Politics and Trade Unions in Myanmar: New Alignments and Misalignments in the Context of Democratic Transition

A/Prof. Michael Gillan1

1University Of Western Australia (UWA), Perth, Australia

After a series of economic and institutional reforms Myanmar entered into a period defined by the ‘business of transition’ (Crouch 2017) which expanded democratic space, political expression and freedom of association but also left unresolved questions on the depth and durability of these changes given the presence and strength of the military in governance, politics and economic life. This period also saw the emergence of industrial relations and labour market institutions, inclusive of the formation of independent factory level trade unions and trade union federations. The latter were constituted by both returned former exiles and labour activists that had remained in the nation during decades of military rule.

With the onset of Parliamentary elections and a National League for Democracy (NLD) government, these nascent trade unions have had to define their relationship with formal political parties and democratic modes of governance from the outset. This paper, which deploys a historical institutionalist and narrative approach based on extensive documentary sources and interviews with union organisations since 2011, explains how this has created a series of tensions and misalignments between the goals and priorities of unions and other organisations salient to democratic politics in Myanmar, inclusive of 1) tensions between trade unions themselves on their political alignments or lack thereof 2) tensions between trade unions and the NLD and Parliamentarians on organisational legitimacy, goals and representativeness 3) tensions and an emerging misalignment between the priorities and agendas of trade unions in Myanmar and international rights organisations. Doing so points to the need to situate the power, influence and impact of trade unions in developing and transitional countries not only in an analysis of economic-industrial context but also by understanding the shifting logics, opportunities and constraints associated with their interaction with emerging political actors and institutions.


Dr Michael Gillan is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Education at the University of Western Australia. His current research interests encompass global union federations; transnational labour regulation; political economy and labour movements in India; and employment relations in Myanmar.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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