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As the debate continues over minimum wage legislation, DVB speaks to Communist Party of Burma (CPB) spokesman Pho Than Chaung about factory workers’ rights and his support for labourers and farmers.
Q: Factory workers in Rangoon recently held a protest demanding a 4,000 kyat [US$3.33] per day minimum wage. Do you think such protests are likely to expand across Burma?
A: In Burma today, there is a growing sense of disappointment, not only for workers, but also among students, farmers and other grassroots communities. Their disappointment is reaching a point where they cannot contain it anymore, and they must push ahead. This is not wishful thinking; I think that is what’s going to happen. At the same time, the government is trying to divert public attention away from those issues with news about the upcoming elections – who will run and who will not. But this is not working. People’s concern for their livelihoods has overtaken their concern for political affairs – we’ve reached a point where the balloon is about to burst.
Q: Do you see any similarities between the events now and those prior to the 1988 uprising?
A: One similarity I see is impoverishment in the country. Back in 1988, Burma was at the bottom of the list of the world’s poorest nations. The withdrawal of 50- and 100-kyat banknotes also led to this mass uprising. One thing we should remember is that there were various public revolts in Burma during the 1970s ahead the 1988 Uprising. For example, the U Thant Uprising and the Shwedagon Uprising, when the people tested their mettle, built up strength and gained experience in these affairs. It all blew up in 1988. The situation the people of Burma are in now is not much different from then.
Q: Around 100 garment factories threatened to close operations if the minimum wage is set above 3,600 kyat per day as was suggested by the government. What will be the impact if they pull out?
A: This is a very specific issue, so it may be too early to speculate. But in my opinion, I don’t think the factory operators will close down as they have threatened. They are only bluffing, trying to bully the public as much as they can – in comrade Lenin’s words, they are trying to ‘get two hides from one cow’. In reality, there is nowhere else with cheaper labour and better opportunities than in Burma.
Q: The government has been talking about setting a minimum wage for almost two years, but has only just got round to proposing the aforementioned amount, now that the elections are nearing. Do you think this is normal or is there an agenda behind it?
A: As I said, the government plans to draw the public’s attention away with various issues so that they can do what they wish in the elections, and this could be one of those ploys. If the general election is free and fair, the current government will not get enough votes to continue ruling the country. Their only option is to do something irregular and create issues to divert public attention from the election.
Q: The CPB has urged farmers, civil servants, students and urban grassroots movements to join hands and express their frustration at the government. Is the CPB calling for an uprising?
A: Yes. From our point of view, the people of Burma only have themselves to rely on and nobody else. We believe that the people cannot aspire as any single group – they must work for themselves to bring about change.
Q: The leader of a major opposition party has warned that political stability is crucial for successful elections. Isn’t your idea directly opposed to theirs?
A: Yes, but I want to say we believe keeping the people fed is more important. Food on the table is more important than the elections. We think it is inappropriate to prioritise other things over ensuring people’s livelihoods.
Q: Can you elaborate on the CPB’s call to ‘bring about uprisings from strikes.’
A: There’s not too much more to say. We trust the workers of Burma, and their capacity to work and fight this struggle. We believe that they will finally see victory if they continue to work with self-confidence. I’m not saying it will be an easy fight – there may be sacrifices to make – but eventually they will win. The people of Burma should be positive about a victory and at the same time prepare for necessary sacrifices.