The case of 14 garment factory workers arrested when a strike was forcibly put down by plain clothed vigilantes in March continues to languish in court.
On Wednesday prosecution witnesses failed to show as the workers faced court in Yankin Township, Rangoon. The eight female and six male defendants face charges of rioting and protesting without permission, under Article 147 of the Penal Code and Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law respectively.
“It’s almost nine months since the trial began – it’s been going on for too long,” said Wint Wah Tun, a lawyer representing the defendants. “The prosecutors appointed quite a few witnesses but they are not showing up. The summons for two of the witnesses has been approved today but they didn’t show up.”
In March, dozens of workers from the Ford Glory and Costec garment factories housed in the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone protested for a 1000 kyat pay rise. The protests had lasted over a month, and had already seen violent clashes with police when a tussle broke out on 4 March between workers and men believed to be members of a group of government-sponsored thugs known as the Swan Arr Shin.
The Swan Arr Shin, whose name translates to “Masters of Force” in Burmese, had not been seen since the army installed a nominally civilian government in 2011. Their violent presence was also felt as student protestors were dispersed from outside Rangoon City Hall on 4 March. The vigilantes wore red armbands emblazoned with the Burmese word for ‘duty’.
“The ‘riot’ was started by them. We were peacefully protesting for our demands,” said Costec factory worker Aye Sandar Tun.
“We stopped protesting when they told us to, but these thugs wearing red armbands, whom we assumed were summoned by the police, attacked us– otherwise there wouldn’t have been a scuffle.”
The prosecution of the 14 workers developed no further on Wednesday, with the court adjourned until 4 December. The workers has been initially jailed but are now free on bail.
“We were attacked by the thugs and then charged while not getting our demands met. This left us with many difficulties – I have been in jail twice before I was granted bail,” Aye Sandar Tun added.
Since the trial began, a push by workers and Burma’s nascent trade union movement has seen the introduction of a 3,600 kyat (US$2.77) per day minimum wage. That small victory has been overshadowed by the lurching legal case brought against the 14 workers from Shwepyithar.
“The workers initially reached out to authorities to help mediate their wage issues but they resorted to protests as they didn’t get help,” said Aung Thurein Tun, another lawyer working on the defence team.
“According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights– everyone has a right to just and favourable wage and the right to form and join trade unions.”