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Khaing Zar Aung wins Arthur Svensson international prize for trade union rights

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11 April, 2024The 2024 Arthur Svensson international prize for trade union rights will be awarded to Khaing Zar Aung, who is a trade union leader and activist from Myanmar. This recognition acknowledges her efforts and determination in advocating for labour rights, particularly under the difficult situation in Myanmar since 2021.

Khaing Zar began her journey in the labour movement as a garment worker at the age of 16. Her advocacy work took a more defined shape when she migrated to Thailand as a worker and started training fellow migrant workers about their rights. With Myanmar's initial steps towards democracy, she returned home and soon rose to lead the Industrial Workers' Federation of Myanmar (IWFM). Her leadership extended to playing a significant role in the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM), which was legalized only after 2012.

Under her stewardship, the IWFM made significant strides in organizing labour, particularly empowering young women in the burgeoning textile industry, which saw a boom with the inflow of international brands seeking affordable labour. 

Myanmar’s military coup in 2021, forced Khaing Zar Aung to seek refuge in Germany. Despite being in exile, she has continued to fight for the cause of Myanmar’s workers on the global stage. She has urged international brands to cut ties with Myanmar and lobbied for the European Union to suspend trade preferences until the junta concedes power.

The military regime has persistently oppressed opposition, resulting in over 4,600 deaths and the detention of 25-30,000 individuals, many of whom are trade unionists actively resisting the junta. In this turmoil, the trade union movement has been pivotal in coordinating large-scale protests and forming the Myanmar Labour Alliance, which supports the Civil Disobedience Movement aimed at reinstating the democratic government.

Today, an alliance of various ethnic groups, youth, students, and political entities alongside trade unions, under the leadership of figures like Khaing Zar Aung, is fighting not just for a return to pre-coup conditions but for the establishment of a genuine federal democracy. 

Myanmar’s situation continues to deteriorate due to the military junta's recent enforcement of a conscription law. This law, is a desperate attempt to address manpower shortages during conflict and resistance, intensifying public fear and instability. 

Being forced into service under a regime that they oppose, many Myanmar citizens are fleeing or joining opposition forces, contributing to domestic chaos and regional instability. This context underscores the critical importance of Khaing Zar’s advocacy and the international community's role in supporting Myanmar’s fight for democracy and labour rights.

In an IndustriALL youth meeting in March 2024 Khaing Zar expressed that

“young workers oppose the conscription because it is imposed by the Junta without the consent of the people and workers and it compels people to kill each other. The People Military Service Law should be used for national defence against external threats, not for the purpose of internal conflict.”

Atle Høie, general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, expressed his admiration and support for Khaing Zar Aung, stating,

“She has been awarded this year's Arthur Svensson Prize for her incredible work for trade union rights in Myanmar and her fight for a return to democracy to the country. May this prize shed more light on the catastrophic situation for workers in Myanmar under the military junta and contribute to its downfall.”

The Arthur Svensson Prize not only recognizes Khaing Zar Aung’s sacrifices and leadership but also highlights the ongoing struggle for democracy and fundamental labour rights in Myanmar.

The prize ceremony is scheduled to take place in Oslo on June 12th, where the global trade union community will celebrate Khaing Zar Aung.