The Burmese government signed an agreement last week with the International Labor Organization to end forced labor in the country by 2015. Three years is far too long to wait. Human rights violations should not be phased out; they should be stopped right away.
The Burmese government has the power to stop forced labor immediately: it is the main perpetrator of forced labor in Burma, and a governmental order could, in theory, end this human rights violation tomorrow. The three-year time frame is another reminder that protecting human rights is not a priority of the Burmese government.
Forced labor is a scourge in many areas of Burma, but it is especially common in ethnic minority regions because of the high military presence in these areas and the Burmese military’s tradition of supporting itself from the civilian population.
Members of the military, with few resources of their own, demand food and other necessities from civilians and force them to provide services to the military. Forced portering, construction, and cooking are some of the common demands from the military.
Two reports last week from the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) and Kaladan Press documented the crime of forced labor in Karen and Arakan States. KHRG reported that in the last four months the Burmese Army commandeered civilian vehicles to transport supplies, build roads, and clear roads of landmines by driving in front of military convoys. The military also forced civilian laborers to build roads. Kaladan press reported that NaSaKa (Burmese military border force) troops force about 300 people to build roads each day, and press more into cleaning and maintaining barracks.
Two recent PHR investigations documented forced labor in Kachin and Chin States. In November 2011, PHR reported in Under Siege in Kachin State, Burma that the Burmese Army used Kachin civilians to guide troops, carry supplies and sweep for mines by walking in front of soldiers.
In January 2010, PHR reported in Life Under the Junta that 92% of 621 households surveyed across Chin State reported a household member being forced to work against his or her will for the government or military. In the study in Chin State, PHR found a statistically significant association between household hunger and forced labor. That is, households that experienced forced labor were more likely to have food shortages than households that did not experience forced labor.
Last week’s reports from Karen and Arakan states echoed this finding: Rohingya forced laborers in Arakan reported that they were afraid they would run out of food if they were not able to spend time working in their fields. Karen villagers also said that they do not have enough time to conduct their own work when they are forced to work for the military.
The ethnic areas of Burma have not yet benefitted from democratic reforms recently initiated in the capital, including a loosening of media controls, release of political prisoners, and acceptance of greater freedoms for political opponents. But many ethnic people are wary of the changes they hear about in Rangoon.
In order to rebuild trust with ethnic minorities after 60 years of abuse, the government of Burma needs to make greater efforts to end human rights violations, including forced labor, and hold perpetrators of these crimes accountable.
Forced labor continues multiple ethnic areas in Burma, and the Burmese government should stop this illegal practice immediately. The international community should welcome the initial changes that have benefited those living in Burma’s urban centers, but also recognize that people living in ethnic areas have not experienced any of the changes seen in Rangoon and Mandalay—and it should continue to pressure the Burmese government to protect the human rights of all people in Burma.