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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood