Spotlight interview with Maung Maung, General Secretary of the FTUB (Federation of Trade Unions-Burma)

ICFTU, 27 March 2003

“Forced labour is far from eradicated in Burma”

ICFTU OnLine (Brussels, 26 March 2003): The ILO Governing Body will this week be looking at developments regarding the forced labour imposed by the military dictatorship in Burma. To get an update on the general situation in the country, we interviewed Maung Maung, General Secretary of the FTUB (Federation of Trade Unions-Burma), an underground Burmese union with close links to the ICFTU. This is what he had to say.

Has international pressure helped reduce the use of forced l abour?

In a sense, yes. When a team of ILO experts arrived in the Mandalay region, forced labour was stopped there for the duration of the visit, but shortly afterwards it was resumed. Now the attention of the ILO Burma office is trying to travel to the border regions, a reduction of Forced labour was noted but now its is increasing again. In fact it has not stopped and the FTUB has again come across several orders for forced labour in the last few weeks and video and photo reports of one Forced labour project in Karen State. The job of the ILO representatives in Burma is difficult, since agents of the military junta follow their movements. Ordinary citizens are therefore scared of talking to the ILO people when they pass through their region. The ILO would need to set up several permanent offices in the sensitive regions (in Rangoon for the Delta area and Pegu area, in Mandalay for the Upper Burma region and in Moulmein for the lower Burma regions), each equipped with a telephone line that Burmese people could call—in their own language and on a 24-hour basis—whenever opportunity gives for reporting cases of forced labour. So far the ILO only has one office, in the capital Rangoon. We have passed on the contact details of this office via various foreign radio programmes than can be heard in Burma, but people are scared to go there directly.

The SPDC (State Peace and Development Council—the regime's own name for itself) is trying to demonstrate its good intentions by claiming that it is issuing orders to stop the use of forced labour, but is sometimes failing to get them applied by local army officers &$8230;

When a high-level ILO delegation went to Burma, the SPDC set up an information programme to ensure that every village was informed about its likely arrival. The local inhabitants knew they should reply “no” if foreigners asked them whether there was any forced labour. That is also why all Burmese know the “ILO” acronym and even if they do not know what it means, they know the army are scared of it. There is nothing to stop the regime setting up a similar information campaign stressing their orders to stop forced labour, but the truth is that it does not intend to implement those orders and simply wants to make the international community believe it is addressing the problem. Examples of punishment of army officers who imposed forced labour on civilians are few and far between. In one case we heard of, an officer who had regularly used forced labour was merely moved to another region. The dictatorship regards the frequent use of forced labour and violence against civilians as a means of terrorising the people concerned so that they do not dare to rebel.

The ILO's representative in Burma recently stated that the military regime had no credible plan for making significant reductions in forced labour. What would you now like the ILO to do?

The ILO needs an enforcement action. We would like the ILO to ask international financial organisations to stop funding the “Programme for the Greater Mekong sub-region”. This programme funded by the Asian Development Bank involves six countries which the river passes through, including Burma. The bank is not pouring money into the coffers of the regime, however the junta is benefiting indirectly from the Programme, both through increased trade across its borders and through the studies its experts can undertake, e.g. on the highly controversial construction of a hydroelectric dam on the River Salween. If that type of barrage were constructed in Thailand the people could protest and take to the streets, but that is not possible in Burma, where the authorities' repression of any protest movement is still very harsh.

A banking crisis is currently brewing in Burma: since they are short of local currency the banks are imposing maximum withdrawals of about 10 dollars a week per person and account. The queues are long outside banks. Could this lead to protests?

That has indeed happened in other countries faced with banking or financial crises, e.g. Indonesia or the Philippines. But things are different in Burma: firstly, if people take to the streets the army are likely to fire on the crowd and secondly, those in power are not greatly affected by the crisis since they can get money from other sources, particularly from drug trafficking. The private sector, which is still very limited in Burma, is being affected by this crisis, since if firms cannot withdraw money to pay wages they will have to sack staff and production levels will fall. Salaries have to be paid at the end of March. We will see what happens then. Foreign investors are definitely leaving the country, since they have been struggling with the unfair practices of the regime. We know, for example, that they have to pay their taxes in dollars though they sell their goods in local currency. And it is hard for them to change their kyats (Burmese currency) into dollars — indeed the tobacco firm Rothmans has been buying fish with the kyats it gets for its cigarettes, and is exporting it on to Hong Kong to be sold for dollars!

This banking crisis is being compounded by a food crisis …

The floods in October and November 2002 followed by heavy rains for five continuous days in January 2003 significantly reduced harvests. That happened in other neighbouring countries like Thailand, but there the government intervened to help the people affected. Nothing like that has been done in Burma: on the contrary, the military government is still forcing farmers to sell it a fixed proportion of their harvests at very low prices (e.g. 12 baskets of rice per acre of rice field), despite the fact that the harvests were ruined by the floods! It's a stupid system, since the assumption is that farmers' harvests can be estimated in advance just like industrial production. Some farmers are brutally beaten by soldiers as they cannot sell them the predetermined amounts. What can these helpless farmers do if floods have destroyed their harvests? They are terrified, since if they cannot sell the quota to the government they risk losing the right to farm their land. That is why there are some 2 million Burmese people in Thailand and hundreds more are fleeing every week. These migrants know nothing about politics but have been forced to leave their country to escape the misery caused by the military regime and to avoid beatings if they cannot sell their rice quotas.

What is the main focus of the FTUB at the moment?

We are working within Burma in different ways. The media is censored but by using various foreign radio programmes that can be picked up in Burma (BBC, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, etc.) we are giving interviews, comments in Burmese so that the inhabitants of a region to find out what is going on in other parts of the country, to understand that the same government measures are being suffered by almost all people of Burma no matter race, religion or work.. We are also gathering information on the working and living conditions of workers, and passing on the details to international union organisations like the ICFTU and the GUFs. In regions where it is possible, we are also organising trade union training, and several unions have already been formed amongst the different ethnic groups that make up Burma.

And everything is being done underground?

The military government represses all trade union activity in Burma. Many activists are serving very long prison sentences simply for doing union work and they are often held several hundred kilometres away from their families. Various members of my own family have lost their jobs since I am working for the FTUB. Other sympathisers are on a blacklist, which means they cannot get work and if they open a shop the army officers will ensure they get no customers. Our situation is very hard, but we intend to keep up the struggle.

For more information, please contact the ICFTU Press Department on +32 2 224 0232 or +32 477 580 0486.