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SCMP-Asean 'must tackle forced labo

Subject: SCMP-Asean 'must tackle forced labour' 

Wednesday  May 12  1999
The Mekong Region

Asean 'must tackle forced labour'

Asean labour ministers will risk becoming an international laughing stock if
they fail this week to pressure Burma over the massive use of forced labour,
experts said yesterday.

The labour ministers meeting in Rangoon are allowing the military regime to
play host to its first Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference. It
joined the organisation in 1997.

"They must raise this issue forcibly. The eyes of the world are upon them,"
said Phil Robertson, of international trade union watchdog the Solidarity

Burma ignored a May 1 deadline set by the International Labour Organisation
(ILO) to rejig its laws and practices over forced labour.

A special ILO commission of inquiry reported last year that pervasive forced
labour had brought "untold misery and suffering, oppression and
exploitation" to the people of Burma.

"This is a sensitive time. The ILO is reviewing how it can try to push Burma
into action over forced labour. Asean could be an important influence," Mr
Robertson said.

The report said forced labour was "widespread and systematic . . . with
total disregard for the human dignity, safety and health and basic needs of
the people".

People throughout Burma were habitually press ganged into building roads,
bridges and railways, working fields, portering and logging.

The "almost invariably unpaid" labour can only be avoided by paying fines -
leaving the burden to fall most heavily on the rural poor and ethnic

Punishments for failing to supply labour included torture, rape and murder,
the report added.

The ILO said it has worried over Burma's "gross violations" of its forced
labour convention for 30 years. Burma ratified the convention in 1955,
bringing it into force a year later.

The inquiry said it was clear the Burmese authorities were "directly
responsible" for the increasing use of forced labour over the past decade.
The regime treated the civilian population as an "unlimited pool of unpaid
forced labourers and servants".

The country's Village Act and Town Act allowed for forced labour, in
contravention of the ILO convention.

The ILO has pointed out that although Burma's penal code made what it termed
unlawful forced labour illegal, there is no record of any official or
soldier ever being punished for it.

A recent international police drug conference in Burma was boycotted by most
Western countries in protest at Rangoon's suspiciously cosy relations with
major narcotics traffickers.

Yet even the most severely critical of countries have never claimed it was
state policy to cultivate opium.

"It does have a cold, calculated policy of forced labour. They do not deny
it - they call it voluntary labour in the [state-controlled] media and in
the economic statistics," said a human rights worker, who asked not to be

Human Rights Watch/Asia has reported that one in 20 Burmese experienced
forced labour between 1992 and 1995. Certain sections of the population run
a very high risk of forced labour and the associated risks of accidents,
rape and beatings.

Families that scratch a bare living for themselves often face starvation
after contributing weeks of free labour to the local army unit.

Rangoon has rejected the ILO report as interference in its internal affairs.

Asean's critics claim it remains an organisation that tries to achieve
consensus by sweeping differences under a carpet of sanitised meetings and
empty ritual.