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Burma Challenged on Efforts to End Forced Labor - 2002-02-23


The third visit to Burma by a United Nations human rights representative is spurring hopes for speeding up the political reconciliation process in the Southeast Asian country. The Brazilian U.N. envoy, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, has spoken in positive terms about his latest efforts.

In just over a week of discussions and travel in Burma, Mr. Pinheiro met political prisoners, examined jail conditions, and focused on the overall human rights situation. Before departing Rangoon, he said he was satisfied with cooperation he received from the military government and was able to meet everyone he wanted to see.

In a gesture to Mr. Pinheiro, the ruling State Peace and Development Council, SPDC, freed 11 more political prisoners, more than have usually been released each month since the U.N. mediation process began in 2000.

However, chief democracy figure Aung San Suu Kyi, who Mr. Pinheiro met near the end of his visit, remains under restriction. And human rights groups say as many as 1,500 political prisoners remain in Burmese jails.

Mr. Pinheiro went to Insein prison in Rangoon and a prison hospital. He is reported to have spent almost nine hours in extensive discussions with imprisoned members of the opposition National League for Democracy, NLD party. A U.N. statement said he had confidential discussions with a dozen detainees.

It's also reported that he saw U Win Tin, one of Burma's best known journalists, who has been jailed for more than 13 years. However, it is not yet known if Mr. Pinheiro was able to see Min Ko Naing, a leader of the 1988 democracy protests crushed by the army. Had Mr. Pinheiro managed to secure freedom for Min Ko Naing, analysts and diplomats say he could have demonstrated that his efforts were bringing results.

The pace of international mediation appears to be quickening. As Mr. Pinheiro left Rangoon, a delegation from the International Labor Organization, ILO, was arriving for more talks on forced labor, which it says the military government has failed to stamp out.

The ILO has requested, but Rangoon has refused, permission to set up a permanent office in Rangoon. The labor officials now visiting Burma will focus on this and allegations of murders of people who provided information about forced labor to human rights investigators.

Phil Fishman is a spokesman for the AFL/CIO, America's largest labor organization. He says Burma's military is under pressure to show it can end forced labor before an international labor conference later this year.

"There is a priority being placed on the establishment of a permanent ILO presence. I think there are elements within the ILO secretariat itself and among member states that see that as being way beyond the current stalemate in regard to the lack of progress to address the forced labor issue. If, in fact the Burmese regime agrees even in some general way to an ILO presence and begins to implement it by the June conference, then I think there will be an effort to try and ease ILO sanctions, ease the Article 33 resolution," Mr. Fishman says.

The next stage of U.N. mediation occurs In March when Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail makes his seventh visit to Burma as U.N. special envoy. He is seeking a timetable for progress in the political talks. Long-time Burma analyst Kavi Chongkittavorn is managing editor of The Nation newspaper in Bangkok, and currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

"I think at the moment the U.N. is losing patience, because the U.N. would like to have an official sort of report of the progress made from the past 15 months of effort, and you can see this very clearly. The U.N. wants to proceed very quickly but yet, Razali could not, knowing that it takes time - the so-called Asian way," Mr. Kavi says.

Although their mandates are slightly different, both Mr. Razali and Mr. Pinheiro are working toward a common goal - to promote human rights and the establishment of democracy in Burma. The United Nations announced that Mr. Pinheiro stopped in Kuala Lumpur for talks with Mr. Razali before leaving for Burma.