Burma: Forced labour in focus

If the International Labour Organisation (ILO) needs further reminder about the disregard Burma’s military regime has towards ending the abusive practice of forced labour, protests planned across 16 countries on November 15 should be instructive.

Environmentalists and human rights activists from Burma and elsewhere will be mounting protests in the capitals of such countries as South Korea, India, Bangladesh and Thailand to try and stall the construction of a trans-national gas pipeline, which will span three countries, Burma, Bangladesh and India. Concern about a possible spike in slave-like labour when construction begins next year along the 1,200 km route of the natural gas pipeline - which begins off the coast of Burma’s Arakan State and then moves up to the Chin State - tops the list of abuses the protestors want to highlight. Others include relocation of the villagers living

along the pipeline’s route, denial of the right of local communities to their livelihood and destruction of the environment.

“Forced labour is already a problem in the Arakan State and this will go up when construction of the pipeline begins,” says Wong Aung, spokesman for the Shwe Gas Movement, a group created by Arakan people in 2002. “Using forced labour is the way the Burmese military gets projects built. It is an abuse that is to be expected,” he said. A report for the November 15 meeting includes sections stating that Rangoon’s failure to commit to a “credible mechanism” could result in this South East Asian country being taken before the International Court of Justice next year. Burma would consequently become the first country tried by this international tribunal for its abusive labour practices. But such international pressure offers small comfort to Wong Aung of the Shwe Gas Movement, noting the financial rewards Burma’s ruling generals are expected to reap from large gas deposits in the seas off Arakan State. Rangoon stands to earn between $12-17 billion in profit from this project backed by an international consortium involving South Korean and Indian companies, states the Shwe Gas Movement in a report.

“It will be the largest single source of income to date for the SPDC,” adds the report, ‘Supply and Command.’ “Already, fishing livelihoods have been restricted and destroyed due to the establishment and violent enforcement of exclusion zones at sea.” In fact, human rights groups say that natural gas and other power sources in Burma have come to the rescue of the regime, helping to keep it stay afloat and buy more weapons at a time when Western nations have adopted a tough line against it. That includes sanctions and placing Burma under UN Security Council scrutiny.

In October, Burma’s ministry of national planning and development announced that the country had hit a record high in annual foreign investments since it opened to outside investors almost two decades ago. Foreign investments in the country’s gas and oil sector were among the highest of the over six billion dollars that flowed in during the financial year ending March 31, 2006. “Oil and gas provide the largest source of legitimate foreign exchange for the regime,” Debbie Stothard of the regional rights lobby Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma, said. “It is a financial lifeline of the SPDC.” — IPS