After Two Decades of Darkness, a Daybreak in Burma?

  • February 3, 2012
  • Tim Ryan

Almost 22 years ago, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide in a free and fair election in Burma—but the military dictatorship refused to let the NLD take power. Instead, the ruling junta crushed the organization and imprisoned its members and activists, including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.

In the past six months, Burma seems to be thawing, opening to the outside world it long shunned. And Suu Kyi, who spent many of the interceding years under house arrest—and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her struggle—is out again among the people, speaking at rallies and renewing her call for democracy.

On a recent trip to Rangoon, I had the opportunity to sit down with Aung San Suu Kyi for a conversation about the future of the labor movement in Burma. We discussed my meetings over the previous few days—with journalists, farmers, textile and garment workers, and industrial workers—all of whom had started to form independent unions. She thanked the Solidarity Center and the U.S. labor movement for its support.

Suu Kyi had already given a lot of thought to what a future Burma labor movement should look like. She felt that it was important for unions to be responsible and to work for their members. She said the new unions should not be tools or fronts for any political parties, including her own NLD. She did not say that unions should not be involved in politics or support the political parties they wanted, but she did voice her position that parties should not create unions and the NLD had no desire or intent to do so.

When we talked about economic development, she stressed that Burma should not be just about garment factories; other, more creative economic development was necessary, she said. I said that Burma had the opportunity to engage in a variety of economic activities and mentioned natural resources and extractive industries as possible but also problematic. She laughed gently and said there were a lot of opportunities “to do things right or do them very wrong.”

We ended the meeting with a promise to stay in touch, and she said that they would be busy until April 1, when by-elections are scheduled. The NLD is going to participate in elections for the first time in 20 years.

“We should meet soon,” she said as I was leaving. And she reiterated the importance of independent, responsible unions, saying she did not want to see unions run by demagogues.

“Being a demagogue is so boring,” she said with a laugh.

The Solidarity Center over the past two decades has supported Burmese labor activists that have worked with Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, have reach within the country, and have trained workers about their rights and international labor standards. Today, these workers in Burma are beginning to form and register their own unions.