Dropping anchor on Burmese oppression


Brother Shwe Tun Aung, the ITF’s Burma-born inspector, played a key role in bringing a genuinely democratic union to Burmese seafarers.

We watched today with great joy as Burmese citizens lined the streets to cast — and begin counting — ballots in what some of them called the first genuine election of their lifetime, the “dawn of their country”.

Their country holds a special place in our hearts, here at the ITF in Canada. We were away this summer for a couple of weeks helping with some solidarity training for the new independent union that Myanmar’s seafarers have set up – also a historic and democratic first.

More than that, we played a role in helping push democracy along for those seafarers and their countrymen, through our support and political work right here at home.

Today, as our Burmese brothers and sisters and their families celebrate, we can’t help but observe that Canadians continue our own celebration – of having thrown out a neo-liberal Conservative government last month, one that dedicated itself to the worst of corporate excesses and anti-democratic behaviour.

We still await signs of where our election results will take us. We hope for a return to decency and democracy. Our comrades in Myanmar are hoping for the same.

All in all, it seems like a good time to record a bit of the history of The ITF in Canada’s long association with the plight of Burmese seafarers — and with the struggle of the Burmese people for democracy. We’ll talk more later about the development of the new union.

Most of you will remember the long years of struggle for Burmese political leader Aung San Suu Kyi  as she attempted to bring democracy to the former British colony. She lived under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010, a dark period for the country as it struggled under a military dictatorship.

The ITF and its inspectors around the world helped support Burmese seafarers for all of those years.

We conducted our work along with the Seafarers Union of Burma, which was then our affiliate, operating in exile in neighboring Thailand. During the course of that work in the 1990s, the ITF lodged a complaint against Myanmar (then and sometimes still called Burma) at the International Labour Organization. The issue was the abuse of Burmese seafarers rights. We won’t go into great detail here, except to say that the ILO sustained the ITF’s complaint and condemned Myanmar for its treatment of their citizens working aboard foreign vessels where crew were often arrested, thrown in jail and their families’ homes seized by the government simply for complaining of abuse or cheated wages. This is how Burmese seafarers were controlled and remained cheap to employ.

It was an important win for us; Burmese seafarers – about 20,000 at that time — were a significant part of the maritime industry’s workforce, and they were being taken advantage of.

We have long recognized that shipowners in search of cheap, highly compliant labour for their vessels often contract crew from countries that provide few democratic rights to their citizens and overseas workers. At the period in Myanmar’s history that we deal with in this post, the countries supplying crew who would be “ITF-proof” or “organized labour-proof” were China, Vietnam, the Maldives and Burma.

We did what we could politically in Canada as well. In November of 1997, organized labour held a massive People’s Summit tribunal to coincide with an APEC gathering in Vancouver. As part of the event, the ITF and the Canadian Labor Congress brought Koko Khaing, then the president of the exiled Seafarers Union of Burma, to Canada to testify about crimes against Burmese seafarers by international shipowners and the generals who ruled Burma under the banner of the State Law and Order and Restoration Council.

Canada’s ITF inspectors also supported Burmese seafarers where we could as we went up and down the gangways. They had all the same problems that other seafarers faced – wages, repatriation, abuse of working hours, cruel discipline practices — but no ability to complain. Given the politics of their homeland, making a complaint carried such heavy penalty for the seafarer and his family that they were forced to make a refugee claim for fear of certain imprisonment upon return to Yangon.

We have many grim stories from that time, but we will focus on just one.

For a period in 2005-06, four ships owned by a Japanese company were trading with their vessels on the west coast of Canada, loading our raw export logs. All of these ships were manned by Burmese crew and sailing under the flag of Myanmar.

On one of these ships, a young crew member named Hla Din became deathly ill. Because the company feared that crew might jump ship or make refugee claims in the U.S. or Canada, crew were not permitted shore leave. This young crew member, who was known by the captain and other crew to be sick, was not allowed to visit a doctor in either of its two ports of call along the American west coast. By the time the ship got to Vancouver, the man was gravely ill. He was still refused medical attention. Finally, the chief engineer — fearing for the worst – directly disobeyed the captain’s orders and carried the young man down the gangway in his arms, hopped into a taxi and spirited him to St. Paul’s Hospital. The man was diagnosed with kidney failure. Tests revealed that as a result of the failure to treatment an infection he had suffered, his kidneys were shutting down. Had he been treated earlier, he would have suffered no consequences, doctors said. In effect, this man was a victim of politics — and would be condemned to either death or a lifetime of dialysis. He knew that if he was returned to Myanmar, his fate was likely death. So he made a refugee claim from his hospital bed. It was left to our inspector to support his claim, and to file his claim for loss of profession.

To make a very long and complex story short, the man was successful in his claim and was kept alive by the Canadian medical system.

Peter Lahay, the ITF’s Canadian coordinator, was rightly infuriated with First Marine, the Japanese operators of these ships. Lahay told them they should take down the Mynamar flag of oppression and hoist a more palatable flag of convenience — to follow Japanese owners to their favorite FoC, Panama — or their four vessels might face a boycott in Canadian ports. The owners, in their typical way, thanked Lahay for the advice — and then ignored it.

Good to his word, Lahay consulted with Michael Byers, a professor of international law at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. The topic was sanctions and how to have Canada’s existing sanctions on Burma increased.

Lahay also contacted one of Canada’s political parties, the New Democratic Party. What Lahay didn’t know was that after he consulted with Byers, Byers went on to contact Jack Layton, then the leader of the NDP. Shortly afterward, Lahay, along with an official from the Friends of Burma and NDP MP Paul Dewar, held a press conference outside the House of Commons in Ottawa to explain the case. Then the NDP introduced a bill in the House of Commons on increased sanctions against Burma.Within a few weeks of the press conference, the government announced increased sanctions against Myanmar — and ruled that Myanmar-flagged vessels would no longer be allowed entry into Canada.

The campaign’s success was the result of hard work and ongoing analysis of the politics in both Canada and Myanmar. One of the critical points in Canada was that government of the day sought and relied on support from conservative church groups – and these groups supported Myanmar’s indigenous Karen people, whose cultural oppression had made headlines in Canada. Lahay knew that if all of this was packaged in the right way, it could be useful in pushing the campaign forward.

(As a footnote, Paul Dewar lost in his re-election bid to represent Ottawa as its Member of Parliament last month, but Dewar should be proud to have played such a significant role in undermining the Burmese Generals at a critical time.)

Soon after, in 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Restrictions were easing in Burma.

In 2012, Lahay consulted with Shwe Tun Aung, the ITF’s Burma-born and exiled inspector, about reinvigorating an ITF campaign to support Burmese seafarers. (Shwe was by then based in Houston, Texas as an ITF Inspector.) The friendship between Lahay and Shwe stretched way back, through other labour struggles, and the pair decided to join hands again. With Shwe’s support, Lahay was able to put Burma once again on the ITF agenda by adding it as an issue to an ITF coordinators meeting held in Casablanca. The ITF, as expected, supported the motion that was presented to the coordinators and assigned Lee Cash from its trade union development program to the team.

The project was successful.

The ITF was able to assist in the foundation and registration of a new, legally recognized seafarers union in Myanmar. It’s known as the Independent Federation of Myanmar Seafarers, or IFOMS.

We can’t help but note that Myanmar has come a long way in a short time. IFOMS has had to struggle for respect and recognition, but recognition of its existence and work is coming now from the Myanmar government.

We must be positive and continue our work together to support of the wellbeing of Myanmar seafarers — and indeed, acknowledge that these are now Myanmar seafarers, not Burmese. They have taken their country back, and their name now reflects that.

That is what mutual respect is all about.

In the coming weeks: A new union finds its sea legs.


2 responses to “Dropping anchor on Burmese oppression

  1. Sorry for the delayed response, Nyo, just back from assorted travels. Thanks for the question. The Seafarers Union of Burma was disaffiliated in a democratic decision of the ITF executive board, as you are aware. The union was consulted prior to disaffiliation. There were significant financial irregularities regarding contributions to the SUB from other trade unions, and many of your former members charged the SUB with corruption. The SUB was given an opportunity for transparent and democratic reform but chose not to take advantage of it. The Independent Federation of Myanmar Seafarers is now actively representing Myanmar seafarers and their families and ITF inspectors around the world are assisting in the efforts of IFOMS. We are proud to have such a strong and progressive voice representing these seafarers once again. Your country has suffered much hardship; it is the least these men and women deserve.


  2. How about Seafarers’ Union of Burma (SUB)?


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