From Thu Oct 4 07:16:04 2001
Date: Wed, 3 Oct 2001 22:40:59 -0500 (CDT)
From: Michael Givel <>
Subject: [toeslist] Bangkok Post: ILO turns spotlight on use of forced
Article: 127551
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ILO turns spotlight on use of forced labour

By Larry Jagan, Bangkok Post, 28 September 2001

Things are changing in Burma and another sign of this is the presence of a high level delegation from the International Labour Organisation to investigate the use of forced labour.

Human rights groups like Amnesty International say the Burmese military routinely forces villagers to work on the construction of roads and bridges and to act as porters. “Anyone who refuses,”

said a Burma researcher for AsiaWatch, “is brutally beaten and put in jail.”

The members of the mission have had extensive discussions with both the government and the opposition. They have had a long meeting with the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under virtual house arrest. Now they are spending two weeks travelling round the country's border areas, where forced labour is still believed to be used extensively.

The director-general of the ILO, Juan Somavia, said the mission would be extremely rigorous and had been guaranteed freedom of access. Any witnesses that give evidence will be protected. The members of the mission are internationally eminent jurists led by the former governor-general of Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen.

“The high calibre of its members,” said Mr Somavia, “will guarantee that they are not hoodwinked by the Burmese generals.”

Burma's generals have promised the ILO full co-operation. “The team will be given freedom of movement and we will not accompany them except to take care of their security,” Burma's Deputy Labour Minister Brigadier-General Win Sein told the government-sponsored Myanmar Times.

The ruling junta was stung into action last November when the ILO condemned Burma for its use of what the international community calls slavery. They called on members to implement what would in effect be an international economic boycott of Burma. With its economy plunging deeper into crisis, this is the last thing the Burmese generals want to see happen.

Since then they have officially outlawed forced labour and circulated directives banning the use of forced labour throughout the country.

The mission now hopes to assess to what extent forced labour has been stopped.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, says the use of forced labour has been substantially reduced. “It's not as prevalent as it was,” said NLD spokesman U Lwin.

But that is not the experience of the ethnic groups like the Shan, Karen and Mon, who all live in Burma's border areas. These are the areas where the delegation is currently visiting. A Mon spokesman said that while it was not as bad as it was, forced labour is still a problem.

The Burmese military are so anxious to impress the ILO mission that many of the country's regional commanders toured around the border areas in the weeks before the delegation arrived telling villagers what to say. In Mon state, the local military commanders even made villagers sign petitions saying there is no forced labour in their area.

Human rights activists believe that forced labour is still used extensively in border areas, where the army still needs local people to help with the construction of roads and bridges and to carry supplies. “In the past few years, the army has certainly reduced its use of women and children,” said an AsiaWatch researcher. “But forced labour persists. We have over a thousand fresh documented cases since last November.”

The mission will report back to the ILO in November at its major annual session. “The results of the mission will be crucial to whether western government's respond to Burma's attempts to lessen its international isolation,” said a western diplomat based in Rangoon.

The ILO says this mission is part of an on-going process. In private, senior officials admit that establishing a permanent presence in Rangoon is the only way to ensure the elimination of forced labour and to monitor the prosecution and punishment of those found to be using force labour.

Observers feel this issue is going to be very divisive for the country's military leaders. There is likely to be great resistance to ending the practice within the army. “The army, especially in border areas, where there is rugged terrain, cannot do without press-ganging local villagers into service as porters and guides,” said a Bangkok-based military specialist.

The ILO mission's report is expected to be a strong of indicator of how much change is happening in Burma. But the ILO chief, Juan Somavia, probably best summed up the international mood when he said: “The ILO won’t be satisfied with something that doesn’t appear to be real progress. It is progress for a mission to be there, but progress has to continue.”