Workers’ rights seditious in Burma

Prosecutors in Burma can put together a charge of sedition for just about anything. Lots of people learned that they committed the offence by complaining publicly about increased fuel prices last year. Others have inadvertently been seditious by holding well-meaning talks on their country’s future.

So six men who tried to assemble some people and discuss workers’ rights under domestic law on May 1, 2007, should perhaps have seen what was coming. One of them didn’t even make it to the venue. He was intercepted and sent straight to a special army facility. Unidentified men in unmarked vehicles picked up the others and brought them later.

In July, a case against the six (above) began in a closed court, and in September they were found guilty of sedition and other crimes and sentenced to between 20 and 28 years imprisonment.

A fortnight ago, the case of Thurein Aung and five others came on appeal to the Supreme Court, where it had been pending for about three months. After the wait, it didn’t get very far. The court threw it out immediately. The only avenue that now remains for the defendants is special leave of appeal before the same court.

Advocating for workers’ rights is no easy task in Burma. Despite the remnants of socialist-era rhetoric and institutions that purport to place the interests of peasants and workers ahead of everyone else, in reality a host of laws and policing agencies operate to prevent the forming of independent unions, and factories carry warning signs against anybody trying any funny business.

So Thurein Aung and the others must to some extent have known what they were getting themselves into. Still, the litany of abuses and the scale of absurdity found in their case and others like it are indicative of the extent to which Burma’s legal and administrative system suffers from what one group has characterized as legal dementia.

When the charges were first brought, their lawyers tried unsuccessfully to get the hearings moved into an open court on the ground that the country’s judiciary law requires public trial unless otherwise prohibited. Not only were the lawyers unsuccessful, but they themselves were constantly harassed, until finally they were forced to withdraw in protest.

Meanwhile, the state-run newspapers carried articles denouncing the men’s modest attempts at having workers talk about their legitimate problems and legal rights.

“The attendees were divided into small groups, each of which was made up of about ten,” the New Light of Myanmar reported of the May 1 event. “And the groups held discussions about the difficulties they were facing in an exaggerated manner to create outrage of workers and then to incite protests.”

Preposterously, the court held against the six men because they themselves were not workers and therefore workers’ rights were a matter that, it concluded, had nothing to do with them. Through a further leap away from common sense, it decided that as the accused had no business to be organizing events on behalf of workers then they could only have been acting with intent to malign the state.

In every country there is disjuncture between what is written and what actually goes on, between what is said and what is done. However, it is the scale of the disconnect in Burma, where even meeting and talking about established rights under national law constitutes an offence against the state, that is the cause of woe for Thurein Aung and his colleagues, among many others.

Speaking on a shortwave radio channel after news that the appeal petition had been thrown out of court, one of the lawyers expressed no surprise at the outcome but said that they would press on and try for the special leave to appeal nonetheless. He didn’t sound optimistic about the result.

“The chances are really very few,” he said. “Out of a hundred cases, only one or two are ever accepted.” And even for the one or two that are, does it make a difference?

Source: Workers’ rights seditious in Burma


One response to “Workers’ rights seditious in Burma

  1. ILO calls for Release of Six Burmese Activists
    By SAW YAN NAING, Friday, July 11, 2008, The Irrawaddy

    The International Labour Organization on Friday called for the release of six imprisoned Burmese labor activists who were arrested for participating in a May Day ceremony in 2007.

    The activists identified by the ILO, who were sentenced in September 2007, are Thurein Aung, Kyaw Kyaw, Wai Lin, Nyi Nyi Zaw, Shwe Joe and Aung Naing Tun.

    They were each sentenced to at least 20 years imprisonment, according to their Rangoon lawyer, Khin Maung Shein. The lawyer said, however, he believes Shwe Joe and one other activist have been released already.

    They were arrested for taking part in a May Day ceremony which was an expression of workers’ rights and freedom of speech.

    The ILO said international trade union rights call for workers and labor organizations to enjoy freedom of opinion, speech and the right to assemble.

    According to the ILO, the Supreme Court of Burma reportedly has denied the six activists’ appeals, running counter to requests by the ILO and the International Labour Conference which have called for their release.

    Kari Tapiola, the ILO executive director for the Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work office, said, “It was our hope that their appeals to the Supreme Court would result in the quashing of their sentences and their immediate release. This remains a priority for the ILO, and the government is strongly urged to review the situation in order to secure an early release of the persons concerned.”

    “It would have been hoped that in view of the Burmese government’s publicly expressed intent to take the country into general elections in 2010, that fundamental freedom of association rights would be respected,” Tapiola said.

    Bo Kyi, the joint secretary of the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma, said prominent labor activist Su Su Nway, who received the John Humphrey Freedom Award in 2006, is among the political prisoners who suffer from lack of medical services.

    Su Su Nway, a member of the National League for Democracy, is well-known for her work on behalf of victims of forced labor and for farmers whose land has been confiscated by government authorities.

    Su Su Nway has been suffering from a serious heart disease. Reports said she was recently placed in solitary confinement after asking prison authorities for medical care.

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