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14th Aug 2022

EU diplomat in Myanmar accused of endangering activists' lives

  • The ambassador, Ranieri Sabatucci, risked inflaming persecution of unionists, said the Industrial Workers' Federation of Myanmar, in a letter (Photo: Radek Kucharski)
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The EU ambassador in Myanmar is putting trade unionists' lives at risk by publicly "denigrating" them, they say. Western activists agree. Brussels says: "No".

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

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Sabatucci did so at an international ambassadors' conference in Yangon in 2021, for instance, but also "more than once", Zar Aung wrote.

And this was a "very risky situation for our lives and freedom", she warned, in an environment in which trade unions have already been driven underground and some of their people "tortured" and "killed" in the junta's prisons.

"Instead of protecting and supporting our work with the EU, the EU ambassador in Myanmar publicly denigrated and questioned our representative organisation, thus offering an opportunity to the junta to further repress us," she said.

The Sabatucci clash comes after trade unions urged EU fashion brands present in Myanmar to pull out on grounds of "slave-like" working conditions for women in the garment sector.

It also comes after unionists urged the EU to suspend trade perks for the junta due to its "war crimes and crimes against humanity" more broadly speaking.

In another example of Sabatucci's work, his embassy, on 8 July published a "distortive" video clip "in which the voices of poor dismissed female workers ... are used to support the EU position on the need for brands to remain in the country", Zar Aung said.

In a further 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 material in Myanmar, many of them via third parties in China.

The brands from Germany, Spain, France, 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 concerns about business-related abuses.

"If EU businesses are linked to military-owned factories or subsidiaries in the supply chain, then those EU businesses shouldn't be there," Manny Maung from Human Rights Watch, a global group based in New York, said.

Women in the garment sector worked long hours and earned below €2/day — much less than in neighbouring Cambodia or Thailand, she noted.

But if they complained, they risked a "backlash" by their employers or seeing soldiers turn up to scare them into silence in what amounted to an "unsafe" working environment, Maung said.

The Italian-based rights-group, Italia-Birmania Insieme, also said it was "astonished" by Sabatucci's position.

His embassy had ignored unionists' calls for help and instead "tried to protect the EU brands' presence in Myanmar", the group's secretary general Cecilia Brighi said.

Brighi also said the EU embassy was "manipulating reality" in its video-clip by interviewing non-representative voices who toed its pro-business line.

"It seems they [the EU] do not want to be mixed with real trade unions", she said.

But when EUobserver contacted Sabatucci's embassy in Yangon and the EU foreign service in Brussels, they blankly rejected the activists' concerns.

When asked if it was true the ambassador had denigrated trade unions and risked inflaming persecution, an EU foreign service spokesman simply said: "No".

They also sent this website a link to the controversial video-clip to promote their line. "Our position is clear," the spokesman said.

For their own good

"The ambassador has been recalling the fact that the European garment industry supports hundreds of thousands of jobs, most of them for young women who would lose their livelihoods if the call by the trade unions of lifting the preferential trade agreement would be accepted," the spokesman added.

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

But EU firms should continue making clothes there for the good of the garment workers, he added.

The "go-to position" of pro-business advocates in Myanmar was that if women workers lost their jobs it would drive them into prostitution, HRW's Maung said. But there was "no evidence" to support this, she added.

And while the EU did not mention prostitution, its 'pro-business' argument echoed the same old idea.

Some "95 percent of the [garment] workforce are women and are often the only source of revenues for their families" it said.

"Responsible businesses have a significant impact to avoid extreme poverty ... This is why we think it is crucial that EU business continue to operate in Myanmar", it added.

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