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Thursday, 8 November, 2001, 16:10 GMT
ILO says Burma still using forced labour
Pipeline building in Burma
ILO says military forces villagers to build installations
By BBC Burma analyst Larry Jagan

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says forced labour still exists in Burma.

The organisation's conclusion comes after a recent visit by a high-level team whose four members were allowed to travel independently around the country to assess efforts to stamp out the practice.

Burma's ruling generals have repeatedly rejected allegations that the army is still using forced labour. But they were stung into action last November when the ILO condemned the military government for its persistent use of what the international community calls slavery.

Burmese porter
Porters are reportedly abused by the army
The Burmese Government outlawed forced labour and circulated directives throughout the country immediately afterwards.

But, according to the ILO report, this has only had a limited in reducing the use of forced labour. The report said the main reason for this was that the government had not prosecuted anyone for using forced labour.

"The local military authorities feel they could continue using labour for portering, building military camps and doing agricultural work for the army with impunity," said a Rangoon based diplomat who did not want to be identified.

In-depth investigation

There is no doubt that the ILO mission has been rigorous. In the three weeks it was in Burma, the team held talks with the country's military leaders, government officials, ethnic leaders and the opposition National League for Democracy.

The point of the exercise was to be balanced and to give credit where it was due

ILO source
It also consulted UN officials and representatives of international aid agencies based in Rangoon.

And most importantly it ravelled around some of the border areas where there have been persistent reports of forced labour.

The investigators gathered extensive testimonies from people throughout the country and supplemented them by talking to refugees in the border areas who claim to have fled to Thailand to escape forced labour.

Their report is careful to be as even-handed as possible. "The point of the exercise was to be balanced and to give credit where it was due," said one ILO source.

Military problem

The ILO mission says the use of forced labour is no longer used routinely on building sites and road construction. At least, it has not seen any evidence of it.

But the use of forced labour is still endemic near military installations according to the ILO investigation.

"The local military commanders need the villagers for logistical support. They are not getting any assistance from the central command and so feel they have no alternative but to press gang civilians into service," said an ILO source.

The roots of the use of forced labour, according to the ILO mission, lie in Burma's dire poverty and lack of international engagement. The country needs foreign investment, international financial support and humanitarian assistance, the report said.

General's dilemma

But the political situation in the country, including the continued use of forced labour, is preventing the international community from changing its stance. The Burmese Government, according to the report's recommendations, has it in its power to do something about it.

If it begins to seriously stop the use of forced labour, which the ILO says will obviously take time, and show unequivocally that it means business, then the international community should respond positively. It is in the hands of the generals.

But analysts believe this is going to present the Burmese generals in Rangoon with a virtually insurmountable problem.

Local commanders, especially in the border areas, regard the use of forced labour as their right, and will not give it up voluntarily. While the Burmese military leaders need the support of the local commanders they will find it difficult to eradicate forced labour.

But the mission did say that the ILO will need a permanent presence in Rangoon to be able to continue to assess the extent to which forced labour has really been stopped.

The ILO mission says it has no mandate to recommend whether the threat of sanctions should stand or be revoked - that is up to the ILO general session which is currently meeting in Geneva.

The situation in Burma will be discussed next week. It is likely to be a tense session.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions says more than one-million people in Burma are still subjected to forced labour on construction sites for roads, railways and military installations.

See also:

16 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma rejects EU charges
12 Oct 01 | Europe
EU probes Burma pipeline abuses
12 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
UK urges oil firm to quit Burma
14 Aug 98 | Burma
Multinationals and human rights
25 May 00 | Asia-Pacific
Burma discusses forced labour
06 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Investigators silent after Burma visit
10 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
Burma slowly comes in from the cold
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