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Myanmar Ethnic Groups Resist Forced Labour

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 16 2012 (IPS) - In a move expected to deepen political reform, the quasi-civilian government in Myanmar (also known as Burma) is permitting the distribution of leaflets that will help thousands of people in the country’s ethnic enclaves learn to resist forced labour.

The leaflets offer residents in the ethnic minority areas a chance to raise the alarm with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) about the horrors they endure at the hands of government troops deployed in their areas.

The Shan ethnic minority is the first to benefit from this new measure, one among a growing list of reform policies – including freeing political prisoners, easing the iron grip on the media and permitting public campaigns by political dissidents – that President Thein Sein has ushered in during his first year in office.

The one-page, A-4-size sheets of paper that have been flowing from Yangon (also known as Rangoon), the former capital, to the Shan state since January has been hailed by the ILO for using the local Shan language – stepping away from the policy of previous military regimes to suppress ethnic languages.

Following the distribution of nearly 30,000 leaflets in the Shan state over the past two months, the ILO has set its sights on raising awareness about its “complaints mechanism for forced labour” in six other ethnic areas, where Burmese troops have been fighting separatist rebels.

“The government agreed this year for the production of the ILO’s awareness raising materials on the complaints mechanism for forced labour in other languages, including Karen, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine and Mon,” says Steve Marshall, the Geneva-based body’s representative in Myanmar.

“It is hoped that these will be available for distribution very shortly,” Marshal said.

“This dramatic change is clearly linked to the new government’s response to the issues ILO is raising, reflecting the change of leadership, philosophy and priorities of the government,” Marshall said in an interview in Bangkok.

But reaching this milestone has been tough. The ILO office in Rangoon began pushing the case following a March 2008 decision by the ILO governing body to raise the need for “the production of awareness raising materials on forced labour, explaining the agreed ILO complaints mechanism in the country.”

Then military strongman Senior Gen. Than Shwe permitted the brochures to be printed only in Burmese, the language of the country’s largest ethnic group and it It took two years of negotiations between the military regime and the ILO to “get agreement to the wording”.

Since its June 2010 distribution in the central region, which is home to majority ethnic Burmese in the country of 55 million people, the ILO noticed a steady increase in cases being lodged.

While a mere drop when compared with the scale of such human rights violations, the over 1,160 forced labour complaints that the ILO has received in the past four years offer a glimpse into who the victims are and the abuse they have been subjected to.

The majority of cases from the dominant Burmese side have been children forced to swell the ranks of the military, according to the ILO.

The few complaints of forced labour lodged by ethnic communities have ranged from villagers compelled by troops to help build public works, carry goods and ammunition for the Burmese army and clear land.

But, human rights groups have long accused the Burmese military of more violations in areas where battles with ethnic separatist groups have raged since 1949. They have included slave-like duties to clean military camps, build military structures and walking ahead of troops in terrain infested with landmines.

“Whether it is carrying supplies for the army, building their camps, standing sentry duty along roads or serving as vassals for under-supplied and poorly disciplined garrison battalions, the Burmese army as it currently stands is a burden to local communities,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma consultant for Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby.

Consequently, the plight of forced labour victims in the ethnic areas was not forgotten during the early round of peace talks that the country’s largest rebel groups – the Karen and the Shan – have had with the Thein Sein administration since late last year.

The Karen National Union (KNU) demanded an immediate end to “forced labour, arbitrary taxation and extortion of villagers” as the sixth item in an 11-point plan for peace talks with Burma’s railway minister, Aung Min, head of the government negotiating team.

“Fighting in the Karen area has resulted in a lot of forced labour, so we wanted it included in the early round of talks,” David Tharckbaw, KNU vice-president and head of the movement’s peace committee, said during a telephone interview from the Thai-Burma border. “They (the Burmese government) accepted these concerns in principle.”

But complaints have continued, given the presence of nearly 200 military camps in the Karen state, near the Thai border. “As of February 2012, forced labour was ongoing in five villages in the Tantabin township,” revealed the Karen Human Rights Group in a Mar. 12 field report.

A similar picture prevails in the Shan state. “Forced labour was discussed during the talks but never put on the agenda,” says Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of a Shan news agency and a member of the Shan negotiating team in talks with the government.

“It is time the Burmese army mends its ways to build up trust among local ethnic populations,” he explained during a telephone interview from northern Thailand. “They should end forced labour.”

The government’s nod to the ILO taps into such a prospect. “This initiative will be valuable support to ongoing ceasefire and peace talks,” says ILO’s Marshall.

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