By SAW YAN NAING
The Irrawaddy News
Thousands of people in hundreds of villages are being forced to labor for free under a military-led reconstruction effort in the cyclone-devastated Irrawaddy delta, according to sources in the area.
Villagers in the hard-hit townships of Laputta, Bogalay, Pyapon and Dedaye say that local people, including children, have been told by Ward Peace and Development Councils and military troops that they must provide labor on a rotating basis.
The work they are expected to do includes serving as porters, cutting bamboo and trees and cleaning up roads and villages. Some have also been put to work on construction sites, the sources said.
The villagers, many of them living in camps for cyclone survivors, said that the duties imposed on them were preventing them from rebuilding their own homes or tending to their fields.
“They [farmers] said that for the past month, they have been forced to work in rotation for the authorities. People who don’t work when it’s their turn have to pay a fine of 1,500 kyat (US $1.26),” said a source in Laputta.
A refugee from the village of Kyar Chaung said that the authorities call on 100 men each day to carry sacks of rice. “Those who do not obey the order are driven out of the refugee camps,” he added.
Another refugee, from the village of Kaing Thaung, said: “The authorities accuse people who don’t want to work for them of being lazy. They say that they are opportunists who are just waiting around to get everything for free.”
There have been a number of reports of people in the camps being beaten and forced to leave. Some say that the authorities are looking for excuses to throw people out of the camps.
Meanwhile, fishermen in the area have been ordered to catch prawns and fish for Burmese troops, said one fisherman in Ywe, a village in Laputta Township.
The Burmese army unit responsible for recovery and reconstruction efforts in the Irrawaddy delta is Light Infantry Division 66, under the command of Brig-Gen Maung Maung Aye. As a commanding officer of Infantry Battalion 70 in Pegu Division and Karen State in the early 2000s, Maung Maung Aye was notorious for pressganging civilians into road construction.
Sources in the camps for cyclone victims say that they have been told not to discuss the use of forced labor with visitors, and to inform the authorities about the presence of any unknown people in the camps.
Burma’s military regime has been strongly condemned by international rights groups for its use of forced labor in building army camps and constructing basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges. Refusal to work on any of these projects has resulted in documented cases of detention, torture and execution.
In June, the International Labor Organization said it was concerned that the Burmese military regime might use forced labor in reconstructing cyclone-devastated areas.
The Irrawaddy’s correspondent Aung Thet Wine in Laputta also contributed to this report.