Causes and Consequences
Access for research within Burma is denied by the authorities and it is therefore the evidence of people fleeing Burma that is drawn upon to create knowledge of the scale, locations, and timescales of displacement throughout the country. Journalists are also denied permission to visit Burma unless closely monitored by the authorities. However, consistent accounts of human rights violations during military offensives, while gaining control of territories, or during 'development' programmes are available over a number of years. Displacement in Burma results mostly from systematic patterns of human rights abuses associated with the conflict in ethnic minority areas. Broadly categorised, human rights abuses fall into two main areas: (a) gaining control of the population through militarisation, i.e. conflict-induced displacement, and (b) development programmes carried out under conditions that violate human rights, i.e. development-induced displacement. However, there is often great overlap between these two categories, and increased militarisation is not always connected to conflict. It is militarisation and its effects on the civilian population that causes much of the displacement.
Human rights violations by the Burmese government
In 1956, Burma acceded to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Burma acceded to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 15 July 1991, ratified the four 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1992, and acceded to the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (with reservations) on 22 July 1997. The UN Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution, by consensus, in March 1992, appointing an official 'Special Rapporteur' to investigate the human rights situation in Burma. This replaced the previous 'Independent Expert' who had reported under the UN's confidential '1503' procedure.
As the central military regime struggles to dominate the social order of Burma, gross human rights violations occur, particularly in the ethnic minority areas, but also in the 'Burman' areas when voices of dissent are heard. The regime is not held accountable for the numerous acts of arbitrary executions, killings, torture, rape, forced labour, forced relocation, use of child soldiers, and violations of religious freedoms that have been documented over the years.
Human rights violations, including forced relocations of rural and urban populations have, according to Human Rights Watch (Asia), 'increased in intensity' since the SLORC/SPDC seized power from the BSPP in 1988. Amnesty International has continuously documented extra-judicial killings, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment.
- The UN Human Rights System 2002 http://www.hri.ca/fortherecord2002/vol3/myanmar.htm
- Online Burma Library: The United Nations System http://www.burmalibrary.org/show.php?cat=668&lo=d&sl=0
- Amnesty International http://www.amnesty.org
- Human Rights Watch http://www.hrw.org
- Human Rights Watch: World Report 2003 - Burma http://www.burmaproject.org/HRW%20World%20Report%202003%20-%20Burma.doc
- Karen Human Rights Group http://www.khrg.org
- National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, Human Rights Documentation Unit, Human Rights Yearbook 2000: Burma (Myanmar) http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/yearbooks/Main.htm
- Online Burma Library: Human Rights http://www.burmalibrary.org/show.php?cat=281&lo=d&sl=0
Burmese military offensives to gain control of areas
Groups not participating in the cease-fire are particularly vulnerable to military offensives. One example is the Karen National Union (KNU) who in February 1995 saw the loss of their headquarters at Manerplaw due to a military offensive. Again, in the early months of 1997, a full-scale military offensive by the Burmese army took place. This focussed on the sixth and fourth brigade areas of the KNU. Headed up by Major General Thiha Thura Sit Maung, an officer who is known within the Burma for 'tough' tactics, 70,000-80,000 troops were mobilised for this operation. Numerous accounts of arbitrary executions, rape, torture, beatings, and looting as a direct result of this military offensive were reported against Karen and non-Karen villagers co-existing in Karen areas. Muslims saw their mosques destroyed with the materials and valuables looted and given to Buddhists. There were also reports of Muslims being forced to eat pork as a form of torture. As a result of this offensive, for the first time in modern history the Burmese military have a presence at virtually all points of the 2,500-kilometre border between it and Thailand. The political 'buffer' zone that the Karen provided over a number of years to Thailand disappeared and as a result the Karen became an economic hindrance to Thailand.
Forced relocation and the 'Four Cuts'
The process of controlling populations invariably involves a counter-insurgency strategy known as the 'Four Cuts' - food, finance, intelligence and recruitment. Successive Burmese military regimes have used this strategy since the mid 1960s. The aim of this strategy is to sever links between the civilian population and the forces in opposition to the central government. Forcible relocation of people acts as an effective method of breaking these links and enables the SPDC to fragment communities in order to consolidate its control. People are relocated to particular relocation sites or have scattered themselves after being served relocation orders that give only a few days' notice. In recent years, large numbers of Kachin, Shan, Karenni, Mon, and Karen people have been forcibly relocated due to the 'Four Cuts'.
The policy is aimed at turning 'black' rebel-held areas into 'brown' (contested or free-fire) zones, and thereafter into 'white' zones that are securely controlled by government forces.
The enforcement of these relocation campaigns was and is invariably brutal. For example, the 1996 and 1997 relocations of the Shan population were unprecedented in scope as well as degree of brutality practised. Since March 1996 there has been a systematic relocation programme in the central Shan state in an area of over 5,000 square miles, affecting 100,000 people from 600 villages who have been relocated into 45 main relocation sites. A continuation and extension of this relocation programme occurred in 1997 with many villagers being relocated once again. In March 1997 alone, approximately 12,500 people moved once again, and in April the same year, troops burned down 1,000 houses in a relocation site. It has been estimated that over 200,000 people in Shan state have been relocated since March 1996. The increase in brutality has involved large numbers of extra-judicial killings; one known example occurred at the beginning of July 1997 when ninety-six people were reportedly killed en masse.
Conditions in relocation sites are invariably severe. In a relocation site known as Shadaw in Karenni state in 1996, no food, medicine, materials for buildings, or shelter were provided; some 200 people reportedly died of disease; people were forced to labour; and beatings were witnessed. In 1997 people could buy passes to leave these relocation sites from sunrise to sunset to forage for food. However, the threat of being caught outside the sites, being arrested, beaten, tortured, or shot on sight continued. In one week in October 1996, 1,248 Karenni people arrived in refugee camps in Thailand, mostly from relocation sites in the townships of Loikaw and Shadaw. The relocation sites in Shadaw and Ywathit are close to army camps, meaning that forced labour for the military is often required.
In north-west Burma the 'Four Cuts' policy is also used to destroy links between the civilian population and the Chin and Naga ethnic resistance forces.
As the central Burmese authorities seek to control the population, particularly the ethnic minority population, relocation takes on a number of dynamics. The degree of coercion as well as the scale and variety of causes involved in relocations all need to be considered. Fragmentation of communities, the splitting of families, the individual losses associated with relocation, and the levels of mistrust generated by people relocated cannot be underestimated.
- Shan Human Rights Foundation, Dispossessed: Forced Relocation and Extrajudicial Killings in Shan State (April 1998) http://www.shanland.org/HR/Publication/Dis/dispossessed.htm
The forced recruitment of civilians as porters for military offensives is another cause of displacement. As an example, during the 1997 military offensive against the KNU, a massive conscription of porters, including the use of prisoners, occurred. Reports of forcible conscription from a large number of villages and the outskirts of Rangoon have been documented. People were taken from their homes, cars, cinemas, and shops.
The sense of terror that is invoked by having family members taken as porters is important to understand. Family members taken as porters often do not return and just 'disappear'. If porters manage to escape they may find themselves far from their homes with, potentially, no option to return due to fear of repercussions.
Forced portering is ongoing in many forms at present, not only in the context of military offensives. Displacement also occurs because of other forms of forced portering for the army on a more ad hoc basis, not always in conflict areas.
Human rights violations by Burmese government agents (DKBA)
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was formed after a split within the KNU army in December 1994. The Burmese military used this breakaway faction to obtain information about KNU-held territory close to the border with Thailand. Together, the Burmese army and the DKBA conducted offensives to gain control of areas and carried out attacks on refugee camps in Thailand. The DKBA is a relatively small force, supported at its formation by the (then) SLORC with funds, weapons, uniforms, and other supplies.
Human rights violations by non-state agents (ethnic opposition groups)
While there is less information available about human rights abuses in the ethnic opposition areas, there is anecdotal evidence that some of these groups replicate the regime's tactics and commit human rights violations. This also occurs with impunity, although it is considered that over the past decade some of these groups have taken on the human rights agenda and have begun to address these issues.
- Amnesty International http://www.amnesty.org
Internally Displaced People (IDPs)
The counter-insurgency tactic of the 'Four Cuts' described above is one reason why internal displacement occurs in Burma. People are often forced into relocation sites which have been categorised into three main types: (a) large 'relocation centres' controlled by the Burmese army often situated in the vicinity of infrastructure projects requiring forced labour; (b) smaller 'relocation villages' which are pre-existing villages that are fenced in and tightly controlled by the Burmese army; and (c) non-state-controlled 'relocation sites' which are under the command of an armed 'cease-fire' group.
Internal displacement within Burma can also be a particular phenomenon whereby people rarely flee in large numbers. They usually move in small groups of a few families or individuals, in absolute silence, to ensure they are not identified as displaced and persecuted and/or executed en route.
Many refugees were initially IDPs who have subsequently been forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Some people, upon reaching an international border, have been denied access to asylum and have been therefore forced to remain internally displaced; others have been deterred from seeking asylum due to knowledge of the harsh conditions and 'humane deterrence' in refugee camps and have thus chosen to flee internally to forest areas to avoid persecution.
There is no acknowledgement from the military regime regarding IDPs. Consequently, there are a plethora of difficulties in obtaining statistics regarding IDPs from Burma.
The overlap between the concepts of conflict-induced displacement and development-induced displacement is great when IDPs are viewed. People may have fled their homes as a result of the construction of dams, roads, or other infrastructure projects for which they will receive no compensation. Part of their decision to flee may often be a perceived threat of persecution combined with the knowledge that there will be excessive demands for forced labour placed upon them.
- UN Commission on Human Rights (Representative of the Secretary General, Francis M. Deng), Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, UN Document E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2 (11-2-1998) http://www.reliefweb.int/ocha_ol/pub/idp_gp/idp.html
- Norwegian Refugee Council: Global IDP Project http://www.db.idpproject.org
- Burma Border Consortium: Internally Displaced People and Relocation Sites in Eastern Burma, September 2002 http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/BBC_Relocation_Site_Report_(11-9-02).htm
- Karen Human Rights Group, Flight, Hunger and Survival: Repression and Displacement in the Villages of Papun and Nyaunglabin Districts (October 2001) http://www.ibiblio.org/freeburma/humanrights/khrg/archive/khrg2001/khrg0103a.html
- Karen Human Rights Group, A Strategy of Subjugation: The Situation in Ler Mu Lah Township, Tenasserim Division (December 2001) http://www.ibiblio.org/freeburma/humanrights/khrg/archive/khrg2001/khrg0104.html
- Burma Ethnic Research Group, Forgotten Victims of a Hidden War: Internally Displaced Karen in Burma (1998) http://www.db.idpproject.org/Sites/idpSurvey.nsf/wBannerSourcesAlpha/83586C2B846482F9C12567B000331BA4/$file/Berg+Karen+IDP+report.pdf
- Burma Ethnic Research Group, Conflict and Displacement in Karenni: The Need for Considered Responses (2000) http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/responses.htm
- Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA): Internal Displacement Unit http://www.reliefweb.int/idp/partners/global.htm
- US Committee for Refugees (USCR) http://www.refugees.org/world/countryindex/burma.htm
- OCHA: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement http://www.reliefweb.int/ocha_ol/pub/idp_gp/idp.html
- Amnesty International, Lack of Security in Counter-Insurgency Areas (July 2002) http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/ASA160072002?OpenDocument&of=COUNTRIES\MYANMAR
- Shan Human Rights Foundation, Dispossessed: Forced Relocation and Extrajudicial Killings in Shan State (April 1998) http://www.shanland.org/shrf/dispossessed/dispossessed.htm
- Lahu National Development Organisation, Unsettling Moves: Tha Wa Forced Resettlement Programme in Eastern Shan State (April 2002) http://www.shanland.org/shrf/Wa/contents.htm
- Online Burma Library: Internal Displacement/Forced Migration http://www.burmalibrary.org/show.php?cat=390&lo=d&sl=0
Persecution of Muslims and Christians
Virtually every city or town in Burma has a Muslim population. The largest concentration occurs in Arakan state. The Muslim community is very aware of its minority status and has tried over the years to maintain a low profile in Burma. Muslims mostly consist of the descendants of farmers, clerks, and traders who arrived during the colonial period. Throughout military rule, successive regimes have used the Muslim community as an example to whip up nationalist sentiments. Antagonism towards the Muslim population has sometimes been considered an indicator of anti-regime tensions that cannot be channelled towards the government in power.
Some 200,000 Muslim Rohingyas were driven into Bangladesh in 1978 due to a military offensive. In 1991 a forced relocation programme saw 250,000 Muslim Rohingyas cross the border once again.
Most Muslims within Burma are not considered to be citizens under Burma's strict citizenship law. They are unable to obtain national identify cards and as a result find it difficult to travel, get an education, or conduct business. The majority (particularly outside Arakan state) do not own land but work as traders or day labourers. There is a complete ban on the building of any new mosque and on repairs to the exterior of any existing mosque.
Ethnic minority Christians, who potentially comprise 10 per cent of the population, have been subjected to increased harassment and restrictions since 1988. In the urban areas, delays in obtaining approval for building new religious structures are common, and passports to attend Christian conferences abroad are difficult to obtain. In ethnic minority areas, churches are burnt down during military offensives, and human rights violations are committed against pastors.
In the north-west of Burma there have been reports that the government has been forcibly converting Naga Christians to Buddhism. In Chin state the authorities have attempted to lure Christians into becoming Buddhists by offering them exemption from forced labour. The recent enhanced presence of the Burma army in Chin state and Sagaing division have resulted in increased religious persecution. A large percentage of north-western Burma's population is Christian, and the army is actively restricting and punishing those persons wishing to practice Christianity while rewarding those who convert to Buddhism.
- Human Rights Documentation Unit (NCGUB): Freedom of Belief and Religion http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/yearbooks/The%20Freedom%20of%20Belief%20and%20Religion.htm
- Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG): The Persecution of Muslims in Burma http://www.ibiblio.org/freeburma/humanrights/khrg/archive/khrg2002/khrg0202.html
It is not known exactly how many political prisoners there are inside Burmese jails throughout the country. Amnesty International has been documenting the plight of political prisoners since 1988 and it is believed that the current numbers are between 1,300 and 2,000 people. The current military regime does not release information regarding these prisoners, and often it is not known where, under what circumstances, or under what conditions political prisoners are being detained. News of their condition and situation usually filters out through family and friends or via the clandestine underground movement. Sometimes it is unclear as to what they are charged with and whether they have been released or sentenced again on a different charge. People are mostly charged under Section 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and Section 17/1 of the 1908 Unlawful Associations Act. Some overtly political prisoners are held under criminal charges. Political prisoners are mostly male, although female activists, journalists, and writers are also imprisoned, sometimes alongside their children.
People in ethnic minority areas are also imprisoned under Section 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act if they are suspected of associating with armed opposition groups. Very little information about their sentences or the conditions of their detention is known outside Burma.
Throughout Burma there are prisons, military intelligence detention centres, police detention centres, military camps, and labour camps where prisoners, often in chains, are required to do hard labour.
Members of various political parties, ethnic groups, students, pro-democracy activists, writers, and journalists are routinely imprisoned. People are arrested for such acts as speaking to foreign journalists or UN representatives, possession of censored publications, making jokes, or writing articles and poetry about the military regime. Sentences for minor cases are often seven years, but many political prisoners are sentenced to life imprisonment. The death penalty has recently reappeared as a punishment for such acts, although international awareness has consistently weakened the ability of the military regime to take such actions in known cases.
Many political prisoners are regularly interrogated and tortured whilst in custody. Methods of torture include beatings, death threats, rape, electrocution, sleep deprivation, forcing people to stand or squat in uncomfortable positions for long periods, rolling iron or bamboo rods along a person's shins, pouring water over a person's head covered in plastic, forcing people to kneel on sharp stones, and hanging them by the arms and feet. Other political prisoners have been taken to the rural areas for forced labour projects and others have reportedly been killed extra-judicially. Prisoners are often kept in cells for several months and are sometimes kept in iron shackles, which consist of an iron bar between the feet attached to chains that go around the waist. These shackles are attached with a hammer and nail.
Information regarding prisoners usually arrives in a fragmented manner. Burmese people carrying any type of human rights information to the international community risk arrest and imprisonment. The Burmese community in exile commemorate the plight of political prisoners through publicity, documentation, and commemoration of anniversaries of arrest dates, and in this way a collective memory is supported.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) withdrew from Burma in June 1995 due to lack of standard access to prisoners, but has opened an office in Rangoon once again in 1999.
In February 2003, for the first ever, Amnesty International has been able to officially visit Burma. They met with the SPDC and called upon them to release immediately and unconditionally all prisoners of conscience still held throughout the country, including one female prisoner held in Insein Correctional Facility in Rangoon with her 18-month-old child.
- Amnesty International http://www.amnesty.org/
- Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) http://www.aappb.org
- ICRC http://www.icrc.org
Burma is a highly mine-affected country and most parties in the internal conflict have laid or continue to lay landmines. The SPDC has increased production of anti-personnel landmines and produces at least three types: MM1, MM2, and Claymore-type mines. Although the SPDC is not known to export landmines, mines from China, Israel, Italy, Russia, and the United States have been found planted inside Burma, indicating their past or present importation. Within Asia, Burma is currently second only to Afghanistan in the number of new landmine victims, surpassing even Cambodia.
Armed opposition groups who do not have the financial resources or capacity to purchase landmines use 'home-made' landmines. Extra-judicial killings have occurred due to the possession of batteries, which are considered a component of these 'home-made' landmines.
The SPDC has not acceded to the Mine Ban Treaty and abstained from voting on the pro-mine ban treaty UN General Assembly Resolution 56/24M in 2001. There is no de-mining activity within Burma, and survivors of landmines receive no compensation and are in fact often required to pay for their own treatment and the cost of the mine to local officials.
There are consistent reports of Burma army units forcing non-Burmese ethnic minority populations or people serving as porters to walk in front of the soldiers to detonate mines, thus acting as 'human minesweepers'.
As part of a new plan to 'fence the country', the Coastal Region Command Headquarters gave orders to its troops from the Tenasserim division to lay mines along the Thai-Burma border. In the case of the Burma-Bangladesh border, the SPDC is actively maintaining minefields. Illegal loggers and drug traffickers have also allegedly used mines to control areas.
- Landmine Monitor, Burma http://www.icbl.org/cgi-bin/go.cgi?0=http://www.nonviolenceinternational.net/seasia/Mb/Index.htm
- International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Burma http://www.icbl.org/country/burma/
The CIA World Factbook for 2002 states that Burma is the world's largest producer of illicit opium, surpassing even Afghanistan. The surrender of drug warlord Khun Sa along with his Mong Tai Army in January 1996 was hailed by Rangoon as a major counter-narcotics success, but production has not abated much since.
The text Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, by Bertil Lintner, is the most authoritative book on the interrelationship of drugs, insurgency, counter-insurgency and politics in Burma. Exploration of the drug problem in the Golden Triangle of South-East Asia needs to take into account Burma's history of military rule, ethnic tensions, and civil war. Lintner points out that upon independence in 1948, the annual production of opium in Burma totalled thirty tons. During the 1992-3 harvesting season, the yield, according to American estimates, was at least 2,575 tons of raw opium - an 8,000 per cent increase from 1948.
Burma is also a major source of methamphetamine and heroin destined for regional consumption. Internal consumption and dependence is also creating what is termed by health professionals as a 'silent emergency' of HIV/AIDS within Burma. In the north-west of Burma cheap, high-grade Burmese heroin has been attributed to the Burmese military presence and the complicity of higher authorities in heroin production and trade. The cheap heroin has led to a steep rise in the number of injecting drug users throughout the region.
- CIA World Factbook 2002 http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/bm.html
- Online Burma Library: Drugs http://www.burmalibrary.org/show.php?cat=26&lo=d&sl=0
Amnesty or truth: holding the tiger by the tail
Currently the idea of a 'truth commission' for Burma is far from reality. The threat of a truth commission in Burma is thought to be one of the reasons why progress on talks between the NLD and the current military regime is slow. The ruling generals are seeking to avoid being prosecuted for their crimes. There is considerable documentation of human rights abuses, should a database be necessary at some point in the future. The widely used expression 'holding a tiger by the tail' is understood by a number of Burmese commentators to convey this dilemma, in that should the ruling generals let go of the tail, the tiger (signifying the general population of Burma) would turn around and eat them (the generals).
Little is known about disaster-induced displacement within Burma due to the general political isolation of the country and the lack of access for researchers. While floods are reported on occasion by refugees who reach neighbouring countries, no systematic reports have been compiled documenting their nexus to displacement. Deforestation due to excessive logging in recent years, and its resulting effects, are considered to contribute to the floods within Burma; but here the overlap between disaster and development is obvious.
- The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Myanmar http://www.ifrc.org/where/country/cn6.asp?iYear=0&xFlag=2&countryid=121&view=1
- Earthquake information http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/quakexe/quakes ; http://www.geog.le.ac.uk/cti/index.html
- Disaster Relief http://www.redcross.org/what-we-do/disaster-relief
- Reliefweb http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf
- Tropical weather sites http://www.tropicalweather.com/current.htm; http://cimss.ssec.wisc.edu/tropic/tropic.html
- Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre http://www.bghrc.com/
'Development' in Burma is strictly a 'top-down' activity with a focus on construction of infrastructure and modernisation. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) changed its name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in November 1997. However, adding 'Development' to their title has not impacted in any way on their methods of 'development', which remain inefficient, prescriptive, and urban-biased.
Whilst some international NGOs in Burma do practice PAR techniques for assessing needs 'empowerment', this, in the Frierian sense, is not a reality.
Throughout Chin state and the Sagaing division, the military regime has in recent years imposed a program of infrastructure projects throughout the north-west, in order to facilitate their version of 'development'. As with other areas, the construction of roads and other infrastructure projects have been carried out under military supervision. The work is done almost exclusively by villagers, who are forced to work at gun-point without pay and who are often abused by the soldiers. Burmese soldiers regularly extort large sums of money and land from local people without any form of compensation. There are reports of local people moving away from areas that are being 'developed' due to fear of excessive requirements for forced labour, extortion, etc.
- Earthrights International http://www.earthrights.org
- Rainforest Relief http://www.enviroweb.org
Forced labour in Burma
In 1955, Burma ratified the ILO Convention No.29 Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (1930), but it is not a party of the ILO Convention No.105 Concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour (1957).
Technical co-operation with Burma was suspended by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in mid 1999 due to continued use of forced labour following a Commission of Inquiry that found a continued failure to implement the ILO Convention No. 29 Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour that was ratified by Burma in 1955. A Commission of Inquiry by the ILO was conducted due to thirty years of criticism by the ILO's supervisory bodies of Myanmar's gross violations of the Convention (No. 29) and its 'continued failure to implement' the Convention. This Commission found
'abundant evidence … showing the pervasive use of forced labour imposed on the civilian population throughout Myanmar by the authorities and the military for portering, the construction, maintenance and servicing of military camps, other work in support of the military, work on agriculture, logging and other production projects undertaken the by the authorities or the military, sometimes for the profit of private individuals, the construction and maintenance of roads, railways and bridges, other infrastructure work and a range of other tasks…' (1998, para. 528).
The Commission also found that failure to comply was punishable by fine or imprisonment and that in practice, exactions of forced labour gave rise to extortion of money; threats to life and security; extra-judicial punishment of those who were unwilling, slow, or unable to comply; physical abuse, beatings, torture, rape, and murder (1998, para. 530). They found the forced labour was widely performed by women, children, elderly persons, and others otherwise unfit for such work and that the burden of forced labour appeared to be particularly great for ethnic minority groups, particularly in areas of strong military presence.
In 2000 the ILO applied Article 33 of its constitution - for the first time in history - which involved pressing its members to review their relations with Burma and cease any activity which could aid or abet the use of forced labour.
Following on from this report, the US Department of Labor also conducted a report on labour practices in Burma, which arrived at roughly the same conclusions.
Under pressure from the ILO, the SPDC officially banned forced labour in November 2000 and decreed that anyone using forced labour would be criminally charged. Analysts do not consider that this has had any impact on forced labour practices, particularly given that nobody has been charged since the ban. In October 2002 the ILO placed a Liaison Officer in the country to attempt to eradicate forced labour. However, forced labour continues to create widespread displacement.
The military regime regard the practice of ' loh ah pay' (Pali term for labour contributed to the community to earn religious merit, by now used by the SPDC and Burma army to call villagers for forced labour) as being 'voluntary' labour, and claim that since the times of the Myanmar kings, many dams, irrigation works, lakes, etc. have been built with labour contributed by all the people of the area. They also claim that contribution of labour is a noble deed and that the religious merit attained from carrying it out contributes to a better personal well-being and spiritual strength. Needless to say, the 246 people interviewed for the ILO's Commission of Inquiry did not regard the excessive demands of forced labour and resulting implications as contributing to their personal well-being.
- International Labour Organisation, Commission of Inquiry, Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma) (1998) http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/gb/docs/gb273/myanmar.htm
- Recent ILO releases on the High-Level Team's 2001 visit http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/gb/docs/gb282/pdf/gb-4.pdf; http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/relm/gb/docs/gb282/pdf/gb-4-ax.pdf
- Online Burma Library: International Labour Organisation http://www.burmalibrary.org/show.php?cat=827&lo=d&sl=0
- US Department of Labor report (1998) http://www.dol.gov/ILAB/media/reports/ofr/burma1998/main.htm
Roads, bridges, railways, gas pipelines and other construction projects
All over Burma, 'development' projects such as the widening of roads and construction of roads, bridges, railways, and embankments are underway. The general population is affected by these projects either by being forced to relocate from the routes of these projects, for which they seldom receive compensation for the loss of their homes, or by being required to perform ' loh ah pay' on these projects. It is not unusual for children and pregnant women to work on these 'development' projects.
One of the most notorious projects is the Ye-Tavoy railway, which was started in October 1993 and has been labelled the new 'Death Railway'. It has been estimated that some 120,000 people have been forced to build 110 miles of embankment 8 feet high and 12 feet wide. Hundreds of people have died on this project, be it through illness or exhaustion.
Human rights reports from the Sagaing division regarding the Border Area Development (BAD) programme have cited relocation, loss of homes, and lack of compensation as additional obstacles to sustaining livelihoods.
A controversial Unocal/Total gas pipeline in the south of Burma has created situations whereby forced portering has been employed. Referring to allegations in 1991 and 1992, a hearing in a US federal court heard that the 'plaintiffs essentially contended that Unocal … is knowingly taking advantage of and profiting from SLORC's practice of using forced labour and forced relocation…'.
- Burmese Government's website on new construction throughout the country http://www.myanmar.com/build/build.html
- Karen Human Rights Group http://www.khrg.org
Tourism and development
The overlap between gaining control of populations and projects carried out in the name of national development is great. Islands being demarcated as national parks in order to provide opportunities for tourism are having their existing populations removed. The islands off the south coast of Burma are now being developed for tourism. The populations of some of these islands have reportedly been forced to flee and relocate under conditions of extreme brutality. In one incident in September 1996, some 140 people were killed on Lanbi Island to make way for an 'eco-tourism venture' to be known as the Lanbi Island Marine National Park.
The military regime designated 1996 as 'Visit Myanmar Year', hoping to encourage 500,000 tourists to visit the country. The figure was downgraded to a more cautious 200,000, and the official start date of the visit year was set at 1 October 1996 in order to have more time to prepare the country. Country-wide 'beautification' programmes were put in place whereby communities were required to provide free labour and finance to white-wash houses to particular specifications and build new walls and facades for their houses and pavements. Visitors to Mandalay in April 1994 reported that orders had been given to clean up Mandalay Palace, including widening the roads on all four sides of the palace and dredging the 6-mile-long, 11-feet-deep moat. The widening of the roads required families with houses extending into the roadway to remove those parts of their homes or suffer the consequences. There is a strong connection between forced labour and tourism in contemporary Burma.
- Lonely Planet guide to Burma (includes section on the ethics of visiting Burma) http://www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/south_east_asia/myanmar/
- Online Burma Library: Tourism http://www.burmalibrary.org/show.php?cat=960&lo=d&sl=0
'Urban Development Programmes'
'Urban Development Programmes' involve residents of a designated area having to move to 'satellite towns' at short notice. No comprehensive data is available regarding this practice. It has been reported that the authorities have disconnected electricity and water supplies at the old settlements before burning them. Compensation is irregular, assistance to build new homes is rarely given, and new sites have little infrastructure, including sewage facilities, sources of clean water, or access to health facilities. Once registered with the local authorities in these 'satellite towns', people are denied permission to move.
Following the 1988 uprising in Rangoon, some 200,000 'squatters' were forcibly moved out of the city to 'New Towns'. Poor people in popular tourist destinations such as Mandalay and Taunggyi have been moved away to sites away from tourists. The International Federation of Trade Unions reported in February 1995 that a slum clearance programme had destroyed the homes of some 1 million people in Rangoon and that the residents had been forced into new 'satellite towns'.