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BURMA USING FORCED LABOR ON TOURIST
Subject: BURMA USING FORCED LABOR ON TOURIST PROJECTS
MYANMAR USING FORCED LABOR ON TOURIST PROJECTS
(ART ADV: Photo of forced laborers has been sent to NYT photo
clients. Non-subscribers can make individual purchase by calling
212-556-4204 or 1927.)
By PHILIP SHENON
c.1994 N.Y. Times News Service
MANDALAY, Myanmar Gilding the great Lion Throne of the last
kings of Burma, Aung Soe Min was looking a little gilded himself.
The yellow-gold paint splattered on his arms and legs as he crawled
up the ladder, moving his brush across the newly carved
reproduction of the 18-foot-high wooden throne.
``Excellent,'' he pronounced his work, part of a five-year
project to rebuild the 19th-century Gold Palace, the centerpiece of
the last imperial capital of the country that is now called
Aung Soe Min has special reason to be pleased, since he is being
paid for his work about $2 a day, an average wage in this
impoverished country. Many others in Mandalay, the country's second
largest city, are not nearly so lucky.
In fact, tens of thousands of laborers here are being paid
nothing, ordered by Myanmar's military government to work in a
giant forced labor program that is producing some of the first
public dissent to be heard in Mandalay since the junta's violent
crackdown on Myanmar's democracy movement in 1988.
``We are angry that we are being ordered to do this terrible
work,'' said a 50-year-old shop-owner. She bravely marched up to a
foreign visitor, in full view of a band of soldiers, to complain
that she and her neighbors were being forced to leave their regular
jobs to work unpaid in the stifling 95-degree heat, dredging the
6-mile-long, 11-foot-deep moat around the old imperial city.
``It is dangerous for me to say these things to a foreigner, but
I am so upset that I do not care,'' she said, wiping thick mud and
bits of slimy moss from her hands. ``We must use our hands to take
this filthy, smelly dirt from the bottom of the moat. I have seen
women collapse from the heat. And for this, the government pays us
A tea-shop worker in his 30s was seated nearby on a tattered
bamboo mat, forced to use a small hammer to break rocks for the new
moat wall. ``The government is creating trouble for itself by
making the people in Mandalay so angry,'' he said.
The reconstruction of the Gold Palace it was reduced to rubble
by bombing in World War II is part of a huge campaign by the
military government to prepare tourist attractions for 1996, which
the junta has proclaimed ``Visit Myanmar Year'' in hopes of
attracting millions of hard-currency tourists.
Mandalay is home to some of the country's most impressive
Buddhist shrines, and many of the city's people are pleased about a
revival of the long-dormant tourist industry.
But they are outraged that the restoration work is being carried
out with forced labor, their labor. And to a remarkable degree in
this police state, they are willing to express their fury to anyone
who will listen.
Several months ago, the junta announced to the city's 500,000
residents that each family in the city would have to contribute at
least three days a month of free labor. And those are not regular
workdays. Often, the labor begins at dawn and stretches into the
evening work so long and tiring that people complain of not
recovering until several days later.
Prison inmates have it worse. They are required to work every
day, and bands of denim-clad prisoners can be found each morning
climbing hundreds of feet to the top of Mandalay Hill, the city's
natural landmark, where they spend the day laying down
pastel-colored tiles for a new sightseeing platform.
Many military families were exempted from the free-labor
requirement, as was any family that agreed to pay a monthly fine of
about $6, equal to a week's wages for some families.
Forced labor is common in Myanmar. It is described by the
Government as ``self reliance,'' and it has long been a concern to
human rights groups. According to the State Department's most
recent annual report on human rights abuses in Myanmar, the
military ``routinely'' employs forced labor ``for its myriad
building projects,'' especially large road and railroad
Far worse, human rights group say, is the Myanmar army's policy
of abducting young men and women in rural areas to serve as porters
for the military, carrying weapons and other gear to travel to
malaria-infested war zones along Myanmar's borders, where for
decades the army has been battling ethnic insurgents.
The State Department report says hundreds of porters are thought
to have died just last year ``from disease and overwork, though
reports of mistreatment and rape were also common.'' It added,
``When porters are wounded, ill or unable to continue their work,
some have been reportedly left unattended to die.''
By comparison then, the forced laborers in Mandalay might seem
to have no complaint at all.
But this is the first time in years that city-dwellers here have
been forced to do government labor. Mandalay is known as the most
politically charged city in Myanmar far more so than the capital,
Yangon and the junta's decision to turn this city's residents
into forced laborers carries a political risk for the junta.
What is most remarkable about the dredging project along the
huge moat around the imperial city is how much of it could be done
easily by machines but is instead carried out by the most basic
human labor. ``The trucks and the machines use gas, but we are
free,'' said a young woman, her head wrapped with rags to absorb
Thousands of people climb up and down the banks of the moat,
lifting handfuls of dirt that could be removed far more efficiently
with a single forklift. At the top of the moat, the dirt is passed,
handful by handful, down a long chain of people clearly miserable
under this oppressive sun.
``This is the arrogance of the government, that they will force
poor people to interrupt their lives to do this sort of work,''
said a 28-year-old teacher who identified himself as a student
leader of the 1988 democracy movement. ``This is silly work, stupid
work. It is reminding people of why we rose up against the military
before. People could rise up again.''