50 percent rise in Burma forced labour

Nov 18, 2009 (DVB), Complaints of forced labour in Burma have risen by nearly 50 percent in the past five months, with more than half of these stemming from the recruitment of youths into the army.

The statistics, published in a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), show that mounting pressure on the Burmese government to eliminate forced labour is yet to find its mark.

The ILO criticized in June a clause in the Burmese constitution, ratified in 2008, that appeared to justify use of forced labour as a punishment for crimes, or in "duties assigned by the Union in accord with the law in the interest of the public".

The total number of complaints received by the ILO as of 28 October stands at 223, while the figure for May 2009 was 152. Since the first complaint of under-age recruitment into the army was received in February 2007, the number has risen to 102.

Following ILO intervention, "59 children have been discharged from the military, 30 cases are still under Government investigation or are the subject of ongoing communication, and nine await ILO initial assessment prior to submission," the report said.

Forced labour in Burma comes in varying forms, from hard labour used in the renovation of roads and infrastructure to use of civilians as porters or 'minesweepers' by the Burmese army.

The report however warns against the assumption that an increase complaints automatically corresponds to wider use of forced labour in Burma.

"[The increase] appears to result from heightened awareness generally of citizens' rights under the law, the maturing and expansion of the facilitators' network, and an increased readiness to present complaints," it said.

Despite the establishment of the Supplementary Understanding, an agreement between the ILO and Burmese government that complainants will not be harassed, the organisation has acknowledged that retaliation does take place.

At least 11 "serious cases of apparent harassment and judicial retaliation" against complainants and facilitators has taken place since May, all which relate to complaints of forced labour by farmers in Burma's central Magwe divison. The harassment includes "lengthy and intense interrogations and judicial action," the report says.

"It would thus appear that there is a serious 'disconnect' between the desire of the central government authorities to stop the use of forced labour and the behaviour of the local [civilian and military] authorities.

The Burmese government has however permitted the ILO to carry out awareness-raising activities that include both civil and military authorities, while an interview with the ILO's Burma liaison officer, Steve Marshall, was published in a biweekly journal in Burma.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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