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ILO to Crack Whip on Junta

Marwaan Macan-Markar
From Inter Press Service, Thailand
March 25, 2005
link to this article.

A month after it was spurned by Burma's military regime, the U.N. labour agency has come down hard on that South-east Asian nation's junta, declaring that sanctions may have to be imposed due to continued labour rights violations.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) warned Rangoon that it has till June to clean up its act by stopping the pernicious practice of forced labour or face sanctions from member states of the Geneva-based body.

"It was widely felt that the 'wait-and-see' attitude which has prevailed since 2001 can no longer continue," an ILO press statement declared Friday at the end of a three-week session of the group's governing body.

During the discussions on forced labour in Burma, also known as Myanmar, the governing body concluded that Rangoon had not lived up to its promises to stop such abuse. "The overall assessment falls far short of our expectations," the statement added.

This week's verdict comes as welcome news for Burmese human rights campaigners, given how sensitive the junta is to the decisions of the U.N. labour agency as opposed to other U.N. officials, who have not been as successful to trigger change within the country's dictatorship.

"The military government will not be able to ignore the ILO's call for sanctions," Aung Naing Oo, research associate at The Burma Fund, a Washington D.C.-based rights lobby, told IPS. "U.N. intervention in Burma has been largely ineffective with the exception of the ILO, which has achieved some change through previous threats of sanctions."

The conditions for such economic threats were set in late February, when Burma's military leaders, including the country's strongman, Senior General Than Shwe, avoided meeting with a visiting high-level ILO team in Rangoon.

In response, the delegation, led by Sir Ninian Stephen, former governor general of Australia, cut short its visit due to such a lack of cooperation. But prior to its departure, the delegation issued a plan of action for labour reform.

It called on the junta to order the army to stop the use of forced labour, to mount an effective publicity campaign to convey the same message and to renew Rangoon's pledges to rid the country of this scourge.

It also wanted the military regime to guarantee rights such as freedom of movement to the ILO's staff, following restrictions that have been imposed, and to extend an amnesty for three Burmese who have been convicted of high treason for having contact with the U.N. agency.

That the ILO did not take too kindly to Than Shwe's failed meeting with the visiting delegation was also reflected in this week's message. "Although the government of Myanmar stated that the political will to address forced labour existed, the Governing Body expressed grave doubts about the credibility of these statements due to the attitude adopted by the authorities towards the (visiting delegation)," the ILO stated.

This week's call for sanctions will not be the first such effort by the ILO to crack the whip on the Burmese generals due to forced labour. In 2000, a resolution was adopted by the three main groups that belong to the international body - governments, employers and workers representatives - to impose sanctions.

The harsh measures included economic divestment and bans on international trade unions, U.N. agencies and ILO members from doing business with Burma.

But the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the military regime calls itself, preempted that threat from being implemented by introducing laws to ban forced labour and agreeing to work with the ILO on a reform plan.

Yet the violations have continued, with the chief perpetrator being the powerful Burmese army, which has dominated the country with an iron fist since a military coup in 1962. It is currently the second largest army in Asia with at least 400,000 men and it gobbles up more than half the country's budget.

The ILO estimates that over 800,000 people in Burma are victims of forced labour, which ranges from cleaning roads, carrying heavy loads for the army, constructing military buildings and working on infrastructure projects.

"The Burmese army uses forced labour extensively and now the military is trapped in its own policy," said Aung Naing Oo, the researcher. "The army has needed forced labour to survive."

On the other hand, were sanctions imposed, the military generals would suffer, "since they own many businesses that will be affected," he added.

According to the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the 1989 State-owned Economic Enterprise Law of 1989 has given the junta the right to control 12 key areas of economic enterprises. They range from exploiting the teak forests for trade, exploring and extracting petroleum and natural gas, air transport and railway services. Control of the banking and insurance services also fall under the ambit of this law.

"Than Shwe knows what the ILO can do," Aung Naing Oo asserted. "And nobody has the authority to tell the army to stop but him."

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