Sann Aung

Laboring in Exile

When the International Labor Organization condemned the use of forced labor in Burma (also known as Myanmar) in a historic vote in June, Sann Aung had reason to smile. In the last decade, he hasn’t had many.

Exiled to Bangkok from his homeland since 1990, the former dentist from Bassein, west of Rangoon, has long been a member of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, an exile group headquartered in Washington.

Sann Aung now serves as the labor minister for the government-in-exile. Hong Kong’s centrist South China Morning Post reported that even his marriage in June was tinged with an exile’s sadness: His parents, whom he has not seen for 10 years, remain in Burma.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which prodded the ILO to action, estimates 800,000 Bur-mese are daily victims of forced labor.

“This is the thing that often breaks them, makes them flee,” Sann Aung says when discussing the forced labor practices in his impoverished homeland. “It’s just too much.”

Though the ILO vote is historic, the results may be only symbolic. “The ILO has given Burma until November to stop forcing its citizens to work as slaves for the state and to show it has stopped. But of course, Burma will do no such thing,” says Thailand’s independent Bangkok Post. “The dictatorship’s undiplomatic response to the ILO is that it is all a foreign plot meant to hurt innocent Burma. There is no forced labor at all, only patriotic people who volunteer to work on state projects for free.”

While Sann Aung dismisses Burmese denials, he also holds out little hope for incremental change through measures such as the ILO vote.

“So, no change soon,” he says. “But when things do start to happen I think it could come in a rush. We could surprise the world.”