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Who's Working on the Road to Mandal
- Subject: Who's Working on the Road to Mandal
- From: brelief@xxxxxxx
- Date: Tue, 21 Nov 1995 01:51:00
Subject: Who's Working on the Road to Mandalay?
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First Published in KANSAI TIME OUT, Nov. 1995
Reprinted in RELIEF NOTES 1995
WHO'S WORKING ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY?
"It has been my experience, in a lifetime of studying repressive
societies, that people often smile not because they are happy,
but because they are afraid." --Madeleine K. Albright, US
Ambassador to the UN after SLORC's Khin Nyunt claimed the
smiles of the Burmese people proved they were contented,
September 9, 1995
Next year is "Visit Myanmar Year." The Burmese
military regime is encouraging tourists to come, and they hope
to attract 500,000 tourists. Of course, everyone is free to go,
but should you? We at Burmese Relief Center Japan say,
"No." If you go, you can be sure that the red carpet you walk
on was dyed with the sweat, the tears, and the blood of the
We could point out that the country isn't free; or we
could point to the innumerable gross human rights abuses; or
we might argue that the money you spend there only serves to
entrench the loathsome military junta. Our primary objection to
visiting Burma, however, is that the tourism industry rests on
slave labor and exploitation of ordinary citizens, thus directly
adding to the already considerable misery of oppressed
One of the most reported cases of forced labor on
tourist projects is in Mandalay. Tens of thousands of citizens
are being paid nothing to prepare the city for "Visit Myanmar
Year 1996." The military ordered that each family in
Mandalay contribute at least three days a month of free labor.
Often the labor is so long and tiring that people complain of not
recovering for several days. One young woman pointed out
that all the work could be done better by machines, but trucks
and machines use gas; people cost nothing. The New York
Times published appalling photographs of shackled prisoners
struggling in the muck at the bottom of the drained moat
toclean, deepen, and level the accumulated filth. Other
prisoners in chains are forced to climb hundreds of feet to the
top of Mandalay Hill, where they labor in the fierce sun to lay
pastel - colored tiles for a new sightseeing platform.
Inle Lake is one of Burma's most beautiful tourist
spots. In order to prevent the level of the lake from falling in
summer and to keep it green all year, the government is
planning to build a dam on the Biluchaung River. Tourists
will enjoy the year-round beauty of the lake, but Intha and Pa-O
ethnic communities will no longer be able to grow rice
around the lake during the dry season. The dam will flood
7500 acres which currently produce 300,000 sacks of rice per
year. Ironically, the very people who will be so adversely
affected by the dam are being forced to work on its
construction, under the watchful eye of the army.
In what BBC calls "the largest forced labor gang since
the Japanese occupation," the government is building a six-lane
highway from Rangoon to Mandalay. Most of the work is
being done by women and children, but prisoners working in
leg irons have been seen.
Further south, the Ye-Tavoy railway has been dubbed
the "new death railway," since it is so close to the railway built
by the Japanese ("The Bridge on the River Kwai"). This
project requires over 120,000 laborers to build 110 miles of
embankment 8 feet high and 12 feet wide. A Sunday
Telegraph article estimated that in its first six months, the
project had already cost the lives of 200-300 people, mainly
through illness and exhaustion. This railway will enable
tourist access to the southern part of Burma, but at what cost?
Here is a translation of part of an order dated
November 6, 1994.
Subject: Preparation of Railway and Railway
Embankment by Civilians.
The civilians in your ... town section must take
all required tools, one week's rations and all
required pots and dishes together with them.
The person responsible ... must go along with
them to inspect the work. They must arrive at
their work the evening of November 7, 1994,
in accordance with the list below, without fail . . .
www village .....
xxx village 400
yyy village 500
zzz village 300
GRAND TOTAL 11,850
Please note that all 11,850 laborers were all supposed to arrive
for work one day after the issue of the order. We have hundreds
of such documents.
Some orders are chilling in their bluntness: "For
emergency use, we need 5 persons as servants. The chairman
himself must bring them to xxx headquarters on 12/5." "We
hereby inform you to come see the column commander as soon
as you receive this letter. If you fail for any reason it will be
your responsibility, we inform you. . . .If you are absent, a
bullet will come to you." "I'm writing an important letter to
you.... you will have to come to the meeting as soon as you
receive this letter. The military authorities will take no
responsibility for your life if you fail to arrive." This last order
even carried the signature of the Army Major who sent it.
There is no doubt that these "meetings" and "discussions"
involved providing laborers.
The Guardian has reported that 30,000 unpaid
laborers have been conscripted from local villages to build a
new airport at Bassein, west of Rangoon, to accommodate
tourist jets. Working conditions are so bad, according to the
BBC, that hundreds of workers contracted cholera, but no
medical treatment was provided. One refugee who escaped to
Thailand put it this way: "I had to contribute labor, arranging
for myself the expenses -- traveling, food, medicine and tools.
All the SLORC gave was orders!"
According to BBC, there are work gangs everywhere in
the country. The army's contention, when asked about forced
labor, is that all such labor is entirely "voluntary."
Nevertheless, every group is accompanied by a soldier with a
gun. There are strict quotas requiring each family to provide
workers. Those who refuse or cannot must pay fines. Any
resistance is brutally punished. Rapes, beatings, torture, and
summary executions are common.
Some say that Burma has a new look along with its
military-imposed name, Myanmar, but traffic jams don't mean
prosperity. The country is still controlled by SLORC, the
savage junta which took control in 1988 and which intends to
hold on to power by all means. SLORC stands for State Law
and Order Restoration Council. What does "law and order"
mean to the junta? Before the elections of 1990, people were
permitted to form political parties, but it was illegal to speak to
a gathering of more than 50 people. Many organizers of the
NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi's party) were arrested because
hundreds of people attended NLD meetings. SLORC's
explanation was the NLD organizers were breaking this law.
There is no rational law in Burma. The laws are made,
revised, and often ignored, simply to exploit the people.
The military elite and their families are exempt from all
the forced labor projects. They have access to the best food,
the best medical care, and the best education in Burma, while
the rest of the population must make do with very little. In
Burma there is only one doctor for every 12,500 people, the
inflation rate is 800 percent, three out of four children don't
complete primary school, 40 percent of the children under 3
suffer from malnutrition, and only 2 percent of the people have
access to electricity. To earn foreign capital, the junta set an
export target of 1 million tons of rice, effectively depriving local
people of rice, which now costs the equivalent of a government
worker's monthly salary. Military families, however, receive
generous rice rations which they can sell at the inflated price.
It is significant that almost half of the national budget is spent
on the military, which has doubled to 350,000 in only 7 years.
The Burmese army hasn't swollen to that bloated size to
protect the country from any external enemy; the army's guns
are pointed at its own people.
Since Aung San Suu Kyi's release, restrictions have
been increased on the entire population. There is a curfew from
10 PM to 4 AM, and security has become much stricter around
Rangoon. House to house searches, formerly conducted only
once a month, have now become a daily ordeal. Residents are
often awakened in the middle of the night and forced to line up
in front of the inspectors who go through houses room by room
to see if anyone is hiding. Each household must show their
census chart. The inspectors have the right to open any safe or
a locker and to inspect any personal property. Anyone who
questions this authority will be arrested and imprisoned.
Forced relocations began in 1988. In an attempt to
"clean-up" after the coup, neighborhoods that were most
actively pro-democratic were destroyed. At that time 200,000
so-called "squatters" were forcibly moved out of Rangoon to
Hlaing Thaya and Shwe Pyi Thar. These new "satellite towns"
were no more than roadless malaria-infested swamps or rice
paddies, without housing, running water, sanitation, or
transportation to the city and work. In preparation for "Visit
Myanmar Year," the International Confederation of Free Trade
Unions reports that a slum-clearance program has destroyed the
homes of a million people in Rangoon alone. Soldiers have
forced inhabitants into trucks and dumped them in the satellite
In popular tourist destinations such as Taungyi and
Maymyo poor people have been moved away out of the sight of
tourists. These people had managed to support themselves and
their families as day laborers or household servants, but now
they cannot afford the bus fare into town to look for
The most notorious case of relocation occurred in 1989
when the entire population of Pagan was evicted. Some
10,000 people had to move to an area without adequate water.
Most of these people had lived in Pagan for generations, and
some of the lovely wooden homes destroyed were over a 100
years old. Several months later, we got a poignant letter from
an old friend, hand-carried by a sailor and posted from
Thailand, in which he expressed relief that he and his wife
didn't have any children, for he feared that they wouldn't have
survived the eviction. He and his family were among Pagan's
best craft workers producing high-quality lacquerware.
In conclusion, let us quote from a statement by the
National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the
"shadow" government of representatives elected by the people
in 1990, a statement with which we totally agree:
"Given these facts, the NCGUB strongly opposes "Visit
Myanmar Year - 1996" which is being promoted by SLORC.
Tourists should not engage in activities that will only benefit
SLORC's coffers and not the people of Burma.
However, responsible individuals and organizations who wish
to verify the above facts and to publicize the plight of the
Burmese people are encourage to utilize SLORC's more
relaxed tourist policies."
If you decide to go to Burma, we hope you will at least
become well-informed of the current situation. We suggest two
guidebooks: Burma--The Alternative Guide, by Burma Action
Group UK; and Guide to Burma, by Nicholas Greenwood;
both available from BRC-J. (The purchase price of these books
goes directly to the refugees on the Thai/Burma border.) For
more information, please contact Burmese Relief
Center Japan, Tel: (07442) 2-8236; Fax: (07442) 4-6254;