The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
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. Aung San Suu Kyi, who for the past twelve years has also been attempting to rewrite Burmese history, was a visiting scholar at Kyoto University in 1985-6, where she researched the role of her father, Gen Aung San, in Burma’s independence struggle against British colonial rule.

 Student Leader Sentenced in Thailand

A Thai court has sentenced Moe Thee Zun, a well-known student leader during Burma’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, to 8 months in prison for travelling on a false passport. The 38-year-old former deputy chairman of the All Burma Students Democratic Front (ABSDF), who had earlier been held for ten days following his arrest at Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport in March this year, was released on bail shortly after sentencing. His lawyer said that he would appeal the decision and hoped to have the sentence reduced to probation.

Sources close to Moe Thee Zun said that the October court decision and the March arrest en route to a conference in North America came as a surprise, as many dissidents are known to travel on false Burmese passports. Some observers have noted, however, that the student leader may have irked Thai authorities by attending a memorial service for ten anti-Rangoon rebels killed by Thai commandos in January. He also reportedly gave a speech in honor of the dead gunmen, who had seized a hospital in the border province of Ratchaburi to demand medical assistance for casualties of a conflict with Burmese troops.

Moe Thee Zun, along with other senior leaders, recently resigned from the ABSDF and was said to be planning to rejoin the Democratic Party for New Society, a party he founded shortly after the Burmese military coup in 1988.

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