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Drugs and slavery in Myanmar

The Economist
June 24, 2000 , U.S. Edition

Drugs and slavery in Myanmar

    A MEASURE of the fear and repression in Myanmar can be readily
found by talking to its refugees in neighbouring Thailand. About 1m have
fled to border towns like Mae Sot to avoid economic collapse and
repression by a brutal military regime. Many have found their way into
the growing Thai economy, but some 90,000 refugees remain in camps
on the border. Among the more worrying stories they tell are of a
homeland that increasingly relies on slavery.

To judge by the reports of recent refugees, slavery seems particularly
widespread in such states as Shan and Karen. Myanmar's army only
recently took full control of these remote border areas. The regime,
  which ten years ago ignored an unambiguous election victory by the
opposition National League for Democracy, has arranged ceasefires
with most of the rebel ethnic groups, but keeps control only by
using slaves to build defences, roads and bridges. Locals are forced to
clear land, act as porters for the army and provide food and housing.
Refugees claim that forced labourers are even made to march along
roads that have been mined by rebels.

"It is a matter of life or death. Now we have people coming from deep
inside Burma [Myanmar], not just the border," explains the leader of
the Um Phiem refugee camp, on a muddy, crowded hillside on
the Thai border. Their stories, and other accounts collected clandestinely
inside Myanmar, tell of horrific forced labour. Sometimes they involve 
even petty criminals. One man says he was plucked from a train for not 
having a
ticket and forced to work for the army on a starvation diet.

In this deeply Buddhist country, the army usually describes the work demanded
of forced labourers as a traditional merit-earning activity. Unfortunately, 
800,000 or so people who are thought to be exploited in this way have little
say about it. Their numbers have been estimated by groups compiling
evidence for the UN's International Labour Organisation. In a conference in
Geneva last week, the ILO urged that Myanmar should face further international
isolation because of its use of forced labour. The regime, which has lately
been making renewed efforts to gain recognition abroad and to woo foreign
investors, has responded angrily, denying that it uses forced labour and 
warning that foreign meddling would "only impede the process of 
This is not a process, however, that has been much in evidence.

The army has about 400,000 men and takes the lion's share of government
spending. Even so, its soldiers are ill-equipped. Most of them are frightened
conscripts, of whom many are also forced to work unpaid for the various
businesses run by their officers. These may be as innocuous as, say brick
making. Or they may involve illegal logging, smuggling or Myanmar's 
drugs industry.

The United States has condemned Myanmar as the biggest producer of opium
after Afghanistan. The Thais are concerned about the quantities of what are
called yabba flowing across the border. These potent amphetamines are
increasingly being manufactured in Myanmar's border region. Whatever its
regime may proclaim, Myanmar seems to be relying on ever more horrible
methods to sustain an indefensible export trade.