Burma has continued using forced labor even though it officially banned the practice more than eight months ago, Human Rights Watch charged today.
Human Rights Watch said it had evidence of the practice continuing as recently as May 2001. It urged business and labor leaders, as well as member states of the International Labor Organization (ILO) now holding its annual conference in Geneva, to press the Burmese government to take immediate action to enforce the October 27, 2000 ban and verify compliance through regular access to Burma by independent monitors.
"If Burmese authorities are serious about ending forced labor, they should mount a nationwide program to enforce their own ban," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "Then they should invite independent monitors in to see for themselves."
Migrants coming into Thailand from Mon, Karen and Arakan States and Pegu and Rangoon Divisions told Human Rights Watch that they personally had taken part in or witnessed forced labor between February and May 2001. They said some people conscripted to work were able to avoid doing forced labor by paying off local authorities. But a migrant from the city of Martaban in Mon State told Human Rights Watch that in late April a local official (a ward-level Peace and Development Council officer) had forced him and a group of others to dig trenches; some of the workers were as young as ten years old. Several of the twenty military police supervising the work struck two men with batons and kicked them when they did not work fast enough. The witness said that resisting the order was not an option: "If you refuse to work you could be arrested and detained," he said. "No one ever refuses--everyone is too scared."
The ruling Burmese State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) issued the executive order last year just prior to a decision by the ILO to call on all governments, employers, workers and UN agencies to "review" their relationship with the Burmese government because of its refusal to comply with its obligations to end forced labor. Previous orders prohibiting the practice had been issued by the Burmese government in 1995 and 1999, but they were never enforced. The October 2000 order, however, for the first time stated explicitly that all violators, including military personnel, would be held accountable under the Burmese penal code. The United Nations General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights have repeatedly condemned forced labor in Burma.
On October 29, 2000, Burmese Foreign Minister Win Aung wrote to the director-general of the ILO and assured him that the latest order would be "strictly enforced." However, there are significant obstacles to its implementation:
?There is no evidence of prosecutions. Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single case in which a Burmese official has been sanctioned for violating the order under Section 374 of the penal code, which provides for a penalty of up to one year in prison, a fine, or both. Without a sustained effort that includes highly publicized prosecutions of those who violate the ban -- both military and civilian officials -- the SPDC's order will amount to little more than a public relations effort.
?Public awareness of the ban is limited. The executive order was supposed to be circulated to village headmen who in turn were expected to announce the ban to local villagers. It was also reportedly published in the official Myanmar Gazette, which carries all laws and legislative orders. But most of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch had never heard of the ban. Human Rights Watch called on the SPDC regularly to publicize the order through public media, including newspapers and magazines, radio, and television, and to distribute it in ethnic minority languages as well. It said that village headmen should explain the decree and what villagers can do if local authorities fail to respond.
?No international monitoring is allowed. The ILO has asked to station international monitors in Rangoon who would be able to conduct regular, objective assessments of conditions throughout the country. Monitors should be given guaranteed freedom of movement to all parts of Burma, including ethnic minority regions. Credible, outside monitoring is crucial to ensure that further guarantees or promises by the Burmese government are fully implemented.
"The international community should keep up the pressure, and until all forced labor is ended and this has been independently verified, foreign companies should refrain from investing in Burma," said Jones.