[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index
Received: (from strider) by igc2.igc.apc.org (8.6.9/Revision: 1.5 ) id QAA14350; Sat, 17 Dec 1994 16:07:42 -0800
Date: Sat, 17 Dec 1994 16:07:42 -0800
BURMA TODAY: Land of Hope and Terror
Second Draft, December 1991
by Eric Kolvig
International Burma Campaign
Burma at a Glance
Background: Colonial Rule and Constitutional Government
Foreground: Military Dictatorship
Destruction of an Economy
Demonstrations of 1988
Elections of 1990
Foreign Investment: Bailing Out the Dictatorship
Building up the Military
Violations of Civil Rights and Human Rights
Forced Relocation of Population
Destruction of the Educational System
Attacks on the Buddhist Clergy
BURMA AT A GLANCE
LOCATION: Southeast Asia. The size of Texas or France and England
combined. Shares borders with Thailand, Laos, China, Tibet, India, and
TOPOGRAPHY: Mostly mountainous and forested, though the forest cover
is rapidly diminishing, with a rich agricultural area. The bulk of its
population lives in the Irrawaddy River Valley and the delta region.
POPULATION: Approximately 42 million. Low population density for
Asia. Two thirds of the population are ethnic Burmans living mostly in the
central river valleys. Ethnic minority groups inhabit a crescent of
mountains and forests around the country's periphery. More than 100
languages are spoken by a bewildering diversity of ethnic groups and
RELIGION: Approximately 85 percent Theravada Buddhist, with
Christians, Muslims, and various indigenous animist traditions
comprising the rest. 300,000 Buddhist monks.
LITERACY: 66 percent. Falling steadily.
RESOURCES: Extremely rich in natural resources (oil, gas, gems, metals,
hydropower, fish, teak, hardwoods) and agricultural products (rice,
ECONOMY: Formerly a wealthy country, now one of the ten poorest in
the world, with $200 per capita income. In 1960 the per capita income
was $670. Designated in December 1987 as a Least Developed Country
by the UN. Isolationist, centralized state economy from early 1960s to
1988. Now an increasingly privatized economy controlled by the ruling
military elite. Unserviced foreign debt in excess of $5.6 billion. At least 50
percent of Burma's GNP is estimated to go towards military spending.
Rapidly expanding drug trade.
POLITICAL HISTORY: Gradually colonized by the British in three -- annx
1852-3, and 1886--incorporated into the British empire until 1948.
Parliamentary democracy from 1948 to 1962. Military dictatorship since
1962; named by Amnesty International and the US State Department as
one of the world's most oppressive governments. A national assembly was
elected in 1990 in multiparty elections, but the military has refused to
allow it to be seated. A civil war primarily between the ethnic Burman
dominated government and various ethnic minority peoples has been
fought continuously since the eve of independence in 1947.
HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD: One of the worst in the world. Torture,
arbitrary arrest, summary executions, and lack of due legal process are
very widespread. Massive forced relocations of population, forced
servitude, and deliberate and systematic oppression of ethnic minorities.
PRODEMOCRACY MOVEMENT: In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi, popular
leader of the nonviolent democracy movement in Burma, and daughter of
Aung San, the "father of modern Burma," was awarded the Nobel Peace
Prize. Aung San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest since July
Map of Burma at time of 1989 CPB ethnic mutinies. Courtesy of
Myanmar. Smith, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, Zed
BURMA AT A GLANCE
[Bar graph] G.N.P. per Capita
19,197 8,476 861 307 299 203
USA Singapore Thailand India Cambodia Burma
Burma watcher estimate that at least 50% of GNP goes towards military
[Small, clear map] Ethnic Regions of Burma
[scale] 250 km
[Pie graph] Total Population is estimated at 42 million.
Population by Ethnic Group
Other (9.6%) Arakan (7.2%)
Shan (12.0%) Karen (8.4%)
"All of us will be killed and forgotten."
--A Rangoon teacher fired for his prodemocracy views
What follows in these pages is an account of a great human tragedy.
Since a 1962 military coup, the country of Burma has been sealed off
from the rest of the world by self-imposed, xenophobic isolation. The
totalitarian rulers of this small, almost-forgotten country have had three
decades to accomplish a task for which the Khmer Rouge in nearby
Cambodia had only a few years: the bankrupting of the economy; the
forcible relocation of at least 500,000 citizens; the murder, torture and
enslavement of thousands of others; the thorough destruction of the
country's social institutions; the destruction of the physical environment;
and the reduction of a gentle, proud people to terror and despair.
For a short time in 1988, the world turned to notice Burma. Millions of
people from all parts of Burmese society marched for democracy and the
end of General Ne Win's military dictatorship. The atrocities by which
these nonviolent demonstrations were quelled and the people cowed
dwarfed the events of Tiananmen Square the following year.
Since 1988 a grievously harsh situation has worsened. "The winds of
change are blowing everywhere but in Burma," said a senior diplomat in
Rangoon, the nation's capital. Across the planet totalitarianism wanes and
falls. But except for the rebels barely holding out on the country's
periphery, Burma's military rulers enjoy more complete control now than
they ever have before.
How do they do it? How does a regime almost universally despised by the
governed manage to hold onto power? Money is one reason, arms
another. Asian countries like China, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore, and
Western companies like Amoco, Unocal, BHP and Shell have been eager
to buy up Burma's ample natural resources at bargain-basement prices
from the generals. The junta uses money from these sales to build up and
arm a military establishment which keeps them in power by force and
intimidation. Burma is also the world's foremost grower of opium, the
source of heroin, believed to be a good money-maker for the regime.
But the greatest weapon these state terrorists have is secrecy. "Our
indifference to the overall Burmese situation is the strongest card Ne Win
and his generals have," wrote the journalist John Ralston Saul. "The
modern world functions on criticism which is fed by a constant stream of
information. Without information, there is a void. Western writers,
journalists and politicians can't deal with a void."
Burma is one of the most hermetic countries in the world, and that
country's totalitarianism thrives on darkness. We cannot act on what we
do not know. This report is an attempt to bring a hidden tragedy into the
light and the air.
BACKGROUND: COLONIAL RULE AND
For many centuries most Burmese have followed Buddhism, a religion of
kindness with nonviolence at the heart of its ethos. Buddhism has done
much to shape Burmese character, which could be described as
charming, literate, and highly creative. There is also a long history of
totalitarian kingship and xenophobia.
What we know as Burma was first consolidated out of a collection of
minor states in the eleventh century by King Anawratha, still famous for
his harshness and cruelty. The kings of Burma ruled by divine right and
had absolute control over the life and death of their subjects. The last
Burmese king was carted off in ignominy in 1885 as the British
completed annexing the country to their empire.
A young George Orwell did a stint in British Burma, memorialized in his
novel Burmese Days. What Orwell described then seems equally true
today: "It is a stifling world in which to live. It is a world in which every
word and every thought is censored....Free speech is unthinkable." The
British established direct administration in central Burma, but they
interfered little with traditional ethnic minority rulers and chiefs. As in
India, they had an effective policy of divide and rule.
Opposition to the British began almost immediately after annexation. At
first it was led primarily by students. Monks became involved in the
rebellion later. During World War II the Japanese were initially
welcomed as liberators by many Burmese, including leaders of the
independence movement. Others, though, particularly ethnic minorities,
supported the British. Even though pro-Japanese Burmese switched sides
to pin in the Allied victory, the conflicts of that period continue to
contribute to the Burmese conflict today.
As the British prepared to release their grip on Burma after World War II,
a brilliant and charismatic leader, Aung San, negotiated with them for
independence and prepared to lead the country as its first prime minister.
But in 1947, on the verge of independence, Aung San and his cabinet
were machine gunned by agents of his main rival for leadership of the
country. The new Burma's founder, hero, and martyr was 32 years old.
U Nu, a colleague of Aung San's in the struggle for independence, moved
to the fore to lead the new republic's first government. Burma's brief
history of constitutional democracy, interrupted by the 1958-60 military
"caretaker government" of General Ne Win, lasted only until 1962. It was
a chaotic time, characterized by communist insurgency, insurrections by
a number of minority ethnic groups, governmental corruption, and
The ancient tradition of autocratic authoritarianism was hard to break.
Democratic concepts remained mostly in the domain of urban
intellectuals and the small middle class. The rural masses continued to
lead traditional lives virtually untouched by the ideas or the technology of
the modern world. British rule had undermined much of the benevolent
social power of the Buddhist clergy.
Parliamentary democracy was a brave experiment, a desperate one. And
although Burma's democratic government was overthrown, it established
an aspiration for freedom, self-determination, and justice deeply enough
for those ideals to survive the decades of autocracy that followed.
FOREGROUND: MILITARY DICTATORSHIP
Ne Win, another leader of the resistance to British rule, took control of
the new republic's military in 1949. In 1958 General Ne Win headed a
brief caretaker government pending democratic elections, which were
won again by U Nu and his party.
Then in March 1962 Ne Win seized power in Burma, suspending the
constitution, dissolving the parliament, putting the prime minister in
prison, and establishing a military dictatorship under the rule of his
Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP). A country which had fought
for decades to free itself from colonial rule tragically ended up in the
hands of its own military.
When Burma first opened to Western ideas under the British, Marxism
swept the intellectual class and became the touchstone of most political
discourse in the country. Even many orthodox Buddhists looked to
Marxism as the social and political solution, predicting "nirvana in this
world" under socialism. A common joke in Burma during the years of
constitutional democracy claimed that the country had many political
parties, all of them Marxist.
Ne Win's peculiar "Burmese way to socialism" mixed economic
centralization with extreme xenophobia and reversion to the brutal
autocracy of Burma's kings. The general extended the policy of
nonalignment to nearly complete isolationism. He rejected investments by
Western interests and all foreign governments, and he nationalized
industry, banks, the export-import trade, and even retail businesses.
Like so many other despots, General Ne Win could be capricious and
whimsical. For example, he relies on astrology and numerology, and his
fortune tellers seem to have a significant influence on national policy. In
1987, for the third time, Ne Win abolished larger denomination
banknotes (kyat notes worth more than US$2.50); he replaced them with
the peculiar denominations of 45 and 90, the general's lucky numbers.
This wiped out the savings of thousands of people holding those
banknotes. Just as the 1964 demonetization of 50 and 100 kyat notes had
ruined tens of thousands of people and so strengthened insurgency
movements, the 1987 demonetization contributed to the first serious anti-
government demonstrations in more than a decade.
One commentator has described Ne Win's tenure as dictator as an
especially toxic mix of mediocrity with viciousness and base profiteering.
Nonetheless, the general clearly had a talent for silencing his critics.
A few months after the coup in 1962, students took control of Rangoon
University in protest against the new military dictatorship and new
campus regulations. On 7 July Ne Win sent his army onto campus with
orders to shoot to kill. More than 100 students were killed, and Rangoon
University's Student Union Building, an important symbol of political
activism, was blown up. Soldiers armed with machine guns cleared the
streets, a precedent which has been invariably repeated whenever dissent
has occurred in the years since.
After the 1962 coup four things have maintained the total dominance of
the military in Burmese life: ruthlessness in dealing with civilian
opposition; an omnipresent secret police and intelligence apparatus that
are very effective; advancements based on loyalty rather than ability; and
vast privileges for the military establishment.
Burmese "socialism" has actually meant the creation of an elite military
caste which controls virtually all of the nation's wealth and all access to
improved- status and social mobility. Burma's once-fluid class structure is
now ossified. Corruption in the military is pervasive. Its barracks, homes
and food are the best in the country. The military maintains exclusive
stores, hospitals, and schools for its own caste. Military families now
occupy the once beautiful villas which the British built for themselves as
the privilege of empire. In Burma the soldiers are kings.
DESTRUCTION OF AN ECONOMY
Burma's military regime has mismanaged every aspect of society, but its
effect on the Burmese economy has been ruinous.
Burma's population density is quite low. Its soil is fertile and its arable
land abundant. The country is endowed with an incredible wealth of
natural resources: oil, gas, water power, fish, coal, precious gems, timber.
All of these blessings once made Burma the envy of its neighbors, the
"Golden Land," the richest country in Southeast Asia.
Today Burma is the poorest nation in its region; its per capita income has
slipped below even Bangladesh's. Designated by the UN in 1987 as a Least
Developed Country, Burma is now considered one of the ten poorest
nations in the world. Eighty percent of its approximately 42 million
people are now deep in poverty.
The country can produce almost none of its basic necessities. Total
imports are now double the exports. Pharmaceuticals have virtually
disappeared from hospitals. Once the world's largest exporter of rice,
Burma is now beggared to the point where it barely feeds itself. Food
processing is running at less than twenty percent of capacity. Hunger and
disease are widespread throughout the population. For the first time in
modern history, some people face starvation in Burma.
The "Burmese way to socialism" created an economy far more isolated
from the world than the disappearing command economies of Eastern
Europe ever were. The results have been similar but worse: the collapse of
production and distribution, the disappearance of basic goods, fantasy
values in the official currency exchange, a huge black market, the decay
and demise of the country's economic and physical infrastructures, very
high inflation, and the flight of skilled technical people, academics, and
other professionals out of the country.
All of this human misery can be ascribed to two basic causes. First, top
military leaders, without economic training or skill, dictate Burma's
economic policies. Second, military leaders and civil servants skim off
wealth for themselves. The incompetence and corruption of Burma's
rulers have put the nation's economy into the dark ages. The task of
rebuilding the "Golden Land's" prosperity will be massive and prolonged.
DEMONSTRATIONS OF 1988
After a quarter century of Ne Win's rule, Burma's severe economic crisis
finally forced its citizens to face en masse the army's machine guns in
1988. In September 1987 his regime announced its third and most
devastating demonetization. A government order canceled, without
compensation, about 80 percent of the country's banknotes, wiping out
the life savings of many ordinary citizens. That event contributed, with
massive increases in rice prices, to near complete loss of confidence in the
government and in the economy.
Sporadic student protests occurred through late 1987. A student incident
in March 1988 precipitated a crescendo of student demonstrations and
confrontations with the army and police. The government closed all
schools and universities, arrested thousands of students, and killed
hundreds more, but it could not stop the gathering momentum of a
society's outrage. Buddhist monks, the most respected group in Burmese
society, started to join the students in increasing numbers.
Demonstrations persisted month after month, gathering participation by
more and more groups.
In July 1988 Ne Win resigned as head of the Burma Socialist Programme
Party, calling for economic reforms and a referendum on the issue of a
one-party or multiparty system. His resignation was followed by a brief
period of political chaos. A series of governments appointed by Ne Win's
governing party--with, it is generally accepted, Ne Win in control from
behind the scenes--attempted to stem the prodemocracy demonstrations
and to restore order. Despite a declaration of martial law, massive arrests,
and the ongoing murder of peaceful demonstrators, the protests persisted
On 8 August 1988 a general strike began in Burma. During the next few
days, military attacks on the protestors became bloodier. Demonstrations
grew in response to the violence. Millions took to the streets throughout
the country. People from all parts of society, including many police and
military, pined the students and monks to demand democracy, human
rights, the resignation of the ruling party's government, and an end to
ruinous economic practices.
During this brief, heady period, important opposition leaders appeared.
An elderly U Nu, the prime minister deposed by Ne Win in 1962,
emerged from obscurity to proclaim a parallel government with himself
as prime minister, claiming that he had been the last and only leader
legitimately elected by the people. U Tin U, a former chief of staff and
minister of defense under Ne Win, sided with the prodemocracy
campaign and helped to lead it.
Most notably, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of modern Burma's slain
founder, Aung San, assumed the most visible leadership role among the
opposition forces. On 26 August she spoke to a crowd of more than
500,000 people, immediately capturing the imagination of Burma and
In September, as demonstrations demanding the government's resignation
became more militant, the ruling party convened a second emergency
congress and proposed to hold general elections under a multiparty
system. Mammoth daily demonstrations rejected the government's control
and called for an interim government to oversee elections.
Then on 18 September 1988 the military, which had never really
surrendered power amid the desperate governmental shuffles that
followed Ne Win's resignation, staged a fake coup. General Saw Maung
announced that the military had assumed power in the form of a State
Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), with himself as prime
minister, foreign minister, and defense minister. The new regime, whose
real power remained the eminence grise Ne Win, determined to put down
the mass uprising at any cost. It succeeded, and the cost was great.
The ensuing bloodbath was far worse in absolute numbers than the
similar and more notorious crackdown executed by the Chinese the
following year. The international press estimated 3,000-10,000 killed,
with thousands more imprisoned. In some cases soldiers went berserk,
firing at random. Uniformed Red Cross workers were gunned down to
keep them from reaching the injured. In some places Buddhist monks
tried to stop the slaughter by surrounding the soldiers or forming a
human barrier between soldiers and demonstrators. Some of the monks,
too, were killed.
Although demonstrations continued sporadically for months, the main
force of the prodemocracy uprising was broken by brutal force and
terror. The general strike ended. Ten to twelve thousand students fled to
the border jungle regions where they took refuge with the ethnic
minorities who, in some cases, had been fighting Rangoon for more than
In June 1989 the military junta changed Burma's name to Myanmar, the
ethnic Burman name for Burma, and also changed the names of many
cities; Rangoon, for example, became Yangon. This act echoed the Khmer
Rouge's short-lived attempt to obliterate Cambodia's name. The UN, most
governments, some foreign newspapers, and some nongovernment
organizations have adopted the new names. Others refuse to do so, on the
grounds that the name changes are yet another expression of oppression.
THE ELECTIONS OF 1990
The great social upheaval of 1988 left Burma's military dictatorship still
holding onto control of the country, but its position was vulnerable. On
25 July 1988, prior to the general strike, Burma's desperate economic
situation obliged the regime to abandon isolationism by seeking foreign
aid and investment.
But the military's savage repression of peaceful demonstrations had
outraged the world and had left the regime an international pariah.
Donor nations, particularly the United States and the European
Community, had discontinued aid during the popular uprising; potential
foreign investors found the political situation too unstable to merit wise
investment; and few countries would recognize the legitimacy of the new
This dilemma caused Burma's rulers to make a serious miscalculation. In
December 1988 they again promised multiparty elections, but restricted
the opposition. Their gamble was this: By strictly controlling the electoral
process, they could come out of the election with either a parliament
controlled by the military or one so divided and factionalized that it
would be thoroughly ineffectual. Either outcome would leave the generals
in power and would gain them the fig leaf of international legitimacy
they urgently needed.
Even the military regime's opponents concurred that this was a
reasonable gamble. Most observers predicted that the "election" would be
a manipulated sham. The International Human Rights Law Group, after
observing the preelection campaign, concluded that SLORC "grossly
breached minimum campaigning freedoms, including the exercise of
freedom of assembly and expression."
Restrictions were extraordinary. SLORC controlled all of Burma's media.
Its martial law edicts stated that to criticize the government was a
criminal offense. Public rallies could be held only with government
permission, and all public speeches had to be precensored. Hundreds of
thousands of potential prodemocracy voters in the cities were forcibly
and permanently removed into rural areas and effectively disenfranchised
On 20 July 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin U, U Nu, and more than forty
leaders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party
founded by Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U, were placed incommunicado
under house arrest and prevented from further campaigning for office. U
Tin U was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for "sedition." A
countrywide roundup of as many as six thousand NLD supporters,
students, and other opposition leaders followed. SLORC shortened prison
terms of 7,000 ordinary criminals to make room in prisons and detention
centers for these new detainees.
The elections were held on 27 May 1990. Given the severity of these
repressive measures, the outcome of this first multiparty election in 30
years stunned Burma and the world. No less than 93 parties contested the
election. When the votes were counted, the National League for
Democracy had won an extraordinary mandate from the people: 392 of
the 485 seats contested, 82 percent of the seats. Ne Win's Burma Socialist
Program Party (BSPP), now renamed the National Unity Party, had won
ten seats. The regime's gamble had failed spectacularly in a humiliating
Despite centuries of autocratic kings, decades of colonial rule, and 28
years of dictatorship, the will of the people had been clear: the generals
must go. With a new government now duly elected, SLORC had lost any
real claim to legitimacy.
But, fearing Nuremburg-style trials and reprisals and unwilling to forfeit
wealth, privilege, and power, SLORC responded to the elections much as
they had to the demonstrations. Refusing to transfer power until a new
constitution was written, the regime systematically destroyed the National
League for Democracy by imprisoning, murdering, or intimidating its
leaders and elected representatives.
Aung San Suu Kyi and U Nu were kept under house arrest. U Tin U
remained in prison. Some of the new legislators fled to the border areas to
pin the students and ethnic minorities in the resistance.
Once the National League for Democracy was in tatters, in 1991 SLORC
announced that it would not transfer power to that party because it was
"unfit to rule."
FOREIGN INVESTMENT: BAILING OUT THE DICTATORSHIP
Soe Win, first secretary of the Myanmar Embassy in Washington, said
that Amoco installations were not only safe, but the company also enjoys
total protection by the military--even down to providing transportation.
"They wouldn't be able to get around without us," Win said.
-Jack Anderson, The Washington Post
By the end of 1988 the country of Burma was poorer than some Western
municipalities. Its foreign exchange reserves were under $10 million, and
its foreign debt was nearly 70 percent of the country's gross national
product. In order to save itself, the military regime felt obliged to abandon
isolationism and socialist economics by inviting foreign investment and by
privatizing the economy. ("Privatizing" in this instance means
militarizing, since active or retired officers are the primary owners of
these new businesses.)
Foreign businesspeople were understandably reluctant to invest in a
thoroughly ruined economy run by General Saw Maung and his cohorts.
SLORC solved this dilemma with a simple solution: sell off Burma's
bountiful natural resources of timber, oil, gems, and fish at lawn-sale
prices to foreign interests. With the exception of oil exploration, that
would require very little capital investment by investors and very little
risk; it would be a simple cut-and-carry or dig-and-carry affair.
SLORC found buyers for its bargains. At least 200 firms from more than a
dozen nations have signed deals with SLORC, including businesses from
Thailand, Japan, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, the United
States, Britain, and Germany. The American firms include Amoco,
Unocal, Pan American, Digital, and Pepsi.
The Thais have had the largest involvement, mostly in timber and fishing.
They have paid $180 million for timber concessions, $105 million for
mining concessions, and millions more for various agricultural, tourism
and fishing concessions. Most of the timber companies involved belong to
active or retired Thai military. When maps of timber concessions and of
areas from which refugee have fled are compared, they are seen to be
This relationship has intensified since Thailand's elected civilian
government was overthrown by a military coup in February 1991,
putting the two countries on similar footing. "Thailand's commercial
relations with Burma are the key factor of the survival of the Burmese
regime with its horrendous crimes," wrote The New York Times in an
China has also been heavily involved with taking timber out of Burma. As
the Chinese dictatorship experienced similar aggravation from
prodemocracy activists and responded in a similar way, they have had no
trouble making common cause with the generals in Rangoon. Black
market trade across Burma's long border with China is growing rapidly.
Japan and Japanese companies now play major roles in the Burmese
economy. Purchase of an oil concession and the purchase of the Burmese
embassy in Tokyo contributed more than $270 million to SLORC. As of
1991, the Japanese continue to give previously approved bilateral aid to
Burma, although other donors have discontinued such aid. Japanese
Overseas Development Aid (ODA) to Burma was $124 million in 1991.
Japanese loan projects in Burma total $900 million of which only 20%
has been disbursed. This means that Japan can continue to give almost
$700 million to Burma for previously approved projects without officially
The other major donor to Burma is the United Nations, through the
United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and UNICEF. Ongoing and
planned projects involve more than $100 million.
Thus is SLORC able to pay the costs of staying in power.
SLORC's clearance sale of natural assets has resulted in what UN officials
and environmental groups have described as one of the world's major
environmental tragedies. The rapid, massive destruction of mainland
Asia's largest intact tropical forest has been called "the first ecocide of the
Since the early 1960s Thailand's own forests had been virtually clearcut
with irreparable environmental and social consequences. Disastrous
floods caused by deforestation had obliged the Thai government to ban
logging nationwide. Thailand's military businessmen saw the chance to
renew profits by logging in Burma. They were joined in the cutting by the
Chinese and by companies from Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
In this way the last of the world's great teak forests is being devastated at
a horrifying rate, with replanting almost nil. Burma now has the third
highest deforestation rate on the planet, with 1.2 million acres of its tree
cover disappearing each year. If the rate is not curtailed, Burma will be
virtually denuded in fifteen years, with rainforests along the Thai-Burma
border gone in five years. Thailand's soldier businessmen may not be
entirely joking when they reportedly propose toasts to "the last tree in
Burma's government has recklessly ignored its own laws by allowing
logging on the banks of rivers and hill slopes, disrupting river flows,
causing severe erosion, destroying wildlife.
Burma's ecocide is not limited just to trees. The destruction of forest
habitats, poaching, and officially sanctioned trade are killing off Burma's
wildlife. Endangered species in Burma include the Asian elephant,
clouded leopard, musk deer, gaur, Malayan tapir, Fea's muntjac, and
silvered leaf monkey. There is an active trade in ivory, tortoise shells, and
tiger and leopard skins.
Thai fishing companies have been rapidly exhausting fish stocks in
Burmese waters by using such tactics as dynamiting and bottom-trawling.
Like the loggers, they have had little or no concern for replenishing the
Thailand's Electricity Generating Authority has bought concessions from
the Burmese junta to build at least ten new dams for hydroplants on
rivers bordering the two countries. Because of the environmental
destruction caused by hydrodams, strong popular resistance among the
Thais has made new hydroprojects in Thailand difficult to push through.
Resistance by the Karen ethnic minority may prevent any such dams from
being built. But if these hydroprojects are completed, they will have
serious environmental impacts on Burmese forests and will displace many
of the Karen--an added boon to the Burmese regime, which is at war
with the Karen.
Sea bottom tin mining concessions have also been sold in auction.
Environmentalists are alarmed at the damage caused by suction booms
used to mine tin and tungsten from the sea floor. The damage is caused
two ways: first, when the refuse matter dredged from the sea bottom is
dumped back into the sea, photosynthesis by photoplankton is reduced,
altering the food chain; and second the rotary head and suction destroys
sea bottom fauna and damages coral reefs.
The environmental group Friends of the Earth has written about the
ecological danger in Burma: "It is an environmental disaster in the
making--it is already happening --and it is only a matter of time before
the tragedy in Thailand happens to Burma."
Besides natural resources, the other big source of revenue for Burma's
despots has been opium, which is refined into heroin. If Burma was once
the world's largest exporter of rice, it is now the world's largest exporter
of opium, supplying about half of the world's demand for that drug.
Opium production doubled in Burma between 1984 and 1989, and it has
increased greatly since then--to more than 2,000 tons of raw opium per
year--because of an important political development.
Until 1989 much of Burma's share of the opium-producing Golden
Triangle was controlled by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which
had been waging an insurgency against the government in Rangoon since
independence in 1948. In 1989 the CPB self-destructed through internal
factionalism and disappeared as a political and military force.
SLORC quickly stepped in and offered a deal to the militias which had
supported the communist insurgency. If they would refrain from further
fighting against the Burmese government, and if they paid the Burmese
military protection money, they could engage unmolested in any business
As a result of this deal, Burmese authorities now move freely in Burma's
part of the Golden Triangle for the first time. This has resulted in an
extraordinary streamlining and expansion of the region's drug empire,
which has been switching from harvesting and exporting raw opium to
using heroin refineries and thereby exporting a more lucrative finished
SLORC has repaired the deteriorated trade routes in the region, including
the legendary Burma Road of World War II fame. What was once a
network of pony paths endangered by insurgents and gangs of thieves has
become a safe and easy free-trade heroin highway between Burma and
southern China. The rapid increase in drugs and prostitutes in the area
has engendered "the AIDS route," spreading the disease into even the
The surging drug trade now reaches deep into Burma from what was
once a remote frontier. Because of SLORC's protection, police and the
military do not search trucks carrying heroin into the nation's heartland.
Thanks to the Burmese regime's involvement, drug money has recently
become an integral part of Burma's economy, with drug lords investing in
property and businesses throughout the country.
Drug addiction has been rising rapidly among the Burmese. There are
30,000 officially registered addicts, but unofficial estimates put the
number at 160,000, half of whom are estimated to be infected already
with the AIDS virus. Most of these are young people.
Drug authorities in the United States estimate that 80 percent of the
heroin currently sold in the US comes from the Golden Triangle. The
amount of cocaine coming through Panama is dwarfed by the amount of
heroin originating in Burma.
In a public relations stunt in late 1990, SLORC made a show of burning
two supposed "heroin refineries" in a non-opium-producing area. The
buildings were located in q the middle of a wide-open paddy field, which
observers considered a very unlikely site for heroin refining. The foreign
press was invited, and officials from the US Drug Enforcement Agency
and the UN Fund for Drug Abuse Control attended. One featured speaker
at the ceremony was Pheung Kya-shin, one of Burma's most powerful
US Assistant Secretary of State Melvin Levitsky summed up the Burmese
regime's drug record as "shameful." SLORC, he said, was even involved in
"collusive efforts with some of these traffickers."
BUILDING UP THE MILITARY
SLORC has used the money raised through foreign investment and the
drug trade solely for its own survival. Improving the living standards of
the Burmese people and rebuilding the country's moribund economy have
been largely ignored by the ruling clique, and they have used the money
instead for personal enrichment and a large build-up of personnel and
weapons in the military. "Business in Burma equals bullets," said one
For SLORC everything depends on the cohesion of their armed forces,
which constitute the sole element keeping them in power. They know that
the military is not monolithic.
In the 1990 elections a majority of the armed forces joined the rest of the
population to vote for the opposition and against the dictatorship. Many
officers do not want a further crackdown on the Burmese people. There
was a failed coup plot in 1976, when conditions were not nearly as
desperate as they are now. Most privates in today's army are unemployed
teenagers from rural areas grateful for a job.
SLORC has responded to these challenges by maintaining an intelligence
network that penetrates every level of the military; by keeping political
officers, akin to the Soviet and Chinese model, in every unit; by giving its
people in uniform the best of everything; by building the armed forces
into a huge establishment; and by tying the survival of the armed forces to
SLORC's own survival.
When Ne Win usurped the civilian government in 1962, there were less
than 130,000 people in his military establishment. At the time of the
popular uprising in 1988, there were 185,000; by late 1990, 230,000,
with 300,000 by late 1991, and ultimately a goal of half a million.
SLORC has sold off natural resources and used its new gains in foreign
currency for a spectacular build-up of arms to match the increase in
military personnel. It earned about $1.5 billion from foreign sources
between 1988 and 1990 and bought arms--jet fighters, light and medium
tanks, small arms, antiaircraft guns--in that period from China alone
worth about $1.2 billion. "This deal takes Burma into the space age," said
one diplomat about the purchase from the Chinese. "It completely
refurbishes their armed forces."
The deal with China has been only the largest among many. Other
suppliers of modern weapons have been Yugoslavia (aircraft and patrol
boats), Poland (helicopters), Singapore (rocket launchers), Belgium,
Israel, Germany, South Korea and Pakistan. Several shipments of Swedish
arms, without prior approval from Sweden, have been sold to Burma by
Burma has no external enemies or threat from without, so this prodigious
military build-up can have only one purpose: to keep an unwanted,
illegitimate junta in place.
Civil war has bled Burma and the people of Burma for more than forty
years. Its roots lie in Burma's patchwork of more than 100 ethnic groups.
The majority ethnic Burmans live mostly in the central river valleys, and
the many minority populations are scattered in a large arc among the
mountains and forests of Burma's remote border regions.
Just before the British withdrew from Burma, several ethnic minorities
agreed to join the proposed union in return for certain guarantees:
political equality, respect for and preservation of their traditional
languages and cultures, and a federal arrangement whereby they would
retain considerable autonomy in their own domains. The formula for
Burma's heterogeneous population was to be majority rule and minority
The intention was good, but in practice discrimination and various abuses
led to a gradual breakdown of trust between the minorities and the new
nation's central government, which was controlled by the majority ethnic
Burmans. Ethnic groups organized themselves against oppression and
attempts at assimilation or annihilation. Some allied themselves with the
communist insurgency which began with Burma's independence.
In the early 1960s the civil government under Prime Minister U Nu
determined to end this debilitating civil war by coming to terms with the
country's rebel minorities. A "federal seminar" to reconcile differences
was in progress in 1962 when General Ne Win deposed the government
and discontinued negotiations. In 1963, peace talks were convened but
very soon broke down. The regime accused the various insurgent
movements of being insincere, while leaders of the various opposition
armies all agreed that Ne Win wanted only their surrender.
Ne Win decided instead to resolve issues between his government and the
ethnic minorities by crushing them militarily. The military developed a
strategy known as the Four Cuts--cutting food, funds, intelligence, and
recruits from the resistance. In practice this has meant destruction of
crops, forced relocation of villages, looting, rape, and murder. The Four
Cuts strategy has been reportedly practiced in all parts of Burma since the
The military government's basic policy on all complex issues is summed
up succinctly by large white signs in Burmese and English displayed
throughout the country today: "Crush Every Disruptive Element!" The Ne
Win dictatorship and the junta which succeeded him have consistently
chosen to respond with force rather than negotiation. "In political tactics
there are such things as dialogue and so forth," General Saw Maung, the
current head of state, has said. "But in our military science there is no
such thing as dialogue."
When the prodemocracy uprising was crushed in 1988, 10,000-12,000
students fled to take refuge with, and to make common cause with,
various ethnic groups along the borders of Thailand, India, and China.
Others fled into Thailand. Some became armed guerrillas, others set up
schools and medical facilities to serve the minority populations. In
November 1988 the refugees from the prodemocracy movement of the
cities joined with various ethnic minority forces and expatriate Burmese
to create the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB).
When SLORC refused to hand over power to the National League for
Democracy (NLD) after the League's landslide electoral victory in 1990,
and when it was clear that the generals intended to destroy the League, in
October 1990 more than 200 representatives elected to parliament met
and voted to form a seven-person provisional government to claim power
from the junta. When their plans were discovered by SLORC, many were
arrested. The designated members of the provisional government escaped
to the jungle.
On 18 December 1990 the National Coalition Government of the Union
of Burma (NCGUB), led by Aung San Suu Kyi's cousin, Dr. Sein Win,
established itself in Manerplaw, the capital of the Karen ethnic minority
near the Thai border. Though lacking in resources or military power, this
parallel government nonetheless poses a considerable political threat to
SLORC, which has no real claim to legitimacy.
There in Manerplaw a milestone in the fractious history of modern
Burma occurred. The democratically elected parliamentarians of the
National League for Democracy, refugee students, and the umbrella
organization representing all 21 ethnic groups fighting the military
government formed an alliance. The NCGUB stated its goals: to eliminate
the militarization of the country, to achieve democratic rights and human
rights, and to establish a genuine federal union where the rights of
minority groups, including rights of self-determination, are fully
Such political accord is unprecedented in modern Burma. If the
provisional government and its alliance should survive, it would
constitute the best political hope for Burma's future.
The fate of the parallel government, the refugee students, and the
minority insurgents looks difficult at best. The Burmese army outnumbers
the rebels tenfold, and its huge cache of new weaponry is being used to
In 1991 many insurgent camps fell to the Burmese military, though there
have been rebel victories as well. With the communist insurgency dead,
some minority rebels have been bought off with the heroin trade, and
three groups have surrendered. The vastly superior numbers and
firepower of the Burmese military is pitted against rebel endurance in a
struggle that causes, year after year, vast human suffering. General Saw
Maung himself admitted that as a result of more than forty years of civil
war, the death toll "would reach as high as millions, I think. Indeed, it
really is no good."
VIOLATIONS OF CIVIL RIGHTS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Burma is one of the very few nations in the world that have not
recognized the Geneva Conventions of 1949. It is also not a party to the
International Covenant on Human Rights or the Convention Against
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or
In 1990, under its Confidential Procedure, the United Nations
Commission on Human Rights appointed an Independent Expert, Prof.
Sadako Ogata, to go to Burma to investigate human rights abuses there.
Such an appointment is of itself severe condemnation of a country.
At the UN Commission's 1991 meeting, Ms. Ogata's report was highly
critical of SLORC. The nations composing the Commission unanimously
condemned SLORC for its appalling human rights record and failure to
hand over power to elected representatives of the people. Not even China
defended the Burmese junta.
The US State Department has announced that Burma's human rights
record is among the world's worst and its government among the most
In a recent interview, the Burmese ambassador to Thailand said, "There is
not a single political prisoner in Myanmar [Burma]." Amnesty
International estimates that in Burma more than 3,000 people were
imprisoned for political reasons in the second half of 1989 alone.
Thousands of political prisoners are currently detained, some indefinitely
without charge or trial.
Prisoners are routinely kept in solitary confinement or in cramped, filthy
conditions, are denied food, water, sleep, and medical attention, and are
held incommunicado for months or even years. Detainees who die or are
executed in prison are often cremated secretly by security forces, without
notification to the family. The International Committee of the Red Cross
has not been allowed to visit Burma's prisons, nor has the Independent
Expert from the UN Commission on Human Rights.
In its 1991 report, Summary Injustice: Military Tribunals in Burma, the
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights found the human rights picture in
Burma "overwhelmingly grim." It concluded that under martial law in
Burma, "The Burmese government has flouted practically all international
standards with regard to trial proceedings, denying its citizens their basic
right to justice." The Lawyers Committee could not find a single reported
instance where a military tribunal has handed down an acquittal, making
such trials "little more than sentencing hearings."
There is no freedom of expression or of assembly in Burma. No trade
unions are allowed to operate. Strikes are illegal. These prohibitions
constitute violations of UN ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association,
which Burma has ratified.
Ethnic minorities suffer the worst human rights situation, which has
become tantamount to genocide. Minority people receive harsher beatings
and quicker death sentences than detainees of Burman descent. The
Burmese military treats all ethnic nationals as suspected or potential rebel
sympathizers. It burns, loots, and ransacks whole villages, raping women
and killing large numbers of civilians with no fear of reprisals.
Thailand has contributed considerably to the human rights problem in
Burma. It forcibly repatriates into the hands of Burmese authorities
Burmans and ethnic minorities who flee to its territory. The Thai logging
operations in Burma have built all-weather roads which are used by the
Burmese military to gain access to previously inaccessible, remote areas
where they can destroy ethnic minority villages and populations. The Thai
military has also al lowed Burmese troops to enter Thailand and attack
ethnic areas from Thai soil.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan has said in the US Senate, "Not only are
the Thais indiscriminately logging Burma, which until now contained 80
percent of the world's remaining teak, but they are also assisting in the
destruction of the minority Karen and Mon populations, who inhabit the
border region. It is no exaggeration to say that every teak log from Burma
is being extracted at the cost of a human life."
Torture is a particularly heinous form of human rights violation. Amnesty
International, which has extensively documented and reported on human
rights abuses in Burma, has concluded that "torture follows arrest in
Myanmar as night follows day," and that the problem of torture there is
pervasive, long-term, and endemic. Burmese security forces routinely
torture prisoners throughout the country, in both urban and rural areas.
The following text comes from Amnesty International's 1990 report,
Myanmar: "In the National Interest": Prisoners of Conscience, Torture,
Summary Trials Under Martial Law.
Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners has...served to intimidate others.
The prevalence of torture is well-known in Myanmar: arrest and torture
is seen as an ever-present threat by those contemplating any public
criticism of the government.
The reported methodology of torture has been relatively consistent in
Myanmar over many years, from the isolated army camps in the areas of
insurgency to the urban detention centers of the security forces. Torture
methods and even the vocabulary of torture have remained the same,
according to testimonies obtained by Amnesty International from a wide
range of prisoners whose times and places of imprisonment have differed
greatly. Some variations do occur--some prisoners, for example, have
been made to walk on their knees over sharp gravel rather than broken
Beatings, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness, were a common
denominator of the treatment described by former detainees. They include
slappings, punches in the face or the body, and kicks with combat boots
or blows with the knees in the sides, chest or back. Detainees have also
reportedly been struck on the face, the chest or the back with wooden
sticks, truncheons or rifle butts....
Former detainees frequently described prolonged kneeling on sharp
gravel and "motorcycle riding," entailing squatting for prolonged periods
in a position suggesting driving a motorcycle. Electric shocks were
reportedly applied to fingertips, toes, ear lobes, penis or testicles. Some
detainees described prolonged standing in water, prolonged exposure to
sun or to intense cold, burnings with cigarettes, rolling iron or bamboo
rods or bottles along the shinbones until the skin scrapes off (the "iron
road"), near-drowning through immersion in water and hanging by the
hands or feet from a ceiling fixture or a rotating fan (the "helicopter").
Beatings with whips and clubs while suspended have also been reported.
Salt, salted water, urine and curry powder have reportedly been applied
to open wounds inflicted by whippings or by slitting parts of the body
with a knife or the tip of a bayonet.
Detainees undergoing interrogation have often been deprived of sleep,
food and water, and some have been held for prolonged periods in
solitary confinement in dark cells. They have also been intimidated with
pistols, threatened with execution and humiliated while stripped naked
for interrogation. In other instances, psychological pressures have been
used to break the prisoner's will and force confessions. Several former
prisoners have alleged they were interrogated continuously for several
days by teams of interrogators working in relays. This technique has
sometimes been combined with deprivation of sleep, food, water or
washing facilities. (pp. 32-33)
Two practices in today's Burma amount to slavery.
In order to conduct operations against ethnic minorities in the border
areas, the Burmese military needs large numbers of people to carry
ammunition and other equipment on long marches through the jungle. It
obtains porters by kidnapping citizens from the streets, buses, and work
places of the cities. The army also obtains porters among ethnic minorities
In one April 1990 military campaign involving 700 Burmese soldiers,
there were an estimated 1,000 porters forced to carry arms and
Forced portering is one way to punish and demoralize villagers suspected
of supporting ethnic insurgencies. The military will take children,
pregnant women, the elderly, and the sick if it cannot find enough able
Urban or rural, Burman or minority, once they have been conscripted, all
porters are treated the same. They are tied together and forced to carry
heavy loads of ammunition or food. Treatment is most often severe,
including a near-starvation diet and beatings. Those who cannot keep up
are abandoned or summarily executed. These human mules are seldom if
ever compensated for their labor. Involuntary porters are often used as
human minesweepers and as human shields in battle.
Amnesty International's August 1991 report, Myanmar: Continuing
Killings and Ill-Treatment of Minority Peoples, documents the current
extent of these practices: "The largest number of testimonies gathered by
Amnesty International during its research in June and July 1991 referred
to deliberate killings and incidents of ill-treatment--sometimes resulting
in death--of members of ethnic and religious minorities seized as porters
or to clear mines."
Forced labor contravenes Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights and ILO Convention 29, which Burma has ratified.
Another form of slavery in Burma today involves teenage women, most of
them from ethnic minorities living on the Burmese side of the border
between Burma and Thailand. They are kidnapped or deceived by brothel
gangs which sell them into servitude to supply Thailand's burgeoning sex
economy. Once caught, the young women (or children--some are as
young as ten or eleven) are kept imprisoned and become a commodity.
They run a very high risk of contracting AIDS. A Bangkok brothel was
raided in March 1991. All nineteen prostitutes were Burmese; seventeen
of them tested positive for the AIDS virus.
Increasing numbers of people are being victimized in this way. Some of
these shanghaied women end up being sold overseas in an international
slave market to prostitution rings in countries like Japan, Singapore,
Germany, and Australia.
Security officials, both police and military, in both Burma and Thailand
are either actively involved in the brothel gangs or profit by taking bribes
FORCED RELOCATION OF POPULATION
During January and February 1990, at least 500,000 Burmese from all of
the country's major towns and cities were forced to leave their homes and
land and were moved to settlements on the edges of the urban areas. In
some cities, particularly in Rangoon, people's former homes were
destroyed. In other cases the emptied houses were taken as homes for the
military. Rarely were people compensated for the loss of their property.
Most of the new "satellite towns" are in reclaimed rice paddies. They lack
fresh water, shade, sanitation, transportation, health care, electricity,
markets, and schools. People are obliged to live in shacks. Because they
cannot get to their former jobs, many are entirely impoverished.
Hundreds have died from the dislocation, particularly from malaria,
hepatitis, dysentery, and malnutrition. The new "towns" resemble
concentration camps. "It's an absolute horror story," said a senior
diplomat in Rangoon.
Many foreign countries have condemned this act. Senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan of the US, a consistent champion of the Burmese, has
compared it to Nazi treatment of Jews and the Pol Pot regime's treatment
of Cambodians in the 1970s.
The Burmese regime has defended its actions as "urban beautification." It
claims that the people it moved had been living in ugly slums--lazy,
shiftless folks. SLORC placed a banner above the gates of one "new city"
outside Rangoon saying, "No Progress Without Discipline."
In truth, however, the people displaced were often middle class and likely
to vote for the prodemocracy opposition candidates in the multiparty
elections which occurred a few months after the relocations. Apparently
SLORC intended to reduce votes for the opposition by literally obliterating
its strongholds. "It's a Burmese form of gerrymandering," a diplomat in
Rangoon said. "They don't move the boundaries; they move the people."
SLORC has been practicing yet another form of forced relocation. It has
been forcing ethnic minority civilians in regions of insurgency to move
into government-controlled areas. This keeps them from supporting
guerrilla forces. Dozens of villages have been moved in this way into
compounds which are guarded by the army and which also resemble
concentration camps. Because farmers are thus kept from their fields,
especially in mountain regions, the displaced have no way to pursue a
livelihood and face starvation.
Traditionally, even before colonization, the Burmese have been a literate
people. When the British opened Burma to Western concepts, they
inadvertently added extra power to Burmese literacy. Urban Burma
developed a vital culture of thought and expression. Small, shoestring
newspapers and journals proliferated in Burma, fueled by idealism,
ideology, and the free flow of ideas. The free press and free exchange of
ideas flourished during Burma's democratic period, and again briefly
SLORC has completely suppressed information and freedom of expression
and thought, particularly among students, intellectuals, and Buddhist
monks. Such freedom is simply dead today.
The government-owned Working People's Daily and its Burmese-
language version are now the only newspapers legally published in
Burma. One Western journalist has described this Burmese "press" as "so
amateurish that schoolboys would be embarrassed to have produced" it.
There are no longer any major journalists in the country. Few foreign
journalists are allowed in, and those who manage to enter Burma face
severe travel restrictions and constant surveillance. Burmese found
talking to foreigners are frequently arrested or "disappeared."
Indeed there are virtually no well-known Burmese writers of any kind
who are not in prison or in exile, and virtually nothing is published
anymore in that literate country. All newsletters, bulletins, and other
publications of political parties have been prohibited since the elections in
May 1990. Under the martial law Emergency Provisions Act, anyone
speaking or writing words critical of the ruling regime can be imprisoned
for up to seven years for promoting "disloyalty to the state."
DESTRUCTION OF THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
"Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free," Thomas Jefferson
wrote, "expects what never was and never will be." Burma's high rate of
literacy has been falling under its military dictatorship. The junta has
suppressed education and set Burma's educational standards back for a
long time to come.
According to a study conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund,
38 percent of Burma's children between the ages of five and nine are not
in school. Schooling has also been suppressed on the other end of the
educational process: since the military coup in 1962, Burma's institutions
of higher learning have been closed for nearly 20 percent of the time.
All major antigovernment demonstrations since 1962 have originated
among students. The regime closed all institutions of higher learning in
June 1988 and kept them closed until 1991. When it reopened the
schools, SLORC had purged the faculties of prodemocracy elements, and
it required all parents, teachers and students to sign a pledge that the
students would not demonstrate against the military regime.
Education in Burma, like journalism and publishing, is in tatters, and it is
a social institution hard to rebuild. The best and brightest among the
nation's teachers, and even just the competent, have been fired, jailed,
killed, or forced into exile. They have been replaced by poorly trained,
poorly qualified teachers chosen for loyalty over ability.
A whole generation of Burma's best students has also been decimated in
the same way. Large numbers have been imprisoned and executed. The
thousands of students who escaped to the border areas and Thailand after
the prodemocracy uprising have fared very badly.
Lacking the ethnic minorities' immunity to endemic diseases in these
regions, the ethnic Burman students from urban areas have been dying in
great numbers from malaria, hepatitis, dysentery, and malnutrition. One
Karen doctor near the border of Thailand says that 100 percent of the
ethnic Burman students in her area are infected with malaria. There are
very few medical supplies in these regions, which are under attack by the
Burmese military. The students are desperately poor, often with only one
set of clothing and often without shoes.
At one point the Burmese regime offered amnesty to all students who fled
to the ethnic minority areas and to Thailand. But Amnesty International
has reported that many students who returned under that "amnesty" were
arrested, and that many of those arrested were executed.
These students have comprised Burma's hope for the future, since they
would have assumed leadership for their generation in a postmilitary
Burma. They are a precious human resource quickly being lost in the
long-playing Burmese tragedy.
The students who fled the cities when the prodemocracy demonstrations
were crushed by the military pined a sea of refugees composed of ethnic
minorities from all over Burma. As of August 1991, there were 54,754
refugees from Burma living in temporary camps along the Thai-Burmese
border. Thousands of other refugees are struggling to meet their daily
needs in unprotected and isolated environments. At least 6,000 Kachin
have fled the civil war into China. Since 1989, an anti-Muslim campaign,
believed to be aimed at rallying popular support to SLORC, has forced at
least 16,000 refugees to cross the Naaf river into Bangladesh. The US
Committee for Refugees estimates that more than 100,000 Karen, Karenni
Mon, and Kachin people have been internally displaced within Burma, as
they have from arrests, torture, and forced porterage.
At first the Thai government granted students and other Burmese refugees
temporary asylum on humanitarian grounds. Later it declared all
Burmese students illegal immigrants subject to arrest and deportation. In
1988-89, more than 300 students were arrested and flown to Rangoon.
In 1991 the new Thai regime announced an agreement with SLORC to
repatriate 20,000 illegal Burmese immigrants, especially students, to
Burma, though it could not help but know that many would be arrested,
tortured, and killed. The Thais have also refused the UN High
Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red
Cross the opportunity to provide humanitarian aid and other forms of
help and protection to the refugees. The Thai military government
announced that by the end of 1991 it would complete the building of a
"camp" for Burmese seeking asylum in Thailand. Burmese in this
internment center will be observed and probably unable to carry on
political and educational work. Without international protection, they
will be in constant danger of repatriation.
ATTACKS ON THE BUDDHIST CLERGY
The Burmese are 85 percent Buddhist. Traditionally they have been very
devout, looking to the Buddhist clergy for guidance on nearly every
subject. Most Burmese monks, even in these degenerate times, live strict
lives of great purity. They serve as living reminders of the Buddha, and
they carry the spiritual aspirations of the people. For these reasons, they
still command a degree of respect bordering on awe.
Monastics have always had great political power in Burma, though
traditionally they have been loath to exercise it. Some monks helped lead
the struggle against the British, and after 1962 some helped organize
against Ne Win's dictatorship. But most have chosen to remain apolitical
for as long as possible.
Burma's monks were galvanized by the popular uprising of 1988.
Approximately 80 percent of them reportedly supported the democracy
movement, and many actively participated in the mass demonstrations.
After the 1990 elections, monks came to the fore to exhort the military to
obey the will of the people by handing over power to the people's
SLORC was reluctant to suppress the clergy too harshly because the risk
seemed too great. Its own rank and file troops and their families are
among the nation's devout believers. But a confrontation with the saffron
robes finally became inevitable in the latter part of 1990.
On 8 August of that year, 7,000 monks in Mandalay administered to
laypeople who were peacefully commemorating the anniversary of
1988's general strike. Troops attacked the gathering, striking monks with
batons, and kicking monks' bowls and robes, and reportedly killing two
monks and two laypeople.
Following this incident, monks in Mandalay decided, after serious
deliberation, on a very extreme measure, the gravest action the clergy can
take. They began to boycott all Burmese military and their families, by
refusing to accept alms from them and to administer Buddhist rituals to
them, such as weddings and funerals.
It would be difficult for Westerners to comprehend the power of this
action. In the Buddhist cosmology this form of "excommunication" has
profound implications; it puts the excommunicant beyond the ethical pale
in this life and, by denying them ability to gain spiritual merit, helps to
ensure a painful rebirth in the next. By it the clergy was telling society
that its government and its military had become complete anathema.
Devout military families were traumatized by this rejection. The monks'
boycott spread quickly from Mandalay to Rangoon and other parts of
True to precedent, SLORC responded to this challenge to its authority
with great force. It surrounded or invaded all 133 monasteries in
Mandalay with troops and armor, abolished several monastic
organizations, replaced the heads of leading monasteries with state
controlled monks, restructured the Buddhist hierarchy, arrested
thousands of monks, imprisoned four hundred for terms of three to
twenty years, tortured many, killed many, forced at least 75 out of the
monastic life, and obliged many to flee into exile.
SLORC justified committing these acts against people devoted to
nonharming and nonviolence by claiming that they were not really
monks, but rather were communists and drug addicts. One monk was
killed by shooting through his alms bowl, a heretofore unthinkable act in
The junta successfully broke the boycott with the truncheon and the gun.
"The last hope was pinned on the monks," said a Rangoon-based
diplomat. "No Burmese thought that the military would turn against the
best-respected segment of Burmese society....Today all overt political
activity in Burma is dead."
More than 300 monks joined the refugees in the jungles, and are
affiliated with the All Burma Young Monk's Union (ABYMU).
Buddhism, the deepest-rooted of Burma's social institutions, is now being
undermined and destroyed, something hitherto unprecedented in Burma's
long history. Burma is enduring a kind of auto-genocide of the spirit,
committed by Burmese on Burmese. Reconstructing the broken soul of a
nation may be a more daunting challenge than rebuilding viable political,
economic, and educational institutions.
Burma is a country without external enemies which lives nonetheless in a
state of perpetual siege. It has been ruled since 1988 by martial law under
a state of emergency. Trucks full of armed soldiers patrol the streets. Men
dressed and armed for combat stand guard in front of pagodas and
monasteries. In Rangoon the Defense Ministry compound is surrounded
by a chain-link fence, and its walls have gun ports so that soldiers inside
can fire into the streets.
The enemies against whom all these men and buildings are armed are the
people of the land. When a government is universally hated, no citizen
can be trusted. General Khin Nyunt's feared military intelligence has
poisoned the social environment by infiltrating every aspect of Burmese
life: every bus and train, every temple, every teahouse. Gatherings are
reported; mail is intercepted and read; people disappear.
Life in a garrisoned totalitarian state can feel surreal. Placards and
billboards everywhere proclaim the state's doublethink and doublespeak.
With its people facing extreme privation, in 1990 SLORC announced with
Japan's Daichi Group a fifteen-year project to create south of Rangoon an
entire new capital, a high-tech, information-age city for 4 million people.
Cost for the initial stage will be US$15 billion. This in a land where
imports double exports, a gallon of gasoline sells for US$25-28 on the
black market, and the average Burmese earns about US$200 a year. "This
place is a fascist Disneyland," said a diplomat in Rangoon.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's independence movement,
remains in complete isolation under house arrest, her life in constant
peril. She has received in absentia the Rafto Human Rights Award in
Norway and the European Parliament's human rights award, the
Sakharov Prize. On 14 September 1991 the Nobel Committee announced
that Aung San Suu Kyi had been awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Using "nonviolent means to resist a regime characterized by brutality,"
read the Nobel citation, Aung San Suu Kyi had become none of the most
extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades."
How much worse can it get? How long can it go on? A political solution
seems impossible at this point. "I am not a person who can accept
proposals such as resolving issues through political means," announced
the current head of state, General Saw Maung. After holding elections
and then refusing to honor the outcome, SLORC does not have the
mandate of anyone any longer. But it does have all the guns, and it is
ready to use them.
"We are just like slaves right now," said an office worker in Rangoon.
Will the slaves rise up again? Perhaps.
Burma watchers disagree on this point. "The junta's campaign of fear has
been a one hundred percent success," said one observer. "They have all
but eliminated opposition to them. Political parties have been rendered
impotent. The military are there for as long as they want to rule. There is
no one left to oppose them."
Another observer had quite a different view: "Patience is wearing thin,
and there will come a point after which this place will blow." Desperate,
unarmed citizens ready to pay any price have brought down armed
Profits more than any other factor prolong the outrage in Rangoon.
SLORC persists because foreign governments and private corporations
In July 1991, the United States imposed sanctions on Burma to effectively
ban import of Burmese textiles into the US, sidestepping, however, the
Congressional call for embargoes of marine and wood products,
including products passing through Thailand. The US has also banned the
sale of all American armaments to Burma, and it opposes loans to Burma
by the World Bank and the IMF. The European Community has adopted
But neither the Americans nor the Europeans have discouraged their
private corporations from doing other kinds of business with the Burmese
regime. Writing in The Spectator, John Ralston Saul describes the
There is always great disagreement over the effectiveness of economic
sanctions as a political weapon. But the fragility of Rangoon's finances
make it a special case. If the West had applied against Burma even a
minute fraction of the effort expended on preventing our corporations
from doing business with South Africa and Vietnam, Ne Win's army
might not have been able to hold on. Instead, the governments of the
developed world are taking cheap moral satisfaction from the aid
embargo, while turning a blind eye to the investments being made by
their own private sector.
Asian governments are reluctant to do even this much. In 1991 the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met with its major
Western trading partners. The US and other Western nations strongly
urged aid and trade sanctions against Burma. "Without our efforts, the
people of Burma will suffer longer," said US Undersecretary of State
Robert Zoellick to the meeting. "Undeveloped and undemocratic Burma
will poison the region with narcotics. It will remain a cancer of
The Asians in effect told Zoellick and other Westerners to keep their
neocolonialist concerns to themselves. ASEAN affirmed that human rights,
the environment, and the illegality of the present Burmese government
should not affect their economic involvement. They intended to maintain
"constructive engagement?' with SLORC, which translates as bailing out
the junta in return for huge earnings.
Unless Western companies and Asian governments-- particularly
Thailand, China, Japan, and Singapore--can be persuaded to impose an
arms embargo and economic sanctions on Burma, there is no foreseeable
end to the suffering of the Burmese people and their environment.
What can we do? As individuals we can boycott Western companies
doing business in Burma. Thailand's biggest industry is tourism, and we
can deny it tourists. We can pressure our governments to provide third
country asylum to Burmese refugees in Thailand, who are dying in the
jungle and face forced repatriation to die at the hands of SLORC.
We can also push for sanctions against Burma by the United Nations. U
Thant's long tenure as secretary general, and a long history of close
involvement by UN agencies in Burma, give the UN special psychological
impact on the Burmese. Aid from UN agencies was reduced after the
1988 coup but has been growing again. There should be a full UN trade
and aid embargo on Burma. The UN should unseat the delegation of
Burma's illegitimate junta and grant observer status to the alternative
government, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.
A number of concerned nongovernmental organizations in both Asia and
the West have become increasingly active in organizing relief, public
education, and political initiatives concerning Burma. They deserve
Sometimes, when the situation seems hopeless, all the efforts seem wasted.
But they never are. The winds of change are blowing everywhere but in
Burma, and eventually they will blow in Burma, too, bringing to an end
what President Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia has called "a legacy of
countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound
economic decline and, above all, enormous human humiliation."
Aung San Suu Kyi. Freedom From Fear and Other Writings, London:
Lintner, Bertil. Outrage. London and Bangkok: White Lotus Publishing
Maung, Mya. Burma Road to Poverty. Westport, Ct: Praeger, 1991.
Smith, Martin. Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London
and New Jersey: Zed Books,1991.
Silverstein, Josef. "Myanmar's (Burma's) Six Domestic Challenges in the
1990's." International Seminar on ASEAN and the Wider Southeast Asia.
Kuala Lumpur: 11 - 14 July 1990.
Steinberg, David I. "Background Paper on Burma." International Seminar
on ASEAN and the Wider Southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur: 11 - 14 July
UN Commission of Human Rights. Forty-seventh session. "Oral
Intervention by Peter Linbin." Agenda item 12. Geneva: 25 February
The Burma Monitor. New York 15 August 1991.
Clements, Alan. "Burma: the Next Cambodia?" Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Newsletter. Berkeley, CA: Winter 1991.
Burmese Relief Centre. Newsletter. Issue No. 4. Chiang Mai, Thailand:
Center for Burma Studies. Mailing No. 21. Northern Illinois University.
Dekalb, Illinois: 28 May 1990.
Jesuit Refugee Service Asia/Pacific. Burma Update No. 11. Bangkok: 18
Yawnghwe, Harn. Burma Alert. Shawville, Quebec.
New York Times:
Aung San Suu Kyi. "Burma's Fear, Burma's Corruption." (op ed). 10 July
Erlanger, Steven. "In Isolation, the Burmese Vote, and Then Wait." 3 June
Bangkok Post (Bangkok, Thailand):
"US Indicts Khun Sa: Burma Says No to 'Any Violation'." 16 March 1990.
"Aung Gyi Expresses Faith in Upcoming Elections." 20 March 1990.
"Young Heroes Given Six Years Jail Each." 21 March 1990.
"Japanese Groups Protest Rights Violation in Burma." 24 March 1990.
"Khun Sa Asks US to Take Back 'Bluff'." 1 April 1990
"Officials Allegedly Linked to Heroin Trade in Burma." 8 April 1990.
"Thais Prepare to Lobby US Trade Bill." 10 April 1990.
"Daichi Reveals Plans for Building New Rangoon." 19 April 1990.
"Election Symbols Worn to Signal Resistance." 21 April 1990.
"Trapped Army Resorts to 'Cannibalism'." 21 April 1990.
The Nation (Bangkok, Thailand):
Wagstaff, Jeremy. "Burma Buys Arms from China." 11 February 1991.
"Forgotten War in Burma" (ed). 13 February 1991
"SLORC Squelches Hopes for Handover of Power " 23 April 1991.
The Washington Post:
Anderson, Jack. "Big Oil and the Burmese Military." 29 May 1991.
Branigin, William. "Myanmar Cracks Down on Dissent." 31 October
Burma: Extrajudicial Execution and Torture of Members of Ethnic
Minorities. London: May 1988.
Unlawful Killings of Peaceful Demonstrators, September 29 and October
7, 1988. London: 1988.
Burma (Myanmar): Prisoners of Conscience in Myanmar, a Chronicle of
Developments Since September 1988. New York: November 1989.
Myanmar: Amnesty International Briefing. New York. 16 September
Myanmar: In the National Interest. New York: 16 October 1990.
Myanmar: Continuing Killings and Ill-treatment of Minority Peoples.
London: August 1991.
Thailand: Concerns about Treatment of Burmese Refugees. London:
Myanmar: Unfair Political Trials. London: September 1991.
Burma: Post-Election Abuses. New York 14 August 1990.
Burma: Time for Sanctions. New York: 15 February 1991.
International Human Rights Law Group:
Report on the Myanmar Election. Washington, DC: 19 May 1990.
Post-Election Myanmar: A Popular Mandate Withheld. Washington, DC:
31 October 1990.
Lawyers Committee for Human Rights:
Summary Injustice: Military Tribunals in Burma (Myanmar). New York:
28 April 1991.
US Committee for Refugees:
"The War is Growing Worse and Worse." Washington: May 1990.
Ashley, Beth. "Nightmare in Burma." Marin Independent Journal. San
Rafael, California: 26 January 1991.
Branegan, Jay. "Government in Name Only." Time. New York: 11
Clements, Alan. "A Rare Look Inside Burma." Newsweek. New York: 22
E-Sheet. Journal of the Environment. "Burma Trading Teak Forests for
Armaments." Vol. 2., No. 35. 5 April 1991.
Lintner, Bertil. "Lock and Load." Far Eastern Economic Review. Bangkok.
13 September 1990.
Lintner, Bertil. "Block and Tackle." Far Eastern Economic Review.
Bangkok: 11 October 1990.
Lintner, Bertil. "Oiling the Iron Fist." Far Eastern Economic Review.
Bangkok 6 December 1990.
Lintner, Bertil. "Triangular Ties." Far Eastern Economic Review. Bangkok:
28 March 1991.
Mirante, Edith. "Teak, Opium, Slavery: Burma Arms Itself." Freedom
Review. Vol. 22., No. 4. New York July - August 1991.
Saul, John Ralston. "As Bad as the Khmer Rouge." The Spectator.
Terzani, Tiziano. "A Long-Suffering Land Imprisoned by Fear." World
Press Review. New York: June 1991.
Viviano, Frank. "Burma Shows Signs of a Cambodia-Type Bloodbath." San
Francisco Chronicle. 19 April 1991.
Maung, Mya. "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma--the Symbol of Freedom
and Champion of Human Rights".
Burma Today is the result of contributions from many people. Eric Kolvig
researched and wrote the book in a marathon writing effort.
Contributions toward this composition were received from Prof. Mya
Maung, Thomas Ragland, Carol Conragan and Margaret Barrett. Paula
Green provided moral support and critical comment to Eric during the
writing and editing process. The manuscript received very valuable
review from David Arnott, Therese Caouette, Robert Helvey, Margaret
Howe, Min Sun Min, Prof. Josef Silverstein and Prof. David Steinberg.
Martin Smith and Zed Books kindly allowed use of a map from Burma:
Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 1991. We are grateful for the
financial support provided by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and James
Kasper. While these many contributions have improved this report, the
errors and shortcomings in this publication are our own.
Burma Today Project Manager
INTERNATIONAL BURMA CAMPAIGN
The International Burma Campaign, IBC, is a network of
nongovernmental organizations from around the world Members include
human rights, peace, environmental, religious and Burmese expatriate
The International Burma Campaign supports the aspirations
of the peoples of Burma for:
* Restoration of democracy;
* Universal respect for human rights, including the rights of ethnic and
religious minorities, women and children;
* Humane economic and environmental policies;
* Nonviolent solutions to civil discord and a process of national
* Unconditional release of political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
The International Burma Campaign, through its network of
organizations, engages in providing information, supporting legislative
and economic initiatives, and working for the restoration of democracy in
Organizations and individuals interested in working with the
international campaign are encouraged to contact IBC. Offices are to be
established in Washington, DC, early in 1992. Please contact an IBC
representative listed below for more information.
International Burma Campaign.
PO Box 39127 Friendship Stn NW, Washington, DC 20016.
Michael Beer, USA, Tel: 202/244 2951; Fax: 244-6396
Paula Green, USA, Fax: 413/773-7507.
Min Sun Min, USA, Tel & Fax: 718/854-5910.
Zunetta Liddel, UK, Tel: 071-267-9660; F: 267-5562
M. Baumann, Germany. T: 227/435460; F:228/968-6804.