Global labour group calls on Burma junta to resign, following UN's accusation of systematic use of forced labour

International Conferation of Free Trade Unions, 20 August 1998

[Publisher's note: The ICFTU is part of a coalition of forces that incudes the US government, the Burma government in exile, the (overseas) Federation of Trade Unions—Burma and Amnesty International, which aims to eliminate the government of what is an economically strategic area.]

Brussels, August 20, 1998 (ICFTU OnLine): The Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the world's largest trade union body, today called on Burma's military junta to resign and hand over power to a democratic, civilian-led government, while at the same time urging foreign companies to disinvest from the country as long as the army remained in power.

The ICFTU call follows today's publication by the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) of a damning report ( showing widespread and systematic use of forced labour by Burma's ruling military junta.

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The ILO 400-page report—released one day before the expiry of Aung San Suu Kyi's call for the installation of Burma's democratically-elected Parliament—concludes that the facts are of such gravity as to constitute crimes under international law and thus involve the individual criminal responsibility of all individuals resorting to or tolerating such practices. The ILO says Burma's state authorities stand in flagrant breach of the Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (ILO Convention Nº 29).

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The ILO findings have been produced by a specially-appointed Commission of Inquiry—the ILO's strongest possible legal action against any member state—after a two-year international judicial procedure. The Commission of Inquiry was established following the complaint lodged by trade union delegates from 25 countries at the 1996 International Labour Conference, the ILO's annual assembly who later mandated the ICFTU to represent them during the Commission's proceedings.

The Brussels-based labour group presented many witnesses during the Commission's hearings, in co-operation with the underground Federation of Trade Unions—Burma (FTUB). Filmed evidence has been compiled by the ICFTU together with Amnesty International in a video produced jointly to coincide with the launching of the ILO report and which includes an exclusive interview with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, general secretary of Burma's National League for Democracy (NLD), winner of the 1990 elections. The democratically-elected parliament has however been prevented from convening by the military who seized power in Rangoon.

The ICFTU/Amnesty International footage shot clandestinely inside Burma by Images Asia, a film production company based in the region, shows children and women unloading heavy sacks of cement from a barge, building a road under soldiers' supervision in Rangoon, working on an irrigation site in Mandalay city, as well as men displaying horrendous scars suffered after extended portering for the army in the Burmese jungle. The film includes comments on the ILO report by the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who predicts the junta will brand the ILO's report as “a bunch of lies”. Also in the footage, Amnesty International's Secretary General Pierre Sané pledges joint action with trade unions in order to put the ILO's recommendations into effect.

“One thing that is very obvious is that the way in which forced labor is used in Burma is a crime against humanity and it does seem to me that it renders the military leaders individually responsible under international criminal law. And the day might come when this report is used against them if they are ever brought before an international criminal jurisdiction”, ICFTU's Bill Jordan stresses.

“Multinationals trading with Burma's military should now realise they are in fact dealing with people who are likely candidates for an international criminal prosecution into crimes against humanity” he added.

The ILO's investigation has concluded forced labour is “pervasive throughout Myanmar”—as Burma is officially called by the junta and the United Nations, of which the ILO is a specialised agency-—on projects ranging from the carrying of equipment and ammunition for the military to the building of roads, railways, bridges and other infrastructure.

The ILO Commission's report, which is the most comprehensive international study to-date of Burma's use of forced labour, also charged that the practice “often give(s) rise to extortion of money, … threats to the life and security and extrajudicial punishment of those unwilling to comply…”, which could “range from money demands to …beatings, torture, rape and murder” and said forced labour was widely imposed on “women, children, elderly persons as well as persons otherwise unfit for work”.

The ICFTU says it would now make full use of the ILO report and call on economic and political sanctions against Burma's leaders to be stepped up in case the junta refused to abide by the ILO's recommendations.

“The United States, the EU, Japan, China and other leading world economic powers should realise there is little to be gained from continuing business as usual with Burma's rulers”, said Jordan pointing to the ILO report, which unequivocally calls for “the establishment of a government freely chosen by the people (as an) indispensable prerequisite for the suppression of forced labour” in Burma.

The ICFTU, which represents over 120 million workers in 141 countries and territories, said it would now call on members world-wide to step up pressure on the SPDC via their national governments, the UN and other multilateral agencies and organisations, as well as on companies to pull out from Burma. “With the publication of this new ILO report, multinationals can no longer claim ignorance of Burma's disastrous human rights' record”, it said.

The ILO Commission of inquiry has given the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council, the junta's new official designation) until 1 May 1999 to put its legislation in conformity with its international obligations.