The atmosphere in the main hall at the UN Palais in Geneva yesterday morning was electric, and speaking from experience, on the last day of the annual three week International Labour Conference that’s not something you can usually say. The reason for the buzz was the appearance of Aung San Suu Kyi to address the gathered representatives of workers, employers and governments from 184 ILO member states. She did not disappoint, her calm yet forceful and determined delivery held the room in total silence.
Ms Suu Kyi gave a heartfelt thanks the ILO and its constituents for the support and campaigning on Burma initiated by the 1997 commission of inquiry on forced labour and noted the commitments now given by the Burmese government to fulfil its action plan on total elimination by 2015. The main focus of her address was on the need for Burma to continue on the path to full political, economic and social rights for all its people.Burma needed investment and jobs, she said, but investment had to be of the kind that supported democratic sustainable development and not of the sort that would contribute to worsening inequalities and conflict. Her words reinforced the need for the EU to meet the International and European Trade Union Confederations’ demands to establish a framework for the effective supervision of European multinationals starting to operate in Burma following the suspension, or lifting, of sanctions and the workers group call for the ILO to assess the impact of foreign investment on fundamental labour rights.
Departing from her script, she stressed the particular need to look to the needs of young people for work and hope and she told us of the pleasure of meeting young people across Burma during the election campaign who were demanding openness and opportunity.
She finished by stating that no country anywhere in the world could call itself developed until its people lived both free from fear and want.
Following her address to the full conference she came to speak directly to the workers group to thank us for the unstinting support over the last decades and to call for an increase of support to Burmese workers and independent trade unions. She repeated that there was now more need of international support than ever and that the struggle for workers’ rights must include migrant Burmese workers in countries like Thailand where as she had heard first hand on recent visits they face severe levels of exploitation.
She was followed by Maung Maung, leader of the exiled Federation of Trade Unions of Burma, who thanked all those who have supported the struggle for Burmese democracy and workers rights. Part of the agreement reached this week at the ILO to lift or suspend ILO sanctions on Burma involves allowing Maung Maung and his colleagues to re-enter the country and for the FTUB to register under the new labour law as an official federation.
The final word in the workers group went to my South African colleague on the ILO governing body who noted that Nelson Mandela had said following his release from prison that he had suddenly found he had many new friends, some of whom advised him to move on from his old friends, those who had supported the struggle in the darkest times. He always said that whilst he welcomed the new friends, he would never turn his back on or stop listening to the old. With a broad smile Aung San Suu Kyi said she did indeed see the wisdom of such words as she continued to face the future with great hope and cautious optimism.