|Myanmar opened to
BANGKOK - Thanks to the
stubbornness of Myanmar's military rulers, the
Southeast Asian nation is about to enter a league
of its own as the first country in the world to
face sanctions for failing to end forced labor.
The conditions for such action were paved
last week when the governing body of the
International Labor Organization (ILO) declared
that its patience had run out on a four-year
wait-and-see attitude toward labor reform in
Myanmar. That means the 178 members of the ILO,
which includes governments, employers and worker
organizations, have the license to impose punitive
measures that had first been called for in 2001,
but put on hold.
Criticism of the military
junta has been on the rise recently as opponents
of the regime prepared to mark the 60th birthday
of detained democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. On
Sunday, supporters launched protests around Asia
to draw attention to the plight of the jailed
"The feeling was that
things were not getting better, but worse," ILO
executive director Kari Tapiola told Inter Press
Service by phone from the organization's office in
Geneva. "Members have been asked to take the
necessary action or measures, since we do not use
the word sanctions."
The move pushes ILO
members into new territory, said Tapiola. "We have
never pursued such action before in the history of
the ILO. This is the first time that the ILO's
Article 33 is being enforced." Under that article,
a country will be subject to a range of harsh
measures if it fails to comply with
recommendations made by the ILO to reform abusive
forms of labor.
This could affect current
and future foreign investment flowing into Myanmar
and lead to international trade unions boycotting
the country's economy and even UN agencies and
multilateral organizations reviewing their
"The repercussions could
be wide-ranging in Myanmar's internal economy and
externally, too," Aung Naing Oo, research
associate at The Myanmar Fund, a Washington
DC-based rights lobby, told IPS. "Because much of
the economy is in the hands of military generals."
The regime's reluctance to end forced
labor reflects how much military officers depend
on it for their economic activity, he added. "It
is a problem institutionalized in the army.
Military officers are making big money as a result
Currently, members of the junta
have the right to control 12 major areas of
Myanmar's economy, including the sale of teakwood
from the forests, exploring and extracting
petroleum and natural gas, and providing air
transport and railway services.
to the Brussels-based International Confederation
of Free Trade Unions, military leaders also enjoy
the power of controlling the country's banking and
insurance services as part of that economic
arrangement made possible under the 1989
State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law.
ILO's emerging sanctions on Myanmar would come on
top of punitive economic measures imposed by the
US government and some selective restrictions
imposed by the European Union.
watchers are hardly surprised by the labor group's
move, given recent reports and statements by the
ILO pointing to Yangon's failure to stop forced
labor. The most revealing came in May, when
Myanmar was singled out in an ILO global report
for perpetuating this form of abuse.
violations are often wide-spread in the provincial
areas that are home to Myanmar's ethnic
minorities. They include villagers forced to
porter for the army, build roads and bridges,
cultivate military-acquired land and construct
"If villagers refuse to comply
with orders, they can be subject to threats,
imprisonment and violence," the ILO noted in its
The ILO's attempts to trigger
change in Myanmar go back to 1998, when the UN
labor agency urged Yangon to comply with an
inquiry to end forced labor in the country. The
junta's failure to reform resulted in the 2001
resolution by the ILO's governing body to impose
harsh measures called for under Article 33.
However, that move was put on hold - resulting in
the four-year wait-and-see policy - following an
appeal by Yangon that it would introduce changes.
To appear committed to that new spirit,
the junta invited the ILO to open an office to
monitor forced labor, permitted two high-level
visits, held technical cooperation meetings and
introduced a law to ban this abusive form of
labor. Yet such change failed to impress the ILO
committee investigating the forced labor
conditions in Myanmar, given that violations also
included threats against citizens who reported
forced labor cases to the ILO.
wait-and-see attitude that prevailed among most
members since 2001 had lost its raison
d'etre and could not continue," the committee
declared last week.
and workers groups should now "activate and
intensify the review of their relations with
Myanmar," the committee added. "[They should] take
the appropriate actions, including as regards
foreign direct investments in all its various
forms [and] relations with state or military-owned
enterprises in Myanmar."
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