covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, November 18, 2018


By The Irrawaddy OCTOBER, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.10


Monks Used to Recruit Forced Labor

As the UN’s International Labor Organization continues its review of the forced labor situation inside Burma, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) appears to be experimenting with new means of recruiting unpaid labor for infrastructure projects.

According to reliable sources, military authorities in Karen State have been turning to local Buddhist abbots to recruit villagers for road-building and other construction projects. The sources added that sizeable donations were being offered to the senior monks in exchange for their cooperation.

In one recent case, authorities made an offering of one million kyat (US$ 2,400) to the abbot of a monastery in the village of Mae La Ma, Kawkareit Township, following a request for his assistance in recruiting laborers for a 24-km long road being built about 32 km from the Thai-Burma border. According to one villager from the area, however, local people complained after the abbot called on them to work on the road. "People from Mae La Ma and the five neighboring villages were very upset about being called on by the abbot to do road construction at the expense of their daily work," he said.

Although the SPDC has often claimed that workers "donate" their labor on construction sites as an act of religious merit making, it is unusual for the military regime to actually seek the cooperation of abbots in carrying out such projects. This latest development may be part of a move to lend more credence to its claims that villagers are volunteering their labor. So far, however, the results have been disappointing for the regime: resistance from villagers, as well as security concerns, have delayed construction on the Mae La Ma road, which Karen rebels claim is being built for military purposes.

Rewriting History

The wife of former dictator Ne Win was in Tokyo recently to conduct research for a project to "rewrite modern Burmese history," according to a report from Radio Free Asia’s Burmese-language service. Ni Ni Myint, who is also the director of the Historical Research Center in Rangoon, was accompanied by several other historians on her trip to meet Japanese experts on Burmese history. This was her second visit to Japan in two years.

Other Burmese scholars have greeted news of Ni Ni Myint’s new project with skepticism. "My concern is that whenever they do research, Ni Ni Myint and other historians (inside Burma) always approach those who are likeminded," remarked Prof Min Nyo, a Burmese historian based in Japan. He added that the group would be working according to a pre-conceived plan that was not likely to challenge the official version of recent historical events.

Ni Ni Myint’s reputation as a scholar has suffered as a result of her marriage to Ne Win, whose dictatorial rule shaped much of Burma’s post-independence history. In a recent interview with Hong Kong-based Asiaweek magazine, however, she angrily denied that her work would be a whitewash of Ne Win’s political legacy, which reduced Burma to one of the world’s most impoverished nations. "It will be balanced and objective," she insisted.

Ni Ni Myint is not the first woman associated with a major historical figure to look to Japan for clues about Burma’s past.

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