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.
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.