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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 29, 2005
ILO cracks the whip at Yangon
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - A month after it was spurned by Myanmar's military regime, the United Nations' labor agency has come down hard on the junta in that Southeast Asian nation, declaring that sanctions may have to be imposed due to continued labor-rights violations.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) warned Yangon that it has until June to clean up its act by stopping the pernicious practice of forced labor, or face sanctions from member states of the Geneva-based body.

"It was widely felt that the 'wait-and-see' attitude which has prevailed since 2001 can no longer continue," an ILO press statement declared on Friday at the end of a three-week session of the group's governing body.

During the discussions on forced labor in Myanmar, known as Burma until the junta changed the country's name in 1989, the governing body concluded that Yangon had not lived up to its promises to stop such abuse. "The overall assessment falls far short of our expectations," the statement added.

Last week's verdict comes as welcome news for Myanmar's human-rights campaigners, given how sensitive the junta is to the decisions of the UN labor agency as opposed to other official UN bodies, who have not been as successful in triggering change within the country's military regime.

"The military government will not be able to ignore the ILO's call for sanctions," Aung Naing Oo, a research associate at The Burma Fund, a Washington DC-based rights lobby, told Inter Press Service. "UN intervention in Burma has been largely ineffective with the exception of the ILO, which has achieved some change through previous threats of sanctions."

The conditions for such economic threats were set in late February, when Myanmar's military leaders, including the country's strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, avoided meeting with a visiting high-level ILO team in Yangon.

In response to the lack of cooperation, the delegation, led by Sir Ninian Stephen, former governor general of Australia, cut short its visit. But prior to its departure, the delegation issued a plan of action for labor reform that called on the junta to order the army to stop the use of forced labor, mount an effective publicity campaign to convey the same message and renew Yangon's pledges to rid the country of this scourge.

It also wanted the military regime to guarantee rights such as freedom of movement to the ILO's staff, following restrictions that have been imposed, and to extend an amnesty for three Myanmar citizens who have been convicted of high treason for having contact with the UN agency.

That the ILO did not take too kindly to Than Shwe's failed meeting with the visiting delegation was also reflected in last week's message. "Although the government of Myanmar stated that the political will to address forced labor existed, the governing body expressed grave doubts about the credibility of these statements due to the attitude adopted by the authorities towards the [visiting delegation]," the UN agency stated.

Last week's call for sanctions was not the first such effort by the ILO to crack the whip on the generals in Myanmar due to forced labor. In 2000, a resolution to impose sanctions was adopted by the three main groups that belong to the international body - governments, employers and workers representatives.

The harsh measures included economic divestment and banned international trade unions, UN agencies and ILO members from doing business with Myanmar. However, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta is known, preempted that threat from being implemented by introducing laws to ban forced labor and agreeing to work with the ILO on a reform plan.

Yet the violations have continued, with the chief perpetrator being the powerful Myanmar army that has dominated the country with an iron fist since a military coup in 1962. Currently, it is the second-largest army in Asia with at least 400,000 troops, and it gobbles up more than half the country's budget.

The ILO estimates that more than 800,000 people in Myanmar are victims of forced labor, which ranges from cleaning roads, carrying heavy loads for the army, constructing military buildings and working on infrastructure projects.

"The Burmese army uses forced labor extensively, and now the military is trapped in its own policy," said Aung Naing Oo, the researcher. "The army has needed forced labor to survive."

On the other hand, the military generals would suffer if sanctions were imposed, "since they own many businesses that will be affected," Aung Naing added.

According to the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the State-owned Economic Enterprise Law of 1989 has given the junta the right to control 12 key areas of economic enterprise. They range from teak forests, which the junta exploits for trade, to petroleum and natural gas, to air transport and railway services. Control of the country's banking and insurance services also fall under the ambit of this law.

"Than Shwe knows what the ILO can do," Aung Naing asserted. "And nobody has the authority to tell the army to stop but him."

(Inter Press Service)

The bells to toll on Myanmar 
(Mar 25, '05)

Taking the generals to the tipping point
(Mar 22, '05)

Myanmar must do right by ASEAN
(Mar 11, '05)

Myanmar's lesson in 'discipline democracy'  
(Feb 17, '05)


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