Forced Labor Continues in Burma (October 2000-September 2001)

Executive Summary

Burma’s State Peace and Development Council’s Order No. 1/99 (March 1999), along with the Supplementary Order to Order No. 1/99 (October 2000)1, outlawed forced labor throughout the country.  Despite these orders, forced labor continues.  The villagers of Shan State and Tenasserim Division tell of their experiences in the accounts that follow.2  Life under military rule still means a life where the rule of law is absent.  Without legal recourse and increased international pressure for change, these people have no choice but to flee.

Findings

  • Between mid-2000 and the present, EarthRights International’s ongoing investigation into the practice of forced labor in Burma has specifically found:
  • Forced labor and portering continues in all the areas where ERI has conducted interviews, namely Tenasserim Division and Shan State.  ERI has found the following kinds of forced labor:
    (a) Portering for the military;
    (b) Construction or repair of military camps/facilities;
    (c) Other support for camps (such as guides, messengers, cooks, cleaners, etc.);
    (d) Income generation by individuals or groups (including work on army-owned agricultural projects);
    (e) National or local infrastructure project (including roads, bridges, etc.);
    (f) Cleaning/beautification of rural or urban areas; and
    (g) Forced labor and porter fees related to the above.
  • Few villagers are familiar with Order No. 1/99.  The order makes forced labor illegal throughout the country.  More villagers are aware of announcements that the practice of forced labor is to have ended, but many villagers still have never heard of such proclamations—formally or informally.
  • Order No. 1/99 has been arbitrarily implemented.  Slight variations in forced labor and fee extraction practices exist from military commander to commander and region to region.  
  • Order No. 1/99 has not stopped forced labor or changed the practice fundamentally.  If anything, the authorities’ activities in the aftermath of Order No. 1/99 may have made the practice more insidious and difficult to eradicate in the future.  For example, ERI has found:
    (a) Efforts by the military authorities to “document” the existence of no forced labor by pressuring villagers to give false testimony in a variety of forms that the practice has ended despite its continuance;
    (b) Threats by military commanders and soldiers of retribution, including the threat of being killed, if villagers tell others that forced labor is continuing;  
    (c) Changes in vocabulary surrounding forced labor in some areas, such as the use of the “helper” (a-ku-ah-nyi) instead of “forced labor” (loy-ah-pay);
    (d) Payments now accompany a few cases of forced labor, but villagers are still not able to refuse to work—thus the practice is compulsory rather than voluntary; and
    (e) Announcements regarding no more forced labor have created confusion and fear among the population.  This has resulted in an atmosphere that is not conducive to encouraging villagers to make complaints about ongoing forced labor.  To date, ERI has yet to speak with a villager who knows how to make a complaint, much less attempted to make a complaint about ongoing forced labor.

Recommendations

In sum, the system of forced labor that has brought condemnation from the international community remains intact.  The people of Burma deserve better.  ERI thus makes the following recommendations:

To the State Peace and Development Council:

  • The military regime should adhere to the ILO Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), which Burma ratified in 1955.  Burma’s Towns Act and the Village Act of 1907 should be brought into conformity with the Convention.
  • Education materials about Order No. 1/99, which outlawed forced labor in Burma, should be more widely disseminated throughout the country, and this information should be regularly aired on the radio and via television in Burma to educate the population.  In these educational efforts, explanations about how to make complaints should be included.
    (a) The decree as well as educational materials should be translated into local ethnic nationality languages and similarly widespread dissemination of the information should be undertaken; 
    (b) Special attention should be made to educate the military and local authorities about the law, including how it will be implemented and enforced.
  • Order No. 1/99 should be strictly enforced in line with the recommendations of the ILO’s Commission of Inquiry:
    (a) Violators, including military personnel and local authorities, should be prosecuted under section 374 of the Penal Code and other relevant statutes.
    (b) These prosecutions should be public and carried out by civilian courts. In light of the threats made against anyone who speaks out about forced labor, steps should be taken to ensure the safety of those who seek to enforce Order No. 1/99 or make complaints about ongoing cases of forced labor:
    (a) Those who make threats of retaliation or actually retaliate against those speaking out against forced labor should be criminally prosecuted.
    (b) Police and appropriate authorities should not wait for complaints of forced labor to be brought to them, but should be proactively enforcing Order No. 1/99.  In fact, they are required by law to do so according to the Supplementary Order to Order No. 1/99 (October 2000).
    (c) New mechanisms should be created to better ensure the safety of those making complaints about forced labor.  For example, anonymous tips should be permitted to assist police and appropriate authorities in learning about incidents of forced labor.  Similarly, any villager who does make a formal complaint should be able to do so anonymously because of the severe repercussions they may face for making such a complaint.

To the international community

In the absence of significant political reform, an end to forced labor is unlikely.  Actions most likely to induce a change include:

  • Increasing pressure on the State Peace and Development Council by tightening existing sanctions and other international actions condemning the military regime.
  • Strengthening the ILO’s existing resolutions on Burma to require the ILO’s constituents (governments, employees, and labor) to take concrete actions to eliminate trade and assistance with the regime that is contributing to the practice of forced labor.
  • Maintaining contact with the regime, such as that of the U.N. Special Envoy Razali Ismail, to encourage tripartite dialogue.
  • Creating a roadmap for democratization in Burma with specific criteria, timetable and milestones for measuring progress.  This roadmap will include a range of mechanisms for increasing penalties if there is not significant movement towards the goals set out in the roadmap.  Similarly, the roadmap should set up precise rewards if certain goals are attained within the given timetable.
  • Giving protection under existing principles of refugee jurisprudence to those who face credible threats of retaliation or actual retaliation for speaking out against forced labor or for making complaints about the violation of Order No. 1/99.

1 Hereinafter, the report will refer to both the original Order No. 1/99 and the Supplementary Order as “Order No. 1/99.”
2 See Part I: Maps and Appendix III for list of interviews and townships where forced labor has been reported.

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