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Burma Issues report on human rights

Subject: Burma Issues report on human rights


Prepared by BURMA ISSUES 
April, 1993


A dictatorship is only as strong as the size of the weapons it
holds and the fear those weapons provoke in the people.  A
democracy is only as strong as the understanding and support the
grassroots people have of it.


Human rights abuses, like obnoxious weeds, can not simply be wished
away.  Both are created and supported by roots which keep bearing
new weeds as long as those roots remain intact and nourished.  To
eradicate both human rights abuses and obnoxious weeds, the central
roots must be identified and removed.  

In Burma, the decades-long experience of human rights abuses is
deeply rooted in the militarization which has characterized the
country since 1962.  This militarization has exasperated ethnic
tensions, which has, in turn, created a civil war in which human
rights abuses will never abate unless the war itself is finally
brought to an end.  

The primary task in Burma, therefore, is the dismantling of the
military system and its total control over the economic, social and
political life of the country.  Once this military system is
removed, the civil war can come to an end, national reconciliation
begun, and human rights abuses addressed in a constructive and
decisive way.  Until that time, we can at best, only continue to
monitor human rights abuses both within Burma and in neighboring
countries, and try to pressure the military junta to diminish, at
least minimally, their destruction of the life and survival of the
people of Burma.  This process, however, gives little encouragement
to the ethnic peasants who daily face the brunt of the military's
policies to harass, displace, rape, interrogate, kill and enslave

The hope that the people of Burma can one day soon live in an
atmosphere of peace and tranquility depends on our ability to
identify the root causes of their suffering, and on our creativity
in finding effective ways of addressing those causes so that they
can be dealt with directly

2.   Causes of Human Rights Abuses in Burma

     2.A  Ethnic Conflicts and Civil War

The total population in Burma today is estimated to be 42 million
people.  The majority Burman population makes up about 32.1%, while
the other ethnic groups include the Karen (20.0%), Shan (9.2%), Mon
(9.0%), Rakhine (5.8%), Chin (5.7%), Palaung and WA (3.5%), and
Kachin (3.5%). 2

Following World War II, ethnic friction, which had been simmering
for generations, began rapidly increasing due to the government's
refusal to take seriously the demands of the ethnic minorities to
exercise authority over their own lands and to be allowed to
protect their traditional languages and cultures.  The issue
gradually escalated towards open civil war until finally, in 1949,
the Karen and Mon started their armed revolutions against the
central government which was predominantly ethnic Burman.   Later
other minority groups such as the Kachin, Shan, etc. also followed
the course of armed revolution. 

In 1962, a civilian government led by U Nu of the Anti Fascist
People's Freedom League (AFPFL), called the minority leaders
together for talks to find a solution to this nagging and divisive
issue.  The meeting started on February 24, 1962 and before it
could conclude, Gen. Ne Win, leading the Burmese military's
"Revolution Council", took over State power on March 2, 1962. 

This military government consider the ethnic minorities issue as
simply Burma's heritage from their British colonizer's divide and
rule strategy rather than critically seeking to understand what
historical issues the minority groups were upset about.  Thus the
nation, under Ne Win, moved into a time of ever intensifying
hostilities.  All negotiations initiated by the military regime
focused, not on developing a truly democratic process which could
settle the ethnic issues facing the country, but rather only on a
process of uniting the country as one single state at the expense
of minority rights.  

For the ethnic minorities, this concept of "national unity" by the
military sounded too much like a process of "Burmanization".  The
Burmese language was being used as the common language for teaching
in all the schools while it was forbidden to teach in the
individual ethnic languages of each group.  Moreover, members of
the various ethnic minorities were moved out of almost all
important government and military positions.  Any demands by the
minorities to rectify these, and many other similar issues were
construed by the military as being activities to disrupted national
unity. Rather than moving the country closer to national unity, Ne
Win's policies actually drove the wedge of fear and suspicion even
deeper between the ethnic minorities and the Burman majority.

The nation's second constitution, drawn up in 1974 by Gen. Ne Win
and his Revolutionary Council, created the Burma Socialist Program
Party (BSPP) as the country's only legal party, without consulting
with the ethnic minorities.  The BSPP was simply a military party
in civilian dress.  All other parties, unions, and people's
organizations were banned.  The nation was geographically divided
into seven states and seven divisions. The seven states represented
the seven largest ethnic groups, and the seven divisions made up
the areas where ethnic Burmans were the majority population. 
Although these divisions were meant to give the appearance of at
least some ethnic minority autonomy, the representatives from these
states were in fact drafted by the BSPP and did not represent the
ethnic minorities at all.  

At the same time Ne Win transferred many ex-soldiers into the BSPP
and thus the country came under an extremely strong centralized
military control policy.  The ethnic minorities and their concerns
were even further alienated.

Although several "new" governments have come and gone, the issue of
the ethnic conflict and the resulting civil war remains untouched. 
This war continues to result in a multiplicity of human rights
abuses which can never be brought under control as long as the war
and its causes are not dealt with directly and with the utmost

     2.B   Militarization

As mentioned above, the militarization of Burma began in 1962. 
During the period from 1962 to 1974, the country was ruled by Gen.
Ne Win's Revolutionary Council.  During this time key leaders from
the previous AFPFL ruling party were imprisoned.  The military also
initiated political suppression against all types of anti-
military/government activists including rightist, leftist and
nationalist throughout the country. 

In those days, the Revolutionary Council targeted two major groups
for suppression whom they considered to be a danger to their rule. 
These were the ethnic minority insurgencies and the Communist Party
of Burma (CPB).  Many people were accused of being communist and 
arbitrarily arrested.  The number of political prisoners abruptly

On July 7, 1962, students from Rangoon University who were
participating in anti-militarization protests were gunned down. 
Hundreds were killed.

During the 1960s, the Revolution Council concluded that communist
activities were becoming a serious threat in the towns because of
communist infiltration into the working classes. Trade unions,
student unions and farmer's organizations were accused of being a
political front for the communists and so were systematically

Following the military coup in 1962, the military consolidated
their control over public administrative and economic affairs.
Industries were nationalized and all import and export businesses
were placed under the unskilled administration of military
officials.  The BSPP, which was suppose to be a civilian
government, was placed under the control of ex-soldiers who
continued to carry strong influence in the military.  Under the
administration of these unskilled military people, the nation's
economic, political and social existence declined until presently
the country is considered one of the 10 poorest nations in the

The people of Burma have never accepted this military mis-rule and
so the military has had to invest an every greater amount of the
national budget into building up a military strong enough to keep
the population under control.  Even though ever aspect of life in
Burma today needs to be developed, there is little money to do so
because at least 50% of the national income is used for internal
security as well as to continue the civil war.  Burma has little to
fear from it neighbors, yet today has an army of over 300,000
people.  Military leaders have called for an increase in the
strength of the military to at least 500,000 men.  The only purpose
of having such a large military is to keep control over every
economic, political and social aspect of life within the country. 

Militarization in the country has resulted in increased poverty and
political repression among the middle class and poor classes.  The
country's upper class of military officers and collaborators has
been the only groups to share the benefits in the country.  Such a
clear class division has resulted in eleven major anti government
strikes by the working class since 1962.  All strikes were ended
when the military gunned down strikers in the streets.  Underground
activities continue to be the only way people can express their
dislike for the continuing militarization which affects almost
every moment of their lives.
3.   Types of Human Rights Abuses

     3.A   Human Rights Abuses in Urban Areas

Common types of human rights abuses in the urban areas are
extrajudicial sentences, arbitrary arrests, physical and
psychological torture in the prisons and during investigation
periods, and the restriction of all types of rights and freedoms.
A large number of dissidents have already disappeared or died
mysteriously while in the prisons.  There is no legal recourse for
their families.  Presently Amnesty International believes that
there are still thousands of political prisoners in Burma's
notorious prisons.

Under such relentless militarization, dissidents seem to have no
alternative to work for change within the legal process, and have
little reason to believe that the present "National Convention"
will truly pave the way towards a democratic system independent of
military manipulation.  Therefore, many have left Burma for other
countries either legally or illegally.  A large majority of them
have resorted to armed revolt as the only way left to respond. 
Hostilities have thus intensified resulting in even more human
rights abuses throughout the country.

     2.B  Civil War & Human Rights Abuses  

Many of the most serious human rights violations are committed in
the ethnic minority areas during the Burmese military's counter
insurgency operations. In some ethnic minority areas, a large
number of ethnic Burmans have also lived for a long time, and they
suffer as well.  

Common types of human rights violations in the minority areas
include massacres, executions, physical tortures, rapes,
conscripted labor and massive forced relocations.  These human
rights violations are generally committed by the armed forces of
the military regime during dry season operations from October to

Massacres, executions and torture are a common occurrence for the
civilians living in the minority areas who are accused by the
military of collaborating with the insurgents. 

Following the collapse of the Communist of Party of Burma in 1989,
the most serious human rights violations began happening in the
ethnic Karen and the Kachin States which presently represent
Burma's two strongest ethnic minority revolutions.  Other areas of
severe human rights violations by the military include the Karenni
and Mon States.  All of these areas exist on Burma's eastern

Probably, the most extensive human rights violations have been
happening in the northwest area of the Karen State where the
defence lines for the Mannerplaw Headquarters is located. 
Mannerplaw is the headquarters for the Karen National Union (KNU)
as well as for most of the other opposition groups.  It has become
the focal point for the opposition's contact with the international
world.  Therefore Slorc wants to occupy Manerplaw in order to
destroy this symbol of strong opposition.   In order to cut the
opposition off from people living in the area, the Burmese military
has initiated massive relocation programs which move villagers into
controlled camps within military control.  From these camps, people
can also be recruited for forced labor to build roads, railways,
and to serve as porters.  Over 1.5 million people throughout Burma
have probably already been displaced in these military operations.

In the Arakan State, there is no very active guerrilla activity,
but the local minority Muslim population, known as Rohingyas, is
suffering severely from the military's systematic suppression
policy.  Nearly 300,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh to seek
refuge, and are now facing repatriation.  There is presently no way
the international community can be assured that these Rohingyas
will be safe if sent home.

1    2.C     Human Rights Violations in Thailand

Citizens fleeing from Burma to avoid political persecution, civil
war or economic poverty, have crossed into Thailand to seek refuge
or jobs.  They now number nearly 80,000 living in refugee camps
along the Thai/Burma border.  Another large group live illegally in
the urban areas of Thailand with over 2,000 recognized by the UNHCR
as "persons of concern".   Here they also face human rights abuses. 

The most notorious abuses for Burmese citizens takes place in the
Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Bangkok.  Physical torture in
the IDC is common.  Security personnel reportedly often rape female
inmates, and corruption is rampant. 

Thousands of Burmese women have come to Thailand for economic
reasons.  While seeking jobs they are lured into prostitution.
Other women in the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border feel that
their future is hopeless.  The country's civil war continues
without an end in sight so they decide to abandon the refugee camps
to seek jobs in the towns.  Some of them also turn to 
prostitution, or are forced against their will into this
dehumanizing slavery. They are often arrested by the Thai police
and put into the IDC.  A large number of the women who have been
rescued have tested HIV positive.  Often, after being abused even
more while in detention, they are repatriated to an unknown future
in Burma.   

The thousands of refugees living along the Thai/Burma border also
face the constant threat of forced repatriation.  As long as the
civil war continues, and the Burmese military carries out their
operations along the borders, these villagers will not be safe.  

4.   Actions to Pursue

Since human rights abuses in Burma can not be isolated from the
country's militarization, ethnic tensions and civil war, it stands
to reason that all actions relating to human rights in Burma must
also directly and effectively confront these root issues.  The
point which needs to be emphasized over and over again is that
human rights abuses will continue unabated as long as the present
military structure remains unchanged, as long as the reasons for
ethnic tensions are not identified and dealt with, and as long as
the civil war rages on.  Within this context, it is not sufficient
to simply be busy doing good and useful things, but rather it is
imperative to be doing things which will effectively bring positive
change to Burma i.e. an end to the civil war, ethnic tensions and
military rule.

Several areas need special attention in relation to human rights

1.   Human Rights Education

Human rights education in Burma must not become an academic
exercise aimed simply at holding formal discussions in seminar
style.  A program of human rights education must be developed which
carries out three major objectives.

     a)   It must provide basic human rights education in a simple
and understandable way to the most distant village and peasant. 
This human rights education must be done in such a way that it
empowers these villagers through providing them with the tools to
document the human rights abuses which they experience daily, and
providing them a clear understanding of how such documentation can
help in the struggle for national liberation and reconciliation. 
The actual documentation of human rights abuses must not be left only to the "experts" to do.  Village peasants can and must be
involved in this process as it is an important part of the
democratization process, and the only way to help safeguard the
human rights of these peasants for the long term.  

An educational process of this kind will not only provide the
peasants with knowledge of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, but will also help them study their own history and
traditions in order to articulate their own cultural understanding
of human rights, decision making, and power sharing.  If these
traditional village-level economic, political, and social systems
can be integrated into the national-level structures, a democratic
constitution and federal system can be developed which these
peasants can both understand easily, and participate in without
confusion.  This is one of the most secure assurances of the
protection of basic human rights they can obtain.

     b)   Grassroots-level human rights education must also provide
a platform from which the people themselves can define their
understanding of human rights.  Basic human rights as defined in
the UN Charter, is not an alien concept to village people, but if
it is "taught" to them, it may appear to them as such.  Allowing
the people to create their own definition of human rights based on
their own experiences is also the only way to move human rights out
of the hands of those in power, and into the hands of those who are
At the recent Asian-Pacific Conference on Human Rights held in
Bangkok, Thailand, U Win Mra, the Burmese military's representative
to the meeting said that Asian countries with their own norms and
standards of human rights should not be dictated to by a group of
other countries who are far distant geographically, politically,
economically and culturally.  He further added, 

"In considering human rights, it is most important to
take into consideration differences in political,
economic social and cultural conditions.  If judgement is
pronounced without taking into consideration these
differences, it is bound to be erroneous and counter-
productive."  (The Nation, April 1, )

U Win Mra's comments echoed the concerns of the ASEAN nations who
claim that the West's understanding of human rights is not the same
as the Asian understanding.  If that truly were the case, (and we
believe it is not) who in Asia has the right and the ability to
define an Asian concept of human rights?  Is it the wealthy and
powerful ruling class who benefit from a country's policies?  Is it
the middle class and NGO's who are also in a situation of
privilege?  Or is it the poor of the nation who must suffer,
usually without much international attention, the indignities of
daily human rights abuses?  

We need to provide these grassroots people a forum in which they
can tell the world;  Is forced service to build roads or carry
heavy weapons for the military a violation of basic human rights? 
Is being raped and watching your children slowly starve to death a
violation of basic human rights?  Is living for over forty years
with the fear of having your home burned and your crops destroyed
and your culture erased a violation of basic human rights?  Is
constantly having to flee for your life a violation of basic human
rights?  Is being arrested, tortured, imprisoned and murdered a
violation of basic human rights?

The poorest people in Burma can today give us a definition of an
Asian concept of human rights if they are given a chance.  Our
human rights education with them must not, therefore, we something
given to them, but rather something learned from them.

     c)   Documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and
the ICRC Conventions should be printed in simple Burmese language
and ways found to get it into the hands of the Slorc soldiers. 
Many of them are young and poorly educated so are unaware of such
documents.  By making these documents available in a form which is
very easy to read and understand, some of these young soldiers
might become aware and sensitized more to human rights issues.

2.   Regional Campaign

An active regional campaign must be developed which will challenge
the constructive engagement policy of the Asean nations and will
also call to task China and Singapore for providing military
support to the Burmese military.  As long as China and Asean deal
with the Burmese military, they ignore the 1990 elections in which
the people ousted the military from any political role in the
country and voted in a civilian government led by the National
League for Democracy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  By taking such a
position, both China and Asean are insulting the people's endeavor
for democracy and thus intensifying the military's hold over the
people and prolonging the civil war.  Until China and Asean respect
the people of Burma by recognizing the results of the 1990
elections, there can be no end to the civil war in the country and
thus no end to human rights abuses as well.

A regional campaign must be built up in each Asean country which
will focus on:

     a)   Ending all investments with Slorc.  This especially
involves Thailand which has massive logging and fishing
concessions, and which is discussing plans to build dams along the
Salween and Moei Rivers in Burma for hydroelectric power needed in Thailand.  The Thai government will never change this policy
without first of all a local Thai initiative to actively pressure
for change, and then international support for that initiative.

     b)   Challenging the Asean governments to recognize the
elected representatives of the people rather than the Slorc. 
Presently Slorc's only claim to power is their military might which
is actively supported by China, Singapore and several other arms-
producing countries.  Does Asean, indeed does the world, take
seriously a people's voice expressed through an election?  If so,
then Slorc can no longer be accepted by the international community
as the accepted government of Burma.  If not, then the world should
no longer encourage a democratization process which involves
elections by the people.

     c)   Challenging the Asean policy of "constructive engagement"
as well as their claim that the Asian view of human rights is not
the same as that of the West.  On this point, Asean governments
must be challenged to allow the grassroots people of their
countries to identify exactly what is an Asian concept of human

To develop a regional campaign to challenge the Asean "constructive
engagement" policy will require more than meetings and written
statements.  It will require an on-going active movement which
provides weekly, if not daily, pressure on the governments through
the use of the mass media, rallies, posters, pamphlets, letter
writing and telephone campaigns to government offices, etc.  The
campaign must also provide non-Asean countries with guidelines on
how they can support this regional campaign.

     d)   Pressure the governments of Burma's neighboring countries
to develop a more humanitarian policy towards those people who are
seeking refuge from the Burmese military's onslaughts.  In
Thailand, many refugees who have fled across the border have been
forcibly repatriated by the Thai military and Border Patrol Police. 
These refugees face possible arrest, and use as porters by the
Burmese military after they are pushed back.  Many of them will
surely die in this situation.  

In order to help provide these people with some protection, NGOs in
these countries should establish "watchdog" committees which stay
with the refugees and monitor their situation.  These NGOs can also
form a pressure group which will push the national authorities to
change their relationship towards Slorc.