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Burma Issues annual report, 1992, p
Subject: Burma Issues annual report, 1992, part 1 of 5
BURMA ISSUES 1992 REPORT: Part 1 of 3
I.THE CASE OF BURMA
"Permit me to state at the outset that we in Myanmar (Burma)
do not have any problems of indigenous populations. Neither there
is discrimination against them. The reason for this fact is
simple. All the 135 national races residing in Myanmar are
indigenous national races in the true sense of that word. We have
lived through weal and woe throughout the ages. There were no
distinct early arrivals or late comers."
This was the opening statement made by Ambassador U Tin Kyaw
Hlaing, permanent representative and leader of the observer
delegation of the Union of Myanmar, at the 44th session of the
Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of
Minorities, in Geneva on August 26 of this year. It illustrates
clearly the Burmese military's stated position on the human rights
situation inside Burma. Simply put, "There is no problem."
He further emphasized this point by continuing, "In Myanmar,
major religions -- Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Hinduism live
side by side, flourishing and living in complete harmony. In
Myanmar, there is total absence of discrimination against any
person, group of persons -- whether they are in the minority or not
-- residing in Myanmar on grounds of race, creed, religion or sex."
Amnesty International's October 16, 1992 report on Burma
provides a very different view of life in Burma today.
"Using a strategy know as 'the Four Cuts', the military
attempts to cut links to intelligence, food, money, and recruits
between armed opposition groups and local civilians. Large areas
are declared 'free-fire zones'; ethnic minority communities are
forced to move to 'strategic hamlets' under strict curfews and
rigid controls; crops and villages are destroyed; and expulsion
orders warn that any villagers remaining in their homes will be
shot on sight. During these operations, the Army arbitrarily kills
civilians, rapes and otherwise tortures villagers during
interrogation, and arrests thousands of people, many of who are
subject to ill-treatment in custody. Anyone suspected of having
contact with insurgents is at risk of gross abuse; whole villages
believed sympathetic to the opposition, or villages which have
simply been visited by insurgents, are vulnerable to attack by the
military. In some areas, all the villages have been designated
'black' by the authorities, meaning anyone found there can be shot
On September 24, 1992, the Burmese military regime finally
signed four protocols of the 1949 Geneva Convention on the
protection of victims of armed conflict. The four protocols cover
wartime violations of human rights, mistreatment of
prisoners-of-war and mistreatment of civilians in time of war. But
Burma declined to sign the two additional 1977 protocols on the
protection of victims of international and non-international armed
conflicts. The signing of these protocols came as a surprise to
many people. However a member of the International Commission of
the Red Cross said that the ICRC had been threatening to pull out
of Burma because of the horrible human rights record of the
military, and so Slorc signed the protocols in order to keep ICRC
present and active.
The signing of the protocols seems to have had no effect on
the situation in Burma. Today human rights abuses continue
unabated. They are something many of the people of Burma have had
to live with for over 40 years, and few expected the signing of the
protocols to bring much relief.
Although it is impossible to list all abuses being experienced
by the people of Burma today, following is an attempt to summarize
many of them:
I. Internal Abuses
1) Forced Displacement of the population.
This has been going on in the ethnic minority areas for
decades although the world has heard little about it. The purpose
of forcibly moving villages is to cut them off from the ethnic
minority armed groups. Forcible evictions are also used for
revenge when Burmese military troops suffer an attack by one of the
many ethnic armed groups. Presently there may be as many as 1.5
million displaced persons within Burma. Many of these live in
concentration-like camps with little food or medical attention.
After the 1988 popular uprising, the military also began
moving entire urban communities into "satellite towns" in order to
"beautify the urban areas". The majority of the communities
dislocated in this way were either communities made up of a large
percentage of minority people, or were centers for much of the
activity during the uprising.
In order to build these "satellite towns", farmers were
evicted from their farms with no compensation. The new residents,
were forced to pay the military for the land. Everyone but the
military lost in this process.
An unknown number of people have been arrested and imprisoned
for political reasons. Since the military regime does not admit to
having any political detainees, all of these prisoners are charged
with non-political crimes such as theft, murder etc. Burma's 50
prisons have been enlarged, and are now capable of holding many
thousands of people. The largest, Insein, is said to often hold
more than 10,000 people in extremely crowded and unsanitary cells.
Recently the Slorc regime has made a big show of releasing
almost 1,000 political prisoners (this was the first time they
admitted to having political prisoners since 1988). However, some
observers estimate that over 20,000 prisoners are still being held
for political reasons.
Torture in the prisons comes in a vast variety of forms.
-being kept in chest-deep water for days
-riding the motorcycle
-kneeling on sharp stones for hours in the hot sun
-deprivation of sleep and food
-psychological torture of all kinds
-being kept in isolation for weeks and months
-faced covered with a wet cloth
-hanging upside down for long periods of time
-stretching by pulling arms and legs
4) Forced Labor
Although forced labor usually affects people in the rural
areas, there have been many reports of people in urban areas being
picked up in the market, at cinemas, or simply off the streets.
Several different types of forced labor can be identified.
a) Thousands of villagers, inmates from prisons, and some
urban people are regularly conscripted to carry military arms and
supplies for Slorc forces going into campaigns against ethnic
minority forces. The porters include the old and young, men and
women (including pregnant women) and even children. They are
forced to carry very heavy loads with insufficient food and rest.
If they slow the column down, they are beaten and left to die, or
sometimes simply killed.
It is not uncommon for these porters to be forced to march in
front of the Burmese army troops to serve as human mine detectors.
Conscription for porter service always increases just before a
military operation is carried out, and the most common victims of
this forced labor are ethnic peasants.
b) Villagers are often rounded up and forced to construct
roads and railway lines for the military. Sometimes each village
along the route is required to build a certain length of the road
or rail line without pay or food. People are not provided with
shelter from the rain or sun, and few medicines are available. The
roads and railway lines are needed by the military to transport
troops and supplies faster to the front lines.
This is a general category which includes many forms of human
-village women are often gang raped by soldiers
-villages are burned and crops destroyed
-children are deprived of education
-health care, promised by the authorities, is not provided
-universities are regularly closed
-there are reports of villagers being burned alive
6) General Harassment
-Constant threat of demonetization
-constant fear of arrest, search and seizure
-difficulty of travel (internally and abroad)
-constant threat of military campaigns
-shelling and strafing of ethnic villages
-Creation of ethnic and religious conflicts
-constant questioning of families of dissidents
II. External Abuses
External abuses of a people's human rights are often not given
enough priority. Ignoring the cries of the oppressed, or providing
inappropriate assistance prolongs suffering and oppression.
1) Economic investments made with or through the military
regime can play a central role in helping keep the military in
power against the wishes of the general population. This is a form
of direct involvement in the internal affairs of Burma.
2) Providing funds in any way which are used by a the
military to purchase military supplies, not only limits food,
education and medical help to the people, but also increases the
power of the military over the people.
3) Allowing Slorc to occupy the seat in the UN General
Assembly is to totally ignore the people's voice expressed through
the May 1991 elections. This is also a terrible abuse of the human
rights of the people of Burma.
4) A "wait and see" attitude of many governments towards
Burma also violates the human rights of the people of Burma who
must continue to suffer a vast variety of human rights abuses under
the military regime.
III. WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR BURMA
The road ahead for Burma is a rough one. The 1993 dry season
will be an extremely active one with Slorc troops committed to
destroying all opposition groups in the border areas. Slorc is
trying hard to convince Thailand to seal the borders between
Thailand and the ethnic minority areas such as the Karen, Mon and
Karenni so that these groups will finally be defeated through a
lack of arms and supplies. These military campaigns will produce
a growing number of external refugees as well as hundreds of
thousands more internally displaced persons.
It is very doubtful that Slorc will actually be able to take
Karen strongholds such as Wankha and Mannerplaw. However, should
they manage to do this, they will not have, as yet, completely
conquered the Karen. The jungles are big and difficult to move
through. The Karen can simply adopt guerilla tactics and continue
their struggle from bases deep inside the jungle.
Slorc has been using younger troops in their anti-minority
campaigns. Many of Slorc's soldiers who have been captured or
killed are young teenagers with very little training. Almost all
of them have little or no education. By keeping the local economy
in such bad shape, Slorc can assure itself of a continual flow of
new recruits as the army is about the only job these young men can
get which will help them care for their families. For this reason,
there is doubt that the economy in the country will improve over
the next few years, especially the economic standards of the poor
International pressure against Slorc will probably grow, but
Slorc has been carrying out an aggressive international public
relations campaign to try to gain time. They have released some
political prisoners, opened their doors a little wider to
international investments, opened universities, and have promised
to hold a national assembly early in 1993. This public relations
campaign will continue, but if concrete results can not be seen, it
will not much affect most of the international community.
However, Asean countries and China will continue to play an
active role in defending Burma. The only hope is that Thailand
will be pressured enough to finally alter its constructive
engagement policy towards Burma. Should they do this, other Asean
countries would follow, and Slorc would become more isolated.
However, with the kinds of investments Thai companies are making in
Burma, a change in Thai policy seems more distant. Even the Thai
Electric Generating Authority of Thailand, a government
organization, is planning to invest in either hydroelectric dams
along the Salween River, or in a gas pipe line through the
Tanesserin Division for electric generating plants to be built in
Kanachanaburi Province of western Thailand. Either project will
cement Thailand's relationship with Slorc even more strongly.
China will continue to supply arms freely to Burma unless
sufficient international pressure can be brought on them to pull
back. There are possibilities that President Clinton of the US
will apply pressure on China to make some important changes within
their own country which might also limit their military support to
Burma, but there is some doubt that he will be able to carry this
out with much success. Clinton's possible emphasis on human rights
may put some pressure on Thailand to look more closely at its Burma
policy, but economic interests of a few power brokers in Thailand
will prevent much from changing.
The opposition groups continue playing a very crucial role in
the struggle, but due to the fact that they are not well unified,
their power is not sufficient to bring down Slorc. The new draft
constitution being prepared by the Democratic Alliance of Burma is
gaining international support, and as such has become a threat to
the Slorc. However, the constitution is not well understood by the
grassroots, and this could be a very serious weakness in the
future. A federal state system has been proposed by the opposition
groups as a way of creating a new future for the country, but there
are people who still fear that a federal state system will destroy
the union. This is due to misunderstanding of the meaning of a
federal state system caused by several decades of miseducation
carried out by the military regime.
One of the key issues to watch in 1993 is the National
Convention to be held in early in the year. It will get a lot of
international attention, and many countries, especially Asean, will
use this national convention to try to prove the success of their
policy of constructive engagement. However, the convention will be
mainly attended by Slorc people, or people whom Slorc can
manipulate. The voices of the opposition will not be allowed.
Slorc stated this clearly in their preparation meetings for the
convention held on July 27 of this year. "It would be unnatural to
invite persons who have no confidence in the Convention to attend
it. If the armed terrorists are truly serious of attending the
National Convention they ought to abandon the line of armed
struggle. They will have to return to the legal fold after
abandoning armed struggle. After their return to the legal fold,
they, like other members of the public will be able to attend the
National Convention by obtaining suitable number of delegates. It
is quite clear that the armed terrorists in the jungle today have
no other way to attend the National Convention except the one I
have just explained." (Maj-Gen Myo Nyunt, Chairman of the Steering
The purpose of the National Convention is to draw together
ideas for a new constitution for the country. Following this
convention, the elected members of the parliament (those not in
prison or in exile) will write the constitution which must then be
accepted by Slorc and finally pass a national referendum. Since
September 1998, the country has been without a constitution, ruled
only by military decree. "The State Law and Order Restoration
Council (Tatmadaw) is not an organization that observes any
constitution; it is an organization that is governing the nation
by Martial Law. It is common knowledge that the State Law and
Order Restoration Council is governing the nation as a military
government and that it is a government that has been accepted as
such by the United Nations and the respective nations of the
world." (The State Law and Order Restoration Council Declaration No
1/90, July 27, 1990)
Following the 1988 uprising and the September military coup
which followed, the political struggle in the urban centers became
closely and actively linked to the armed struggle along the
borders. This not only strengthened the struggle and brought it
into the international spot light, but it also brought many
thousands of ethnic Burmans into a working relationship with the
ethnic minority armed groups who had been carrying out their armed
struggle in isolation for almost 40 years. The National Convention
is an attempt by Slorc to once again separate these two aspects of
the struggle. This will come about in the following ways:
1) The national convention will first of all focus
international attention away from the borders and back into the
urban centers and the political struggle taking place in the
convention. Slorc will have more freedom then to carry out
military campaigns along the border with less international
2) Secondly, the holding of a National Convention and the
drawing up of a constitution will result in a new election. A
civilian government will probably be elected, but one which the
Slorc can hold control over. The political tensions in the urban
areas will relax and Slorc will be able to concentrate more of its
military forces in the border area. Since the ethnic Burmans are
struggling for "democratic" reforms and not for ethnic rights, many
of them will probably be satisfied with the changes and get back
to the work of earning money in a more open economic climate.
3) Slorc will probably at this time offer amnesty to all
those who fled to the border since 1988. Sick with malaria, and
tired of the long struggle, some of these people will probably
return to the "fold", thus further separating the urban political
struggle from the border armed struggle.
4) Slorc will then tell the world that, since there is now a
civilian government and democratic reforms are coming about, the
ethnic forces along the border have no reason to continue their
struggle. The border struggle will be further isolated.
5) An elected "civilian" government will also lead to more
international recognition for Burma as many countries are more
interested in the act of an election than in the actual existence
of human rights and democratic principles. Western countries tent
to relate more easily to urban political struggles, and an
election, even one organized by a dictator, will probably get more
attention than an on-going rural struggle for land and cultural
6) Slorc will continue its program to eliminate the ethnic
minority groups, especially the Karen. There is little chance that
they (Slorc) will to any political negotiations with them. "Since
the State Law and Order Restoration Council is not a political
government, it has no reason at all to negotiate by political means
with any armed insurgent organization." (Slorc Declaration No
1/90) A civilian government, under the thumb of the military, will
have little opportunity to change this policy.
In conclusion, any constitution which grows out of this
convention will not guarantee democracy for the country or human
rights for the people. This convention can never bring an end to
the civil war because it can not deal with the root causes of that
civil war in the absence of full participation of all opposition
groups. And so the war will continue for the millions of ethnic
minority people who live outside the vision of the world's eye, and
who have already suffered for more than 40 years.
IV. WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
Following are some suggestions for things which need action in
order to prepare the way for a more constructive peace process in
the region. The specifics for how these suggestions should be
carried out are sometime not clearly noted. Much discussion is
needed to develop effective strategies and tactics.
1) The priority for 1993 must be to push for an arms embargo
by the UN against Burma. Slorc is trying to focus attention on
their National Convention and trying to isolate the border
opposition groups (cutting off all arms and supplies). If they
accomplish this, they will more easily be able to crush the ethnic
minority forces along the border. A UN arms embargo would prevent
them from doing this, and would put tremendous pressure on them to
negotiate with the opposition groups. An arms embargo by the UN
would also put pressure on Asean nations to reassess their policies
2) The second priority is to increase pressure on Asean and
China to stop all economic involvements with Slorc. More efforts
must be made to build up local action groups within the Asean
countries to carry out this work. They should concentrate on
translating and sharing information prepared by Burma opposition
groups, and on organizing campaigns to force companies from their
country to withdraw from Burma.
3) International support groups must be cautious not to
involve themselves in a way which will encourage the split between
the urban (political) struggle and the border armed struggle which
the Slorc is trying to initiate. Despite the position many support
groups have against armed struggle, they should be careful not to
create an "either/or" atmosphere.
4) The world now seems left with only one economic system to
work with. The "end" of socialism has limited us to capitalism or
some form there of. New economic structures need to be developed
to give people more choice.
There is a strong possibility that the poor and oppressed in
a society may have the wisdom needed to suggest some of these new
economic structures and forms. For example, the people of Burma
had been isolated to some degree from the economic and political
"boxes" which the rest of the world was dealing with. There was a
chance for creativity and new visions if these people were
encouraged to build on their own experiences and culture.
However, the good intentions of people from outside Burma, who
wanted Burma to develop good "democracy", "federal states" etc.,
overpowered this potential for something new.
We have to find ways to learn to trust the oppressed and to
listen to them. Perhaps they can build something better if given
a chance, but we must give them the space and take the risk of
allowing them to do it.
5) Effective human rights documentation and education can and
should be done by the grassroots. In Burma, as in most other
countries, this task is left to the foreign experts who are not
always present when abuses happen, or often may not fully
understand the true nature of the abuses due to cultural and
Human rights knowledge and documentation tools should be given
to the oppressed in a simple way which they can understand and make
use of. This basically rules out large, money-intensive training
programs which are beyond the reach of the oppressed.
6) Some way must be found to raise the awareness of NGO's
about the possible negative effects of their involvement in
liberation struggles. Even the best intentions of the NGOs can not
guarantee that their involvement will not interfere in the people's
struggle. There are numerous examples of how outside NGO
"assistance" has stifled a grassroots movement in Burma. The
problem comes from the input of too much money on the wrong issues
at the wrong time, or overwhelming people with too many experts on
too many issues without proper preparation.
7) A more comprehensive strategy for nonviolent struggle
should be mapped out which does not emphasize the training of the
oppressed for nonviolent action, but rather challenges the outside
world to give the proper kind of supportive action which will help
provide more working space for the oppressed. The more the
oppressed are trained in nonviolence, the more academic nonviolence
8) Regionally, a more serious study of economic development
trends should be made and action groups all over Asia encouraged to
take this issue more seriously. Uncontrolled economic growth can
not happen without a large portion of the society suffering.
Thailand is enjoying such economic growth at the moment at the
expense of Burma and its Indochina neighbors. In this situation,
human rights can at most be discussed academically.
9) In order to foster a more united front for promoting human
rights in the region, common human rights issues facing countries
in the region should be combined and presented to UN meetings as a
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Bangkok 10504 Thailand
phone: 662 234 6674
Burma Issues (formerly Burma Rights Movement for Action,
B.U.R.M.A.) is a Bangkok-based non-governmental organization that
monitors events in Burma with a focus on human rights, ethnic
minorities and the ongoing civil war.