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Burma Allows Labor Rights Group To Station Officer in Rangoon - 2002-03-20

Burma's military government has agreed to allow an official of the International Labor Organization, or ILO, to be stationed in Rangoon to oversee efforts to eliminate forced labor in the country. The agreement between Burma and the ILO was reached after months of negotiations.

The memorandum of understanding was signed after several days of talks ending this past Tuesday between a Burmese delegation and the ILO in Geneva. It comes about one month after a high-level ILO delegation visited Rangoon and held intensive negotiations on the wording of the agreement.

Burma has been under pressure from the ILO, which represents the international community in promoting labor rights, to put an end to the practice of forced labor. Human rights groups say the use of forced labor in Burma is still pervasive.

Two years ago, the organization agreed to impose unprecedented sanctions on Rangoon and called on its member organizations and U.N. agencies to review all relations with Burma's government to make sure they were not supporting forced labor.

The ILO has been pressing for establishment of a permanent office in Burma to help fulfill its mandate. However, Burma's military had resisted.

The memorandum of understanding does not authorize the setting up of a full ILO office in Rangoon. But it is significant because this is the first time Burma has agreed to an in-country ILO representation, and it also opens the way for a future expanded ILO presence.

David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, says details remain to be worked out.

"The questions really are, what will happen in the future?," he said. "What kind of freedom will this liaison officer have? What kind of support staff will he or she have? Will he be able to travel without announcement, to various places in the country. All of these questions have yet to be answered."

Bo Hla Tint is spokesman in Washington for Burma's exile National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma. He also says the test of the ILO/Burma agreement will be how much flexibility the new liaison representative will have.

"We welcome their gesture, the first sign of a more cooperative manner of the SPDC to work with the ILO and the international community," he said. "But at the same time we are very much concerned about how much working space the ILO can get in Burma, and in the field.

The memorandum of understanding makes clear that the new liaison official in Burma will pursue what the agreement calls "prompt and effective elimination of forced labor in Burma."

The agreement with the ILO also means Burma will face a bit less criticism at the International Labor Conference which takes place in Geneva in June.