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ILO Delegation Cuts Short Official Visit to Burma

  • Ron Corben

An International Labor Organization team in Burma to assess progress on ending forced labor has cut short its visit. Diplomats say the delegation's early departure followed its failure to meet the military government's leader, Senior General Than Shwe.

The delegation from the International Labor Organization (ILO), was seeking firm commitments from Burma's military government to end forced labor.

The three-member delegation, led by former Australian Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen, had been scheduled to remain in Burma until Friday. Instead, it left Wednesday evening after failing to arrange meetings with Senior General Than Shwe, the government's top leader.

On Tuesday, the delegation met with Prime Minister Soe Win and Labor Minister U Thaung, but no details of the meetings were made public.

Western diplomats in Burma say that a failure to gain a "political commitment" from General Than Shwe to eradicate forced labor led to the early departure.

Debbie Stothard, spokeswoman for the regional human-rights lobby Alternative Association of Southeast Asian Nations Network on Burma (ALTSEAN), says a meeting with the general had been crucial to the visit's success.

"Senior General Than Shwe is firmly in control of the regime," she said. "If there are any measures, any serious commitments to be made by this regime, they have to be made by Senior General Than Shwe."

The ILO delegation was in Burma to assess the government's steps to curb the use of forced labor in infrastructure and state construction projects.

The Geneva-based ILO has stepped up the pressure on Burma's military in recent years. Five years ago, it urged its 175 member countries to impose sanctions against Burma over its use of forced labor. The government moved to appease the ILO, allowing it to open an office in Rangoon in 2002, which eased the threat of the sanctions.

Ms. Stothard says there is now a greater threat of tough sanctions being imposed.

"It was assumed that the military regime will go out of its way to accommodate the ILO because if this mission did not work out the likelihood of harsher sanctions being imposed by the ILO was very likely," she said.

Human rights reports say while the use of forced labor has eased in major projects in the central regions of Burma, it continues, especially in border areas. The military also has used forced labor to move equipment.

In 2000, the government told community-level officials to stop using forced labor except in public emergencies. Just before the ILO delegation's visit, a local court convicted four officials of using forced labor and sentenced them to 16 months in jail.

But last November, three people were sentenced to death for providing information to the ILO. The sentences were later commuted to life in prison.

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