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Burma ‘not ready for unions’: minister

The current political situation in Burma makes the formation of labour, farmers’ and student unions untenable, and future efforts at organizing will be tightly monitored by the government, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan told MPs yesterday.

Unions have in the past existed in Burma, but were gradually stamped out following the start of military rule in 1962. Although not illegal, a clause in the 2008 constitution states that their formation is conditioned on not being “contrary to the laws enacted for [Burma’s] security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity, or public order and morality”. The subsequent definitions for these criteria are vague.

Kyaw Hsan said the government was concerned that unionizing would see a recurrence of the problems that occurred during Burma’s brief spell of democracy following the end of British rule in 1948, when many were formed as proxies for parties vying for political clout.

He cited the use of farmers’ unions by Burma Communist Party leaders in the 1950s to impose their control over the agriculture sector and to confiscate farmland, an issue strikingly familiar to government practice today.

As such, he suggested, Burma would have to wait until the political landscape became more stable before they could be reintroduced.

The government is also notoriously intolerant of perceived dissent, something that it fears the formation of unions could encourage. More than 30 labour activists, including eight female members of the Federation of Trade Unions Burma (FTUB), are imprisoned in Burma out of a total of nearly 2000 political prisoners.

When the time is right for their reintroduction, Kyaw Hsan said, they would need to operate under the government, and according to as yet unwritten government guidelines. An MP who wished to remain anonymous said there would likely be widespread antipathy towards this from workers.

“Limitations like this should not exist in the democratic era, and instead the government should allow the existence of independent associations,” he said, adding however that certain regulations must exist, although unions should be able to operate independently.

Other MPs have said that it begs the question of how committed the government is to following its own promises of democratic reform.

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