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Welcome to the Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008


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After initially forming in the Bay of Bengal on 27 April 2008, Tropical Cyclone Nargis later struck the Burmese coastline on 2 May 2008 with winds of up to 215 KPH (135 MPH) in what became the single-most catastrophic natural disaster in Burma’s history and the second deadliest named cyclone in the world’s recorded history. In the wake of the cyclone, it was estimated that as many as one million people had been displaced, at least 146,000 had lost their lives, and that the damage bill was in excess of US$10 billion. This photograph, taken on 19 May 2009, two weeks after the cyclone struck shows a group of displaced villagers huddling together in the rain beside a road in Dedaye Township, Irrawaddy Division. These villagers, like millions of others like them, were still waiting for assistance after their homes and livelihoods had all been lost. What was already a very serious natural disaster quickly became far worse as a result of the military regime’s gross negligence. Not only did the junta fail to provide any advance warning of the impending cyclone, but they were also slow to respond after the cyclone had hit. Foreign aid workers were initially denied entry to the country, and much of the relief supplies sent into the country were either misappropriated by the military or relabelled so as to appear to local communities that it was the SPDC who was responsible for the provision of aid. Reports later emerged of villagers in the Irrawaddy Delta being forced to repay the regime for the aid that they received. Meanwhile, the junta’s planned constitutional referendum went ahead as planned on 9 May 2008, despite the high death rate and considerable damage caused. In July 2009, 15 months after the cyclone struck, the UN estimated that less than seven percent of the needs for shelter had been met. [Photo: © Reuters].


The Human Rights Documentation Unit (HRDU) began monitoring the human rights situation in Burma 15 years ago with the publication of the Burma Human Rights Yearbook 1994.  Since that time, the HRDU has continued to monitor and document the human rights situation in Burma, culminating in this present report, the Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008.  Indeed, this current report represents the 15th annual instalment of the Burma Human Rights Yearbook series.  Collectively, the Burma Human Rights Yearbooks embody the most complete historical account of the human rights situation in Burma over those past 15 years.  To date, the HRDU has published over 10,000 pages of highly detailed human rights documentation.  Together, the Burma Human Rights Yearbooks present an unparalleled and unbroken historical record of the systematic and egregious nature of the human rights abuses committed by the military regime and its allied ceasefire armies spanning the past one and a half decades, and as such will be of paramount importance following the eventual democratization of Burma and the convening of a truth commission or transitional justice program to hold the perpetrators to account for their actions.

Few organizations working to document human rights in Burma, or indeed anywhere in the world for that matter, can boast such a comprehensive body of work.  While most organizations working on human rights issues in Burma limit the scope of their work to a particular thematic issue, ethnic group or geographic area, the HRDU, through the publication of the Burma Human Rights Yearbook, addresses the full gamut of human rights abuses being perpetrated in all areas across the country.  Similarly, few other organizations working to promote human rights in Burma can claim the longevity of the HRDU. 

At 1,092 pages in length, comprised of approximately half a million words (excluding the endnote citations; of which there are over 4,800), this present publication, the Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008, is the single largest, most comprehensive, most inclusive report ever produced by any organization in the world detailing the human rights situation in Burma.  

This, however, in itself is no cause for celebration.  Sadly, many of the issues examined in this current report remain the same as those discussed in the very first Burma Human Rights Yearbook, 15 years ago.  The military remains firmly entrenched in power and wholesale oppression of the civilian population continues.  Despite ongoing documentation activities, increased public awareness of human rights, repeated examples of public dissent and calls for reform, coupled with unprecedented levels of international awareness and condemnation of the situation in Burma, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) military regime has persistently failed to address (or even listen to) the grievances of the general population. 

Alas, the sheer size of this present report and the undeniable volume of evidence which comprises it, indicates that there has been little discernable improvement in Burma since the HRDU first began monitoring the situation 15 years ago. 

The year 2008 proved to be yet another tumultuous year for the people of Burma.  Not only did we witness the single most catastrophic natural disaster in the nation’s history in the form of Tropical Cyclone Nargis which struck Burma’s coastline on 2 May 2008 and claimed an estimated 140,000 lives in the process, we also saw the extent of the regime’s malevolence manifested through its near-complete lack of response to the tragedy.  Though an estimated 2.4 million people had been adversely affected by the cyclone, approximately one million of whom had been displaced, the junta scarcely lifted a finger.  Even when the international community was beating on the door with generous offers of relief and assistance for those affected, the SPDC actively prevented the provision of aid.  Offers were turned down and visas for aid workers were rejected.  It was not until the junta’s obstruction of the aid effort was equated with Crimes Against Humanity, that international aid organizations were allowed in, although even then, they were still denied access to some of the worst affected areas. 

Still, the SPDC announced its intention to move ahead with its planned constitutional referendum scheduled to take place on 10 May 2008, just over a week after the cyclone had struck and while the vast majority of cyclone survivors had still yet to receive any form of aid whatsoever.  Reports soon emerged of cyclone survivors being evicted from emergency relief centres set up in schools, monasteries and community halls so that these spaces could be used as polling stations.  By July 2008, the SPDC had prematurely closed almost all of the relief centres set up in Irrawaddy and Rangoon Divisions, ordering those who had been seeking refuge there back to their decimated villages despite UN estimates that aid would need to be provided for at least six months.  The last two remaining aid centres in Labutta Township in Irrawaddy Division, one of the worst hit areas, were ordered shut on 10 August 2008.  The displaced villagers were simply told that, "[t]he government has given you enough assistance and relief material so you must go back home”.  Meanwhile, an estimated 20,000 square miles of farmland remained inundated with salt water. 

The only respite that the SPDC offered cyclone survivors was to postpone the referendum for two weeks in the worst affected areas.  All other areas were still force to vote on 10 May 2008.  However, before these communities were able to even cast their votes, on 15 May 2008, the SPDC announced that the constitution had been “overwhelmingly approved” with a referendum result of 92.4 percent in favour.  Unsurprisingly, this result was met with widespread scepticism and condemnation of being little more than a sham designed to assure the military’s continued grip on power. 

Meanwhile, throughout the country, SPDC army soldiers continued to perpetrate widespread and egregious human rights violations against the civilian population.  Thousands of reports emerged throughout the year detailing military involvement in cases of arbitrary arrest, torture and extra-judicial executions, rape, the use of forced labour, widespread deployment of antipersonnel landmines in civilian areas, the recruitment of child soldiers, the restriction of fundamental freedoms, the oppression of minority groups, deprivation of livelihood and the destruction of property, and complicity in the drug trade, all within a climate of near-complete impunity. 

Sadly, such trends appear likely to continue.  The approval of the constitution almost guarantees the military of their privileged position as a class unto itself.  Moreover, the SPDC’s frequently displayed intransigence for compromise or reform, and its apparent inability to demonstrate any form of common decency towards the civilian population of Burma, indicates that the coming year will only spell more of the same. 

How many years and lives will it take to put a stop to these crimes?  What will it take for the international community to stand behind the people of Burma and demand that these atrocities be put to a stop?  Though the HRDU, and other grassroots organizations like us, have been bringing these abuses to the world’s attention for the past 15 years, it must not be forgotten that the people of Burma have suffered under military rule and its concomitant human rights abuses for the past half a century.  The time is long overdue to demand respect for human rights, justice and human dignity for the people of Burma.  Enough is enough!



Table of Contents

The Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008 is available in PDF format. Please use the following Table of Contents to access each chapter of the Yearbook individually. Clicking on the title of one of the chapters below will open the PDF file for that chapter in a new window. Alternatively, the whole Yearbook may be downloaded in its entirety as a single file by clicking on the link below.

Click here to download the entire Burma Human Rights Yearbook 2008 as a single PDF file. Right-click to download [12.66 MB; 1,092 A4 pages]

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Chapter Title
Historical and Political Background
Chapter 1: Arbitrary Detention and Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances
Chapter 2: Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Chapter 3: Extra-Judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions
Chapter 4: Landmines and Other Explosive Devices
Chapter 5: Production and Trade of Illicit Drugs
Chapter 6: Trafficking and Smuggling
Chapter 7: Forced Labour and Forced Conscription
Chapter 8: Deprivation of Livelihood
Chapter 9: Environmental Degradation
Chapter 10: Cyclone Nargis - From natural disaster to human catastrophe
Chapter 11: Right to Health
Chapter 12: Freedom of Belief and Religion
Chapter 13: Freedom of Opinion, Expression and the Press
Chapter 14: Freedom of Assembly, Association and Movement
Chapter 15: Right to Education
Chapter 16: Rights of the Child
Chapter 17: Rights of Women
Chapter 18: Ethnic Minority Rights
Chapter 19: Internal Displacement and Forced Relocation
Chapter 20: The Situation of Refugees
Chapter 21: The Situation of Migrant Workers

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