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BURMA: ILO Turns Spotlight on Officials to End Forced Labour

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 3 2009 (IPS) - The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is turning its attention to a western corner of military-ruled Burma to end the scourge of forced labour, which remains rampant in most parts of the South-east Asian nation.

On Sunday, the ILO will be hosting a rare meeting of judges, military officers, police officers and members of the local labour department as part of its effort to raise awareness aimed at ending a form of human rights abuse that, at times, has included victims as young as 11.

"We hope to make presentations on international humanitarian law and raise issues about forced labour, child soldiers and harassment," says Steve Marshall, the ILO’s representative in Burma, also known as Myanmar. "This is a positive step."

There are a lot of "policy conflicts" on this issue, Marshall told a small group of journalists during a recent visit to Bangkok. "Even though we are being permitted to have this event, the military see themselves as above the law."

The weekend meeting in Sittwe, a port city in Burma’s Arakan state, close to the Bangladesh border, will be the fifth of its kind the Geneva-based labour organisation has held in Burma since July 2007.

The ILO’s efforts to make such inroads in a country ruled by a notoriously stubborn and defiant regime – particularly in placing strict limits on international agencies challenging its grip on power – have set this labour rights body apart from other United Nations agencies and international humanitarian organisations operating in Burma.

"The ILO is the only international organisation that has maintained principled pressure and engagement of the Burmese regime," says David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based global rights lobby. "It has shown how international organisations should deal with the Burmese government – that they will not keep quiet about problems, yet keep engaging and trying to help improve the situation."

At the same time, though, the concessions the military regime is offering to the ILO is not a sign of a growing shift in policy aimed at ending the forced labour problem, Mathieson tells IPS. "It is one of grudging respect. If the Burmese government can get away with not dealing with the ILO, it would do so."

The pressure on the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the military regime is formally known, stems from its running battles with the ILO. In 2006, following reports that Burma was failing in its obligations to the ILO to end forced labour, more pressure was turned on the SPDC.

The ILO’s members threatened to haul the country before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague for its record of abusive labour practices. Burma would have been the first country to face such humiliation had no changes been made on the ground.

One of the demands placed by the ILO was for Burma to have in place a "credible mechanism for dealing with complaints of forced labour with all necessary guarantees for the protection of complaints."

Yet, while the ILO office in Burma has developed a network to gather information on incidents of forced labour, the mechanism for victims of the abuse or their families to lodge complaints is far from perfect. "That people are getting arrested when complaining is still a concern," admits ILO’s Marshall. "Currently there are two people in jail for making complaints to the ILO. They have been charged under the Official Secrets Act." This law considers it an offence for any person to possess information deemed classified by the state.

Also coming in the way of the ILO’s forced labour-reporting mechanism is the junta preventing reader-friendly material about these human rights violations being printed in local languages and distributed across the country. Only the formal document, peppered with legal language, has been approved for distribution.

The junta’s resolve to stop the forced labour network being dismantled stems from how much the military culture depends on such abuse to achieve its military and development ends. The more pervasive forms of forced labour, some in almost slave-like conditions, include portering for the military, cleaning army camps, building military structures and even walking ahead of troops in areas infested with landmines.

"Forced labour and Burma is like the head and tail of a coin," states the Federation of Trade Unions – Burma, a network of Burmese labour rights activists operating in exile, including Thailand and the United States. "Millions of people of Burma have been used for state projects of railroad building, strategic road construction, army barrack building, army-run businesses and (for the) agro-economy."

The Arakan state, where the ILO is hosting Sunday’s meeting, is notorious. The victims are the state’s Rohingyas, an ethnic Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Burma. They have been a victim of gross rights violations, including restrictions to get married unless the state gives approval. Familes are forced to work four days a week and have to plant crops that the military orders.

Forced labour the Rohingyas are subject to during the ongoing monsoon season has been documented in the paddy fields, planting physic nut trees and rubber saplings, for road repair, states a recent report by The Arakan Project, which monitors rights violations of the Rohingyas.

In addition, due to border tensions between Burma and Bangladesh, "the Burmese regime suddenly brought shiploads of building material in order to erect a border fence along the Bangladesh-Burma border," adds the Project report, ‘Large Increase in Forced Labour along the Bangladesh-Burma Border: Forced Labour Practices in North Arakan’. "By April large numbers of villagers were then recruited to raise an embankment."

"This year forced labour in North Arakan has significantly increased mainly due to the construction of the border fence along the Bangladesh-Burma border and the sudden increase of army battalions along the border," says Chris Lewa, author of the report and coordinator of the Project.

"Forced labour occurs throughout the year and usually follows a seasonal pattern. In the dry season, villagers are mostly recruited for construction work in military camps and repairing roads," she says.

Yet she doubts the ILO’s presence in the Arakan state will reduce the suffering endured by the persecuted Rohingya minority. "Most Rohingyas would not be aware of the ILO’s complaint mechanism, but even if they were and would be ready to take the risk of lodging a complaint, they would be unable to do so due to the restriction of movement imposed on them," Lewa reveals in an interview. "They need to obtain permission even to travel to a neighbouring village."

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