may begin with empathy. “For me,” Lina concluded, “I want a new democratic union where we can enjoy peace, development, and equality, including for those who stand by the side of the military in this period.”