Evidence from surveys carried out among the ethnic Rohingya population of northern Arakan state suggest that contrary to pledges made by the new Burmese government, forced labour has not abated.
Some communities in the impoverished region of western Burma claim that instances of forced labour had in fact risen since the elections in November last, as local authorities push ahead with the completion of infrastructural projects.
The surveys were conducted by The Arakan Project, which has a number of covert fact finding teams working in the area.
“During the period immediately preceding the elections, forced labour demands had noticeably decreased, raising hopes among Rohingyas for a better future under the new government, including some respite from compulsory labour,” the report, ‘Forced labour after the elections’, says.
“Unfortunately, their expectations were short-lived. Within days, forced labour exactions did not simply resume but, by December, reached a peak unseen since the early 1990s due to extensive repair of the [Burma-Bangladesh] border fence.”
Civilians are mainly sought to work on infrastructure aimed at securing the porous border between the two countries, and allowing for better maneuverability of Burmese troops close to the fence.
The eventual by-product of this, the report warns, will be an intensified militarisation of the region, where abuses of the Muslim minority at the hands of the army and local border guard force, known as NaSaKa, are already rampant. Moreover, the orders for civilians to join the workforce are given by a unit within the army known as Garrison Engineers (GE), reinforcing claims that discrimination against the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma largely on the basis that they are Muslim, is state-sanctioned.
The report says that while enough government funds have been allocated for the labourers working on the fence and surrounding infrastructure, little of it reaches its supposed destination.
“GE subcontract most construction projects to the NaSaKa Sectors, who siphon off the budget earmarked for the manpower and use forced labour instead.”
According to observations made by Arakan Project teams, children make up as much as 40 percent of the forced labour workforce in the region around Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in the north of the state. Some of these may be as young as 10.
Reports emerged in Bangladeshi press earlier this week claiming that Dhaka had struck a deal with Naypyidaw to return the thousands of Rohingya refugees living in the two official camps of Kutupalong and Nayapara.
Chris Lewa, head of the Arakan Project, however rubbished these claims, and said there was no evidence of any sort of bilateral agreement being struck. Moreover, the prospect of many of these people being forced to return to Burma to face a situation that has apparently not changed since they fled, will trigger alarm.
“The consequences of these Bangladesh statements are often renewed pressure and abuses on the refugees. Fear is already spreading in the refugee camps, and acts as a ‘push-factor’ for camp refugees to flee by boat to Malaysia,” she told DVB.
Up to 300,000 Rohingya have fled Burma for Bangladesh, but Dhaka has allowed only 28,000 to be registered by the UN, leaving hundreds of thousands eking out a precarious existence in unofficial camps and on the fringes of towns. The Rohingya have been described by various groups as one of the world’s most threatened minorities.