Myanmar military slowly strangling public sector workers resisting their rule

Myanmar workers call for global solidarity to be sustained in their struggle to restore democracy.

"We are being killed slowly." This despairing plea came from a nurse in Myanmar during a virtual meeting with PSI, discussing the increasingly dire situation faced by the country's public sector workers.

"We have nothing to eat, nowhere to stay.... But I will never regret joining CDM and will continue this revolution until we succeed." - one hospital administrator from Yangon

Eighteen months have passed since the Myanmar military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021. In the days following, hundreds of thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and government staff walked out on strike as part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). These brave women and men brought public services to a standstill in peaceful protest against the military junta. But their resistance has come at a devastating personal cost. With no pay, no jobs and constant harassment from the military, CDM workers are struggling to survive. They gave first-hand accounts of their worsening plight during an online meeting organised by Public Services International (PSI).

"We have nothing to eat, nowhere to stay," said one hospital administrator from Yangon. "But I will never regret joining CDM and will continue this revolution until we succeed." Despite the risks, she, along with other CDM participants, banged pots and pans in nightly protests on the streets. But with no income, she is forced to sell belongings just to feed her family.

The military junta in Myanmar has systematically targeted the healthcare sector in its crackdown against the CDM. Hundreds of medics across Yangon and Mandalay joined the CDM, prompting the junta to retaliate with detentions and licence revocations. This includes the arrest of 30 medical professionals in October and November, the tragic death of nurse Daw Poe Thandar Aung, and the licence revocation of three private Mandalay hospitals — Kant Kaw, City, and Palace. This move has left about 800 staff jobless and patients without care. The junta has further crippled the healthcare system by revoking the medical licences of 557 doctors participating in the CDM, exacerbating the pre-existing shortages in public healthcare since the coup.

"We cannot buy bus tickets so I cannot access food and water," shared one distraught hospital worker. "We need passports to escape but they will not give passports to CDM workers."

Other workers explained how they have been kicked out of government housing and refused pay rises in private jobs due to their CDM status. Many have fled to rural areas, only to face threats from military informers in their new communities. Those still in urban centres cannot move around freely, with international travel being a distant dream. The military has their national identification numbers and is using these to restrict their freedom of movement.

"We cannot buy bus tickets so I cannot access food and water," shared one distraught hospital worker. "We need passports to escape but they will not give passports to CDM workers."

The military is systematically tormenting CDM workers by attacking their basic human rights and the outrage of the workers was apparent despite their grief and exhaustion.

"The international community must uproot this military." insisted a nurse based in Yangon. "As long as [the military] are in power we will be oppressed,"

The call for international support was echoed by other workers seeking global solidarity. They want the world to recognise the National Unity Government (NUG) as Myanmar's legitimate leaders and intensify actions to isolate the military regime. However, increasing global crises have pushed Myanmar onto the backburner this year. With Russia's invasion of Ukraine taking centre stage, there is less pressure on regional powers to follow through on sanctions against the junta.

The crisis in Ukraine has also pushed up food and fuel prices, making it even harder for CDM workers to put meals on their tables. With Myanmar's economy in shambles, they face limited job prospects.

As the world looks away, the gradual suffocation of Myanmar's civil service continues. The workers' desperation was summed up poignantly by one participant: "We are being killed slowly. I want the international community to know."

PSI is sharing the stories of the Myanmar workers to remind global leaders and the rest of the world about their plight. But more urgency is needed to prevent the complete crushing of a people for daring to resist an illegal coup and standing up for democracy. Targeted sanctions, arms embargoes, trade union solidarity and robust diplomacy are all needed before it is too late. In a bid to thwart further funding going to the military, PSI is launching a pension fund campaign. The international community must heed their voices before all hope fades.

PSI’s pension fund campaign on Myanmar

In an effort to alleviate the crisis in Myanmar, PSI is launching a campaign targeting pension funds invested in companies that support the military junta. The campaign asks "Is your pension funding military atrocities in Myanmar?" The campaign aims to cut off financial flows funding the military's illegal attempts to rule.

PSI has identified companies whose operations directly assist Myanmar's military. These include corporations with close ties to military entities as well as brands susceptible to public pressure. The identified companies span numerous countries including China, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Thailand and the USA.

Pension funds have been pinpointed as shareholders in the more than 30 corporations initially identified as supporting the military. The pension funds are located in countries such as Canada, the US, the UK, Sweden, Netherlands, India, Denmark, South Korea, Australia, Norway and Finland. However, many funds keep their investments opaque, meaning more could be financing the military's brutality.

As part of the campaign, PSI is encouraging union members to demand clarity from their pension funds about holdings in companies active in Myanmar. Workers will be urged to write directly to pension funds and ask them to use their power to have companies withdraw from Myanmar.

Through these targeted actions, PSI aims to make a meaningful contribution to the global campaign against the Myanmar military junta. Cutting off funding is critical to alleviate the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis inflicted on Myanmar's people by the illegal coup regime.