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Rights in Myanmar

Reform process in Myanmar is irreversible, says ILO expert

As US President Barack Obama heads to Myanmar, the ILO’s liaison officer in Yangon discusses the various changes this Southeast Asian country has been going through.

News | 16 November 2012
GENEVA (ILO News) – Myanmar’s democratic transition process is still in its early days, but there is no doubting the government’s commitment to reform after half a century of military rule, says Steve Marshall, the ILO’s liaison officer in Yangon.

Much remains to be done, but the government’s agreement to end forced labour and the proliferation of trade unions are among the most important changes that the country has seen since President Thein Sein took office in March 2011.

The US president’s visit

President Obama’s decision to visit Myanmar in itself shows just how much has changed, says Marshall, who plays an active role in helping the government carry out the reforms.

"Step back two years and you couldn’t even think of the prospect of an American president visiting Myanmar. It would not have factored into your thinking at all. This is a clear indication, firstly of the movement that has taken place in Myanmar. I think it gives a clear indication of the acceptance by the international community of the commitment that the government has got to the change."

Commitment to reform

For Marshall, it is clear that the government is determined to continue along the path of reforms, even if there are setbacks along the way.

"I think they are definitely committed. The process has now been going since essentially March of last year and it has moved across the whole of the spectrum. And it has moved to a stage where it could be slowed down, but the society has moved on to a stage where it is beyond reversal. There is a high level of commitment, particularly from the president and his high-level support group."

The forced labour issue

The very fact that the authorities have admitted there is a forced labour issue, including the use of children by the armed forces, is in itself a reversal from past practices, says Marshall.

"First is that we have moved completely away from the previous denial mode, and that is a very important step, where it is now accepted that it has been and continues to be a problem which must be addressed. The government now has entered into a major action plan to address all of the different forms of forced labour." (... )

"Traditionally in most countries in the world forced labour is predominantly a private sector phenomenon. The difference that has been the issue in Myanmar is that it has actually been a state issue where the perpetrators have largely been the military and also the civilian government. Where forced labour was routinely demanded of citizens in a whole range of different areas."

Child soldiers

According to Marshall, there are estimates of up to 5,000 child soldiers in Myanmar but the process of releasing them appears to be gathering steam.

"We started the complaints mechanism in 2007, and between 2007 and 2011 we had approximately 260 boys discharged from the army. Since 2012 so far, it would be close to 60, so it’s increasing." (...)

"The youngest we’ve had is 11 - in terms of the official army. The majority of complaints fall within the age group of 14 through to 16."

Freedom of Association

In terms of freedom of association – which simply did not exist during the five decades of military rule – the changes have been dramatic, says Marshall.

"In 2007, five young men who held a May Day meeting were arrested on a number of charges and received sentences of between 25 and 27 years each. As at March of this year, the formation of unions and normal trade union activities were completely legitimized. A dramatic change. Very early days as yet, of course."

International support is key

It’s not all smooth sailing and much work remains to be done, adds Marshall. And the support of the international community will remain crucial.

"It’s interesting because, again, it’s really early days of a transition. So, we have at the top the government committed, doing the right things, saying the right things, new laws, new policies, new institutions being formulated. Below that level you have a situation where people are still coming to grips with this new environment, not being sure how to behave.
So you’re seeing some contradictions and you will see contradictions for some time. And at the bottom, there are still a lot at the bottom who have not really felt dreadfully much change at all because the system is trickling down. Which puts a whole lot of pressures on the international community of course in terms of supporting the government, not only at the top, but also the empowerment of people at the bottom."

The ILO and Myanmar: Recent facts