When Yangon labourers from five foreign-owned factories reeled out the picket lines and demanded a meagre pay boost at the end of January, their calls were initially dismissed. Two weeks later, however, the government shifted into overdrive to quell the demonstrations at the behest of the South Korean embassy, The Myanmar Times has learned.
After attempts at negotiations stalled on February 17 due to factory owners rejecting demands for a K1000-a-day (US$1) pay rise, the government deployed police units wielding batons to disperse thousands of mostly young, impoverished female workers who had massed in the streets. Dozens of protesters were bloodied and injured in the clashes, with some requiring hospitalisation after they claim police stampeded over them. By the workers’ count, at least 30 went missing, and two union leaders and an activist were jailed.
The crackdown policy appears to have largely been driven by the South Korean ambassador’s backdoor campaign to protect his country’s business interests.
South Korea and Myanmar have long enjoyed mutually beneficial relations. As of 2013, trade between the two countries stood at more than $1.5 billion, and South Korean investment is vital to Myanmar’s booming garment sector. According to industry sources, 20 percent of Myanmar’s garment factories are officially South Korean-owned, with another 20pc likely run by South Koreans through locally registered companies.
The wage strike hit two South Korean garment factories – E-Land Myanmar and Costec International – as well as three other Chinese-owned factories.
The South Korean embassy told The Myanmar Times it requested intervention to protect its factories from financial losses and to ensure the safety of South Korean management. The embassy would not comment on whether the violent crackdowns were what it had in mind when requesting action.
“I know that the lawful right of workers should be respected. However, those striking workers occupied the entrance of the factory and prevented the moving in and out of people and products, which is a serious illegal action causing serious financial loss,” the embassy’s commercial attaché,Wongyoung Choi, told The Myanmar Times in an email. “The strikers even detained [the South] Korean managing director of Costec on … February 3 for almost 12 hours.”
Workers from Costec have denied taking hostages.
“On February 3, a foreign woman, maybe Korean … went into the factory with about 20 workers around 8am. She didn’t come out of the factory until around 8pm. We did not force her for to stay in the factory,” said Ma Thein Moe Lwin, a worker from Costec.
“If the embassy says we arrested their citizen, it is a lie or misunderstanding.”
But on the premise that South Korean citizens were at risk, the country’s ambassador travelled to Nay Pyi Taw on February 4. In a meeting with Minister for Labour U Aye Myint the ambassador requested steps be taken to “prevent the illegal action of the striking workers”, according to Mr Wongyoung.
When contacted about the alleged detention, a Costec representative hung up on The Myanmar Times.
Officials from the ministry declined to comment on South Korea’s involvement in the clampdowns but on February 23, the Irrawaddy quoted deputy minister U Htin Aung as saying “embassies” had been in touch with senior officials about pursuing action against workers in line with existing laws.
South Korean media also cited an anonymous official from the South Korean foreign ministry who confirmed that the embassy had intervened to end the protests.
This is not the first time South Korean diplomats have orchestrated crackdowns on striking garment workers. In January 2014, the embassy in Cambodia boasted on its Facebook page that its diplomats lobbied Phnom Penh to deploy an elite Cambodian military unit to shut down a protest for higher wages. Ensuing clashes led to five workers being shot dead.
South Korean-owned factories also have history of mistreatment of workers. In 1996, the South Korean manager of a shoe factory in Vietnam was convicted for lining up and beating employees with a shoe.
Corporal punishment was an ingrained aspect of South Korean workplaces until the 1970s.
Myanmar’s recent factory demonstrations took a darker turn and escalated further after a second meeting between the South Korean ambassador and senior parliamentary officials on February 25. Both the embassy and the parliament office rejected suggestions the protests were discussed, however. They insisted that the meeting was focused on “improving relations” and gearing up for the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties.
However, a day after the meeting, the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar printed a picture of the Amyotha Hluttaw Speaker U Khin Aung Myint shaking hands with Ambassador Lee Baek-soon. Directly under the photo, the paper ran an article that praised the “good results” the government was achieving in negotiating an end to the spate of factory protests.
The government also took to state-run TV to announce that the demonstrations were hurting factory profits and chasing away foreign investors. The factory workers were warned to end their strike and accept modest pay rises offered by the foreign factories.
About half the picketers took the bait, many scared off by the police clampdown. But many hundreds more continued the strike, only to find the announcement presaged an even more violent attack.
On March 4, their protest was quashed by police and plain-clothed thugs toting read armbands emblazoned with the word “duty”. More than a dozen more were arrested.
Yangon Region minister U Zaw Aye Maung, who has led efforts to negotiate with the workers, declined to comment on whether the auxiliary group was sent at the South Korean embassy’s behest.
But the response from the embassy has not surprised international labour groups familiar with the country’s tactics.
“[South] Korean employers are notorious for their hostility toward unions and strikes,” said Eunji Kang of Korean House for International Solidarity. “There is a high suspicion that Korean embassies take any steps available (even unlawful ones) to protect the benefits and interests of Korean entrepreneurs and investors.”
After the March 4 crackdown, the Myanmar government went into damage control, dredging up legal codes from the 1890s to prove the legality of mobilising the plain-clothed force.
In contrast to its long-winded defence of the Cambodia episode, this time the South Korean embassy stayed silent – at least, until it agreed to speak to The Myanmar Times.
“The South Korean government mistakenly thinks that it’s alright to export its harsh, rights abusing tactics in dealing with labor protests to other countries, but it’s not,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “If the workers are attacked by police responding to the embassy’s call, the rest of the international community should call out Seoul as being equally responsible for those rights violations.”
But workers said it makes little difference to them who sent in the attack dogs to end their protest.
“I don’t know about the politics, but I am deeply scarred from that [March 4] crackdown,” said Ma Thanda Aye, a worker from the E-Land garment factory. “The pain of injuries is not important, but the image of these events replays and sometimes I see them again before sleeping.”
Source: Myanmar Times