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Burma Violates Own Ban in Use of Forced Labor

(New York) Human Rights Watch said today that it had clear evidence that forced labor in Burma was continuing, despite a government decree issued last October to abolish the practice.

It called on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to take steps immediately to enforce the order and grant access to independent observers to monitor compliance.

The governing body of the International Labour Organization (ILO) will be meeting in Geneva next week to review Burma's progress toward eradicating a practice that is in clear violation of international human rights standards.

In November 2000, the ILO governing body adopted a resolution urging international organizations and governments to "reassess" their relationship with the SPDC to avoid contributing to the use of forced labor. While the resolution was vaguely worded, many interpreted it as a call to stiffen sanctions against Burma. The ILO action came just days after the SPDC's October 27, 2000 decree instructing all local officials to stop using forced labor except in public emergencies. The order states explicitly that violators will be penalized under Section 374 of the Burmese penal code, which provides for the punishment of anyone found to be compelling others to work against their will.

"Either the Burmese government thought it could avoid international pressure by a sham decree or it just has made no effort to enforce the ban," said Sidney Jones, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "Neither of these interpretations shows the government in a very good light."

In interviews conducted in Thailand's Chiang Mai province in late February, Human Rights Watch talked with a number of Burmese who had been recently subjected to forced labor. One ethnic Shan farmer said that in January 2001, a local unit of the Burmese military had forced him to dig trenches and fence-post holes for a military base in Ton Hu in Shan State's Nam Zarng Township. The farmer and some twenty other villagers had to travel to the site five times during the month for two to three days at a time. Villagers had to bring their own food, sleep at the work site and were not compensated in any way for their labor. Of a dozen Shan villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch, eleven said that either they or a family member had been subjected to forced labor since the government ban was declared. Reports from many other states in Burma suggest that forced labor continues to varying degrees.

The SPDC claimed to have circulated the order to local level civil and military authorities, and Human Rights Watch said its interviews indicated that indeed, the order had been widely circulated to village headmen. Burmese villagers interviewed in Thailand two weeks ago were also aware of the order.

"Since the directive was clearly circulated, the Burmese government has to explain why the practice is continuing," said Jones. "We also need to know how widespread the practice continues to be, and that is only going to be possible through systematic monitoring."

For many years the Burmese government, especially the army, has requisitioned village labor to build roads and dams, maintain army bases, construct temples, guard villages, and porter for military patrols. Villagers receive no pay, must supply their own food, and have been threatened with imprisonment should they refuse to participate. Porters have been beaten and killed when they tire under their heavy burdens.

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