RANGOON — Fourteen striking garment workers have been charged with rioting, police in Rangoon said on Thursday, punishable by up to two years in prison.
On Wednesday, police dispersed a sit-in of about 100 employees of the E-Land, COSTEC and Ford Glory Garment factories in the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone, after authorities thwarted their attempt to march to City Hall.
The workers had been on strike since early February, demanding a pay raise from their current 50,000 kyat (US$50) salaries to 80,000 kyats. Striking workers received several warnings from authorities to clear the site and return to work, though several rounds of negotiations failed to produce an agreement.
Witnesses said a combined force of police in uniform and plainclothes men approached the demonstrators on Wednesday evening and began arresting them. Sixteen people were detained, including two journalists who were released several hours later.
Myint Htwe, head of Rangoon’s East District police and a member of the divisional Labor Affairs Negotiation Team, told a press conference on Thursday that the force had “filed a lawsuit against 14 workers under Article 147” of Burma’s Penal Code.
He said that the 14 detainees, eight men and six women, were guilty of rioting as defined by Article 146, which states that if force or violence is used by any member of an unlawful assembly, “every member of such assembly is guilty of the offense.”
Article 147 states that the crime is punishable by up to two years in prison, a fine, or both.
Police displayed a video of some of the demonstrators throwing stones, but it was unclear if the 14 suspects were the perpetrators. Authorities said they dispersed the demonstrators without excessive force.
“Some of the workers didn’t accept the negotiations, and some of them violated the law,” said Zaw Aye Maung, vice chairman of the Labor Affairs Negotiation Team and Rangoon Division minister for Arakan affairs. “We handled it gently without hurting anyone and in accordance with the law.”
He added that about 1,815 of nearly 3,000 employees at the three factories have returned to work.
Three other workers are also facing charges related to the strikes under Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, an oft-criticized incitement clause criminalizing statements or materials that could cause “fear or alarm” among the public and lead to offenses.