Forced Labor

   In precolonial Burma, commoners performed compulsory labor service or corvée as a form of taxation, much as they did in other Asian countries and in many parts of Europe before the French Revolution. Often, such exactions were highly oppressive, such as during the reign of King Bodawpaya (r. 1782-1819), who used corvée labor on ambitious public projects in Upper Burma, including construction of a huge pagoda at Mingun. The British imposed some labor service obligations (the Village and Towns Acts of 1907-1908, although these required the payment of a wage), and the Japanese used hundreds of thousands of Burmese and other Asian romusha ("labor service workers") on construction of the Thai-Burma Railway (the "Death Railway") and other war-related projects between 1942 and 1945. After independence in 1948, the Tatmadaw used forced labor in counterinsurgency operations, and following the establishment of the Caretaker Government in October 1958 and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in September 1988, the new military authorities drafted residents of Rangoon (Yangon) to clean up the city.
   Forced labor-state- or military-imposed labor without any form of compensation-has become especially prevalent since 1988, in contravention of a 1930 resolution by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that categorically bans its use. It generally occurs in two contexts: in connection with Tatmadaw counterinsurgency operations in ethnic minority regions, especially in contested areas of Shan, Mon, Karen (Kayin), and Kayah (Karenni) States; and in infrastructure projects unrelated, or indirectly related, to the war against ethnic armed groups. The first is generally more onerous: Minority villagers are rounded up to serve as military porters, often under very dangerous conditions, and are sometimes used as "human mine sweepers" or "human shields" in operations against insurgents. The death rate is high, women porters are often sexually abused, and families suffer economically because able-bodied people taken away for porterage, often for very long periods of time, are unavailable for farming.
   Since 1988, the government has promoted the construction of new highways, bridges, and dams, routinely using forced labor. Some projects, such as the railway between Ye and Tavoy (Dawei), described as a second "Death Railway," and the Yadana Pipeline Project, built with foreign investment, have exacted a high cost in worker fatalities, while others, such as forcing residents of Mandalay to clean up the moat around Mandalay Palace in preparation for "Visit Myanmar Year" in the mid-1990s, imposed great hardship and inconvenience especially on elderly citizens, who were not exempted from labor service. Prisoners, including political prisoners, have also been used on forced labor details. In addition, local people living around military bases have been obliged to provide uncompensated services for army "income generation projects," such as logging and shrimp cultivation. When workers are needed, local military authorities send orders to village headmen demanding a certain number, often enclosing a bullet to show what will happen if the order is not followed. Individuals often can pay the military to purchase an exemption, although the amount is usually more than the average person can afford. On July 2, 1998, the ILO published a report, Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma), drawn from extensive eyewitness accounts that told of severe abuses nationwide. Faced with the prospect of sanctions by ILO member countries, which were recommended by its Governing Body in November 2000, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) allowed a high-level inspection team of ILO experts in September-October 2001 to visit sites freely. They reported that although the situation had improved since 1998 in connection with civilian infrastructure projects, military bases continued to use forced labor. Its use in insurgent-contested areas, which are usually remote and difficult to inspect, continues to be widespread. To monitor the SPDC's promise to abolish the practice, an ILO liaison office was established in Rangoon.
   In the past, the SPDC has argued that "contributions" of labor by the people were a part of Burmese tradition. But state-imposed forced labor must be distinguished from community-based projects, such as the construction of pagodas by villagers, where the donation of labor is voluntary or at most a matter of social pressure. Since 1988, however, some Tatmadaw-sponsored pagoda projects have also used forced labor.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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