Burma faces new pariah status

Marwaan Macan-Markar

Thanks to the stubbornness of Burma’s military rulers, that South-east Asian nation is to enter a league of its own as the first country in the world to face sanctions for failing to end forced labour. The conditions were paved last week when the governing body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) declared that its patience had run out on a four-year wait-and -see attitude towards labour reform in Burma. It means that the 178 members of the ILO, which includes governments, employers and worker organisations, have the licence to impose punitive measures that had been first called for in 2001, but put on hold. “The feeling was that things were not getting better, but worse,” ILO executive director Kari Tapiola told IPS by phone from the organisation’s office in Geneva. “Members have been asked to take the necessary action or measures, since we do not use the word sanctions.” This pushes ILO members into new territory, he said. “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 labour. This could affect foreign investment flowing into Burma and existing foreign investments, and lead to international trade unions boycotting the country’s economy and even UN agencies and multilateral organisations reviewing their activities there.

“The repercussions could be wide-ranging in Burma’s internal economy and externally, too,” Aung Naing Oo, research associate at The Burma Fund, a Washington DC - based rights lobby, told IPS. Currently, members of the junta enjoy the right to control 12 major areas of the Burmese economy, including the sale of teakwood from the forests, exploring and extracting petroleum and natural gas, and providing air transport and railway services.

According to the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), military leaders also enjoy the power of controlling the country’s banking and insurance services as part of that economic arrangement. That has been made possible under the 1989 State-Owned Economic Enterprises Law. These emerging sanctions on Burma would come on top of punitive economic measures imposed by the U.S. government and some selective restrictions imposed by the European Union. Burma watchers are hardly surprised by this, given recent reports and statements by the ILO pointing to Rangoon’s failure to stop forced labour. The most revealing was in May, when Burma was singled out in an ILO global report for perpetuating this form of abuse.

These violations are often wide-spread in the provincial areas that are home to Burma’s ethnic minorities. They include villagers forced to porter for the army, build roads and bridges, cultivate military acquired land and construct buildings. The ILO’s attempts to trigger change in Burma go back to 1998, when the U.N. labour agency urged Rangoon to comply with an inquiry to end forced labour 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. — IPS