The good news is that the junta has approved all pending visas for foreign aid workers, so finally the people in the isolated parts of the Irawaddy Delta should begin getting some help.
The bad news is that the regime is now using cyclone survivors as forced labor to do the clean-up and reconstruction.
Yet the intersection of these two pieces of news can only be a good thing. Burma is a country with a laundry list of ills, but forced labor has long been one of the regime's hallmarks. The fact that the generals are bold (or stupid, or desperate) enough to carry on with their old ways while the country is filled with foreign aid workers, and while the whole world looks on, may turn out to be a good thing.
In fact, if you were wondering why a regime would be so reluctant to let outsiders come help, you're now about to see the exact scenario the generals feared playing out. My fervent hope is that the international community and the press will stay on this story and continue to expose the brutality of the regime -- exactly as they have not done for the past 40-odd years, as this kind of forced labor has been a regular feature of life for ordinary citizens in the country.
Here are three accounts of forced labor as told to me by Burmese citizens who I interviewed last year. As you read them, bear in mind that forced labor is far from the problem with this regime; it is only one out of many. I will add posts in the future to help round out the picture of this dictatorship's profound insanity.
Sai Ba Htay
Interviwed at Mae Tao Clinic, Mae Sot, Thailand, 8 April 2007
I am from the northern part of Shan State, which is in the northeast of the country. I’m a member of the Shan ethnic group. I’m 28 years old.
I left Burma by myself. Why did I leave? Wow, there are so many reasons. Mostly economic. In Burma, you have to pay an incredible amount of taxes. My mother, my younger brother and I had a rice farm. The government would buy the rice from us, but at a ridiculously low price. It’s really impossible ever to make any money for yourself, because you have to give 75% of what you make to the government. That just leaves you with enough to survive. There’s no benefit at all to the farmer. This has been going on for a long time, but life inside Burma is becoming more and more difficult.
Sometimes you have to leave your own work to do forced labor for the government. It’s very organized. There’s a rotation system, and two kinds of forced labor. One is “formal” forced labor, where you are called once per year to help on construction projects and so on. The other is called “informal” forced labor, where you’re just called suddenly to come do work. I started getting called when I was 16 years old. I have had to go plant krow, an edible plant that the army sells to finance itself, and I’ve had to go into the forest to cut bamboo and build walls for a military base.
Your village will get called to do forced labor, and each village has a car – that they have to pay for – to carry workers to the project site. When you go to forced labor, you bring your own food. When you arrive, they say, “Okay, you have to complete this area. You can’t go home until it’s finished.” If you’re sick or weak and can’t go do the forced labor, you have to rent someone to go do it in your place. Sometimes the site is ten miles from your village, so if you get sick while the project is going on, you have to wait until it’s finished to go home and get treatment. They give you one hour per day to rest and eat the food you brought with you – then back to work.
The SPDC is very verbally abusive toward the workers, but I never saw anyone get beaten. They don’t have to beat you, though. You see their guns and you know what they’re capable of, so everyone tries very hard to please them. Sometimes they threaten to shoot you if you don’t work hard, and they actually fire their guns to scare you.
Interviewed at Mae Tao Clinic, Mae Sot, Thailand, 8 April 2007
I am from a small village called Nam Sam. My parents are tea farmers there. In 1999,like many people in Burma, I was forced to porter for the SPDC for three days. When the SPDC is doing a construction project, or sometimes when troops are moving through the jungle, they force ordinary civilians to carry equipment or weapons for them. They made me carry guns. Each day we were given one handful of rice to eat. We had to walk with these loads all day in the heat, and if you didn’t keep up, you were in trouble.
A friend of mine went with me. He was too small to carry much, so the SPDC got angry with him and began hitting him hard on the head with the butts of their guns. He didn’t die, but he is crazy now. He lives in the street and eats strange things. He is not the person I used to know.
Forced portering has been happening for a long time in Burma. When I was small, my father portered for one month. On top of the loads they were forced to haul, they had to carry their own food. They were also forced to dig foxholes for soldiers. When he came home, he was very thin, and he started beating my mother. He never used to do that.
It is very, very sad, what is happening inside my country.
Kaun Caan Kaee, age 31
Interviewed in Mae Sot, Thailand, 13 April 2007
In my last year of high school, I was walking to the school, carrying my books, to take my final examinations. I came across a group of SPDC soldiers, more than I could count. I thought because I had my school uniform on, they wouldn’t stop me. But I was wrong. They captured me and forced me to carry heavy loads for them.
This happens a lot. The SPDC will come to a village and tell the head man, “We need 200 men to carry loads for us.” But the people know that this is happening, so all the men go and hide. Sometimes when the SPDC comes to a village and can’t find any men, they will capture women and children and hold them until men show themselves, for exchange. Once the men show up, the soldiers are angry, and they beat the men. This happened once to my father. Another time, when I was six or seven, my father was portering and he got sick of it and ran away. The soldiers caught him and severely beat him again.
There were other civilians forced to porter with me. There was one old man who had no energy. He couldn’t carry anything. I watched as one soldier stabbed him through the midsection, killing him with his bayonet. Later the soldier had to pay 3,000 kyat [about $450] in compensation to the old man’s family.
We went up into the mountains and stayed in villages. The villagers were good to us. They gave us really good rice to eat – but the soldiers took the good stuff the villagers had given us, and made us eat bad rice.
It was rice that the soldiers were making me carry. An enormous bag that probably weighed 50 kilos. And I only weigh 54 kilos! So when no one was looking, I cut a little hole in the bottom of the sack so that rice would leak out to lighten my load.
On the third day, we entered the village where my school was. My teacher saw me carrying rice for the army, and he went and talked to the soldiers. He told them I was a student who was supposed to be taking my examinations, so they let me go.
But that wasn’t the last time I had to porter.