BANGKOK — Myanmar has seen a "dramatic" rise in complaints about forced labour owing to increased public awareness about the problem, a UN agency working in the country said Tuesday.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) branch in Yangon has received 506 complaints since the start of 2010 -- more than double the number seen during the previous three years.
"This dramatic increase can be put down to extensive awareness raising activity," said the ILO's Myanmar liaison officer, Steve Marshall, in an email to AFP.
Of 749 complaints received since early 2007, 582 fell within the ILO's restricted mandate in Myanmar. Many involve child soldiers.
The government allows the group to work in support of their policies to eliminate forced labour, including underage army recruitment.
Marshall said the distribution of a Myanmar-language brochure explaining the law was likely to be the main driver behind the rise in complaints, rather than an actual increase in the use of forced labour.
"But similarly the number of complaints cannot be used to reflect the size of the problem," he said. "Many people are still either unaware of their rights or are not in a position to attempt to exercise them."
Myanmar's military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian administration in March after nearly half a century of army rule.
The ILO's agreement to work in the country, extended in February this year for another 12 months, first came into effect in Febuary 2007.
Since then, 174 people recruited underage by the military have been released to their families, the ILO said, and in response 20 officers and 110 other ranks have been disciplined, according to defence officials.
Rights activists believe there are thousands of child soldiers in the state military, while some of Myanmar's ethnic armed groups have also been named by the UN for recruiting and using children in conflict.
Marshall said they had "serious difficulty" assessing allegations against non-state armed groups, but they were negotiating with the government to get access at least to groups with which there are ceasefire agreements.
He pointed out that while each army recruitment case recorded by the ILO related to one victim, for other forms of forced labour a single case could relate to hundreds of complainants.
"There is still a long way to go," he said, adding that complaints falling outside the ILO's mandate mainly concerned land confiscation, corruption and industrial disputes.
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