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Burma's Military Threatens to Quit ILO Over Critical Reports of Forced Labor

Burma is threatening to withdraw from the International Labor Organization following a highly critical report of its use of forced labor. The tensions between the ILO and military government apparently have led to death threats against ILO staff in Rangoon.

Burma's military government told a visiting International Labor Organization mission last week that it planned to leave the organization. The decision follows a June ILO report that condemned Burma's use of forced labor.

But Richard Horsey, the ILO liaison officer in Rangoon, says it is unclear when formal notification from Burma - also known as Myanmar - would be sent to the ILO's Geneva headquarters.

"We did have this mission last week and was able to have some detailed discussions with the labor minister and now we have to see what will be the outcome - whether in fact the Myanmar authorities will send the notice of withdrawal from the organization," said Richard Horsey.

Withdrawal from the ILO will take effect after a two-year waiting period, during which the decision can be reversed.

International human rights and labor groups have criticized Burma over the years for its use of forced labor. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions estimates that up to 800,000 people are forced to work on government or military projects.

Although some rights groups say there is less forced labor in Burma now than in past years, the ILO's June report condemned the government for failing to end the practice, and for the forced recruitment of child soldiers.

The ILO has called on its 178 members to a reactivate measures that were put on hold five years ago, which call on foreign investors and traders to review their ties with Burma.

The report also criticizes the government for threatening people who report the use of forced labor.

Mr. Horsey says ILO officials and their families have received death threats since June, and rallies have been held to criticize the ILO. He says security for the ILO staff has been stepped up in recent weeks.

"It has been very difficult," he said. "Personally I have received - in August and September - a number of death threats coming through the post to my house - although these have stopped. I haven't had any in the last month or so."

Burma moved to appease the ILO in 2002 by allowing it to open an office in Rangoon, which eased the threat of sanctions. But ILO officials say their movements through the country have been curtailed in recent months.

Many countries, including the United States, have imposed economic sanctions on Burma because of its human rights record and its refusal to implement democratic reforms. Although an opposition party, the National League for Democracy, won national elections in 1990, it was never allowed to take power. NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior party members have been jailed or held under house arrest for years.