Daw Myo Myo Aye, leader of the STUM Union, is released from prison, but the threat to trade unionists and workers in Myanmar remains high

After six months of detainment in Myanmar’s notorious, Covid-ridden Insein prison,[1] Daw Myo Myo Aye, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar, was released and reunited with her family along with 5,000 other political prisoners on October 21, 2021. Among those released alongside Myo Myo were three workers from Xing Jia Footwear, whose only “crime” was joining a small gathering on March 15, 2021 in front of their factory asking to receive payment for work they had already completed. At the factory, the peaceful workers faced a brutal crackdown by the military and police, who shot and killed three innocent people, and arrested seventeen people. While fourteen of them were released shortly after, the remaining three were baselessly sentenced to three years of imprisonment.

Despite the release of Daw Myo Myo Aye and the workers from Xing Jia Footwear, Burmese trade unionists and workers from the garment sector continue to be severely persecuted by the military junta and face extrajudicial punishment for labor organizing. Over recent months, the WRC has received reports of arrests of local union leaders at several factories, including the arrest of a union member at Sioen Myanmar on August 24, the October 17 arrest and detention without bail of a worker from Pou Chen Myanmar, who was imprisoned on the grounds of a retaliatory case predating the coup filed by their employer, and the October 29 convictions of Thwin Aung, the local union president at  Gasan Apparel (formerly Myanmode), who was sentenced to three years in prison for taking part in anti-coup protests in February. Days after the union leader was imprisoned, Gasan Apparel reneged on its collective agreement with the workers, reducing workers’ wages from 5100 Kyat (US$ 2.9) per day to 4800 Kyat (US$ 2.7).[2] When workers protested the company’s unilateral reduction of their wages on November 5, Gasan Apparel called the military to intimidate workers. Furthermore, release from prison is no guarantee of sustained freedom. Days after the announced release of the prisoners, media reported that at least 100 of the released prisoners had already been rearrested.

The case of Daw Myo Myo Aye illustrates how perilous the situation of labor rights defenders has become since the February 2021 coup. The coup has enabled military officials to play a larger role in harassing and arresting democratic leaders and activists throughout the country. Daw Myo Myo Aye was dragged from her office on April 15, 2021, brought to a police station, and charged. She was then transferred to Insein prison for pre-trial detention; government officials continued to postpone her court date, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for postponement. From September until her release in October, Daw Myo Myo Aye was held in solitary confinement without justification.

Due to her organizing, Daw Myo Myo Aye faced arbitrary and retaliatory court proceedings even prior to the coup. She drew attention for organizing workers in Honeys Holdings’ two factories, which are located in Yangon, Myanmar. Workers at the factories reported abusive working conditions and management’s antagonistic position towards lawful organizing attempts. A WRC investigation of the Honeys Holdings factories in 2019 confirmed violations of freedom of association and uncovered further serious workplace safety issues and other violations, including forced overtime, wage theft, and child labor.

In 2017, Honeys targeted the STUM leader in retaliation for assisting employees in exercising their right to freedom of association, filing a civil and then a criminal case against her on the grounds of defamation. Daw Myo Myo Aye appeared in court on upwards of forty occasions in order to respond to the charges filed by Honeys Holdings prior to her arrest this year. Despite strong recommendations from the WRC to withdraw the lawsuits, Honeys has so far persisted with its persecution of Daw Myo Myo Aye.

Just weeks after her release, Myo Myo was called back to the courts regarding the complaint filed by Honeys Holdings. On November 9, 2021, the Criminal Court dismissed Honeys Holdings’ criminal defamation case against Daw Myo Myo Aye, on the grounds that the employer failed to appear. However, Honeys Holdings’ civil case against her is ongoing, with the next hearing scheduled for December 8. The fact that Honeys Holdings continues to maintain its case against Daw Myo Myo Aye puts the STUM leader at a heightened risk of being rearrested and imprisoned in a similar manner as the Pou Chen worker, who suddenly saw their case resurrected and used to justify their detainment.

In light of this dangerous situation, the Worker Rights Consortium urges the immediate release of all imprisoned workers and trade unionists who face illegitimate charges that violate their basic human rights, international labor standards, and rights to freedom of association. Disappointingly, some brands have resumed sourcing apparel in Myanmar after a short pause in response to the coup, returning to a country with cheap labor prices, lax safety standards, and military persecution of labor activists. By seeking to prioritize profit over human rights, these brands give tacit approval to the unjust persecution of workers and labor leaders. Following the call of Burmese workers, trade unionists, and civil society, these brands must reverse course and utilize the potential withholding of garment orders to ensure the release of these political prisoners and a return to democracy in Myanmar.

[1] In response to deteriorating conditions at Insein, prisoners staged a large-scale protest on July 23, demanding the release of all political prisoners and care for COVID-19 patients. The coronavirus is rapidly spreading within the prison, and the military regime has done little to curb the outbreak. Observers witnessed 40 military trucks enter the prison to suppress the protests, and several prisoners needed medical attention following the army intervention.

[2] The exchange rare used is US$ 1 = 1770 Kyat. It should be noted that since the coup, the exchange has become very volatile and has fluctuated between US$ 1 = 1400 Kyat and US$ 1 = 2800 Kyat

Photo by R. Bociaga, Description: Taunggyi, Myanmar – 11 March 2021: Myanmar military cracks down on peaceful protesters