ILO deliberation on who represents Myanmar a chance for UN to ‘show it has teeth’

The question of who represents Myanmar—the military council or the National Unity Government (NUG)—is being debated by the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Credentials Committee in a challenge put forward by labour activists and elected leaders against the coup regime.

At the time of reporting, the committee was deliberating on the matter ahead of the 109th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC)—set to resume online on June 3 following an initial opening last week—after both the junta-run Ministry of Labour and the NUG submitted delegations to represent Myanmar at the conference. 

When there are competing nominations, neither delegation is able to participate in the conference—referred to by the ILO as “the global parliament of labour”—until a decision is made by the Credentials Committee, a source close to the labour movement explained. 

“They will have to prove that they are the most representative delegation of the country,” the source said of the committee’s process. “[The delegations] also need to prove that they accept responsibility as a member state for carrying out the obligations under the ILO Constitution. And they need to show the procedures through which they arrived at their claim that they are the most representative.”

The ILO, which did not respond to a request for comment, is the only UN specialised agency that requires delegations from its 187 member states to include representation from three entities: government, employers, and workers. The Credentials Committee follows the same structure.

Kyaw Ni, the NUG’s Deputy Minister of Labour, told Myanmar Now that their delegation met the ILO’s criteria and included the participation of an independent employer, and the Confederation of Trade Unions of Myanmar (CTUM) as the workers’ delegate.

The deputy minister emphasised that the NUG’s legitimacy did not only come from its formation by the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw—made up of elected and subsequently ousted lawmakers—but also in contrast to the widespread violence perpetrated by the junta’s armed forces since the February 1 coup. 

“The military council has been violating human rights and doing very inhumane things to their own people. There are also many violations of labour rights of both regular workers and civil servants,” Kyaw Ni said. “We have been building a case to show all of the ways in which they have violated these rights legally and according to ILO principles like the freedom of association and the right to job security.”

He referenced the banning of labour organisations in the country and the regime’s recent mass dismissal of civil servants—including tens of thousands of striking teachers, bank employees, transportation workers, doctors and nurses—as examples of these violations.

“The military council has been violating human rights and doing very inhumane things to their own people. There are also many violations of labour rights of both regular workers and civil servants.”

It is not believed that the junta’s delegation had the endorsement of a Myanmar-based trade union, local sources said. The workers’ movement has been an integral force within the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement, which is aimed at toppling the coup, and has denounced any cooperation with the military council’s labour ministry.

International trade unions have rallied in support of NUG’s application to represent Myanmar at the ILC, according to CTUM President Maung Maung, for whom the military authorities issued an arrest warrant on Friday. Along with nearly 30 other trade union leaders and central committee members wanted by the regime, he is charged with committing incitement and violating Section 505a of the Penal Code, which carries a three-year prison sentence. Others are facing sedition charges.

Unions and workers’ coalitions based in a number of countries—including Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, the Philippines—have issued open letters to the ILO demanding that the NUG’s delegation be recognised as the legitimate representative of Myanmar at the ILC.

“This rejection at the ILC is one of the ways to weaken military regime and effect change within Myanmar without hurting any of the citizens and can lead to the regime to be disavowed by the UN,” CTUM’s May 17 appeal to international workers’ rights groups read.

Deputy labour minister Kyaw Ni said that NUG recognition at the ILC would demonstrate “that the international community accepts a government that comes from the people and that they do not accept the junta that staged the coup,” adding that he hoped an ILO decision in the NUG’s favour would lead to greater acceptance of his government by other international actors.

In April, junta representative Lt-Gen Than Hlaing participated in the 64th Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the governing body of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, drawing extensive criticism and raising questions as to whether the coup regime would be accepted as Myanmar country representatives at further UN forums. 

The World Health Organisation on Wednesday moved to exclude both the NUG and the military’s delegations from its 74th World Health Assembly “pending guidance from the United Nations General Assembly” at its next session in September.

It is possible that the ILO’s Credentials Committee will do the same: exclude both delegations from its conference and wait for a larger committee to make the ruling at the UNGA, multiple sources noted.

At that time, it is expected that the NUG and the military council will again submit competing delegations.

“Going into the UNGA, it seems we do have a big chance of ousting the regime from representing Burma,” Maung Maung said. “What happens if the Burma seat is left vacant? The people win. The UN can show it has teeth.”

He added that this would likely lead to the withdrawal of foreign investment and a halt to projects by international financial institutions, further isolating the coup council and its sources of revenue.

“What happens if the Burma seat is left vacant? The people win. The UN can show it has teeth.”

“The ‘false façade’ of successive regimes—that international resolutions and sanctions don’t have any impact on them—crumbles, as they would not be representing the country at UN forums,” Maung Maung told Myanmar Now. “This will take away the confidence of middle-level military officers and their blind faith in the regime.”


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