Published: 25/09/2007

Foreign Minister Nyan Min, speaking at the UN General Assembly October 1.
Two hundred people, at a minimum, are estimated to have been killed by the military and police in the crackdown.

Military rule in Burma currently faces its greatest challenge since the national uprising in 1988. The wave of protests initially sparked by fuel price increases in mid-August has broadened and gathered sufficient force to again bring thousands of protesters onto the streets of Rangoon and other cities, in open defiance of the military’s threat to respond with arrests and violence. The government’s reluctance so far to resort to force should not be taken for a lack of capacity. Two decades of dictatorship and civil war have sapped neither its appetite nor arsenal for repression. The junta which murdered 3,000 Burmese in 1988 has not changed.

What has changed is that Burma has managed to slip from view, eclipsed by the “war on terror.” If the regime hasn’t exactly attained respectability, it has managed to increase food and other exports and thus gain precious foreign exchange for the military (while inflicting near-starvation on its own people through requisitions and forced labour). Tourism, and in particular tourism from wealthy countries, continues to grow, despite the repeated calls for a boycott issued by the National League for Democracy. Accor is out – thanks in part to union pressure – but other hotel groups, including Nikko and Orient Express, are upgrading, expanding and offering special packages. Hundreds of transnationals – including Nestlé – remain active in Burma. ASEAN, the political and economic grouping of Southeast Asian nations, has provided economic support and political cover for the junta. Despite the ILO’s call for action on forced labour, Burma has just been assigned the task of “researching labour resources” by the ASEAN Furniture Industries Council as part of developing an “ASEAN brand.”

The current challenge to the dictatorship offers many possibilities for union action in support of the democracy struggle. The September 7 sentencing of 6 labour activists to prison terms of up to 28 years for organizing May Day activities underlines the role of Burmese workers, and the underground FTUB, in building sustained opposition to military rule. Unions should be pushing their governments to support the ITUC call for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. But there is plenty of scope for national action – beginning with renewed efforts to halt foreign investment, trade and tourism. Action is urgently needed in support of the thousands of Burmese on the streets, in exile, under house arrest and underground, risking their lives in the struggle for democracy.