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ILO team leaves Yangon after failing to meet top generals on forced labor

From Agence France Presse
February 23, 2005
link to this article.

A high-level team sent by the UN's International Labour Organisation on Wednesday cut short its mission to Myanmar, after failing to meet top generals to assess the junta's commitment to fighting forced labour.

"The mission decided that there would be no point at this stage to have more in-depth discussions at the technical level" on steps to fight forced labour, the team said in a statement before leaving two days early.

It said authorities cited the ongoing National Convention, convened to draft principles for a new constitution, as the reason why top leaders, including regime number one Senior General Than Shwe, could not meet the delegation as planned.

"The mandate which had been entrusted to the very high-level team ... was to evaluate the attitude of the Myanmar authorities at the highest level to the elimination of forced labour and assess their determination to continue their cooperation with the ILO in this regard," it said.

"The Myanmar authorities were fully aware of these terms of reference before the mission departed for Yangon," it added.

"However, the mission was informed on its arrival that for various reasons linked to the National Convention, the program did not include the meetings that would have enabled it to successfully complete its mandate as it understood it."

The delegation said it did meet Prime Minister Lieutenant General Soe Win and Labor Minister U Thaung on Tuesday, as well as Foreign Minister Major General Nyan Win on Wednesday.

The delegation was trying to assess whether the new government is determined to tackle the problem despite last October's sacking of prime minister Khin Nyunt.

The independent team, headed by former Australian governor-general Sir Ninian Stephen, will report to the next session of the ILO's governing body in March.

Myanmar is scheduled to come up for discussion on March 24, when the governing body could decide to renew its call for sanctions.

The visit was seen as a test of Yangon's willingness to cooperate in fighting forced labor.

One source close to the ILO described the team's early departure as "a failure for everyone" but said their trip "went badly from the start."

The source said that there is still one month until the ILO governing body meets. "The delegation said that the door is still open."

The delegation said it submitted a memo to Nyan Win outlining steps that would show Myanmar's determination to fight forced labor.

These included issuing new orders by the defense ministry against forced labor, reconfirming Myanmar's commitment to a plan previously agreed with the ILO, allowing the ILO officer in Yangon free movement, and raising public confidence in legal complaints against forced labor.

In 1998 a major ILO inquiry found that forced labour was pervasive and systematic throughout the country, particularly with the military.

In 2000 the ILO's governing body recommended trade and other sanctions against Myanmar because of its lack of cooperation in tackling the practice.

The ILO and the junta agreed on a plan of action in May 2003, but shelved it two days later when the junta detained pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Until recently courts either threw out forced labor complaints or workers withdrew the cases.

A Myanmar court made an unprecedented ruling late last month, convicting four officials of forcing villagers to work on a road project and jailing them for up to 16 months, according to the United Nations.

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