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Myanmar: Stop forced labour, penalizing protesters

Myanmar: Stop using forced labour and penalizing protesters

As the International Labour Organization (ILO) meets to discuss the practice of forced labour in Myanmar, Amnesty International expresses concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.

The army continues to seize civilians for forced labour, including for the army, to confiscate land from farmers and to take children as soldiers. Moreover, the authorities are harassing and imprisoning individuals who have brought these violations to the attention of the ILO and state officials.

Amnesty International calls on the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to ensure that local officials and the military do not use civilians in forced labour projects, and that official decrees criminalizing forced labour are implemented. The organization also calls on the authorities not to penalize individuals for reporting on forced labour and other violations by the authorities, and to immediately and unconditionally release those wrongfully imprisoned for such peaceful activities.

In October 2005 villager Su Su Nway and lawyer U Aye Myint, both of whom had drawn authorities’ and the ILO’s attention to forced labour and to land confiscation were sentenced to 18 months and seven years’ imprisonment respectively. Three more people face trial in late November 2005 for assisting the family of an individual alleged to have died during forced labour to seek redress from local authorities.

Amnesty International is concerned by the recent secret trial of Shan politicians on charges of treason, following which they were sentenced to between 70 and 106 years' imprisonment The charges are believed to relate to their participation in peaceful political discussions.

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Rights to due process are being flagrantly ignored in political trials and inadequate medical care has been given to prisoners. While a number of political prisoners were released in July 2005, more than 1,100 remain imprisoned, including elderly long term prisoners of conscience in poor health, and political leaders held without charge or trial, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U.

Unpaid forced labour is in contravention of ILO Convention No 29, to which Myanmar is party. Despite the criminalization of forced labour in Myanmar in 2000, the practice continues. The ILO has adopted a series of measures in order to encourage the government to comply with Convention No 29, and most recently in June 2005 registered complaints to the SPDC that they have not implemented a number of recent ILO recommendations. At the June 2005 ILO Congress, ILO officials registered concern that the Myanmar authorities had stated “ false complaints of forced labour were placing a great drain on government resources and undermining the dignity of the state… legal action would be taken against complainants or their representatives who lodged false complaints.

The ILO also reported that the authorities have restricted the ILO liaison officer’s ability to investigate reports of forced labour, including by limiting his ability to travel freely outside of Yangon, his base. The state controlled press has published reports attacking the ILO and the liaison officer has received death threats.

The authorities continue to characterize legitimate activities in defence of the rule of law and human rights as activities intended to undermine the state. Individuals who have attempted to file complaints about human rights violations have been intimidated, harassed and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. Amnesty International urges the Myanmar authorities not to punish people who in good faith have submitted reports of forced labour or other abuses by government officials. The right to take part in the conduct of public affairs, to freedom of expression and to protest peacefully against human rights violations and government policies generally are rights recognized in international law and standards, including in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The SPDC must allow human rights defenders and any other individuals unhindered access to and communication with international bodies on matters of human rights.

Individuals recently imprisoned
On 31 October 2005, U Aye Myint, a lawyer in his 50s, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for passing to the government complaints of farmers whose land had been confiscated by the local authorities. He reportedly helped farmers compose a letter to the authorities, which was then copied to the ILO liaison officer in Yangon. The lawyer was sentenced under emergency legislation which allows for the imprisonment of anyone who does anything "intentionally to spread false news, knowing it to be false or having reason to believe that it is false" on the basis that it may then cause unrest. None of the farmers he has represented are known to have been prosecuted, and all reportedly testified in U Aye Myint’s trial that he was professionally carrying forward their legitimate complaints. U Aye Myint was released in January 2005 from a death sentence, commuted to three years’ imprisonment, for treason, partly on the basis that he had communicated with the ILO.

On 16 October 2005 villager Su Su Nway was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for defamation of village officials following an unfair trial. Her sentence is believed to be linked to her success in suing village officials for forcing her and fellow villagers to work on a road construction project. Officials reportedly made death threats against her following the suit, alleging that she had sworn at them.

On 5 November 2005 senior political representatives of the Shan ethnic nationality received sentences of between 70 and 106 years’ imprisonment in a secret trial, for treason. It is believed that they are being penalized for taking part in political discussions immediately before the reconvening of the National Convention in February 2005. U Khun Htun Oo, an MP elect for the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy and nine other Shan political representatives have been held without access to their families or to a lawyer of their choice since February 2005.

Later this month, U Thein Zan, a 67 year old lawyer and National League for Democracy MP, and two villagers will reportedly face trial for assisting a family to report to the authorities the alleged accidental death of their relative whilst undertaking forced labour.

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