Ma Su Su Nway is a Yangon-based labour activist and National League for Democracy (NLD) party member. In 2005 she was sentenced to 18 months in prison after filing a complaint that led to the successful prosecution of government authorities over the use of forced labour. For her work opposing forced labour in Myanmar, Ma Su Su Nway was in 2006 awarded the John Humphrey Freedom Award from the Canadian organisation Rights & Democracy. Released from prison in June 2006, she was rearrested in November 2008 for displaying of a banner near the hotel of UN human rights envoy Paulo Pinheiro. Ma Su Su Nway was subsequently released from prison in October 2011 and has since been involved in labour organising activities in Myanmar. The following transcript is a translated excerpt of an interview conducted in Yangon on 27 January 2013.

Stephen Campbell: Ma Su Su Nway, I’m very glad to get the opportunity to meet with you. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. Firstly, you’re well known internationally for your work against forced labour in Myanmar. More recently, however, you’ve become involved in supporting the organising of workers’ unions. Please tell me about some of the labour organising activities you’ve been involved in since being released from prison in October 2011?

Su Su Nway: Yes, I was released from prison on 12 October 2011. After being released I took a week to rest. After taking a rest, I went to conduct a seminar with farmers in Pyay. After doing that, while I was resting a little, the workers’ strike broke out at the Tai Yi factory [on 6 February 2012]. I wasn’t present when the strike first broke out. I’d gone to Bago. At about 2:00, when I came back from Bago, the workers called me. They said to me, “Sister, this case involves about a thousand workers. We’re striking because our wages are low.” I thought, “Is this true or not?” and I called someone involved in labour issues to go and see. At the time when that person went to see the situation, I’d left my phone behind in a car. So, when that person involved in labour issues called me, I couldn’t be reached. Since I’d left my phone behind, the workers couldn’t call me that night. It was the next morning when they were able to call me.

On the morning of the following day, after I’d gotten dressed and was heading out, I got a call: “Ma Su Su Nway, the strike is continuing today. Please come immediately.” I hired a taxi and went there. When I arrived I could see many workers. They gathered around me and told me that they didn’t get paid even 1,000 kyat per day in wages. So, it wasn’t at all a decent situation for these women’s livelihoods or for renting a room. So, they were in a cycle of debt. They had therefore issued demands to increase their wages and overtime pay. According to what these workers were telling me, they were really failing to get their rights. Since they were failing to get their rights like this, I asked, “Has the Labour Supervision Committee not come?” “They came,” they replied. And they asked me to speak with the committee.

When I spoke with the Labour Supervision Committee they said to me, “Daw Su Su Nway, this is a democracy. Whether or not the employer is able to pay the wages that workers are demanding, there’s nothing we can do. The employer has said that he would suffer a loss. But the workers are saying that their wages are low. So, from a position between the two sides, we’ll coordinate for them. But whether or not the employer can pay, we can’t apply pressure. That’s democracy.”

Therefore, I asked the workers how much they were demanding. They were demanding 250 [kyat per hour]. I called the workers together and told them that the employer had said the demand of 250 would make him suffer a loss. So, 250 wouldn’t be possible. “Wouldn’t 150 be alright?” I asked the workers. The workers therefore reduced their demand by 100 and agreed with me on 150. When the workers were in agreement, I went to speak with the Labour Supervision Committee–the government organisation–saying, “We can’t reduce the demand lower than 150. For us, 150 would be alright. So, if you can coordinate, please coordinate for us.” Then all the workers and the employer were called into the open area of the factory compound. When they were negotiating, the employer said he would only raise the wages by 50. He said he couldn’t at all raise them any more than that. The workers didn’t accept that. When the workers didn’t accept it, they yelled, “Heeeyyy!” Since the workers became all agitated I got really worried that they’d be arrested, just as I’d been arrested. With the workers all agitated, I was really worried. So, I tried hard to keep the workers in order saying, “We’ll work hard to get [the demands].”

After the workers calmed down, I called the ILO [International Labour Organisation] in order to ameliorate the situation. I said, “It’s like this. Please call the Labour Minister. Please call the Deputy Labour Minister.” When I said that, what they said in response was that I’m an NLD member. I’m an NLD member who is carrying out labour activities. According to them, labour issues should stay clear of politics. Director-General U Chit Shein of the Labour Department had contacted the ILO office and had told them to pull me out from the strike. When he said that, ILO official Steve Marshal was very worried for me. They [the Labour Department] pressured the ILO, saying “Call Ma Su Su Nway back. If you won’t call her back, then don’t complain about what happens.” Therefore, ILO official Steve Marshall was very worried that I’d be prosecuted again. It hadn’t been so long that I’d been out of prison. So, they were worried.

While they were worried, I called the ILO office back. “Please come to the ILO office,” they said. But I didn’t go. I didn’t go because I was really worried that these workers were going to be arrested. Therefore, I stayed together with the workers. I stayed there until it got dark. The most senior person in the Hlaing Thar Yar Labour Committee was discussing with the employer. They wouldn’t come out until I went home. I waited for the chairperson of the Labour Supervision Committee to leave. Then I went to his car and asked him, “How are you going to decide? What are you going to do?” He replied, “We haven’t yet made a decision. We’ll make a decision tomorrow.” So I asked again, “What time are you going to decide?” “Ten thirty,” he said. So I said, “Okay, I’ll be there at ten.” The next day I went there by ten o’clock. At that time, they said they’d raise the wages by 50 [kyat per hour]. The employer said to me, “Daw Su Su Nway. I’m going to suffer a loss. Therefore, Daw Su Su Nway, please control the workers for me.” I replied, “They demanded 250. Now on our side we’ve gone down to 150. So, say something that will make this alright.” I asked the workers again, “If you reduce a little, will it be okay?” The workers went down to 120. From our side we reduced a lot. But from their side, they wouldn’t concede.

When the employer wouldn’t concede, I came to see that it was the employer and the government’s labour body that had brought about this conflict and caused it to drag on for such a long time. When I came to see that, I got the workers together and said to them, “When democracy finally arrives, when we’ve gone along their route, won’t you be more successful if you form an organisation? If you make demands individually, you won’t succeed. Therefore, I’d like you to form a union.”

On that day, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was going to go on a trip to Kawhmu. I’m from Kawhmu, so I told the workers, “I’m going to go on that trip, please be alright. Don’t do anything that would transgress their side.” I went away after telling them that. I was gone for one night and two days. When I got back all the workers were divided.

Someone had said to the workers regarding the leaders whom I’d appointed, “Ma Su Su Nway took these young people to the ILO and the ILO gave them over 3,000,000 kyat and bought them phones. They didn’t pay you, but they paid the leaders.” And like that they fought and broke up. At that time these young women workers who had come from rural areas didn’t understand and all of them had split up. When I arrived, they were all divided. Because of threats among the young worker leaders, they were all divided when I arrived. They came up to me saying “Sister, sister, it was like this.” I went to the open area where the workers were and explained to them so as to get them in order.

I took by the hand these young people who had misunderstood. I said, “I personally went and submitted a complaint to the ILO about forced labour and I personally made a demand and was successful. The ILO is the International Labour Organisation and their staff get salaries. They’ve come to our country in order to end forced labour. So, other countries have come to give assistance to our country. But when I did that work I didn’t get even 500 kyat. The only things I’ve received from the ILO are pens, booklets and ILO pamphlets. Therefore, since people like me who have been involved with the ILO and have helped so much about child soldiers or forced labour haven’t even gotten 500 kyat, will the people who eat rice [i.e. thinking humans] please consider whether these striking workers would have been paid 3,000,000 kyat.”

When I said that and the young people came to understand, they came up and said “Sister, sister.” When I asked them what had been said, they told me someone had said, “Ma Su Su Nway is in the NLD. Don’t join with Ma Su Su Nway. If you join with Ma Su Su Nway, you won’t get your demands. Workers must stay clear of party politics.” They incited division like that. I asked who had caused this division and they replied that it was a legal scholar. I wasn’t angry. I sided with the workers.

I then went to the ILO and I spoke with ILO official Steve Marshal. I said “Okay, I’ll get out. If the government is making me get out, then I’ll get out.” The ILO official told me that the government had said “When Ma Su Su Nway is there, these workers are more agitated. And they’re more energised to strike. So, make Ma Su Su Nway get out.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll get out. But I want the ILO to help me with one thing. These young people have reduced their demand from 250 to 120. Please go to Deputy Labour Minister U Myint Thein and get the employer and the Hlaing Thar Yar Labour Supervision Committee to agree [to the workers’ demand]. I’ll give you three days. I’ll get out. If the ILO wants me to get out, I’ll get out. Then the ILO immediately scheduled a meeting with the Deputy Labour Minister. I got the Labour Administration Department’s Director U Chit Shein to come resolve the issue. Within those three days, U Chit Shein came to resolve the matter.

When he came to resolve the issue–during this strike, this employer-employee conflict, the employer paid the police and security guards 3,000 kyat per day to stay there. These police who were getting 3,000 kyat per day didn’t want the strike to end immediately. So, they said to the young workers, “The person who is coming today isn’t U Chit Shein.” The workers didn’t know U Chit Shein. So when the Director arrived and got out of the car someone said, “That’s not U Chit Shein.” U Chit Shein said to them, “Today I’ll resolve this for you. Do you agree?” The young people said “That’s not U Chit Shein. We don’t agree!” And all together they yelled “We don’t agree!” U Chit Shein was really angry. He didn’t resolve anything and just left.

What I want to say is that, when these employer-employee conflicts occur, it’s not just politicians who say things to inflame these conflicts, rather than resolving them peacefully and bringing them to a quick conclusion. It’s also government bodies. That’s what I’ve seen. So, if it’s going to be like that, then so be it.

I therefore organised the young people. We set a date of 2 March. We got as many of the young people as we could. We got 26 people. With those 26 people we gathered in a home and formed the outline of a union. According to the regulations we needed 30 workers. So, on 4 March we confirmed the union and I fed biriyani to the young people using my own money, so that they’d want to come. We therefore got the requirement [of at least 30 workers]. On 8 March we applied to the government. On 12 March, due to the promulgation of the procedural labour law, the Tai Yi factory union registration was granted early.

Starting with that, one union after another was formed according to their section. When that happened, what I saw was: there a union, here a union, there a union, here a union; a union on the workers’ side; a union on the employer’s side; a union on the authorities’ side. Among the workers there were different people vying to form unions. That’s what I saw. One union would have one success. But nobody’s thinking about how to go forward in order for the union to come to life.

In one factory, on the employer’s side there’s a union and on the worker’s side there’s a union formed by someone doing labour activities. So the union is split in two. The government says, “Okay, we’ll register your union.” And the government tells the international community, “Here are the Labour Ministry and all these unions being formed. Every three days a union is formed.” But below that statement, I haven’t seen the government do anything to prevent these disparities between the employer and the workers’ union. Therefore, for these union leaders, okay, you’ve formed a union. It’s been legally registered. But with that registration, I haven’t seen the government do anything to help that union leader or to provide the right to act and make demands…

Stephen Campbell: Beginning with the strike at the Tai Yi footwear factory in February 2012 a wave of strikes spread across factories in Myanmar. Mostly this was in the Hlaing Thar Yar Industrial Zone outside Yangon. Can you explain some of the factors contributing to this strike wave?

Su Su Nway: It was also in Hmawbi. Regarding the reasons for this strike wave, from my perspective, the young workers who worked in the factories and workplaces suffered injuries at their workplaces. They didn’t have permission to go to the hospital to treat these injuries. The authorities had directed the doctors to examine the workers a little and then make them go back to work. The workers were displeased about this. Another thing is that their daily wages and overtime wages are low. So they made demands about this. When they made these demands the employer wouldn’t comply. Also, the workers didn’t get compensation for severed arms, severed legs or other injuries. Furthermore, fired workers must get compensation for three months of work. But they didn’t get this. So the workers demonstrated, they went on strike and they made demands about the losses they were suffering at their workplaces and to claim their rights. And the strike wave reverberated among other factories where workers were enduring loses. And like that the strike wave spread.

Stephen Campbell: As part of Myanmar’s current political transformation, there have been two new labour laws promulgated: the October 2011 Labour Organisation Law and the March 2012 Labour Dispute Settlement Law. From the perspective of labour organising, can you talk about the strengths and weaknesses of these two laws?

Su Su Nway: If I’m to talk about Myanmar’s laws, all that has been done is that they’ve promulgates these laws. They themselves don’t respect the laws that they’ve promulgated and they haven’t given precise instructions all the way down to the lowest civil servants under them to respect the laws. Therefore, all that can be said is that they’ve promulgated these laws. The people haven’t yet benefited from these laws. If I’m to explain about these laws that they’ve promulgated, as much as there are items that the workers and I can accept, there are also items that the workers and I cannot accept. Regarding the items that the workers can accept, I haven’t seen the government give precise instructions down to the township labour office. That’s my view about these laws and the view of people involved in workers’ organisations. So in this country, no matter what law is promulgated, if precise instructions aren’t given to respect and follow the law, then the workers aren’t able to protect themselves from the difficulties, conflicts and violence that they face.

When the workers try to protect themselves, it’s the people with money who win: the old grandfathers–the generals and ministers–and those who are close with them. It’s the people with money and the people with power who win. As for the people who are really suffering–the people who must work to eat–they’ve only won about once out of every ten times. And it’s only been when the workers’ organisations, the media, the journals, the NLD, and the 88 Generation Students have all collectively shouted out. That’s what I’ve seen of what they’ve done regarding the law.

Stephen Campbell: Most of the recent labour organising activities in Myanmar that have been reported in the international news have involved factory workers. Can you talk a little about organising activities in Myanmar among workers not employed in factories?

Su Su Nway: Another thing we’ve done concerning workers is form a union of water workers and a union of agricultural workers–for example, when a land owner has more than 50 acres and hires about 4, 5 or 10 workers. We gathered these agricultural wage workers and formed an Agricultural Wage Workers’ Union according to the ILO rules and regulations. Also, those who work fishing on lakes and such must hand over their fish. So this is labour related. We’ve therefore formed a Water Workers’ Union according to the ILO rules. Also, for workers who load ships and work on ships, I met and discussed with worker leaders. I wanted a workers’ union to be formed. So, I asked them if they’d form a union. And I explain the ILO regulations. They agreed and we formed a ship workers’ union. Also, there are oil tanker workers who work on government oil tankers who must push and unload barrels of oil. So, for all of Myanmar–not for those who go internationally–we formed an Oil Tanker Workers’ Union. These are some of the other workers’ unions.

Stephen Campbell: I know that the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been active in supporting labour organising. You, for example, are an NLD party member and are also involved in labour organising activities. Can you talk about the relationship between the NLD and the workers’ unions that it has helped establish?

Su Su Nway: Presently, ever since I got out of prison, I’ve been an NLD member. I don’t currently work in the NLD office… Yes, I’m an old NLD member. But I’m not forming workers’ unions under the authority of the NLD. The reason is that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi formally said that for workers’ unions and farmers’ unions, those with heavy responsibilities in the NLD office cannot leave. She also later said this in Kawhmu Township. However, our NLD members, our NLD duty holders, those who don’t have heavy responsibilities are able on their own to help these workers’ and farmers’ unions to emerge; although you can’t personally enter to be selected as a leader. That’s what our leader has said. Therefore, when I help form workers’ or farmers’ unions, this isn’t under the authority of the NLD. The NLD has had workers’ and farmers’ sections since way back when the party was founded. U Hla Pe is the most senior person in the farmer section. And in the worker section, it’s U Tin Oo. He has transferred and taken that responsibility. So, if someone must go to the ILO, U Tin Oo goes. Previously, U Myint Thein, who has passed away, took on worker issues. However, the NLD per se does not form unions. There’s a section that does worker issues and a section that does farmer issues in the NLD. But if a worker issue arises, it’s submitted to the ILO and resolved. If an agricultural issue arises, such as land confiscation, it’s submitted to the government or to the ILO and it’s resolved. But the NLD as such doesn’t form unions. Since this has gotten has mix up, I need to openly clarify it.

Stephen Campbell: What’s your hope for the future of labour organising in Myanmar?

Su Su Nway: I want a union of workers for all of Myanmar to emerge. I want a federation of workers’ unions to emerge that the government will really acknowledge and give the right to act and the right to protect workers. That’s my desire. In order for an All Myanmar Federation of Workers’ Unions to emerge we can’t do this is a few short months. There’s something that I always say now to workers and to those who are active in labour issues: In order for an All Myanmar Federation of Workers’ Unions to emerge, it must begin from the base. That’s the democratic way. As an NLD member, it’s been the NLD which has enabled me to say this and to do this.

I’m a rural person. I’m not someone with a university degree. I advanced from a village. I’ve faced a lot of dangers and many difficulties. I’ve had to stand in politics. I’ve had to stand in life without parents. Furthermore, I’ve advanced from a village that was really oppressed by the military government. In order to advance like that I’ve faced a lot of danger and have gone through many difficulties. Therefore, I always talk about my life. I never forget my life. Now, when I go to give speeches, if I’m given a seat, I never sit on it. I sit down [on the floor] and talk from there. The reason is that I’ve advanced from the bottom. And we need to go towards democracy from the bottom. The president says that our country is changing and reforming. So, okay, I’ve got one question I’d like to ask: If that’s the case, then what’s being done for subordinate groups like workers and farmers? In our country workers, farmers and rural people are at the bottom. So, the question I want to ask is what’s being done to guarantee the existence of the people at the bottom? If transformation is truly desired, if the emergence of democracy is truly desired, yet workers and farmers aren’t given their full rights, then this country can never be called a democracy.

If a democratic transformation is truly desired, if the emergence of a democratic country is truly desired, this transformation will only occur once the government does a lot to guarantee the lives of rural people, workers and farmers. Only then will it be possible to call our country a democracy. The reason is that our country is an agricultural country–a country that’s based on farmers and workers. These poor workers and farmers are the majority. The workers are the children of farmers. Workers’ families have faced land confiscation. There’s no employment in the villages. Due to that unemployment parents are poor, and when they have children the children go to the city to get jobs in factories. So, the workers come from farmers. Until there’s a government that protects rural people, farmers and workers, our country cannot be called a democracy.

Therefore, in order for a federation of workers’ unions to emerge, organisations of subordinate groups must be formed in each of the states and regions, according to their respective sectors. This can’t happen without the involvement of the government’s Labour Ministry. This can’t be done in a matter of months. It’ll take years. Therefore, in order for an All Myanmar Workers’ Union to emerge, those of us who are engaged in worker issues, political parties, political forces, the government’s Labour Ministry–even employers–must come together according to their roles, work hard, and do this systematically. The workers can’t do this alone. The people involved in workers’ issues can’t do this alone. The government needs to be included. And those who support the unions must be included. We’ve set up unions in the factories. But people who aren’t workers in a factory who support the union, such as teachers, can join. This is the way we need to go. So, what I want is for us to have ability, to have numbers, and then for an All Myanmar Workers’ Union to emerge. That’s my goal.

Stephen Campbell: Ma Su Su Nway, thank you very much for speaking with me.

Stephen Campbell is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto.