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Forced labour continues to be an immense problem among the Rohingya population in Arakan state and has even increased in certain areas with the influx of Burmese troops after the summer’s riots, according to new research.
The Burmese army and border guard forces have forcibly recruited Rohingyas, including children, to reconstruct villages burnt down in June’s violence, after a brief hiatus in the use of forced labour, according to the rights group the Arakan Project.
“In the area where there was unrest in Maungdaw there was no forced labour for two months, which shows very well that the authorities can do without forced labour,” Chris Lewa told DVB. “But now it’s slowly starting up again.”
Since 10 August, the army has been rebuilding two model villages in Ba Gone Nar and Nyaung Chaung destroyed in the June clashes with the use of Rohingya labourers working for as little as half a kilo of rice per day.
“We are not happy at all and we are not working here willingly! But if we refuse this rice, soldiers will beat us. That is why we accept such a small quantity of rice. We work here because we have no other option,” a Rohingya labourer told researchers.
According to Lewa, forced labour has been suspended temporarily this past week to coincide with the government’s investigative commission’s visit to Arakan state. The team was established in August to uncover the roots of the violence.
The ongoing state of emergency has also aggravated the problem of forced labour in areas unaffected by the violence, including North Maungdaw and North Buthidaung, where troops have been boosted to guard the border with Bangladesh.
“As a result, there was a substantial increase in demands for porters and guides in North Maungdaw and North Buthidaung to carry additional rations or to accompany soldiers on patrol in border areas,” warned the report.
Lewa insists that forced labour is one of the underlying reasons behind the summer’s unrest, which pitted the Muslim Rohingya minority against Buddhist Arakanese in Burma’s worst sectarian clashes in decades. It brought to the fore popular resentment of the stateless minority, which is denied citizenship and basic rights by the government.
“Forced labour is a key part of the discriminatory treatment faced by the Rohingya, but nobody’s talked about it so far,” she said. “Northern Arakan state is one of the areas with the highest rates of forced labour in Burma, and it only affects the Rohingya.”
In March, the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Burmese government, pledging to eliminate forced labour throughout Burma by 2015. They have recently approved a plan of action, which includes improving awareness and accessibility of a nationwide complaints mechanism for victims of forced labour.
But critics say it is difficult for the stateless Rohingya to make their voices heard given the restrictions imposed on their movement. Displaced Rohingya are currently housed in squalid makeshift camps segregated from the main population and largely isolated from the outside world.
“Law enforcement authorities appear oblivious of the joint strategy agreed by the ILO and the Myanmar [Burma] government as the practice of forced labour is continued as usual, by two main perpetrators, the Army and the NaSaKa (border security forces),” said Lewa.
ILO spokesperson Steve Marshall told DVB they are in the process of following up on the latest reports from Arakan state, an area he admits has traditionally been “difficult to access.”
“The fact of the matter is that [the strategy] applies nationwide, and it has to be applied on an even basis,” he said. “The difficulty is that in situations of civil conflict, unfortunately human rights tend to be a serious issue. So it’s important to address the root causes of these abuses.”
In June, the ILO lifted most of its punitive measures applied to Burma in 2000 as part of its annual review of forced labour in the country – a decision described by Lewa as “quite disappointing”.
But Marshall insists that it does not detract from the ILO’s commitment to combat forced labour in Arakan state, and elsewhere in Burma.
“She may be disappointed, but it was not the ILO’s decision – it was the 186 member states of the world that made the decision – it was a high-level political decision,” said Marshall.
“The reality is that the situation has not changed at all in respect of the prime focus on the elimination of forced labour as a fundamental responsibility of the ILO and the government of Myanmar [Burma].”