|ILO cracks the whip at
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - A month after it was spurned by
Myanmar's military regime, the United Nations'
labor agency has come down hard on the junta in
that Southeast Asian nation, declaring that
sanctions may have to be imposed due to continued
Labor Organization (ILO) warned Yangon that it has
until June to clean up its act by stopping the
pernicious practice of forced labor, or face
sanctions from member states of the Geneva-based
"It was widely felt that the
'wait-and-see' attitude which has prevailed since
2001 can no longer continue," an ILO press
statement declared on Friday at the end of a
three-week session of the group's governing body.
During the discussions on forced labor in
Myanmar, known as Burma until the junta changed
the country's name in 1989, the governing body
concluded that Yangon had not lived up to its
promises to stop such abuse. "The overall
assessment falls far short of our expectations,"
the statement added.
Last week's verdict
comes as welcome news for Myanmar's human-rights
campaigners, given how sensitive the junta is to
the decisions of the UN labor agency as opposed to
other official UN bodies, who have not been as
successful in triggering change within the
country's military regime.
government will not be able to ignore the ILO's
call for sanctions," Aung Naing Oo, a research
associate at The Burma Fund, a Washington DC-based
rights lobby, told Inter Press Service. "UN
intervention in Burma has been largely ineffective
with the exception of the ILO, which has achieved
some change through previous threats of
The conditions for such
economic threats were set in late February, when
Myanmar's military leaders, including the
country's strongman, Senior General Than Shwe,
avoided meeting with a visiting high-level ILO
team in Yangon.
In response to the lack of
cooperation, the delegation, led by Sir Ninian
Stephen, former governor general of Australia, cut
short its visit. But prior to its departure, the
delegation issued a plan of action for labor
reform that called on the junta to order the army
to stop the use of forced labor, mount an
effective publicity campaign to convey the same
message and renew Yangon's pledges to rid the
country of this scourge.
It also wanted
the military regime to guarantee rights such as
freedom of movement to the ILO's staff, following
restrictions that have been imposed, and to extend
an amnesty for three Myanmar citizens who have
been convicted of high treason for having contact
with the UN agency.
That the ILO did not
take too kindly to Than Shwe's failed meeting with
the visiting delegation was also reflected in last
week's message. "Although the government of
Myanmar stated that the political will to address
forced labor existed, the governing body expressed
grave doubts about the credibility of these
statements due to the attitude adopted by the
authorities towards the [visiting delegation],"
the UN agency stated.
Last week's call for
sanctions was not the first such effort by the ILO
to crack the whip on the generals in Myanmar due
to forced labor. In 2000, a resolution to impose
sanctions was adopted by the three main groups
that belong to the international body -
governments, employers and workers
The harsh measures
included economic divestment and banned
international trade unions, UN agencies and ILO
members from doing business with Myanmar. However,
the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as
the junta is known, preempted that threat from
being implemented by introducing laws to ban
forced labor and agreeing to work with the ILO on
a reform plan.
Yet the violations have
continued, with the chief perpetrator being the
powerful Myanmar army that has dominated the
country with an iron fist since a military coup in
1962. Currently, it is the second-largest army in
Asia with at least 400,000 troops, and it gobbles
up more than half the country's budget.
The ILO estimates that more than 800,000
people in Myanmar are victims of forced labor,
which ranges from cleaning roads, carrying heavy
loads for the army, constructing military
buildings and working on infrastructure projects.
"The Burmese army uses forced labor
extensively, and now the military is trapped in
its own policy," said Aung Naing Oo, the
researcher. "The army has needed forced labor to
On the other hand, the military
generals would suffer if sanctions were imposed,
"since they own many businesses that will be
affected," Aung Naing added.
the Brussels-based International Confederation of
Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the State-owned
Economic Enterprise Law of 1989 has given the
junta the right to control 12 key areas of
economic enterprise. They range from teak forests,
which the junta exploits for trade, to petroleum
and natural gas, to air transport and railway
services. Control of the country's banking and
insurance services also fall under the ambit of
"Than Shwe knows what the ILO
can do," Aung Naing asserted. "And nobody has the
authority to tell the army to stop but him."
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