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Artilces from Trade Union World pub

Subject: Artilces from Trade Union World publication

1. Damning indictment of the Burmese military junta
2. Forty years of oppression
3. Burma: diary of a trial

Damning indictment of the Burmese military junta

By Luc Demaret
Trade Union World, No. 10, October 1998
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)


"Our report reveals a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and
exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar
(Editor: the regime's for Burma) by the government, military and other
public officers. It is a story of gross denial of human rights to which the
people of Myanmar have been subjected particularly since 1988 and from
which they find no escape except fleeing form the country."

The report (*) by the Commission  of Inquiry set up by the ILO following a
complaint lodged in 1996 by 25 workers' delegates to the International
Labour Conference is unequivocal. It firmly stages that the obligation to
suppress the use of forced labour is violated in Burma in national law and
in practice "in a generalised and systematic dignity, safety, health and
the basic needs of the people".

The mandate of the Commission, appointed under the terms of article 26 of
the ILO Constitution was to examine Burma's observance of the ILO's
Convention (29) on forced labour.

The Convention has been trampled underfoot, first foremost by government
officials and members of the armed services who "treat the civilian
population as an unlimited pool of unpaid forced labour".

The Commission notes that every person who violates the ban on forced
labour in international law bears an individual criminal responsibility.

"One thing is clear: the manner in which force labour is used in Burma is a
crime against humanity and it seems to me that under the terms of
international law the military commanders are individually responsible for
their use of forced labour. Perhaps the day will come when this will be
used against them, if they are taken before an international" stressed Bill
Jordan, General Secretary of the ICFTU, when the Commission's report was

The ICFTU, in collaboration with the Burmese trade unions, forced to
operate underground, the united within the federation of Trade unions of
Burma (FTUB), bought several witnesses to testify at the Commission's
hearings, having been mandated by the complainants to represent them.

In the course of its inquiry, the Commission received more than 6,000 pages
of documents and heard the evidence, in Geneva and in Burma's border
regions (as the government refused to admit the mission into the country),
of some 25 eyewitnesses and victims of forced labour. The summary of the
witness statements', including those of women and children who had fled
forced labour, are attached to the Commission's report, available in
English on the ILO's web site(*).

The report is the most exhaustive international study carried out so far
into forced labour in Burma. It states that forced labour is imposed on a
vast scale on "women' children, the elderly and persons unfit for work".

The ICFTU and Amnesty International brought out a video to coincide with
the publication of the ILO report. Filmed secretly in Burma, it shows women
and children unloading heavy bags of cement from barge, building a road
under the supervision of soldiers in Rangoon, working on an irrigation
project in the town of Mandalay, and men bearing terrible scars from the
appalling loads they have to carry on their backs for the army in the
Burmese jungle.

When questioned about the ILO report, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel
Peace Prize and the dictatorship's principle opponent (her party, the NLD,
won the 1990 elections, but the results were annulled by the army)
predicted that the junta would dismiss the document as a "tissue of lies".
She was quite right. But the fat remains that the junta has given itself,
is more and more isolated on the international stage.

"The multinational who do business with Burmese junta should realise that
they are dealing with individuals who may well be taken before an
international criminal tribunal to answer to charges of crimes against
humanity" stressed Bill Jordan. His view is shared by Amnesty International
who also asked the leaders of multinational enterprise to reconsider their
presence in this country in the light of the human rights violations that
take place there, for which the authorities are entirely responsible.

The ICFTU has announced that it will make full use of the report to demand
economic sanctions against the Burmese leaders if the junta refuses to
comply with the ILO's recommendations. Amnesty International has indicated
that it will also take all possible steps to ensure the respect of the
recommendations. Given the exceptional nature of the findings of the ILO
inquiry, the great economic powers can also be expected to take a firm stand.

As Bill Jordan says: "The United States, the European Union, Japan, China
and others must recognise that there is little to be obtained from
continuing to do business with the leaders of Burma". And take steps

* Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma). Report of Commission of Inquiry
appointed under article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour
Organisation to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour
Convention. 1930 (No.29). Geneva 1998. The text of the report is available
on the internet:


On the basic of the Commission of Inquiry's findings, the ILO has urged the
Burmese authorities:

· to bring Burmese legislation into line with the Convention without delay,
and by 1 May 1999 at the latest
· to ensure that, in practice, forced or compulsory is no longer by the army
· that the penalties that can be imposed for the exaction of forced labour
be strictly enforced with through investigation, prosecution and adequate
punishment of those found guilty.

The ILO Commission of Inquiry has given the SPDC (State Peace and
Development Council) until 1 May 1999 to bring its legislation into line
with its international obligations.


Forty years of oppression


Trade Union World, No. 10, October 1998
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)

Burma won independence from Great Britain in 1948. From the outset, its
civilian governments faced demands for federalism from non-Burmese eth-nic
groups (Karens, Shans...) and the civil war waged by the communist parties.
Faced with the possible break-up of the Burmese union, splits in the
ma-jority party and mounting insurrec-tion, General Ne Win decided to take
power on March 2 1962, in a military coup. The new regime set the country
on the "Burmese path to socialism", which led to economic disaster
com-pounded by a severe reduction in civil liberties. Poverty, inflation,
strikes, demonstrations and vast military expenditure coloured the life of
the regime in power for 26 years.

By 1988 the people's anger reached crisis point. A tidal wave of
demonstra-tions led by students, workers and Bud-dhist monks demanded
political and economic reform. The government dragged its feet for six
months?then turned its guns on the crowd, killing hundreds of people and
arresting thou-sands of its opponents. The army re-gained control of the
situation in Sep-tember 1988 and set up a provisional regime, the State Law
and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). To show their distaste for the
SLORC's brutality, several foreign donors suspended their aid to Myanmar
(the SLORC's name for Burma) and the dictatorship had to call elections to
regain their approval. The results of the election, a big victory for the
National League for Democracy (NLD - the opposition party founded by Nobel
Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) which won 82 per cent of the votes, was
rejected by the military jun-ta, which has remained in power until the
present.  Last November, the SLORC changed its name to become the State
Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but nothing has changed for the
people: forced labour arrests, torture, disappearances and displacements
are constantly used by the military to quell opposition or fill their pockets.

Burma: diary of a trial


Trade Union World, No. 10, October 1998
International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)

Witness smuggled out of the Burmese jungle, picture taken under the nose of
soldiers in the outskirts of Rangoon, Swiss visas that leave no trace in
passports?The ICFTU left nothing to chance in winning its case against the
SLORC. Trade Union World Reports.

Seven in the morn-ing on Thursday November 13. In a wood near Geneva, a man
struggles in vain to start the engine of a white mini van bearing the logo
of a local water ski club Exhausted, he gives up and abandons the van. A
quarter of an hour later, a few kilometres away, four Asian passengers
emerge from the terminal of Geneva's Cointrin airport. No-one notices the
hesitation of the two men, in the company of a young woman and an
adolescent. They are obviously waiting for someone who hasn't turned up.
The customs and passport checks went ahead without any problems. And why
not? Their passports show nothing more than a visa for one week from an
ASEAN country. And their tired faces are normal, given the long journey and
the time difference. It is now one week since they left the jungle, on the
border of Burma and Thailand. Since then they have constantly moved from
car, to train, to plane, being care-ful not to leave any trace of
them-selves in the many countries they pass through.

They are exhausted. They barely no-tice the fierce discussion half an hour
later in the arrivals hall between two men, the Geneva police chief and two
members of the Cointrin security services. One of them is the man with the
van. His companion is getting ex-tremely agitated. Insults fly, but the
police stay calm. The big security oper-ation the ICFTU has planned for
weeks in coordination with the security ser-vices of the International
Labour Office (ILO) and the Geneva Canton is turn-ing into a fiasco because
a van wouldn't start.

One hour later, the four passengers reach their destination. A long forest
path leads to their new refuge, a safe house selected by a local NGO, in
the heart of the Genevan forest. For the occasion, the area is under the
discrete but effective surveillance of the Swiss police.

In a few days time, the ILO Commis-sion of Inquiry on forced labour in
Bur-ma will hear the evidence of the youngest of its witnesses. "M", as we
shall call her for security reasons, al-ready has considerable experience
of forced labour, despite being only 14. She clearly recalls the days in
the jun-gle marching to join those building the new road. She remembers the
stones she had to break and carry to build an embankment. "How high was
this em-bankment?" asks Robyn A. Layton, an eminent Australian lawyer and
one of the three members of the Commission. "The size of an elephant"
replies "M". Then she describes a common scene in her village. Her father
cuts bamboo canes before dividing them into two equal bundles, one for "M"
to carry on her back, the other for her sister to car-ry. "How many pieces
of bamboo?" "A hundred" says the young girl. When the judge asks her if she
can count, she replies she has never been to school. It was her father who
told her how many pieces of bamboo she had to carry to the military camp, a
three-hour walk from the village. There, they are used to build a stockade
around the army camp for the soldiers of the State Law and Order
Restoration Council (SLORC), the military regime that has ruled Burma with
an iron hand since 1990.

Despite the presence of the judges, the Commission Secretariat and the
plaintiffs representatives, "M" speaks calmly, sounding almost detached.
Yet she is speaking under oath. And Judge Sir William Douglas, former Chief
Jus-tice of Barbados and now Chairperson of the ILO Commission, with all
the authority of his still sprightly 80 years, has explained clearly to the
young wit-ness the importance of telling "the truth, the whole truth, and
nothing but the truth".

It was in much more austere sur-roundings that "M"'s travelling com-panions
began giving evidence to the Commission. In the ILO's convex building, the
windowless former Committee of Experts room is a daunting, fortress-like
place, with its security doors and uniformed guards at the door. The room
is reached through a labyrinth of corridors and countless precautions are
taken. Only autho-rised persons are allowed through. The Burmese witnesses
(in fact only two are ethnically Burmese, the two others belonging to the
Karen minori-ty) are confined to a secluded side room, waiting to give
their evidence to the Commission. Early that morn-ing, the white van swept
into the car park off the route des Morillons, above which the 2,000
employees of the UN agency have their offices. Once inside, the Burmese
witnesses were en-trusted to the care of the ILO security services, headed
by Eric Deloche. The "Burmese" operation is the last big mission for this
former Genevan police officer who specialised in provid-ing personal
protection for VIPs. He is to retire in two weeks, just as the Commission
of Inquiry is due to fin-ish its hearings. But between now and then he is
following security rules. The witnesses are masked. Escorted by several men
equipped with walkie-talkies, they walk through the maze of corridors and
cellars which lead them "incognito" to their "safe" room. At each door,
their guards check by radio that the way is clear. Nobody, except the
Commission and the security services, knows they are in the building

The ICFTU, which in this case is representing the complainants (name-ly the
25 Workers' Delegates who lodged a complaint against Burma more than one
year earlier, at the ILO's annual Conference in June 1996) had made a point
of asking the ILO to ensure maximum security. Pru-dence or paranoia?
Whichever the case, it seems that on the day the Commission began its
hearings, two Burmese diplomats were seen standing outside the main
entrance to the ILO waiting for goodness knows what... or who. Their faces
are known: in Gene-va, the Burmese mission is in the same street as...the
ICFTU's offices. What were the two diplomats doing stand-ing at the door,
when their govern-ment obstinately refused to send its representatives to
the Commission, despite having the right to do so un-der the ILO
Constitution? After the first day they weren't seen again: if they were on
the lookout, they were disappointed. The hearings continued without them.

Although regrettable, the absence of the Burmese government does not
pre-vent the hearings from proceeding smoothly. The discussions are led
skillfully by Judge Douglas, as amiable as he is incisive in his
questioning. After two weeks, all the evidence has been recorded. In the
courtroom, the two-metre high wooden screens aimed at preventing the
identification of witnesses by possible Burmese govern-ment representatives
become superflu-ous. The Commission orders their re-moval. Near the
obstinately empty seat of the government delegation, the Burmese linguist
Richard Horsey, an Australian recruited by the ILO, does not need to fulfil
his secondary role as bodyguard that some would have liked to see him play
if, by misfortune, Burmese diplomats had tried against all odds to identify
the protected witness-es. The atmosphere relaxes. The hear-ings continue
calmly and the work of the Commission is completed without a hitch.

It is a success for Max Kern, who arranged the whole procedure down to the
smallest detail. Assisted by an emi-nent ILO legal expert, Anne-Marie
LaRosa, Kern, a high-ranking ILO offi-cial, is Secretary of the Commission.
He is also the unchallenged world ex-pert on forced labour. Behind the
decorum of the courtroom lies a re-doubtable legal arsenal which Kern
manages with dexterity. His colleague Anne-Marie LaRosa, a specialist in
in-ternational criminal law, made her de-but at the International Tribunal
on war crimes in ex-Yugoslavia in the Hague. In front of these experts, the
representatives of the plaintiffs, an ICF-TU staff member assisted by Colin
Fen-wick, another Australian lawyer, pro-vided by the US trade union centre
the AFL-CIO, have their job cut out for them in getting the maximum out of
the 14 witnesses they have brought be-fore Judge Douglas and his two
col-leagues, Ms. Robyn Layton, barrister, and Judge Bagwhati, former Chief
Jus-tice of India.

But the witnesses lived up to the challenge. The biggest international
human rights organisations vied with each other in making contributions to
the proceedings. Such hearings, a rare event, have made Greek colonels
trem-ble, shaken the Chilean military junta, made Polish General Jaruzelski
quaver and sent Romanian dictator Ceaucescu reeling.

The Burmese witnesses often de-scribe terrible scenes. But the Commis-sion
is demanding, and does not hesi-tate to press for details, such as when
"Po", a 37-year-old civilian recruited by force by the Tadmadaw (the
SLORC's army) as a porter in a combat zone, de-scribes a scene of panic
where mortar shells explode on all sides while his platoon is caught in the
cross fire be-tween the SLORC and the guerrillas. In the middle of the
evidence, the Burmese interpreter, recruited from London for the hearings,
gets stuck on a word used by "Po" to describe his feelings. As she leafs
quickly through her dictionary, the Commission, on tenterhooks, holds its
breath. Then the interpreter reads out "the witness means: 'prostrate with
fear". The judges breath again and Mr. Fenwick is delighted that his
witness has hit straight at the heart of the matter.

The Commission did not delay in giving its verdict: the SLORC was found
guilty of all charges. The Burmese jun-ta, relegated virtually to the ranks
of a criminal organisation, had never been so humiliated. Geneva's security
appa-ratus swing back into action. "M" and her companions were evacuated by
Mr. Delouche's team. The sport's club van got its passengers back. They
returned to their country without any problem. A country that the
Commission of In-quiry has just outlawed from the inter-national community.