Military rulers face renewed call to end forced labour
Larry Jagan in Yangon
A delegation from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) arrived in Yangon last night in the highest-level contact between the labour body and the Myanmese government for several years.
During the four-day official visit, the ILO team hopes to meet top government ministers, opposition leaders and representatives of ethnic groups.
Over the past year, the ILO has been increasingly critical of the government's failure to tackle the problem of forced labour.
Diplomats in Yangon believe the visit can only be a success in the unlikely event of a meeting with the country's top leader, General Than Shwe. A meeting with the prime minister, Lieutenant-General Soe Win, is seen as more likely.
The situation deteriorated badly last year according to ILO officials, with an increase in reported cases of forced labour. The government failed to respond to the organisation's complaints. One of the most crucial cases was the conviction of several workers for treason for having contact with the ILO.
There is now growing pressure from the trade union representatives within the organisation to impose economic sanctions.
The delegation will report back to the organisation's governing body when it meets in Geneva next month.
'The high-level team hopes to get a concrete commitment from Burma's military leaders that they are going to stamp out forced labour and discuss measures to strengthen this,' according to senior ILO officials.
The ILO team is being led by a former governor-general of Australia, Sir Ninian Stephen, who also headed the last visit four years ago that conducted one of the most comprehensive investigations into forced labour in Myanmar.
The other two members are the former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss and former ILO chairman and South Korean ambassador, Chung Eui-yong. The ILO governing body decided in November to give the regime one last chance and agreed to send the team to discuss the organisation's relations with the generals before deciding future policy.
Pressure for the ILO to call for sanctions to be imposed on Yangon is likely to mount. Apart from the issue of forced labour, the ILO is expected to discuss the failure to allow freedom of association.
Trade unions are effectively banned and several workers have been in prison for more than three years for belonging to the Federation of Trade Unions of Burma.
While the ILO may be keen to maintain its presence in Yangon, the pressure to call for sanctions may prove irresistible. The regime will have to make major concessions if it is to delay international moves for a more punitive stance.