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Cover story


Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

Editor’s note: In 1988, the ruling junta in Burma changed the name of the country to Myanmar, a name not well known outside of Asia. The name change is not accepted by all, especially those opposed to the current regime. In diplomatic circles, use is mixed. European diplomats, for example, always refer to the country as Burma/Myanmar. To simplify references for the sake of the following story, Burma is used throughout.

On a recent evening, a couple recently escaped from Burma sat a bit dazed in the lounge area of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, surrounded by the cacophony of a half dozen languages, none of which they speak.

Mr. and Mrs. N, both 55, had several firsts on this day, Nov. 1, 2000: first time on an expressway, first time in a city, first time in an elevator, first time on a 16th floor. First time to speak to an international audience.

Five days before they had sneaked across Burma’s border into Thailand, stumbling out of the jungle, hoping to encounter friendly people nearby. For nearly three weeks, the couple had been forced to serve as porters for the Burmese army. They finally fled from their village, just ahead of Burmese army troops intent on confiscating homes and fields and driving residents out.

Forced relocations are part of an ongoing effort by the Burmese military to crush civil unrest. In its 38th year of rule by junta, the country’s brutal military regime has maintained power by routing out all opposition. As part of the government’s strategy to prevent dissenters from organizing, tens of thousands of poor people have been forced out of their homes in recent years and resettled in rural slums.

A few weeks before the fleeing couple left Burma, they had been separated from their eight children. Now they had no idea of their whereabouts. Though the couple did not give the children’s ages, they indicated that they were old enough to be working in the family orchard, located outside their town.

The husband and wife were joined at the Foreign Correspondents Club by Mr. K, who had been elected by people of 14 villages to flee to Thailand and tell their story. All three, representing the tragic story of thousands of Burmese subjected for the past four or five years to harsh forced labor and other forms of oppression, remain nameless for fear of reprisals against friends and family still in Burma.

Since the mid-1990s, the Burmese junta has consolidated its hold over border regions through military actions and cease-fires with ethnic groups. In this time, forced labor, the displacement of people and forced relocation of villages have intensified. According to a recent New York Times report, giant green billboards that dot the nation repeat this warning: “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.” It is against the law to own a computer modem and dangerous to speak with foreigners, and virtually all of the government’s political opponents are in prison. Many dissidents have escaped and formed pro-democracy groups in other countries.

Burma, which gained its independence from Britain in 1948, borders China on the north, Thailand on the east, the Andaman Sea on the south and Bangladesh on the west. Once the richest country in Southeast Asia, after nearly four decades of military rule Burma is now the poorest, though high-level military generals live in luxury and increasingly flaunt their wealth. A recent U.S. government report says that the nation’s economy relies heavily on drug money.

Though largely isolated for decades, Burma, which boasts spectacular natural beauty as well as splendid examples of temple architecture -- the result of more than a thousand years of Buddhist civilization -- has begun opening tentatively to international tourism. But the country is in a kind of balancing act, in the words of one travel guide, “trying to perfect the juggling act of wooing foreign investment while simultaneously maintaining its vice-like grip on power.” The country has one of the worst human rights records in the world.

Aid agencies and anti-junta forces on Burma’s border with Thailand say as many as 1.2 million people have been forced from their homes to strategic hamlets in and around military posts or forced to hide in the jungles without adequate shelter, clothes or food. More than 150,000 people are living in refugee camps inside Thailand, and upwards of 2 million migrants from Burma are seeking jobs illegally in Thailand. Experts say the extent of the country’s AIDS epidemic rivals that of Africa.

People who do not leave their villages and those who settle in the strategic hamlets suffer constant harassment from government military forces that confiscate village land, property, food and livestock, and demand villagers porter goods for mobile troops. Citizens are also forced into service to build roads and army camps and work in army-owned plantations, rice fields, and vegetable gardens and to work in army-owned sawmills and rock quarries.

So the husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. N, chose to flee. Two months before, however, they had been content. Living in the Mon state in southern Burma, they had just expanded their cashew nut plantation by planting a thousand seedlings. They were raising their children on this plot of land, growing their own vegetables and rice, caring for 20 cows and a couple dozen laying hens.

Their situation changed abruptly Sept. 5 in the late afternoon when 60 Burmese soldiers entered their village and seized eight men, all they could find. The men were tied in pairs and kept in a house in the middle of the village for the night. The next day the men were roused at 6 a.m. and forced off into the jungle. Soon they met 60 more from other villages, people similarly chosen for the army’s work.

For the next 18 days the men, ranging in age from teens to late 50s, portered for the Burmese army up and down rugged mountain paths and through uncut tropical forests. Each porter carried 32 kilograms, about 70 pounds, of supplies and ammunition from dawn until long past sunset. The slow were beaten and kicked. They received no regular rations, subsisting on handouts from the soldiers and what the soldiers could steal for them from the villages they passed on the way. Most days they ate a handful of rice with a daub of fish paste or a thin soup made from jungle plants.

Meanwhile, back at the village, Mrs. N and three other women were assigned to serve as day porters. They had to be ready to respond to orders from the military commander at any time. Mrs. N followed troops on daylong treks and returned to her village at night. As a communication runner, she delivered messages for the commander to other army posts and to headmen of other villages in the district.

Villagers forced to relocate

If Mrs. N. wanted food or water for these trips, she had to carry her own. The messages she carried to the village headmen were particularly bitter. Nearly always they were commands for the villages to contribute to the army: 200 coconut seedlings from every household in the village; 100 bamboo poles from every household in that village; rice and chickens from a third. For 18 days, Mrs. N had no word from her husband and had not seen her children. They were outside the village at the time the army arrived and were never let back in.

When Mr. N finally returned Sept. 23 from his sojourn as a porter for the military, he was thin and very sick. Whatever relief they felt at their reunion was short-lived. On Sept. 29, the army informed them the village was being relocated in three days.

The army started arresting men and accusing the village of having connections with Mon insurgents. Many were beaten and taken as porters. Mr. N fled into the jungle. His wife stayed behind, hoping to make contact with the children.

After three days with no word from the children, Mrs. N. slipped out to join her husband.

For three weeks the couple trekked through the jungle, eventually finding the way into Thailand. Near the border, they joined more than 150,000 other Burmese people who had been forced from their homes. On Burma’s western border, another 50,000 people have sought refuge in Bangladesh for the same reasons.

The Federation of Trade Unions-Burma and a number of other organizations working on the Thai border with Burma have been compiling detailed reports on hundreds of cases of forced labor from August 1998 through October 2000. In many instances, the federation has obtained instructions written by army commanders and government officials demanding that villages give labor, materials and money to projects to bolster the country’s army or its infrastructure.

Federation reports often included the designation of the military units and/or camps and names of military officers involved, as well as those of villages and of individual victims. In a number of cases, forced labor was reported to have been imposed in circumstances of extreme brutality, involving the destruction of villages, torture, rape, maiming and killing of exhausted, sick or wounded porters, the killing of a noncooperative village head, and the use of civilians, including women and children, as mine sweepers, who walk ahead of soldiers across suspected mine fields.

The women and children are also placed ahead of troops in battle to serve as human shields, according to the report.

Federation reports also allege the use of forced labor on commercial ventures undertaken by the military for profit, including cultivating rubber plantations operated by the army, digging irrigation ditches for army fields, producing bricks for army construction, and growing rice, beans and other vegetables for army supplies.

Most dreaded assignment

Typically, each person in the village is expected to contribute one day a month to the routine work (crop cultivation and maintenance of the army barracks and base), but it is not uncommon for whole villages to be drafted for five to 10 days for special construction projects.

The most dreaded assignment is the one Mr. and Mrs. N. were drafted for -- that of porter, which always entails an extended period. People who refuse to work or cannot work are expected to pay fines from 200 kyat to 3,500 kyat. A typical farm household would have an annual income of 50,000 kyat, equivalent to $148 in U.S. currency.

Because Burma joined in signing the 1930 Convention Against Forced Labor, and as such is obligated under international law to abide by its provisions, the International Labor Organization has been watching the situation in Burma closely.

In March 1997, the international labor group established a commission to investigate charges of forced labor in Burma. It was only the 10th time in the International Labor Organization’s 80-year history that it had established such a commission.

The commission’s report, issued in July 1998, surprised few. It found abundant evidence for pervasive use of forced labor imposed on the civilian population throughout Burma by authorities and the military.

The government of Burma, which recently, and ironically, renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council, was given until Feb, 19, 1999, to demonstrate it was making corrections to comply with the Forced Labor Convention.

Council officials responded by saying they had already, several times, reviewed the Village Act and the Towns Act (colonial era legislation that made forced labor legal in Burma) in order to “bring them in line with present day conditions in the country as well as to fulfill Myanmar’s obligations to the relevant convention.” This has been the official reply ever since.

When pressed to show evidence of compliance, the government produced a copy of a directive ordering a halt to forced labor.

Still evidence mounts that the practice continues unabated. The International Labor Organization -- which met most recently in Geneva in November -- has said it will call on signatories to the Forced Labor Convention to impose on sanctions on Burma. Signatories include most European nations and the United States.

Presently, the United States and European Union are just about the only buyers of Burmese goods. Burma exported goods worth the equivalent of about $84 million last year, mostly garments and some natural resources.

Sanctions, however, are hardly new to Burma, and some experts wonder whether they will make a difference. U Maung Maung of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma thinks they will if they are comprehensive and if they stop the exports.

Maung is convinced that if the United States and the European Union stopped buying, the Burmese government would buckle under the pressure.

Maung also hopes comprehensive sanctions would force corporations in the United States and Europe to pull out existing investments.

Sanctions debated

The intention of the Federation of Trade Unions-Burma, however, goes beyond stopping forced labor. Nothing will change in Burma until there is a change in the government structure, Maung says.

Saw David Taw, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Democratic Front (Burma’s government in exile) agrees that sanctions could help. Up to now, Burma’s military government has been unwilling to solve political problems in a political way, he says, but sanctions could change that.

“They only use their military strength. Comprehensive sanctions would force the government to the negotiation table, Taw says. If they are facing pressure from these, they will definitely go to the negotiating table.”

Not all analysts are so optimistic.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations supports a constructive engagement policy, a policy that has gained sympathy in Japan and Europe. The U.S. takes a hands-off approach with limited sanctions.

The Burmese junta has been stubbornly resistant to allowing outside pressures to dictate its actions, but it does respond grudgingly to international pressure.

International pressure, for example, has kept opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi out of prison, though not free of house arrest. (See accompanying story.)

It is not just the politicians who know international pressure counts.

Three government battalions have been posted in the Pa-an District of Karen State since 1995. When they arrived, the troops confiscated land for bases and fields to grow food. They also took over rubber and cashew nut plantations and operated them as commercial enterprises. Since the day they entered the district, they have used civilian laborers, drafted from nearby villages to build their houses and stores and to work the fields they confiscated.

In January 2000, government commanders gathered village leaders and told them to begin construction of a road through the district. From February to June, at least 300 people per day were forced to work on the road project.

During the rainy season from June to September, they stopped working on the road, but the army forced them to do other duties such as plowing, cultivating, clearing grass in army fields and plantations and various kinds of work in the army compound. June to September is also the rice-growing season. People working for the army could not tend their own fields. They feared they would have no rice for the dry season that runs from November to May.

In October, the army called the village leaders together again. They said road construction would begin again Oct. 10. They told the village leaders to prepare materials for the work, such as baskets for collecting stones, hoes, knifes, wood, bamboo, hammers, nails, water tanks, buffaloes and food. By then, what little rice the people had been able to plant was ready to harvest.

The village leaders were afraid they would be unable to gather the harvest. The leaders of 14 villages met in council and elected Mr. K … to represent them all, about 1,000 households. They told Mr. K. to leave Burma and go to Thailand.

Two weeks later, Mr. K found himself at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. “They told me to come out and tell the world our story,” Mr. K said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 12, 2001