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

Fazlul Haque
শুক্রবার, মে ৬, ২০১৬
  • শেয়ার করুন

Desk Report : 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 What they need is money to replace their outdated machinery and the time to train up the workers.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.

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.

Source : http://www.thenational.ae/