ILO says forced labour increasing in the military

Mar 3, 2008 (DVB), The International Labour Organisation has extended its cooperation agreement with the Burmese regime, but a senior ILO official said forced labour remains a concern in the country.

Kari Tapiola, executive director of the ILO Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Sector, visited Naypyidaw with his team from 25 to 28 February to discuss further cooperation with the regime.

Tapiola confirmed to DVB that the bilateral memorandum of understanding between the ILO and the Burmese junta had been extended for another year.

The agreement, which has been in force since February 2007, stipulates that the government must not harass or arrest people who report forced labour to the ILO or collect information on such practices.

But this was undermined by the charges made on 19 February against the National League for Democracy chairperson in San Chaung township, U Thet Wei, for possession of reports on forced labour to be submitted to the ILO.

Tapiola said that the ILO had found out that Thet Wei had been arrested shortly before the start of his mission, and called for his immediate release.

"The government said that the charges [against Thet Wei] are not related to forced labour but we have learned that he had information for the ILO at the time of his arrest," Tapiola said.

"That is why we have demanded in the strongest possible terms the government seriously reconsider the matter and release that person as soon as possible."

The ILO team also urged the release of six young people who were arrested after they attended May Day celebrations.

The team's request for a meeting with the six activists in prison was denied.

Tapiola said that forced labour was continuing in the country, and in some areas getting worse.

"I do not think the government can deny the existence of forced labour, and we know many forced labour cases are taking place," he said.

"Forced labour by civilian authorities might decline but the use of forced labor by the military is getting worse," he went on.

"We did not discuss this matter with the government; we focused our discussions on what it could do and what we should be doing."

Tapiola said the ILO had received more than 70 complaints about forced labour in the past year, and the ILO liaison officer in Rangoon had been able to travel widely in the country despite some restrictions.

"Although it did not go as far as we would want it to, he accomplished quite a lot," he said.

"There is some progress but also many things to be concerned about."

Tapiola is now in Bangkok preparing a report for the ILO governing council, who will discuss the situation in Burma this month.

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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