Forced labour dashes Rohingya elections hope

Promises of citizenship and development for the Rohingya minority in eastern Burma’s Arakan state are being thwarted by increased forced labour, a report warns.

Pledges had been made by pro-junta parties campaigning prior to the elections in Arakan state that citizenship rights for the long-persecuted Muslim Rohingya would be reinforced. “This is what many Rohingya in North Arakan had hoped for, as the election campaigning already started (unofficially) with promises of citizenship and development,” said a report, ‘Forced labour in times of elections’, released by The Arakan Project.

It adds however that “despite election promises, Rohingya at the grassroots level remain subject to much of the same persecution as in the past”, including high rates of forced labour.

The report is based on 25 interviews carried out by The Arakan Project in Arakan state and is included in the submission of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations (ILO CEACR). The ILO CEACR reviews Burma’s compliance with Convention 29 prohibiting forced labour and is due to release its report in early 2011.

The report claims that north Arakan state in 2009 “witnessed a surge in forced labour, particularly for the construction of the [Bangladesh-Burma] border fence and due to increased military deployment along the Bangladesh border”.

Civilians there are being ordered to construct new outposts to accommodate increasing troop numbers as well as working to rehabilitate roads, “primarily for military purposes”.

Ironically, the sighting of a rare white elephant in Arakan state in June, which was reported with great fanfare given the mystical status of the animal, was also accompanied by reports of forced labour, with Rohingya villagers ordered by Burmese troops to help find and capture the elephant – a three day effort where they received food but no pay.

The report did add however that some labourers working on the controversial border fence in Maungdaw, about 100 kilometres north of Sittwe, reported receiving between 1,000 and 2,000 kyat (US$1 to US$2) a day – “an improvement over past practices of unpaid labour”, but still below the local average of around 3,000 kyat (US$3) a day.

The ruling junta has promised a transition to civilian rule following the 7 November elections, but critics allege it will be the same generals pulling the strings behind the façade of a civilian government. Moreover the expansion of Burma’s near 500,000-strong army shows no signs of abating, with battalion commanders regularly required to fulfil quotas for troop recruitment.

The ILO, or International Labour Organisation, is the only body mandated to address complaints of forced labour in Burma, which is believed to be widespread. Forced recruitment of child soldiers into the army comes within the ILO’s remit.

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