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Burma Attacks ILO While Pledging to End Forced Labor

Burma has blasted a U.N. agency that accuses the military government of failing to do enough to end forced labor. But, the Southeast Asian nation has pledged to cooperate with the United Nations in ending the practice.

Burma's military government, facing the possible revival of U.N. sanctions, has accused the International Labor Organization, or ILO, of interfering in the country's affairs.

Soe Nyunt, head of Burma's labor department, made the charge during a news conference in Rangoon on Tuesday. He was airing government frustration with the I.L.O. and its tough line on forced labor.

In remarks carried by state media, the he said the U.N. agency had leveled "one-sided accusations" against his country. He accused it of exerting excessive pressure on Burma based on information provided by the government's enemies. He added that the ILO had ignored the government's moves against labor abuses.

The ILO has denied the charges, which come a few weeks after a high-level ILO delegation cut short a mission to Burma because it was unable to meet top leader General Than Shwe for talks on forced labor.

Richard Horsey, the ILO representative in Rangoon, said Wednesday that Director-General Soe Nyunt's remarks were in stark contrast to views expressed by Burma's Prime Minister Soe Win in a letter to the ILO delegation a week earlier.

"The prime minister wrote to the high-level team on March 10 and in that letter he expressed the willingness of the government to continue their cooperation with the ILO and he reconfirmed the commitment of the government to eliminating forced labor," Mr. Horsey said.

Mr. Horsey says the ILO governing body will discuss the contradictory messages during its meeting this month in Geneva.

A report issued by the ILO team concluded that Burma's leaders were aware of the need for urgent action. But the team complained about the government's failure to discuss implementing a plan of action, which the two sides had agreed on in 2003.

The report made no mention of sanctions, saying only that the governing body should decide on any further course of action during its meeting, which ends March 24.

Last year the ILO warned Burma that it could revive an earlier call for economic sanctions if the military government continued to stall.

That original appeal to ILO members, made in 2000, prompted the Burmese to let the agency open an office in Rangoon in 2002. The ILO withdrew its call for sanctions a year later and agreed on the plan of action with the government.

The ILO estimates that more than 800,000 people in Burma are subject to forced labor, largely by the military.