Burma’s military regime has agreed to extend a “supplementary understanding” with the International Labor Organization (ILO) one year after the agreement was first signed to create a complaints mechanism to address the issue of forced labor.
“We agreed to extend the trial period of the supplementary understanding on dealing with complaints of forced labor for another year,” Kari Tapiola, an executive director of the ILO, told The Irrawaddy after meeting with the Burmese labor minister, Aung Kyi, on Tuesday.
Under the agreement, which was first signed on February 26, 2007, an ILO liaison officer stationed in Burma has the authority to look after “all activities related to ensuring the punctual and effective eradication of forced labor in Burma,” according to the ILO’s official Web site.
To comply with the agreement, the regime must permit victims of forced labor to file complaints with the ILO liaison officer without fear of retribution. The regime is also required to investigate the complaints.
Burma’s military regime has been strongly condemned for its use of forced labor, particularly in rural areas, to build army camps and construct basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Refusal to work on any of these projects has resulted in documented cases of detention, torture and execution.
The ILO has been calling on the Burmese authorities to address the issue of forced labor since the early 1960’s. In 1997, the ruling junta refused to cooperate with a special ILO Commission of Inquiry into violations of the 1930 Forced Labor Convention.
The following year, the Commission released a report which described the use forced labor in Burma as a crime against humanity, and said that the practice was unlikely to end as long as the military remained in power.
Asked about the progress of the ILO’s efforts to cooperate with the regime on the issue of forced labor, Tapiola noted that abuses are still common.
“After one year, we have quite a number of cases. There are a few cases of recruitment of underage children into the army. Then there are cases of forced labor which has been imposed in infrastructure projects and other things,” said Tapiola.
“On a number of those [cases] we are still expecting answers [from the military government],” he added.
Tapiola said that it would take more time determine how well the project was working, and so both sides agreed to extend the trial period for another year.
In one sign that the project may be having some effect, two boys who had been forcibly recruited into the army were reunited with their families late last year, after their parents filed a complaint with the ILO liaison officer in Rangoon.
According to Steve Marshall, the ILO liaison officer in Rangoon, there are a number of cases of children being forced to serve as soldiers still under investigation.
In an interview with The Irrawaddy last December, Marshall said that there were 11 cases being investigated at that time. In an email dated February 28, he said that currently “there are a much smaller number [of cases] outstanding.”
Meanwhile, the Karen Human Rights Group recently released a report which documents cases of villagers in northern Karen State being forced to repair and clear roads that will be used to transport arms and supplies for the dry season offensive against Karen rebels.
According to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exiled media organization, there have also been abuses in Chin State, where military government officials in Hakha Township have reportedly been demanding that local residents fund a local highway construction project. Those who cannot pay are forced to provide labor, the report claimed.
Another issue raised by Tapiola in his meeting with the Burmese labor minister was the fate of Thet Wai, the National League for Democracy chairperson in Rangoon’s Sanchaung Township, who is facing charges of threatening national stability for possessing information on forced labor.
Tapiola said he discussed Thet Wai’s case and requested his release, but received no response from the labor minister.