|“Light up Yangon and all of Myanmar,” shouted demonstrators in Yangon, Myanmar, May 22.|
The recent loosening of absolute military rule in that country has given impetus to a new stage of struggle by toilers—which is partly an unintended consequence of Washington’s effort to woo the rulers of Myanmar away from Beijing.
Some 400 steelworkers at Crown Steel Factory in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, went on strike May 20. Their current monthly income ranges from $5.35 to $12. The workers demand an increase to $48.
The steelworkers joined 7,000 other workers on strike at nine factories in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar special economic zone, workers’ legal representative U Htay told Irrawaddy, a Myanmar exile paper published in Thailand. Among them are hundreds from three garment shops and some 2,000 from a wig factory.
Htay told the paper May 29 that workers at seven of the factories resumed work during the previous weekend “because they cannot survive any longer.” But Irrawaddy reports that strikes have spread to other factories.
There have been more than 20 strikes this year and more are expected, Ye Naing Win, from the Committee for Establishing Independent Labour Unions, told Agence France-Presse in Yangon May 20.
Recent demonstrations have also taken place against electricity blackouts. They started May 20 in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, and then spread around the country. People head out after dark holding candles.
According to the World Bank, less than 20 percent of the households in Myanmar have electricity. And where it is provided, it’s only for three to four hours a day.
Six people were arrested when protesters demanding electricity clashed with riot police in the central city of Prome May 24. Police attempted to file charges, but they were rejected by a judge as baseless.
“If they want us to stop protesting, they will have to give 24-hour electricity and more human rights,” K Lwin, a 20-year-old student, told Reuters May 25.
The government announced May 23 on state television “emergency measures” to boost electricity supplies.
Washington’s decades-long inimical relations with the Myanmar government have thawed considerably in recent years as U.S. imperialism has sought and responded to opportunities to counter China’s rising power in the region, as well as to isolate North Korea.
Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar in December was the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 1955. After meeting with President Thein Sein, she announced that improved relations with the U.S. were conditional on the government severing “illicit ties” with North Korea.
Following Clinton’s visit, the Myanmar government freed political prisoners, signed truces with opposition groups and organized by-elections for 45 seats in parliament.
Washington’s favored opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was released after 15 years of house arrest last year. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won 43 of the 45 contested seats April 1.
Three days later the Barack Obama administration announced Washington would take significant steps to open relations with Myanmar and ease the sanctions that had been in place since 1988. On May 17 Washington named Derek Mitchell as its first ambassador to the country since 1990.
The European Union decided April 23 to suspend most of its sanctions as a reward for the “recent wave of political reforms.”
During a visit by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in May, Sein pledged that Myanmar will no longer buy weapons from North Korea.
During the years of sanctions, China was Myanmar’s main trade partner. Beijing’s influence in the country remains very strong, but U.S. imperialism is gaining a sturdy foothold.
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