Burmese soldiers are forcing Karen villagers to work for them in eastern Burma despite moves by the government toward a ceasefire with ethnic rebels in the region, a relief organization said Friday, after a fresh round of peace talks on troops’ conduct.
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) said Burmese army soldiers have recruited villagers in northern Karen state’s Mutraw and Taw Oo districts for forced labor in recent months.
The state has seen decades of fighting between the Burmese military and Karen National Union (KNU) troops, with the two sides unable to agree on a cease-fire despite an initial peace agreement signed in January.
According to FBR, six people from three villages in northern Karen state’s Mutraw district were recruited to work for the Burmese military’s border guard forces since a border guard battalion was stationed there in May.
The villagers—three from Meh Pree Kee, two from Htee Baw Kaw, and one from Htee Htaw Kee—were forced to cook for soldiers in the camp and carry water there, according to the group.
In Taw Oo, a Burmese infantry battalion demanded labor from a village in April, forcing the villagers to cut and bring banana leaves to their camp, FBR said.
Code of conduct
The latest round of peace talks between the Burmese government and the KNU concluded Tuesday with both sides signing the second draft of a “code of conduct” for their troops.
At the two-day talks in the state capital of Pa-an, government peace negotiators agreed to hold further talks over the government’s troop relocation and withdrawal from areas of Karen State populated by Karen communities, the Irrawaddy online journal reported.
Among the points agreed on in the code of conduct are that both government and Karen troops can travel or transport rations on agreed-upon routes and the Burmese army can no longer order the construction of roads in KNU-controlled areas, Irrawaddy said.
Burmese government forces must also withdraw from areas close to shelters for those displaced from their homes, it said.
The 63-year conflict has forced thousands of Karen civilians to flee across the border into neighboring Thailand.
Although major offensives in Karen state have decreased in recent months, Burma's military still maintains a large troop presence in the state.
The military, which has battled ethnic insurgents in the country’s border regions for decades, has been one of the biggest culprits behind forced labor in the country, using civilians, including children, to work on roads and bridges and imposing fines on, or withholding identity cards from, those who refuse.
But since Burma's military regime was replaced by a nominally civilian government in March of last year, the government has enacted a series of reforms.
In June, Labor Minister Aung Kyi vowed that the country would end all forms of forced labor in the country by 2015, an undertaking that paved the way for Burma to be reinstated as a full member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Burma had faced various restrictions on its membership for more than a decade because of repeated failure to respond to the ILO’s calls for basic labor rights during decades of harsh military rule.
The Burma Free Rangers’ report backs up findings from a recent survey by U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that said the Karen minority face a “constant threat” of forced labor and other rights violations.
One-quarter of 665 households in Karen state surveyed by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported forced labor violations, with families forced to act as porters, grow crops, or sweep for landmines for soldiers between January 2011 and January 2012.
The Burmese military was the main perpetrator of the forced labor violations, but armed rebel groups also committed abuses, PHR said.
The survey also showed a link between investment projects proposed by the Burmese government in the region and human rights violations, with those living near a mine, pipeline, hydroelectric dam, or other economic development projects significantly more likely to have experienced forced labor or other violations.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.