Myanmar's Catch 22: why Aung San Suu Kyi faces the task of a lifetime

Ni Ni Soe concentrates hard on the sewing machine on the table in front of her. A supervisor stands just behind Soe’s left shoulder, watching intently. If they look up, both can see the daily production target, written on a white board at the head of the line. It is ambitious and unattainable; it is […]

Ni Ni Soe concentrates hard on the sewing machine on the table in front of her. A supervisor stands just behind Soe’s left shoulder, watching intently. If they look up, both can see the daily production target, written on a white board at the head of the line. It is ambitious and unattainable; it is going to be another long day.

Soe, 19, is one of nearly 400 workers – almost all of them women – packed into a factory in the north-west of Myanmar’s main city, Yangon. Only one of the fans is working and the temperature inside is stifling. Nevertheless, the women will work an extra couple of hours today to hit their targets.

It is like this every day at the Shweyi Zabe garment factory and the hundreds of others like it that have sprung up to meet demand from China and the big international clothing brands.

Soe and her fellow workers should be benefiting from the groundswell of international goodwill towards Myanmar following the historic November elections that propelled Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy into power.

Skills shortage

International companies are pouring into the country, eager to take advantage of the extraordinarily cheap labour costs (only Djibouti and Bangladesh offer lower labour costs than the 3,600 kyat [Dh11.39] daily minimum wage introduced last year).

But there is a catch. During the years of international sanctions, Myanmar’s garment industry was reduced to a single factory. There is a chronic shortage of skilled workers. Productivity cannot match that of the country’s more experienced rivals. What they need is money to replace their outdated machinery and the time to train up the workers.

The catch is that they can have neither. The buyers want cheap clothes now and they don’t want to pay a penny more. Catch 22.

It is a dilemma that might seem familiar to the woman whose task it is to transform the basket case that is Myanmar into a viable state.

After years under house arrest, Suu Kyi is now the most powerful woman in Myanmar. Her party trounced its rivals in November’s elections and now has an overall majority in the country’s parliament.

The voters turned their backs on ethnic parties and put their faith in the NLD because they believed that it offered the only realistic chance of fixing the country’s seemingly intractable list of problems.

Also read: Myanmar’s need for fairer trade

That list includes various ongoing conflicts between the country’s military – the Tatmadaw – and several rebel militias which have refused to sign a national ceasefire agreement. There are 135 ethnic groups recognised by the government, each with its own particular set of demands and expectations. Many of them want a form of federal government that is not on offer.

There is extreme poverty, particularly in the rural areas. Many of the country’s young people have decamped to neighbouring Thailand in search of work. There is rampant trafficking of children and young women. Land grabs are common. Human rights are, at best, an aspiration.

“Bad things happen here everyday,” one very senior western diplomat told me a couple of weeks ago. “This is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.”

All of which goes some way to explain how Myanmar can be simultaneously rich in resources – oil, timber, gas and gems – while remaining one of the poorest countries in the world.

Turning it around is more a job for a magician than a politician, but the woman referred to across the country simply as The Lady knows she must somehow achieve the impossible, and quickly, before the well of domestic and international optimism runs dry. And she must do so despite her own Catch 22.

Military role

The NLD is the government, but it is only the government because the Tatmadaw allows it to be so. The junta that held the country in its grip from 1962 to 2011 is gone, but the military has only relaxed its grip on power, not relinquished it.

The army still holds three cabinet seats: defence, home affairs and border affairs, and in March its commander-in-chief, senior general Min Aung Hlaing, made it clear he was in no hurry to see more change any time soon.

“The Tatmadaw has steadfastly held on to the multi-party system for five years and progress has also been made. During the next, second, five-year phase, deviating from the present situation will not be accepted,” he said.

The Lady herself quickly discovered that a Nobel Peace Prize and an electoral majority might impress some people, but it would not be enough to allow her to seize her ultimate prize, the presidency.

The country’s constitution bars anyone from that office if they have married a foreigner or have foreign children.

The clause was written in with The Lady in mind: her late husband was English and both her sons hold British citizenship.

If The Lady wants to change the constitution, she need only secure a 75 per cent plus 1 majority in parliament. But she can’t, because the Tatmadaw made sure that when it wrote the constitution, it allocated 25 per cent of the parliament’s seats to its own candidates. And there is nothing she can do about that, because that would mean changing the constitution. Catch 22.

Undeterred, Suu Kyi has contented herself with the roles of foreign minister and the new role of state counsellor – which effectively puts her in charge. It is a clever compromise but it is also a reminder that the army can apply the brakes if it wants to.

Still, there are plenty of people willing her to succeed and she is going to need all the goodwill she can muster if she is to overcome the challenges ahead. Even in Yangon, the former capital and the most developed of the cities, it is easy to see the scale of the task.

Ni Ni Soe, the young factory worker, earns about 175,000 kyat a month (Dh553). That’s more than the minimum wage, but includes her overtime pay.

Her colleague Moe War, 35, says she lives “hand to mouth”. She still lives with her parents despite being married and her four-year-old son stays with his grandparents while she and her husband are out at work.

War says she works two hours overtime every day.

“We need to hit the targets – that’s why we work overtime. And if I work overtime I get more money,” she says.

Such routine overtime runs contrary to international labour laws. The Ethical Trading Initiative, one of the umbrella organisations which claim to exist to exist to protect worker rights, states in its base code that overtime must be used responsibly and that it “shall not be used to replace regular employment”.

That, however, is exactly what it is being used for in this factory, and many others. Somehow, The Lady and her government need to help the factories to secure finance to modernise in order to improve productivity or to persuade the buyers to pay more. Neither is simple.

Ethnic tensions

Further out from the city, the challenges are starker. Even in places where ceasefires are in place, there is an uneasy peace. In Kayin State [formerly Karen State] members of the regular army and the Karen National Liberation Army can now enter areas that were previously off limits, but distrust remains.

In the village of Kwin Ka Lay, Abraham, a 42-year-old in a black beret with a gold KNLA badge on the front, sits with others from the movement that has fought a bitter six decade-long war with the army. They all want a federal state and for the army to leave.

“It is like being in prison. There is no freedom of movement,” he says. “There is a saying in Myanmar: you need to believe, but you also need to act.

“The idea is that 50 per cent, I believe in this new government, but 50 per cent, I will also prepare myself and take action in case things go wrong.”

His readiness to continue the struggle is reflected in the village schoolroom. There, among the would-be doctors and nurses and teachers, two of the boys happily reveal that they want to join the KNLA. “I want to be a solder to fight,” says 11-year-old Khin Soe Win. “It is tiring and hard being a soldier but I want to sacrifice for my country.”


Some, though, have given up on their country and simply upped and left. In the village of Kawt Ka Lway, outside the Kayin state capital of Hpa-An, most families have at least a couple of children working on the other side of the Thai border, which is less than 100 kilometres away.

The road through Kawt Ka Lway is red compressed dirt. Electricity cables run through the village but the power has not been connected. It is a case study in rural poverty.

Four of Daw Lay Phyu’s children had no wish to stay; they headed for Thailand long ago. Only one, Daw Ngwe Thin, remains to look after the 85-year-old.

There is simply no money to be made here, she says. Her own daughters have also left for Thailand.

“Incomes here are very low so everyone wants to go to Thailand for work,” she says.

“We want our children back and factories to come for the village, and the road to be mended, and if we can have electricity we can make profits for our lives and for our children.”

Suu Kyi has a formidable international reputation for refusing to give up, and the way in which she handled the presidency issue suggested that she can find a solution to the most intractable of problems.

As foreign minister, she will be hoping to convert her popularity abroad into solid offers of support to help Myanmar find its feet.

But she must also hope that she can do enough to prevent the people who swept her to power concluding that the answer to their problems still lies outside the country’s borders.

Gethin Chamberlain is a photojournalist who specialises in human rights investigations.

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