Burmese army personnel suspected of using forced labour will be prosecuted under civilian law, according to senior military chiefs who met with representatives from the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Rangoon last week.
“The Commander in Chief has given instruction that military personnel are similarly covered to all other persons by the law concerning forced labour,” said Steve Marshall during an interview with DVB. “[He] indicated that persons alleged to have utilised forced labour will be prosecuted under the penal code rather than military regulations.”
Chairperson of the ILO’s Governing Body, Greg Vines, and Vice-Senior General Min Aung Hlaing discussed abuses committed by the army in a landmark meeting described by Marshall as both “constructive” and “open”.
“It is a significant move and clearly is an indication that the military has fully accepted equal responsibility to work within the framework of Myanmar [Burmese] laws,” said Marshall. He added that the 2015 deadline to eliminate forced labour in Burma was “realistic”.
In March, the ILO signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government, which included provisions to improve access to conflict zones.
The Burmese army has a track record of systematically utilising forced labour with impunity, especially in ethnic minority areas. Recent reports by the Karen Human Rights Group, Kaladan Press and Human Rights Watch (HRW) continue to document cases in Karen, Arakan and Kachin state.
The ILO introduced a complaints mechanism for victims in 2007, but despite an increase in recorded cases, no military personnel have been prosecuted to date.
Rights campaigners have been quick to highlight the gap between policy and practice. David Mathieson, Burma researcher at HRW, recently warned that “there should be no illusions that ending a decades-long reliance on forced labour by the Burma army is going to end any time soon”.
The government and the ILO are set to launch a plan of action later this month.