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Amnesty International press release

Subject: Amnesty International press release ASEAN meeting

News Service 091/99
AI INDEX ASA 16/10/99
13 May 1999

Myanmar: ASEAN Labour Ministers meet where forced labour is commonplace 

The on-going Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Labour
Ministers? meeting in Myanmar should focus attention on the Burmese
military?s use of forced labour and repression of trade union rights,
Amnesty International said today.

Thousands of people from ethnic minorities are used as forced labour by the
Burmese military. Trade union rights are also non-existent in Myanmar. Yet
the ten ASEAN governments have agreed that Yangon, the capital, is a
suitable venue for its labour ministers to meet between 10-15 May.

?ASEAN government ministers are meeting to discuss labour issues in a
country where thousands of people are routinely seized and forced to work
against their will and trade unionists are jailed,? Amnesty International

?The time has come for ASEAN to live up to the promise it made when
admitting Myanmar in 1997 to lead efforts for change in that country.?

?ASEAN member nations must use this opportunity to put pressure on the
Burmese authorities by raising the issue of forced labour and the rights of
trade unionists.? 

	The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), Myanmar?s military
government, routinely forces members of the Shan, Karen, and Karenni ethnic
minorities to ?contribute? their labour -- which in practice means working
for free -- to build so-called ?development projects?. Many must spend so
much of their time working for the military that they cannot support
themselves and their families.

Earlier this year, Amnesty International interviewed over 100 ethnic
minority civilians who had fled from Myanmar to Thailand. Almost all
reported that Burmese troops had forced them to clear forests, build roads
and military barracks, and even cultivate crops to feed the military.

Free trade unions do not exist in Myanmar, and several trade union
activists are serving long sentences for their political and labour
organizing activities. Than Naing, a labour leader and possible prisoner of
conscience, has been imprisoned for over ten years by the Myanmar military

During the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, Than Naing took a leading role in
forming national general strike committees in protest at 26 years of
one-party military rule.  These strike committees were violently suppressed
in September 1988, when the military reasserted its power and formed a new

Than Naing was arrested in the aftermath of the coup, and tried by military
tribunal under summary provisions which fell far short of international
fair trial standards.  He was sentenced in October 1989 to life
imprisonment, reportedly on charges of  ?encouraging, harbouring or
comforting persons guilty of high treason.?

?The case of Than Naing highlights the plight of all trade unionists in
Myanmar, who are prevented from operating freely for fear of persecution,?
Amnesty International said. ?The international community -- including the
ASEAN countries -- have a vital role to play by putting pressure on Burmese
authorities to loosen curbs on trade unions and ending forced labour.? 

Forced labour in Myanmar is not a new phenomenon -- Amnesty International
has documented the practice for over 10 years.  During the last seven years
the scale of forced labour has increased dramatically, involving hundreds
of thousands of civilians, including criminal and political prisoners. 

Yet the Burmese government claims that these civilians contribute their
labour voluntarily as part of their civic duty, an assertion which is
contradicted by the hundreds of forced labourers who have given testimonies
to Amnesty International. A 15-year-old Karenni girl said that after being
forced to move at age 13, she could no longer attend school and had to work
for the military instead. She was forced more times than she could count to
cut grass and carry heavy stones for road-building. 

Another form of forced labour is forced portering, which occurs in the
context of counter-insurgency activities against armed ethnic minority
opposition groups. SPDC troops simply take civilians from their villages
and make them carry heavy loads of supplies and ammunition through
mountainous jungle. They are often tied up and guarded at night, are never
paid, and are given very little food.  Porters are often beaten if they
become too weak to carry their loads and cannot keep up with the military

One Shan farmer who sought refuge in Thailand told Amnesty International
that he had been taken as a porter in October 1998 and forced to carry
ammunition.  Because he was given so little food, he became weak and could
no longer walk.  A soldier slapped him across the face several times,
catching his finger in the porter?s left eye.  The porter managed to escape
but has permanently lost his sight in that eye.   

Myanmar ratified the Forced Labour Convention in 1955, but has continually
flouted its provisions.  Several years ago the International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) filed a complaint against Myanmar about its
widespread use of forced labour.

As a result the International Labour Organization established a Commission
of Inquiry in June 1996. In a comprehensive report published in August 1998
the Commission found Myanmar?s government ?... guilty of an international
crime that is also, if committed in a widespread or systematic manner, a
crime against humanity?.