Governments and corporations with significant investments in enterprises that support the Burmese military should consider denying the junta the financial means it needs to “sustain itself against the will of the people,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday.
“One thing [that’s] clear is that the people of Burma…don’t want to live under military rule,” Blinken said ahead of the State Department’s release of its annual report on human-rights violations. “And that is evident from what we’re seeing and hearing and witnessing every single day in Burma.”
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has been gripped by escalating violence, bloodshed and unrest since armed forces ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi in a Feb. 1 coup, returning the Southeast Asian nation to military rule after years of fragile semi-democracy. The number of protestors killed by the junta has surpassed 500, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a local monitoring group. More than 110 civilians, including children, died over the past weekend alone. Myanmar army fighter jets also launched air strikes in the southwestern Karen state on Saturday, causing 3,000 predominantly ethnic minority people to flee across the Thai border.
Though the events following the military takeover occurred after the annual report on human-rights violations was completed and are therefore not included, “we must highlight them,” Blinken said. “The actions that we’ve seen by the Burmese military in terms of its attacks on civilians are reprehensible…[with] increasingly disturbing and even horrifying violence.”
The Biden administration, he added, is committed to “putting human rights at the center of foreign policy,” adding that the State Department will “bring to bear all the tools of our diplomacy to defend human rights and hold accountable perpetrators of abuse.” The White House ramped up its pressure campaign on Myanmar on Monday, suspending relations with the country that stopped just short of a ban on two-way trade.
On Tuesday, the State Department issued a brief statement ordering all non-essential U.S. government employees and their family members to evacuate Myanmar, an upgrade of previous instructions that had allowed them to leave of their own volition. It also repeated a warning for Americans not to travel to the country since “protests and demonstrations against military rule have occurred and are expected to continue.”
Union leaders in Myanmar have also renewed pleas for Western brands and retailers to speak out against military forces and support their efforts to restore democracy and the rule of law.
At a press conference organized by grassroots group Remake on Tuesday, workers who sewed for labels such as Mango, Primark and Zara described a climate of fear that has shut down a number of factories in the main industrial zones and left them fearing for both their lives and livelihoods. There has been no meaningful response from brands, they said, and the one-two punch of Covid-19 and the coup has been difficult to cope with. A number of workers claim they have been without wages for the past two months.
“Even [during] Covid-19, we [saw] shrinking wages and safety concerns and asked brands and they always sided with employers,” said Ma Kha Kha, who belongs to the civil-society group Let’s Help Each Other. “Even though brands talk about human rights, they failed to support our freedom of association during Covid-19 when we protested for wages and have failed to support our pro-democracy fight now.”
Ma Kha Kha also asked brands to cut ties with any factories that support the military regime and to abide by their own codes of conduct that promote freedom of association and the right to protest. Chinese-owned factories, she said, aren’t supportive of the civil disobedience movement, and are still requiring workers to put in long hours, often past the military-imposed curfew. (China has so far refused to label the military action a coup, making it the target of much public anger.)
“Workers are very worried about their safety if they are on the road, because the military is shooting everyone on the road, so safety is a big issue we [garment workers] face even to go to work,” said Ko Aung from the Federation of General Workers Myanmar.
But the workers also said that the work stoppages are essential, even if it endangers their survival. “We all think that if we can stop the economy, that it will really hit the military government, and we think it is the solution to solve the problem we face,” Ko Aung said.
Still, labor groups have been “really disappointed” with the lack of response from brands, according to Thulsi Narayanasamy, senior labor rights lead at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre. “H&M and Benetton have temporarily suspended further orders in Myanmar but the desire from the labor movement is for those brands—and for others who might follow suit and also suspend production—to not do that unless they’re going to be very clear and explicit in making a statement of support for workers freedom of association and freedom of assembly,” she said in March.
On Sunday, top United Nations officials condemned the “widespread, lethal [and] increasingly systematic” attacks by the Burmese junta on peaceful protestors and called on military forces to stop killing the people it “has the duty to serve and protect.”
“The shameful, cowardly, brutal actions of the military and police—who have been filmed shooting at protesters as they flee, and who have not even spared young children—must be halted immediately,” Alice Wairimu Nderitu, UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, and Michelle Bachelet, UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement. “The international community has a responsibility to protect the people of Myanmar from atrocity crimes.”