Report of ILO Commission of Inquiry reveals widespread and systematic use of forced labour in Myanmar (Burma)

GENEVA (ILO News) - The obligation to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour is violated in Myanmar in national law as well as in actual practice in a widespread and systematic manner, with total disregard for the human dignity, safety and health and basic needs of the people, according to a report issued by a Commission of Inquiry appointed under the Constitution of the International Labour Organization.

Press release | 20 August 1998

GENEVA (ILO News) - The obligation to suppress the use of forced or compulsory labour is violated in Myanmar in national law as well as in actual practice in a widespread and systematic manner, with total disregard for the human dignity, safety and health and basic needs of the people, according to a report * issued by a Commission of Inquiry appointed under the Constitution of the International Labour Organization.

The Commission says that the impunity with which Government officials, in particular the military, treat the civilian population as an unlimited pool of unpaid forced labourers and servants at their disposal is part of a political system built on the use of force and intimidation to deny the people of Myanmar democracy and the rule of law.

Any person who violates the prohibition of recourse to forced labour in international law bears an individual criminal responsibility, the Commission says.

These are among the findings included in the report, published today, of the Commission of Inquiry appointed in March 1997 under article 26 of the ILO Constitution. The Commission received a mandate to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), following a complaint lodged by 25 Worker delegates to the 83 rd Session of the International Labour Conference in June 1996. The Commission, appointed by the Governing Body, was composed of the Right Honourable Sir William Douglas, PC, KCMG, former Chief Justice of Barbados, Chairperson of the Commission, Mr. Prafullachandra Natvarlal Bhagwati, former Chief Justice of India and Ms. Robyn A. Layton, QC (Australia), Barrister-at-law.

In the course of its inquiry, the Commission received over 6,000 pages of documents and heard testimony given by representatives of a number of non-governmental organizations and by some 250 eye witnesses with recent experience of forced labour practices, during hearings in Geneva and in the course of the Commission's visit to the region. Summaries of the testimony given by these witnesses, including women and children who had fled from forced labour, are appended to the Commission's report.

The Government of Myanmar, which had been invited to take part in the proceedings, abstained from attending the hearings and did not authorize a visit by the Commission of Inquiry to Myanmar, arguing that "such a visit would not contribute much towards resolving the case" and "would interfere in the internal affairs of [the] country".

The Myanmar authorities stated in response to the initial complaint and supplementary evidence that they were "aware of the criticisms made by some Worker delegates" related to use of labour in Myanmar and stated that a "considerable portion of the criticisms relating to Myanmar are unfortunately based on biased and specious allegations made by expatriates living outside Myanmar... who wish to denigrate the Myanmar authorities for their own ends."

As was noted by the Commission of Inquiry, its report "reveals a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar by the Government, military and other public officers. It is a story of gross denial of human rights to which the people of Myanmar have been subjected particularly since 1988 and from which they find no escape except fleeing from the country."

In its conclusions on the substance of the case, the Commission stated "there is abundant evidence before the Commission showing the pervasive used of forced labour imposed on the civilian population throughout Myanmar by the authorities and the military for portering, the construction, maintenance and servicing of military camps, other work in support of the military, work on agriculture, logging and other production projects undertaken by the authorities or the military, sometimes for the profit of private individuals, the construction and maintenance of roads, railways and bridges, other infrastructure work and a range of other tasks."

The Commission also stated that "In actual practice, the manifold exactions of forced labour often give rise to the extortion of money in exchange for a temporary alleviation of the burden, but also to threats to the life and security and extrajudicial punishment of those unwilling, slow or unable to comply with a demand for forced labour; such punishment or reprisals range from money demands to physical abuse, beatings, torture, rape and murder."

Forced labour in Myanmar is widely performed by women, children and elderly persons, the Commission's conclusions stated, as well as persons otherwise unfit for work, and is "almost never remunerated nor compensated."

"Porters, including women, are often sent ahead in particularly dangerous situations as in suspected minefields, and many are killed or injured this way," the Commission stated. "Porters are rarely given medical treatment of any kind...and some sick or injured are left behind in the jungle."

"Similarly, on road building projects, injuries are in most cases not treated, and deaths from sickness and work accidents are frequent on some projects," the Commission stated. "Forced labourers, including those sick or injured, are frequently beaten or otherwise physically abused by soldiers, resulting in serious injuries; some are killed, and women performing compulsory labour are raped or otherwise sexually abused by soldiers."

In view of the Government's flagrant and persistent failure to comply with the Forced Labour Convention, the Commission of Inquiry urges the Government to take the necessary steps to ensure:

  • (a) that the legislation be brought into line with the Convention without further delay, at the very latest by 1 May 1999;
  • (b) that in actual practice no more forced or compulsory labour be imposed by the authorities, in particular the military; and,
  • (c) that the penalties which may be imposed for the exaction of forced labour be strictly enforced, with thorough investigation, prosecution and adequate punishment of those found guilty.

Under Article 29 of the ILO Constitution, the Government of Myanmar shall inform the Director-General of the ILO whether or not it accepts the recommendations contained in the report of the Commission. At its 273 rd Session (November 1998), the Governing Body of the ILO should have before it the reply of the Government.

* Forced Labour in Myanmar (Burma). Report of the Commission of Inquiry appointed under article 26 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organization to examine the observance by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29). Geneva, 1998. The text is available on the Internet: