Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA hosted its annual gala dinner in Sydney on September 12, bringing together a gathering of 280 attendees. Twenty-five unions and community groups joined us, along with special guests from the National Unity Government of Myanmar and the Myanmar Campaign Network.
The evening began with Melissa Harding from the NSW Teacher’s Federation offering a warm Acknowledgement of Country. Melissa also shared an inspiring presentation about the remarkable efforts of unions in campaigning for the Voice to Parliament, encouraging everyone to maintain their dedication in the final weeks of the campaign.
Our keynote speaker, Professor Sean Turnell, shared his personal story of working for the democratic government of Myanmar as an advisor. In the days after the military coup in February 2021, he became a target and was soon arrested. He recounted how he was put in handcuffs and leg irons, telling the police officer “I’m a 58-year-old professor. I’m not a threat to you. I’m not Jason Bourne.”
Sean would eventually endure almost two years of imprisonment in the notorious Insein prison. He pointed out that although he had suffered, it was nothing compared to other political prisoners.
He passionately called upon the Australian government to increase sanctions on junta-owned banks, alongside the United States, United Kingdom and European Union. “In the past, we’ve thought about using sanctions as a way to incentivise the regime to behave better. That’s just not going to happen. They don’t care about the economy or living standards.
“What we have to do is reduce the capacity of the regime and think about what will most damage the regime’s ability to wage war against their own people – the best way to do that is to starve it of foreign currency. The best way to do this is to target the state-owned banks.”
He finished by saying the regime is desperate and is losing.
Julia Angrisano, the national secretary of the Finance Sector Union, responded to Sean’s speech by sharing insights into her union’s support for the democracy movement in Myanmar. She told the crowd: “My union got involved in the campaign to restore democracy in Myanmar when we saw that ANZ bank was not heeding the call to withdraw from Myanmar. As the finance sector union, we felt an obligation to act so in 2021 we urged ANZ bank to withdraw its operations from Myanmar.
“At the time the CEO called us ‘dangerous social justice warriors’ and said that our demands put the safety of ANZ staff at risk. Well – at the end of last year the bank caved to pressure and announced they would be ceasing operations.”
In late August Julia represented the Australian trade union movement at UNI Global’s World Congress where she spoke about the vibrant trade unions in Myanmar, which have now been declared illegal.
In a moving display of solidarity, Julia led the dinner in a three-finger salute, symbolising our united support for the people resisting military rule in Myanmar.
The evening was skillfully hosted by Dee Madigan, who ensured a wonderful atmosphere throughout the night. Thanks also to Mich-Elle Myers who played auctioneer for the live auction, encouraging the crowd to bid on union memorabilia such as a poster signed by President of Timor Leste Xanana Gusmao and a 1972 poster promoting a march for Aboriginal land rights to coincide with the first National Aborigines’ Day, now known as NAIDOC week.
Thanks to the generous contributions from everyone present, the event proved to be a tremendous success in raising $33,000 for APHEDA’s vital work.