“Workers’ Rights and Democracy is Not Something to be Taken for Granted”: An Interview With Myanmar Activist in Korea, Yan Kyaw Moe.

Our comrades from NoHeTu in Korea interviewed activist Yan Kyaw Moe about the political situation in Myanmar, uprisings by students and workers against the military coup, and how migrant workers abroad are supporting the movement at home.
  • NoHeTu | 
  • May 30, 2021
Person wearing a blue face mask holds a red sign that says "stop dictatorship" in front of a crowd of protesters.

How is the resistance to the coup in Myanmar progressing?

As of April 1, 560 people have been killed by the Myanmar military, and around 2,000 to 3,000 people were arrested. Even the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the Myanmarese human rights organization, cannot accurately count the number of dead, injured, and arrested.

On March 27, the Myanmar army caused 200 casualties at Myanmar’s “Army Day” protest. The Army Day used to be celebrated as a symbol of resistance against Japanese colonialism. On the same day decades ago, General Aung San persuaded people to fight against Japanese militarist fascism. However, the military appropriated this day into Army Day. For us, it is still a day of anti-fascism and resistance. On March 27 this year, Myanmar’s workers, students, and citizens protested, claiming that the army doesn’t protect the people, is fascist, and attacks and slaughters people, and that we should drive it out.

The protests have gotten smaller because the army cruelly repressed people and people need to keep themselves safe. During the 1988 (8888 Uprising) revolution as well, the military killed numerous people. Even then, the UN kept saying that they were opposed to the coup massacre but took no action. And tragically, the military was still part of international society and maintained its power over its people. Based on this historical experience, the military government seems to believe that it can regain its authority once the national resistance abates, harnessing diplomatic complicity from China, Russia, the United States, Europe, and the United Nations at any time.

Protesting out on the streets is not the only way we fight. There are three; first is street protest, the second is the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), such as the general strike of workers and closure of shops, and third is the Federal Congressional Representative Committee (CRPH – Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw). More people are participating in the civil disobedience movement, such as general workers’ strikes and shop closures. The rebels from ethnic minorities in Myanmar are supporting the uprising against the coup. The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Arakan Army (AA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) declared a joint statement saying that they supported Myanmar’s Spring Revolution and clarified that they would intervene with arms if the military continues to slaughter people. The Karen National Union (KNU) rebels fought against the army in the Hpapun region. Approximately 45 soldiers were killed. Then the military sent combat planes to attack the village. Many people died, and 10,000 people had to flee to the Thai border.

What is the prospect of overthrowing Myanmar’s dictatorship?

It is Gen Z that gives us hope. Their creed is to take democracy back from the military coup. They are workers, high school students, and college students in their late teens and twenties. Some of them can break through the Internet blockages by the military and share the situation and news of Myanmar’s struggle via social media. The songs, poems, and writings created by this generation also encourage me. 

The heroes/heroines of the civil disobedience movement are workers, students, and citizens. Workers are fighting with a general strike to overthrow the military dictatorship. There was also a civil disobedience movement in 1988 as well. In 1988, all 24 ministries and government agencies were shut down. Every official and even police also took part in strikes and protests. Politicians, workers and citizens, including Aung San Suu Kyi, thought we had won. After mutual agreement, people stopped protests and had elections. However, the military arrested the elected NLD politicians and sent them to jail. Everyone knows that this is a powerful attack right now in the fight against a military coup. Young workers and students shout, “It’s not ‘88 now. It’s ‘21 and it’s not equal to ‘88!’. Don’t stop, don’t believe anything, don’t agree with the military!”

What do you think of seeing Myanmar workers fighting at the forefront of the struggle?

Looking at the history of Myanmar, workers were the first to fight. During the British colony, Thakin Po Hla Gyi marched from Chauk to Yangon in 1938-1939 to demonstrate for workers’ demands. At first, a few dozen people started, but when they arrived in Yangon, 10,000 workers gathered. He also led the oil workers’ strike and is the most famous representative of the workers’ rights revolution in Myanmar’s history. He is depicted on banknotes breaking the chains tied around his neck.

In 1948, Myanmar became independent from Britain. Like other Asian countries, Britain gave arms to ethnic minorities, made them fight each other, and left. At that time, Myanmar was a democracy. However, the president gave the power to the military, perhaps because there was an army threat.

There was a military coup in 1962. At that time, people did not protest. Some thought the coup was weird, but some people wanted to see who was good. As civil war with ethnic minorities continued, people thought that perhaps after the military stabilized the country, it would become a democracy. But the soldiers took off their military uniforms, became politicians, and said it was a socialist country, but it was actually a military dictatorship. The soldier was the president and if he didn’t like something, he could change it.

Under this “military socialism,” there was no news, democracy, or human rights. For example, if farmers could farm and sell 100 kg of rice to the market and receive 10,000 won (KRW), then the military forced farmers to sell most of it to the government for 1,000 won. All of those benefits went to the military. Only those who followed the military command ate and lived well. There was no middle class, so the gap between the rich and the poor was wide. Workers, civil servants (officials), farmers, and citizens were on the bottom. The government, lawmakers, and military generals were on the top. This society has been sustained for a long time.

In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi came to Myanmar to care for his mother. Democracy was imported and people began to realize it. However, when people tried to build democracy through the 1988 revolution, it was repressed. Even during the 2007 Saffron Revolution, workers were the first to fight. However, things are slightly different now. Workers, students, and citizens have experienced a taste of democracy. Now that the situation is returning to military dictatorship, workers, students, and citizens cannot forgive this attempt, And are fighting for their lives.

Workers participated much more in 2021 than in 1988 and 2007, because in the past, there were no foreign-owned companies. Most companies were government-run institutions or factories run by the military. All workers were civil servants paid by the state. 

Democracy began in 2010. As the economic sanctions eased, foreign companies such as China, Japan, the United States, Germany, Korea, Thailand, and Singapore came in. The number of workers increased and the number of farmers decreased because farmers came to the city to work.

What is the number of migrant workers from Myanmar in Korea? Are they working together to fight?

About 25,000 migrant workers from Myanmar are working in Korea. Including married immigrants and international students, the total is about 27,000-28,000. Since the start of the coup on February 1, migrants started organizing in many regions of Korea, and now they are in contact with each other and communicate on the Internet about what to do. In Busan and Gyeongnam, picket campaigns and rallies were held. We held a press conference at Busan City Hall. People from Myanmar in Seoul fundraised for those fighting in Myanmar, and a total of 1.2 billion won was sent.

The movement of Korean workers and citizens supporting Myanmar’s democratic revolution and opposing military massacre continues to spread. Up to now, Myanmar workers, international students, and married immigrants have met, demonstrated, and campaigned in Seoul, Gwangju, Gyeonggi, Busan, Incheon, Chungnam, Ulsan, Daegu, Changwon, and Masan, along with Korean workers and political and social civic groups against the dictatorship.

Korea is one of the largest supporters of Myanmar’s democratic revolution. In Singapore and Thailand, people cannot move [organize] because of government policy. In Japan, there are active people from Myanmar and Japanese organizations supporting them but they are still small.

What are the main demands?

There are two main demands: restoring democracy and acknowledging the results of the last election. On April 1, the new government’s demands must be implemented, including the construction of a democratic federal state and the complete overthrow of the dictatorship. A new constitution is being drafted, and before that, the “Federal Democratic Charter” was created. If Myanmar becomes a democracy again, the military must be punished.

The most important demand of ethnic minorities is the creation of a democratic federal state that guarantees autonomy, which has been a demand since independence from the British. 80 percent of Myanmar’s population is a majority ethnic group. We, the Burmese, are now experiencing the difficult problems that minorities have faced over the past 50 years, cultivating public sympathy for ethnic minorities. 

Do you think that in order to restore democracy, we need to make a different change than in the NLD (Prior to the coup)?

Most of the workers, students, and citizens are participating in the democratic revolution. Many of them are critical of the NLD. They criticize the former NLD government, but also they ask “what are they doing now?”

When I ask the Myanmar trade union, most of them hate the NLD government. I fully understand the workers. The NLD did not care about workers’ rights at all. When workers participated in the rally, they were caught and arrested then too. They were hit by the police and sued a lot. From the workers’ point of view, there are many wounds.

Workers talk. “We voted to make a democratic country. Why do we have to be arrested and sued when we are demanding workers’ rights?” Even when a few people gathered, they were arrested and sued because they didn’t notify the appropriate assembly.

To be honest, we didn’t have a choice. Many say that there is no other alternative to the NLD. We chose NLD to climb upwards, and in that, we are fighting for change. I would rather fight against the NLD government. We must achieve our human rights and workers’ rights by fighting against the NLD.

What does the coup mean for Myanmar workers? And what does it mean for Myanmar migrant workers in Korea?

Although it wasn’t a complete democracy, Myanmar started as a democracy instead of military dictatorship in 2010. In addition, the number of factories increased, so the number of workers also increased. Over the past five years, foreign companies have entered Myanmar and many workers have been working in foreign factories. News and information spread rapidly from 2010 onwards. It was thanks to social media such as Facebook. Peoples’ thoughts widened and they started to see other things through SNS.

The role of trade unions has also expanded in Myanmar. In 2010, a labor union was formed, and the struggle for labor rights began. Although workers were arrested for struggling and demanding rights, the government did not kill people as they do now. After a month or two months in jail, workers were released and became famous. Then they became leaders that other workers respected. When they were arrested again, they became much more famous and their roles in the movement expanded more, and other workers also started to engage.

People realized that it was because of the democratic structure that they could struggle. During the military dictatorship era, workers could not dare to do so. It wasn’t because the country became nice, nor because the military’s mind changed, but because of the democratic system. And foreign countries were also watching Myanmar. Foreign embassies proposed sanctions if labor laws were violated, giving workers the courage to fight.

There should not have been a military coup. According to the constitution, the military controls all core powers of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Border. The military is the owner of the government’s large corporations. They own around 20 to 30 oil, gas, construction and steel corporations. The profits from these large corporations are not used as a national budget, but for the military alone. The entire national budget is managed by the military and only protects soldiers. Foreign companies must bribe the military to get permission to do business in Myanmar.

Myanmar migrant workers in Korea also have dreams of doing something great when they go back to Myanmar. All of these dreams were broken by a coup. Myanmar workers, students, citizens, businessmen, and everyone else are struggling for the future because they can’t stand its disappearance.

How is the situation of your family in Myanmar?

I am from Yangon. My family closes the door at night and turns off the lights. Friends who returned to Myanmar when the military coup began live stream while participating in street protests. I tell them to be safe and that I will do everything I can in Korea.

How do you view the general strike?

New trade unions were created from around 2010 to 2011. The Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar (CTUM) was also established. Workers in the manufacturing industry, who are mostly in their early twenties, go on strike and go to street protests to unite and join forces. In order to overcome the coup, workers must join forces.

Foreign companies have invested in the manufacturing of clothes, shoes, and accessories. I don’t think the direct power of strike in these factories is that great because they are run by private companies. If these companies can’t make and export the products due to strike, only the companies lose, not the military.

There are many other workers in railways, buses, hospitals, teachers, banks, ports, and mines. Strikes by railroad and bus workers are now important in Myanmar and are most effective in striking the military because trains go from Yangon to various areas. Yangon is located in the South, and to go north from Yangon, you have to take a train.

Now the trains have all stopped due to a general strike of railroad workers. When the train stops, the military gets in trouble. Because all of the engineers went on strike, transportation of military supplies has been stopped. Soldiers went to the railroad workers’ dormitory during a general strike at the end of February, arrested an engineer, and forced them to drive the train. Railroad workers are public workers because trains are run by the state. The military also told railroad workers to leave their dormitories when they strike, leaving many workers homeless.

And there are banks, teachers, and hospital workers. At first, the military threatened doctors and nurses. Doctors and nurses said, “You also have a soldier’s promise. You do not keep your promise to protect the country and the people. Why do we have to keep our promises?” Railroad and hospital workers going into a general strike could hit the military more effectively.

Manufacturing workers have a lot of power. Manufacturing workers take part in street protests, increasing the size of the protests, helping each other. When manufacturing workers strike, the military doesn’t generate income, so long-term general strikes by these manufacturing workers could effectively strike the military.

The military responds harshly to the workers’ general strike. They aim guns at the railroad workers to drive the trains. Armed soldiers run into workers’ dormitories, drive them out, arrest them, and imprison them. They threaten, kidnap, and kill activists who act as union representatives.

What role do the trade unions play?

I do not know much about the Myanmar trade union. Ten years ago, I met a friend in Myanmar who introduced me to a labor union. But like Korea, it was a yellow union that acts as the hands and feet of the government. Myanmar’s military also learned to use yellow unions referring to many countries. They are building a trade union with people who listen to the military.

I was planning to meet with a trade union made by a man who had been arrested for several years while working in the Myanmar democratic union. But we couldn’t meet because of Covid-19. Now, due to a coup, we can’t meet. These workers take action. They are teaching computer skills and labor law to other workers. He called his union “Trade Union.” These unions are organized regionally, hold many meetings, and run a workers’ consultation center.

What can NLD do?

Representatives among the elected members of the local parliament formed CRPH. Now, NLD has launched the National Unity Government (NUG) through CRPH. Many members of NLD are in custody. The new government has fled abroad and works through video calls. NLD is in a state of being largely inoperable. I heard that workers and young people in the street protests said, “We can’t see the leaders of the NLD on the street. We are the leaders. We have to protect ourselves.” Three famous representatives of the NLD have already been killed. A head teacher who was an NLD representative that I personally know was killed. We’re also scared of dying.

During the first few days of the military coup, there were no street protests. People were waiting to see how the situation developed. At first, women workers in the manufacturing industry started a street demonstration at an industrial complex. On February 6, the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM) appeared on the street with about 4,000 manufacturing workers. A politician critical of NLD started a street protest in downtown Yangon. We chant  “This revolution is not for the NLD. We support the NLD anyway, but we fight for democracy.”

How do you foresee the development of the situation?

I give great importance to the belief that the democratic revolution will succeed. And now we need patience. Those who believe that they will succeed will win. I’ll show you a picture. A man injured after being shot while protesting is laughing and smiling. However, the faces of the soldiers are different. He hits someone and shoots a gun with a crumpled face without confidence. Even if we die, it’s worth it. People die someday. Everyone dies someday, but even in the moment they die, they feel pride.

So we will fight till the end and win with faith, pride, and confidence. Unlike others, I also have one hope: that all soldiers don’t think like supreme commanders. They may be following orders because they are scared and afraid now. Families of soldiers and police were kidnapped and imprisoned in their homes so they couldn’t go outside. If soldiers don’t follow the orders properly, their families are in danger. So, as time goes on, I think that someone who has lost faith or patience in the military may realize the truth.

What are the challenges ahead of the Myanmar movement? Also, what are the challenges of the Myanmar workers’ organization?

The democratic federal state mentioned above can be built by everyone. I want to do two things after the success of the democratic revolution. One is the treatment of childrens’ trauma. The current situation hurts even people abroad, so what about the local children? Every day they see and hear of horrific photos, gunshots, and the deaths of loved ones. The state should find a way to treat it.

The second is defending labor rights, because to defeat a coup, workers must unite. Even after the successful democratic revolution, the struggle of the workers must continue. If the country becomes quiet, those in power will again ignore the people. Workers must continue the struggle for their rights. Only by doing so can we create a society in which people are not ignored by the military or politicians. We shouldn’t bear even a little. If our rights are violated even slightly, we have to fight, and continue training and practice to fight.

How are you going to proceed with the struggle with the Myanmarese workers here in Korea?

We’re mainly considering two things. First of all, forcing the Korean government and persuading people not to approve the coup until the military collapses, and pouring all the efforts to sanction the coup forces. We can’t achieve this goal when isolated. We will cooperate with Korean workers and organizations. Second, financial support for the rebels. The participants of both CDM and the street protests are being seriously hurt. The military is burning hundreds of households. We are trying to support all the victims in Myanmar by raising funds. One migrant worker sends two million Korean won (approximately 2,000 dollars) per month, their salary, and squeeze their budget to send their entire wage for the protests. They say that they will only use the deposit in their account and keep sending money to the protesters. If the civil war breaks out, there would be more suffering. If it really happens, we can let the Korean workers and citizens know by holding protests everywhere in Korea.

And to finish, I want to say something to the workers worldwide. There are workers in every country. Workers produce everything that the whole country needs. Not a single nation can be run without workers. That’s why I say “workers have no borders.” Workers all over the world should unite. Some workers are being exploited in harsh environments, while others are much better off across the country. Workers should unite and be in solidarity across the borders. Democracy is another value that must be without borders, since that’s how democracy is genuinely meant to be. When there is an attack against democracy like in Myanmar, the countries that already achieved a democratic system should actively engage. We should take the oppression against workers from other countries as seriously as ours, and we should fight for better working conditions in other countries as well. Workers’ rights and democracy are not something to be taken for granted. We should fight and struggle to win them.

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