Europe

EU diplomat in Myanmar accused of endangering activists’ lives

EU ambassador to Myanmar puts trade unionists’ lives at risk by publicly “bashing” them, they say. Western activists agree. Brussels says: “No”.

The ambassador, 62-year-old Italian Ranieri Sabatucci, who is a career EU official, has risked inflaming the persecution of trade unionists by ‘openly undermining the credibility’ of groups such as the Myanmar Confederation of Trade Unions and the Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), IWFM President Khaing Zar Aung said in a letter to the EU institutions on July 12.

Sabatucci did this at an international conference of ambassadors in Yangon in 2021, for example, but also “more than once,” Zar Aung wrote.

And it was a “very risky situation for our lives and our freedom”, she warned, in an environment where unions have already been driven underground and some of their members “tortured” and “killed” in junta prisons.

“Instead of protecting and supporting our work with the EU, the EU Ambassador to Myanmar has publicly denigrated and questioned our representative organization, providing an opportunity for the junta to further suppress us,” he said. she declared.

Sabatucci’s clash comes after unions urged European fashion brands with operations in Myanmar to pull out over ‘slavery-like’ working conditions for women in the garment sector.

It also comes after unionists urged the EU to suspend the junta’s trade benefits over its “war crimes and crimes against humanity” more broadly.

In another example of Sabatucci’s work, his embassy on July 8 released a “distorting” music video “in which the voices of sacked working poor women … are used to support the EU’s position on the need for trademarks. to stay in the country,” Zar Aung said.

In another case, the EU embassy even “called a Spanish brand to ask them not to leave Myanmar”, she added.

More than 60 EU clothing brands currently source from Myanmar, many of them via third parties in China.

Brands from Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Italy include well-known names such as Adidas, C&A, H&M, Regatta and Zara.

And leading Western human rights groups share their concerns about corporate-related abuses.

“If EU companies are linked to military-owned factories or subsidiaries in the supply chain, then those EU companies shouldn’t be there,” said Manny Maung of Human Rights. Watch, a global group based in New York.

Women in the garment sector worked long hours and earned less than €2/day – far less than in neighboring Cambodia or Thailand, she noted.

But if they complained, they risked a ‘backlash’ from their employers or having soldiers show up at their workplace to silence them in what amounted to an ‘unsafe’ working environment, he said. Maung.

Italy-based rights group Italia-Birmania Insieme also said it was “astonished” by Sabatucci’s stance.

Its embassy ignored calls for help from trade unionists and “tried to protect the presence of European brands in Myanmar”, said the group’s general secretary, Cecilia Brighi.

Brighi also said the EU embassy was “manipulating reality” by questioning unrepresentative voices that toed its pro-business line.

“It seems they [the EU] don’t want to be mixed up with real unions,” she said.

But when EUobserver contacted Sabatucci’s embassy in Yangon and the EU external service in Brussels, they dismissed the activists’ concerns outright.

When asked if it was true that the ambassador had denigrated the unions and risked stoking persecution, an EU external service spokesman simply replied: “No”.

They also sent this website a link to the controversial music video to promote their line. “Our position is clear,” the spokesperson said.

For their own good

“The ambassador recalled the fact that the European clothing industry supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, most of them for young women who would lose their livelihoods if the unions’ call for the lifting of the preferential trade agreement was accepted,” the spokesperson added.

The EU imposed other sanctions on the military dictatorship, such as individual visa bans and sanctions on two military conglomerates, he noted.

But EU companies should continue to manufacture clothes there for the sake of garment workers, he added.

The “favorite position” of business advocates in Myanmar was that if female workers lost their jobs, it would drive them into prostitution, HRW’s Mong said. But there was “no evidence” to support this, she added.

And while the EU didn’t mention prostitution, its “pro-business” argument echoes the same old idea.

Some “95% of [garment] labor are women and are often the only source of income for their families,” he said.

“Responsible businesses have a significant impact in avoiding extreme poverty… This is why we believe it is crucial that EU businesses continue to operate in Myanmar,” he added.

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