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Myanmar opened to sanctions

Marwaan Macan-Markar
From Inter Press Service/Asia Times Online
June 21, 2005
link to this article.

Thanks to the stubbornness of Myanmar's military rulers, the Southeast Asian nation is about to enter a league of its own as the first country in the world to face sanctions for failing to end forced labor.

The conditions for such action were paved last week when the governing body of the International Labor Organization (ILO) declared that its patience had run out on a four-year wait-and-see attitude toward labor reform in Myanmar. That means the 178 members of the ILO, which includes governments, employers and worker organizations, have the license to impose punitive measures that had first been called for in
2001, but put on hold.

Criticism of the military junta has been on the rise recently as opponents of the regime prepared to mark the 60th birthday of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. On Sunday, supporters launched protests around Asia to draw attention to the plight of the jailed opposition leader.

"The feeling was that things were not getting better, but worse," ILO executive director Kari Tapiola told Inter Press Service by phone from the organization's office in Geneva. "Members have been asked to take the necessary action or measures, since we do not use the word sanctions."

The move pushes ILO members into new territory, said Tapiola. "We have never pursued such action before in the history of the ILO. This is the first time that the ILO's Article 33 is being enforced." Under that article, a country will be subject to a range of harsh measures if it fails to comply with recommendations made by the ILO to reform abusive forms of labor.

This could affect current and future foreign investment flowing into Myanmar and lead to international trade unions boycotting the country's economy and even UN agencies and multilateral organizations reviewing their activities there.

"The repercussions could be wide-ranging in Myanmar's internal economy and externally, too," Aung Naing Oo, research associate at The Myanmar Fund, a Washington DC-based rights lobby, told IPS. "Because much of the economy is in the hands of military generals."

The regime's reluctance to end forced labor reflects how much military officers depend on it for their economic activity, he added. "It is a problem institutionalized in the army. Military officers are making big money as a result of it."

Currently, members of the junta have the right to control 12 major areas of Myanmar's economy, including the sale of teakwood from the forests, exploring and extracting petroleum and natural gas, and providing air transport and railway services.

According to the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, military leaders also enjoy the power of controlling the country's banking and insurance services as part of that economic arrangement made possible under the 1989 State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law.

The ILO's emerging sanctions on Myanmar would come on top of punitive economic measures imposed by the US government and some selective restrictions imposed by the European Union.

Myanmar watchers are hardly surprised by the labor group's move, given recent reports and statements by the ILO pointing to Yangon's failure to stop forced labor. The most revealing came in May, when Myanmar was singled out in an ILO global report for perpetuating this form of abuse.

These violations are often wide-spread in the provincial areas that are home to Myanmar's ethnic minorities. They include villagers forced to porter for the army, build roads and bridges, cultivate military-acquired land and construct buildings.

"If villagers refuse to comply with orders, they can be subject to threats, imprisonment and violence," the ILO noted in its May report.

The ILO's attempts to trigger change in Myanmar go back to 1998, when the UN labor agency urged Yangon to comply with an inquiry to end forced labor in the country. The junta's failure to reform resulted in the 2001 resolution by the ILO's governing body to impose harsh measures called for under Article 33. However, that move was put on hold - resulting in the four-year wait-and-see policy - following an appeal by Yangon that it would introduce changes.

To appear committed to that new spirit, the junta invited the ILO to open an office to monitor forced labor, permitted two high-level visits, held technical cooperation meetings and introduced a law to ban this abusive form of labor. Yet such change failed to impress the ILO committee investigating the forced labor conditions in Myanmar, given that violations also included threats against citizens who reported forced labor cases to the ILO.

"The wait-and-see attitude that prevailed among most members since 2001 had lost its raison d'etre and could not continue," the committee declared last week.

Governments, employers and workers groups should now "activate and intensify the review of their relations with Myanmar," the committee added. "[They should] take the appropriate actions, including as regards foreign direct investments in all its various forms [and] relations with state or military-owned enterprises in Myanmar."

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