Burma's forced labour

The brutal Burmese government has for years forced citizens to work for free. Twenty per cent of tho

The Burmese military government has come under huge international pressure and criticism since cyclone Nargis destroyed large parts of Burma, killing at least 78,000 and leaving 56,000 more missing.

A month on, the UN estimates that 2.4 million people are in need of food, shelter or medical care, and more than a million have yet to receive foreign aid. Huge numbers of people are surviving in appalling conditions, with little or no help.

In the month since the disaster, only a small number of international aid workers have been granted access into the affected regions, and there is growing concern that the reconstruction effort will depend on forced labour - be it from children or migrant adult workers.

The International Labour Organisation's (ILO) liason officer in Rangoon, Steve Marshall, said there had not been any verified reports of forced labour linked to the disaster. But he added: "We're not saying it isn't happening."

Burma is well known for its use of forced labour. The Tatmadaw (Burmese military) routinely forces civilians to work on state infrastructure projects, such as the building of roads, bridges, military bases or even towns.

The military will typically demand labour from local villages, with the threat of fines if households are unable to supply the required amount of people. The ruling State Peace and Development Council's (SPDC) search for labourers is made easier by the existence of registration documents with details of the exact number of inhabitants, property and livestock within any given village.

Inhabitants have no choice but to apply for national identity cards and register their details or risk fines or arrest.

The military is increasingly relying on SPDC-appointed village chairpersons as intermediaries through whom to disseminate their demands.

One particularly brutal example of forced labour is SPDC’s use of villagers as human minesweepers to clear the way for the safe passage of soldiers.

Projects vary in length and intensity, but they always mean that people are taken away from their land and livelihoods without any remuneration in return.

Military personnel operate under blanket impunity, and know that they will not be held accountable for any mistreatment of civilians. Furthermore, low level officers and soldiers in charge of forced labour projects are under pressure to meet demands, quotas and timetables ordered by their superiors.

Threats, harassment, beatings and even killings are not uncommon, and women risk rape and other sexual abuses. Forced labour often means that villagers are unable to work on their own agricultural work for days or even weeks on end. Regular forced labour in Mon State (South-eastern Burma), for example, has been a primary factor leading to increasing food insecurity.

Prison Labourers

Human rights organisations have reported the continuous use of forced prison labour in Burma, and it is estimated that as many as 20 percent of prisoners sentenced to ‘prison with hard labour’ die as a consequence of the conditions of their detention. It has been reported that at least 91 labour camps operate in areas across the country and the thousands of prisoners in these camps are used to build highways, dams, irrigation canals, and to work on special agricultural projects. Prisoners are reportedly being forced to work 12 hours a day without rest, and the sick and weak are not exempted from work. Inmates who cannot afford bribes are condemned to the harshest labour.

The living conditions and the general treatment of forced prison labourers are widely reported to be far worse than for civilian forced labourers. The work is more dangerous, they have to work even longer hours and health provisions are non-existent. The prisoners are viewed as expendable labour and there are countless reports of their torture, beatings and killings. A constant supply of prison labour is ensured by the continuing arbitrary arrests, as well as the imposition of lengthy sentences for minor misdemeanours. Those arrested often do not receive due legal process and are told that they will be released on payment of a bribe. Those who are unable to bribe the police or the judiciary are automatically sent to prison, whether there is evidence against them or not.

Forced conscription and child soldiers

Human rights groups, meanwhile, believe boys as young as 12 are recruited to fight against ethnic minority rebels. Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that there may be more than 70,000 child soldiers in the SPDC Army.

The children are often kidnapped without their parents' knowledge while on their way home from school. They are then brutalised and physically abused during their induction and basic training before being shipped off to fight in the country’s ethnic states. “Child soldiers are sometimes forced to participate in human rights abuses, such as burning villages and using civilians for forced labour," said HRW. "Those who attempt to escape or desert are beaten, forcibly re-recruited or imprisoned."

Following the suppression in 1988 of the nationwide pro democracy demonstrations, the ruling military council initiated a dramatic effort to modernize and expand the armed forces. To tighten its control over its population, the SPDC Army instituted a dramatic expansion of military personnel throughout the country.

Service in the armed forces is for many a dangerous and gruelling experience, and soldiers are often subjected to mistreatment by senior officers. According to the junta’s military meeting minutes, there were about 9,000 desertions during 2006, whereas the army was only able to recruit 6,000. This trend continued in 2007, and the army is facing an acute shortage of trained personnel as a result.

Burma continues to have one of the highest numbers of child soldiers in the world - despite an official age of enlistment of 18.

According to Thein Sein, it is under-18s that are to blame for the problem because they lie about their true age or did not inform their parents that they had enlisted in the army.

Though, in a tacit admission that there remained underage soldiers in the armed forces, he further stated that soldiers with stunted growth were not sent to forward areas but were instead given light work duties at military bases, and that illiterate youth were sent to army schools to be educated.

With forced labour being such a common occurrence in the country, it is expected Burma will make use of it for the reconstruction process. Burma has a long history of ignoring the advice of International Organisations and actively hampering their freedom of movement and investment in the country, and is not about to change its stance.

Once again, the military junta will throw a spanner in the works and prevent ILO from monitoring the reconstruction process properly, adding further suffering to the devastated area and a population that has been through so much already.

Carole Reckinger specialises in south east Asian politics. She drafted the 2007 Forced Labor Chapter for the Burma Human Rights Yearbook. Click here for more of her articles
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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.