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UN Tackles Forced Labor in Myanmar

Akito Yoshikane

UN special representative for children and armed conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy and Myanmar acting Prime Minister Lt. General Thein Sein shake hands. The UN's International Labour Organization and the government of Germany agreed this week to monitor the government to investigate the forced military conscription of children.

The United Nations and Myanmar haven’t agreed on most issues. The military junta’s blocking of international relief in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the ongoing house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are a few issues that have underscored their tense relations.

But one of the more overlooked issues is forced labor. For years, the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) has had a bone to pick with the Myanmar junta for forcing villagers to work on infrastructure projects or serve as porters for the army.

The situation in Myanmar is just a reflection of the 12.3 million individuals forced into labor around the world. The UN has pressed the Myanmar junta to put a stop to the violations in a slow yet measured process. Last Thursday, the ILO and the government of Germany signed an agreement to monitor the country formerly known as Burma for violations pertaining to forced underage military recruitment.

The agreement aims for Myanmar to follow international and national conscription laws; promote legal measures to prevent under-age recruitment; and ensure that children of forced labor are treated as victims, not perpetrators.

The agreement is just another addition to previous UN frameworks intended to ensure compliance by the notoriously reclusive Myanmar junta. In 2003, Myanmar agreed to have a UN liaison in the country’s capital of Yangon to mediate labor disputes. The process was followed by the implementation of a legal process in 2007 that allows victims of forced labor to seek reparations via the UN intermediary. The legal process has been renewed every year since by Myanmar, including another recent extension until 2010.

Myanmar’s Minister of Labour, Aung Kyi, stated that he welcomed this continuation of the cooperation between the Government and the ILO which once again confirms the Government of Myanmar’s high-level commitment to its policy for the prohibition of forced labour.”

But despite the agreement, the ILO says Myanmar hasn’t done enough. This past June, the ILO committee on labor standards evaluated Myanmar’s progress on forced labor and determined that the steps are still totally inadequate.”

The committee recommended that Myanmar ban forced labor through legislation; ban the constitutional provision that allows forced labor; hold civil and military perpetrators of forced labor accountable; stop harassment towards victims of forced labor; and increase publicity to ban obligatory work.

Moreover, the severe sentences of Su Su Nway and U Thet Way, two prominent labor activists, are also a source of tension. Su Su Nway, known for successfully suing local Myanmar officials for forced labor violations, was arrested for the second time in late 2007 during the pro-democracy protests. She was sentenced to 12 years. And in a sadly ironic twist, U Thet Way was sentenced to two years of forced labor in 2008 after protesting to authorities who confiscated his computer memory stick that contained information he had sent to the ILO.

Even with all the UN measures and agreements, only 63 complaints have been filed to the ILO since the redress mechanism was instituted in 2007. The good news, however, is that most of the child soldiers in the cases have been discharged.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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