Burma: Tales of increased repression, forced labour and rape

The New York Times & The Independent
Burmese soldiers are drafting ethnic Karen villagers for forced labor and are raping women and girls.
One recent case described by the Free Burma Rangers involved a 7-year-old girl who was raped, and then killed.
Already Myanmar’s government is one of the most brutal in the world, and in recent months it has become even more repressive, reports Nicholas D. Kristof in his article, 'Sneaking In Where Thugs Rule', The New York Times:

A blogger, Nay Phone Latt, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. A prominent comedian, Zarganar, was sentenced to 59 years. A former student leader, Min Ko Naing, a survivor of years of torture and solitary confinement, has received terms of 65 years so far and faces additional sentences that may reach a total of 150 years.

“Politically, things are definitely getting worse,” said David Mathieson, an expert on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch living on the Thai-Burmese border. “They’ve just sent hundreds of people who should be agents of change to long prison terms.”

A new American presidency is a useful moment to review policy toward Myanmar, and the truth is that the West’s approach has failed. The Burmese junta has ruled despotically since 1988, ignoring democratic elections. Since then, sanctions have had zero effect in moderating the regime. I have vast respect for Aung San Suu Kyi, the extraordinary woman who won a Nobel Peace Prize for standing up to the country’s thugs. But the best use of her courage right now would be to accept that the trade sanctions she advocated have accomplished nothing more than further impoverishing her own people. As with Cuba and North Korea, isolating a venal regime usually just hurts the innocent and helps the thugs stay in power.

Instead, the best bet is financial sanctions that specifically target individuals close to the regime — and, even more, a clampdown on Myanmar’s imports of arms. “It would be very difficult to get an arms embargo through the Security Council, but that’s something that really goes to the heart of any military regime,” Mr. Mathieson said. “You lock them out of the tools of their own self-aggrandizement and repression.”

President George W. Bush tried to help Burmese dissidents, but he had zero international capital. The Obama administration, in contrast, has a chance to lead an international initiative to curb Burmese arms imports and bring the regime to the negotiating table. Myanmar’s weapons have come from or through China, Russia, Ukraine, Israel and Singapore, and Russia is even selling Myanmar’s dictators a nuclear reactor, Mr. Mathieson said.

[...] In Mae Sot, Thailand, I visited with former Burmese political prisoners, like the courageous Bo Kyi. They are at risk of being killed by Burmese government assassins, yet they are campaigning aggressively for change. Equally inspiring are the Free Burma Rangers, who risk their lives to sneak deep into the country for months at a time to provide medical care and document human rights abuses.

One gutsy American working with the group, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, communicated with me by satellite phone from his hiding place deep inside Myanmar. He knows that the Burmese government will kill him if it catches him, yet he stays to gather photos and other evidence of how Burmese soldiers are drafting ethnic Karen villagers for forced labor and are raping women and girls. One recent case described by the Free Burma Rangers involved a 7-year-old girl who was raped, and then killed.

The courage of these people seeking a new Myanmar is infectious and inspiring. In this new administration, let’s help them — and see if with new approaches we can finally topple one of the most odious regimes in the world.

05 February 2009

By Nicholas D. Kristof

Source: The New York Times

In the Independent, Phoebe Kennedy's article, 'Revealed: Burma's human exports' exposes a modern day slave-trade in Burma:

Her glasses were Gucci and her bag YSL. The smart Burmese businesswoman was perched neatly on a sofa in the lobby of a Rangoon hotel, delivering her sales patter to a small group of businessmen. Her product? Human beings. "We supply only strong bodies," she says crisply. "That is our guarantee." I am sitting at the next table using the hotel wi-fi, and, as she speaks in clear English, I am drawn into a world of desperation and exploitation. The woman is a supplier of workers for deep-sea trawlers, and her stock of men come from Burma's beautiful but impoverished Inle Lake area, where fishing the tranquil waters no longer makes enough to feed a family. "These are just simple fishermen; they are not educated, but what we promise you is strong bodies," she says, using a phrase she repeats again and again.

It appears that the businesswoman's potential customers are middlemen, probably Chinese. Through a translator, they discuss placing the men on boats in the South China Sea, trawling for tuna. First, they will be flown to a Chinese city. In echoes of the slave trade, she describes a selection process worthy of a livestock market. In a 21st-century twist, she does so with the aid of pictures on her laptop. "We make them stand in the sun for one hour," she says. "In the middle of the day when it is very hot. We see how they manage, if they look uncomfortable." The group leans in to see the pictures on her computer. "We make them carry 20 kilos, like this," she continues, showing them photographs I cannot see. "For deep-sea fishing, they may need to carry very big fish for long distances across the ship."

Then comes the seasickness test. "We put them in here," the woman says, but I can't see the picture. I think it must be an enclosed truck or some sort of container on water. "Then we start to move them around. If they are sick or find it hard to breathe we don't select them. This is how we select the best bodies." The group nods. The images of Burma's Rohingya boat people, fleeing oppression only to be allegedly abused and cast adrift by the Thai military, has drawn international attention to the plight of one of the world's most downtrodden people. The Muslim Rohingyas face particular persecution in military-ruled Burma, but throughout the country, impoverished men and women who see no future at home are embarking on risky journeys abroad in search of an income for their families.

During the eavesdropping session, I learn more about the business. The fishermen are to earn $2,400 (£1,600) a year, an enticing wage in Burma, where average rural incomes are about $300 a year. But their rights are few, and they are expected to work very long hours for their money. "During the high season, they can work 23 hours a day," says the saleswoman. "Then in the low season they can relax a little and rest." Any fee the agent wishes from the salaries is up to them, the woman says, and the fishermen should only be paid every six months "in case they fall sick, or violate the contract".

Finally, one of the businessmen appears to ask a question about the welfare of the fishermen. The saleswoman suggests there should be an area on board the ships for the fishermen to live and cook, and says that those who operate machinery should get a bonus. "We hope they can make money to help their families," she says, smiling, and the group nods again. Hit by the global recession and the mismanagement and neglect of Burma's ruling generals, in power for nearly five decades, the country's farmers and fishermen are suffering as never before, say aid workers. "The agricultural sector, which employs 80 per cent of the population, is imploding," said Kerren Hedlund, an adviser to a consortium of aid agencies in Rangoon. "People are getting into greater and greater debt to finance a livelihood that's not possible."

In the cities, there is high unemployment, frequent power cuts and ever-climbing prices for food and basic goods. Most people try to scratch a living in the informal economy or the black market. Lack of opportunity has driven millions of Burma's young people on dangerous journeys to South-east Asia's wealthier nations. They sneak across the border to Thailand, to work illegally as domestic helps, labourers, or in the fish-processing industry. Many young men make perilous sea voyages in the hope of reaching Malaysia, paying agents hundreds of dollars for places on rickety boats. If they make it, construction work is relatively well-paid, but migrant workers run the risk of abuse at the hands of employers and the authorities.

The migrants live simply, and try to send all the money they can back home. "There is a huge exodus of people from Burma," said Debbie Stothard, of the Bangkok-based Burma lobby group Altsean. "It is a land of no opportunity. The only way people can survive is to have a family member overseas, sending money home."

07 February 2009

By Phoebe Kennedy

Source: The Independent