By Hanna Hindstrom
The International Labour Organization (ILO) is likely to ease its criticisms against Burma on forced labour, despite fresh reports that the military continues to target the stateless Rohingya population in Northern Arakan state with impunity.
A spokesperson from the ILO confirmed to DVB that a special committee meeting scheduled for Saturday as part of the International Labour Conference in Geneva was likely to draw positive conclusions.
“In general terms for all parts of the country, we have heard consistent reports that there has been a general reduction in the use of forced labour,” said Steve Marshall, head of the ILO office in Rangoon. “The committee will probably come to a similar conclusion.”
However, a report by the Arakan Project released yesterday documents systematic abuses carried out by the Burmese military towards the Rohingya minority group in Northern Arakan State between November 2011 and May 2012.
The group warns that there has been “little progress” since the Burmese government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the ILO in March this year. While a reduction in the use of forced labour has been seen in certain townships of Northern Arakan state, it is has been coupled with a rise in arbitrary taxes and increased exploitation in other areas.
“Villagers continue to receive regular orders to work on road construction, in NaSaKa (border security forces) and Army camps, as sentries and porters, without remuneration and facing penalties if they do not comply, as in past years,” warned the report.
“We have never received any wages, not even a cup of tea, from the Army or the NaSaKa for all the work we do for them year after year. Instead, we are insulted and harassed if we do not work properly,” a 21-year-old Rohingya farm labourer from Buthidaung Township told the Arakan Project.
The ILO’s assessment of Burma is seen as a crucial indicator for the reduction of further international sanctions. In 2000, the ILO instigated unprecedented punitive measures against the military regime, including urging member states to review their diplomatic relations with the country.
“In Northern Rakhine state at least, Myanmar [Burma] has yet to take concrete steps to effectively implement two key recommendations of the 1998 ILO Commission of Inquiry – eradicate the practice and prosecute perpetrators – and to translate formal commitments into action on the ground in all regions of the country,” said Chris Lewa, Director of The Arakan Project. “It would therefore be premature for the ILO to lift the measures adopted in 2000.”
The Rohingya minority in Burma are seen as particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of their stateless status. Considered “illegal Bengali migrants” by the government, they cannot travel freely within Arakan state and are excluded from basic social rights, including health and education.
However, Marshall insists that positive changes have also been seen in this region. “[We have] received information from NRS [Northern Arakan state] that they were in the same category [as the rest of Burma]. [The problem] was not resolved by any means, but there was an improvement. Clearly where there are areas of concern they need to be targeted.”
In March, the Burmese military committed to prosecuting military personnel guilty of using forced labour under the state penal code. According to the ILO, 166 military personnel are currently being prosecuted and five convictions have already been handed down.
A fact finding mission in early May, led by ILO Chairperson of the Governing Body Greg Vines, concluded that despite improvements, “many challenges” remained, including the continued incarceration of ten labour activists and an absence of “genuine, bottom-up people’s participation” and rule of law.
Rights campaigners have been quick to observe that the elimination of forced labour could take decades, especially in conflict affected territories such as Kachin state, where abuses by the Burmese army are reported as widespread.
Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is due to address the ILO conference in Geneva on 14 June as part of her first tour abroad since being detained by the junta in 1989.