No hope for reform on Burma's slave railway

DESPITE the hopes for democracy that rose with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi last month, Burma's military government shows no signs of changing its methods. Thousands of ethnic Mon civilians are being used as slave labourers on the Ye-Tavoy railway to secure a multi-million- dollar gas-pipeline project.

Funded by Total of France and Unocal of the US, the pipeline, cutting across rebel Mon territory, will provide Thailand with 525 million cubic feet of gas per day under a 30-year contract worth pounds 250m per year for the military government, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or Slorc.

The 110-mile long railway will facilitate the deployment of Slorc troops in the rebel zone, but the more immediate concern for the Mon is the forcible relocation or destruction of their villages, and the forced conscription of civilian labour. The New Mon State Party estimates that up to 150,000 people were used in last year's dry season on the construction of the railway. Conscription involves the arrival of Slorc troops at Mon villages and the demand for one person per household. If no man is available, they take a woman. If no woman, a child.

At Payaw refugee camp there are plenty among the 3,500 people to testify to Slorc atrocities. Jo Sein, aged 40, spent 12 hours every day digging up to 20 feet for the laying of the track in the mountainside. He escaped during the night, risking his life, arriving at Payaw after a three-day walk through jungle.

Nai Sor Teh, aged 35, worked for a month on a different site chopping trees. "Those not wanting to work from illness were beaten with rifle butts." But the workers, he said, had no toilet facilities and fell ill due to the lack of sanitation. There were medical supplies, but only for the troops. Workers had to bring food to supplement the few rations shared between them daily. "The Slorc are dividing families; they take from us the chance to earn a living." Nai Sor Teh says that the labourers encouraged children at the site to rest, but the soldiers beat them and ordered them to work. Some children were as young as 12.

At the NMSP Tavoy District camp, Nai Ban Ya Mon interprets the softly spoken words of a shy 21-year old woman, Mi Sheinta, from Demokran on the west coast. She said soldiers arrived at her village, and ordered people to leave their homes after throwing their possessions into the sea at gunpoint. Two village heads were beaten for resisting and the village was burnt to the ground.

Thailand's policy of "constructive engagement" with Burma continues to operate on the basis of economic interest. For the Mon, civil liberties are clearly connected to trade and investment. One of their concerns is to link human rights issues to the broader economic ones.

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