Government should hold perpetrators of forced labor accountable, compensate survivors

(MRAUK-U, March 15, 2016)— Myanmar Army soldiers forced ethnic-Rakhine civilians to dig graves and carry supplies under the threat of death during recent fighting with the Arakan Army in Rakhine State, Fortify Rights said today. The forced labor occurred in December 2015 and January 2016 in Kyauktaw Township.

“President Thein Sein’s administration failed to take forced labor seriously, and that’s partly why we’re still documenting it throughout the country, ” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “The authorities in Myanmar should put an end to these endemic abuses and compensate survivors.”

Over the course of an 11-day preliminary investigation in Rakhine State, Fortify Rights and our partners documented seven cases of forced labor by the Myanmar Army in December 2015 and January 2016 in Kyauktaw Township, Rakhine State. All cases involved civilians forced to engage in manual labor and portering for Myanmar Army soldiers.

On December 29, soldiers from Myanmar Army Battalion 380 abducted three men from Kyaung Chaung village. Myanmar Army Battalions 380 and 378 forced the men to carry weapons and rations and dig graves for Myanmar Army soldiers killed in conflict with the Arakan Army. The Myanmar Army held the men for 11 consecutive days, deprived them of food for two days, bound their hands behind their backs, and threatened them with death if they tried to escape. The men had no option to decline the work and received no compensation for their time or labor.

“We had to carry rations and weapons. When there was fighting, we had to hide on the ground,” a 40-year-old Rakhine man who had also been displaced by the conflict, told Fortify Rights. “We had to go wherever the soldiers went, with food or water or sometimes dried rice and other rations.” 

Another 34-year-old Rakhine man forced to work for the Myanmar Army explained to Fortify Rights that he asked Myanmar Army soldiers to loosen the ties around his wrists when he was not working. A soldier responded, “Don’t say anything else. If you ask again, we will shoot you.”

The Rakhine men told Fortify Rights that Myanmar Army soldiers accused them of being associated with the Arakan Army. There is a long history of Myanmar Army soldiers killing, torturing, arbitrarily detaining, and committing other abuses against ethnic individuals associated with or accused of being associated with non-state ethnic armies.

In February, the International Labour Organization (ILO) told The Irrawaddy that the Myanmar military continued to be responsible for forced labor throughout the country, despite President Thein Sein’s prior commitment to end the practice by 2015. The ILO referred to Thein Sein’s military-backed government as a “reluctant” partner in combatting forced labor, noting that nationally the Myanmar military is the “main perpetrator” of forced labor.

The Arakan Army has also been accused of using forced labor. The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported that the Arakan Army forced ethnic Khumi-Chin civilians in Paletwa Township to bury a Myanmar Army captain killed in the fighting and porter supplies to the Bangladesh border in March 2015. CHRO also documented the recruitment of child soldiers by the Arakan Army.

The Government of Myanmar should investigate these allegations and hold all perpetrators of forced labor to account, Fortify Rights said.

The Myanmar Army’s use of forced labor in areas of armed conflict in Rakhine State violates international humanitarian law, human rights law, and Myanmar’s domestic law. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits uncompensated and abusive forced labor in situations of armed conflict. In the context of armed conflict, protected civilians can be compelled to work but only under strict conditions: the work must not be “directly related to the conduct of military operations,” it must not involve them “in the obligation of taking part in military operations,” and it must be voluntary and compensated. Furthermore, Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions requires the humane treatment of persons under the control of an armed force.

As a member of the ILO, Myanmar is obligated to uphold the ILO core conventions, which prohibit the use of forced labor. ILO Conventions No. 29 and 105 prohibit “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” 

The U.S. Government regards all forms of forced labor as human trafficking. Myanmar is currently on the Tier-2 Watch List in the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report, which ranks countries globally in the fight against human trafficking. Countries whose governments fail to meet minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking face a Tier-3 ranking, which could result in U.S. sanctions. Thailand is currently the only Tier-3 country in Southeast Asia.

Clashes between the Myanmar Army and Arakan Army began in April 2015, reportedly resulting in scores of casualties and displacing hundreds of ethnic Rakhine and Chin civilians. 

Founded in 2009, the Arakan Army comprises an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers. It was not among the 15 ethnic armed groups invited to sign the controversial “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement”—only eight armed groups signed the agreement in October 2015. 

Since 2012, the Myanmar Army has reportedly used forced labor from several thousand Rohingya persons in northern Rakhine State, including children. Fortify Rights has also documented forced labor exacted by the Myanmar Army in Kachin State and northern Shan State since June 2011, including soldiers forcing villagers to guide them or carry military materials through areas littered with landmines.

“The military should work closely with the NLD government and the ILO to end forced labor,” said Matthew Smith. “The authorities will need to demonstrate that they’re prosecuting perpetrators and protecting and compensating survivors.”

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