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FEATURE: Why does IndustriALL support sanctions in Myanmar?

15 December, 2021At its third Congress on 15 September 2021, affiliates to IndustriALL Global Union voted unanimously to support the campaign of comprehensive economic sanctions organized by the Myanmar Labor Alliance against the military junta in Myanmar. The campaign calls for disinvestment from the country, and for all companies operating there to cease operations and place no new orders. 


From Global Worker No. 2 November 2021


Text Walton Pantland

As a consequence of this decision, IndustriALL has written to multinational companies with business relations in Myanmar, including major energy and steel companies and fashion brands, asking them to cease their operations. Several have responded positively. IndustriALL has also approached multi-stakeholder initiatives to seek support for the campaign.

Why did IndustriALL take this decision?

The call for sanctions came from trade unions in Myanmar, and was debated at length within IndustriALL and its affiliates over the summer. A representative of an IndustriALL affiliate, the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), addressed Congress to ask delegates to support the campaign for comprehensive economic sanctions. IndustriALL trusts the judgement of affiliates, and of the organizations that comprise the Myanmar Labor Alliance, on the most appropriate course of action for themselves. Support for sanctions was a statement of solidarity with a beleaguered labour movement suffering under a brutal military regime. Congress delegates felt they were are not in a position to criticize demands made by unions in an extreme situation.

Virtually the entire labour movement in Myanmar, under the umbrella of the Myanmar Labor Alliance, which includes the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar and the IWFM, is part of the campaign for comprehensive economic sanctions. Unions in Myanmar made a judgement call: although sanctions would be painful, the human rights abuses committed by the military were so extreme that the priority had to be overthrowing the regime as soon as possible. 

The call for sanctions does not exist in isolation, but is part of a coordinated campaign to isolate the military junta, by imposing an arms embargo and denying it diplomatic recognition at UN bodies. The Myanmar unions call for international recognition of the National Unity Government (NUG), made up of the democratically-elected lawmakers who were ousted in the coup. However, they maintain independent policy, based on workers’ demands. The NUG opposes comprehensive sanctions, but has called on citizens to join an uprising against the regime. The unions prefer the non-violent solution of sanctions, diplomatic pressure and industrial action.

The call for sanctions has been widely criticized, both by apologists for the military regime, and by those acting in good faith who support democracy in Myanmar. Most criticism points out that sanctions will cause job losses and further hurt workers who are already suffering. Some also say that there was insufficient consultation with workers prior to the decision. Critics support their position by finding examples, usually anecdotal, of workers opposing sanctions, and calling for constructive engagement and targeted sanctions against only those companies with military links.

The labour movement in Myanmar has responded to critics by pointing out that while they cannot claim to represent every worker in the country, democratic union structures are more representative than anecdotal data. They stress that due diligence and constructive engagement is impossible due to the nature of the human rights abusesFactory owners have passed the details of trade union members to the military. Many trade unionists have been arrested, some have been killed, and many more are in hiding. The regime launched a large scale offensive campaign aimed at crushing opposition, recently shelling a town in Chin province with heavy artillery. So far, the military has killed more than 1,200 people.

Historical precedent

Although it is unusual for trade unions to call for economic sanctions against their country and against their employers, it is not without precedent. During the struggle against apartheid, unions in South Africa called for comprehensive economic sanctions against the country, a boycott of all South African goods, and for foreign companies to disinvest from the country. The call for boycott and sanctions was controversial at the time, both within South Africa and internationally, with many calling for constructive engagement with the racist regime. 

Two factors were important in the case of South Africa: sanctions were not an isolated tactic, but part of a comprehensive struggle against the apartheid regime, and the call for sanctions came from the workers who would be most affected.

The sanctions call was never universally supported by all workers – but as the apartheid government increased its brutality in the 1980s, assassinating political leaders and using the army to maintain order in workers’ neighbourhoods, a majority came to support the idea that “sanctions hurt, but apartheid kills.”

In 1984, unionized supermarket workers at Dunnes Stores in Dublin, Ireland, refused to handle South African fruit, eventually striking for three years until the Irish government banned South African imports. Support for sanctions grew within the global labour movement, leading to the economic and political isolation of the regime. The economic basis of the regime was further undermined by waves of industrial action and civil disobedience within South Africa. As a result, apartheid quickly became unsustainable and the regime was forced to negotiate a transition to democracy.

Are sanctions in Myanmar working?

The February coup in Myanmar faced significantly more resistance than the military junta anticipated. Widespread resistance saw the launch of the Civil Disobedience Movement, strikes by workers and the refusal of the civil service to work under the regime. This led the regime to act with increased brutality, using military special forces, who are usually deployed to suppress ethnic minorities in border regions, against ordinary people in the cities.

Despite this repression, the military regime has not yet been able to consolidate its control of the country, and resistance remains strong. To support the military offensive, the regime has to purchase weapons from countries that are unlikely to extend credit indefinitely.

Myanmar is currently close to economic collapse. The value of the currency has dropped by 30 per cent, and the economy has contracted by 18 per cent since the beginning of the coup. This is likely to grow as more companies finalize orders and leave the country. Sanctions are making it much more difficult for the regime to operate.

The strategy of those who support sanctions is to starve the regime of all resources so that it collapses as soon as possible, before it is able to consolidate its power and begin to normalize diplomatic relations. Unless the regime finds generous foreign backers, it will not to be able to sustain the current levels of oppression.