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Burma Today

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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
Washington, DC



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
Civil War
Violations of Civil Rights and Human Rights
Forced Relocation of Population
Destruction of the Educational System
Attacks on the Buddhist Clergy
Burma Today
International Response



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 
Books, 1991.



[Bar graph] G.N.P. per Capita 
1989 ($US)

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 
1989 approx.

	Other (9.6%)	Arakan (7.2%)	

Shan (12.0%)			Karen (8.4%)

		Burman (62.7%



"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.  



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 
political infighting.  

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.  



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.  



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.  



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 
and grew.  

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 
the world.  

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 
40 years.  

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 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 
military regime.  

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."  



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 
nearly identical.  

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 
resuming aid.  

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 
they wished.  

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 
remotest hinterlands.  

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 
drug lords.  

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."  



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 
devastating effect.  

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." 



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 
from them.  



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 
during 1988.  

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." 



"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.  



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 
representatives .  

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 
despots before. 



Profits more than any other factor prolong the outrage in Rangoon. 
SLORC persists because foreign governments and private corporations 
support it.  

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 
similar embargoes.  

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 
situation cogently:  

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: 
April 1991.  

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 
May 1990. 

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 


Amnesty International:  

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: 
August 1991.  

Myanmar: Unfair Political Trials. London: September 1991.  

Asia Watch:  

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 
February 1991.  

Clements, Alan. "A Rare Look Inside Burma." Newsweek. New York: 22 
April 1991.  

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.  

Rand Engel
Burma Today Project Manager



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.