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From: Human Rights SOLIDARITY
- Subject: From: Human Rights SOLIDARITY
- From: brelief@xxxxxxx
- Date: Sat, 11 Nov 1995 05:50:00
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>From Human Rights SOLIDARITY
The Newsletter of the Asian Human Rights Commission
1995, Volume 8
Excepts from "FROM THE BOTTOM UP -- Hope for Peace
by Max Ediger, Burma Issues
2. PRESENT SITUATION
A. Economic Situation
Although reliable figures are impossible to come by, some
Burmese estimate that the ruling elite of the country makes up
not more than .001% of the entire population of around 45
million people. Between this ruling elite and the middle class,
which is probably not more than .1 % of the population, is a
large, unspanable gap. The poor of the country thus make up
more than 99% of the people, half of whom are considered to
be below the poverty line.
Despite foreign investment by at least 107 foreign companies
totaling around US$2.23 billion and an official GDP growth
rate of 6.4%, life for the people of Burma is not improving.
Officially the inflation rate is 30.3% but other sources say it
may be at least double that in reality. In mid July, the price of
rice suddenly increased from 50 kyat a kilo to 70 kyat. There
has been no increase in salary to offset these increases.
Salaries remain very low. A university teacher earns
approximately 2,000 kyats per month while primary school
teachers earn 1,000 kyats or less. The official exchange rate
makes the university teacher's salary equal to US$333, but it
only has an actual purchase value of around US$15.50. A
recent visitor to Rangoon said people told her the small middle
class which used to exist in the urban centers, was rapidly
falling apart. She also stated that people on the street
supported an economic boycott of the SLORC, saying that
they receive no benefits or improvements from the money
flowing into the country. Aung San Suu Kyi in a recent
interview with Thailand's The Nation Newspaper, said when
she drove around Rangoon, all she could see were new hotels
being erected. She told the interviewer, "I don't want to see
hotels. What I want to see are new schools, hospital and
clinics." This surely reflects the feelings of the people.
The rural areas are facing even more desperate economic
problems. The Harvard Institute for International
Development, working with the UNDP, stated in a 1995 report
that of the 13 million people living in the rural areas, only 11
million have at least 3 acres of land, the minimum needed for
subsistence. This means that at lease two thirds of the rural
people are, in essence, landless. The report went on to say that
the school drop out rate for the entire nation is 75% of the
children between kindergarten and fourth grade. These figures
come from surveys done in areas under the control of the
military regime. If a similar survey would also include the
border areas and civil war zones, it would be even more
discouraging. Well over a million people have probably been
forcibly displaced by the military in past years, and they live in
pathetic conditions, lacking even basic security for minimal
food and health.
Aung San Suu Kyi has suggested in interviews, that she
supports economic sanctions at this time because the present
type of "development"is not appropriate to the country's needs,
and is not benefiting the people at all. The military budget
remains perhaps as high as 60% of the country's income, and
all other sectors are suffering severely. The educational
system is all but totally destroyed, and the health care system
lacks basic medicines and has declining staff. People say they
go to the hospitals to die, not to get well.
B. Military Situation
While the military presence in the urban areas seems less
obvious since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi it is still a
serious matter. The much feared Military Intelligence, or MI
has infiltrated every sector of society, and people trust only
their closest friends and acquaintances. Everyone visiting
Aung San Suu Kyi's house is photographed by MI agents, and
their names noted down. Three members of the Democratic
opposition forces in Rangoon were recently re-arrested and
sentenced to seven years in prison. The reason for their arrest
was not given, but they were known to meet occasionally with
Political activity on the university campuses is extremely
difficult. All university staff have been forced to go through
special education courses called refresher courses, in which
they have been told that they are responsible for the student
movement in 1988. They are trained in how to control the
students, and threatened that they will be held responsible if
there is any new campus unrest. The campuses are closely
guarded by the military, and MI agents constantly roam the tea
shops and class rooms of the universities. Anyone entering the
university must wear a card which indicates which part of the
campus they are allowed to be in. If they are caught in any
other part of the campus, they are subject to arrest.
In a further attempt to dissuade students from forming
opposition movements within the urban areas, SLORC is
promoting the concept of "distance learning". Students are
encouraged to study at home rather than on the campuses,
preventing the gathering of large numbers of students in the
Military activities in the border areas continue as before. In
some areas it has even become worse. In June of this year, the
military launched heavy military attacks against the Karen
ethnic group which had agreed to a cease fire only a few
months earlier. The BBC reported on August 1 that in the
Karen area of Loi Kaw, capital of Kayan State, over 2,000
people have been rounded up as porters recently. Families in
the area also have to pay a porter fee of 200 kyats. The porters
are forced to carry heavy loads for the soldiers. The work is
hard and at least 100 have already died according to the BBC
The Karen National Union (KNU) has refused to negotiate
with SLORC unless there is an international. presence at the
discussions, and the political issues of all the ethnic groups can
be discussed. SLORC refuses to accept any of the these
conditions, saying that the only choice is for the KNU to
"return to the legal fold." Presently the KNU is holding a
national conference, and reports indicate the SLORC military
is moving towards their conference site and will probably
attack in the near future.
At least 15 ethnic groups have made cease-fire agreements
with the SLORC. Only one of these, the Kachin, have actually
signed the agreement, the rest are verbal agreements. Most of
the agreements were made after SLORC military atrocities had
all but destroyed the morale of the civilian populations, and
Thai pressure on the ethnic armies along the Thai/ Burma
border left them little other choice. The agreements, for the
most part, were made with the ethnic groups at a very serious
disadvantage, making a long-term process for real peace
virtually impossible. The Karen National Union and the Shan
Mong Tai Army continue their fights against the SLORC.
They are the strongest military forces now confronting
SLORC, but several smaller groups also have not yet
negotiated with the military, including the Chin along the
Bangladesh and India border with Burma, and the Naga.
C. ASEAN and Thailand
We need to look at these two issues together as they are so
closely related. SLORC wants to join ASEAN in order to
strengthen their role in Asia and legitimize themselves in the
global community. Thailand has been one of the staunchest
supporters of SLORC's entry into this community. At the
present ASEAN meeting, SLORC Foreign Minister, U Ohn
Kyaw, signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, paving the
way for their eventual membership. Some ASEAN countries
hope that by next year SLORC can be given full membership.
Interestingly enough, Thailand seems to be balking a bit on
this speedy membership. While Thailand, especially the Thai
military, has been supporting SLORC, friendship between the
two countries is not as it would seem to the outside world.
There are many tensions, especially border demarcation issues.
The Thai/Burma Friendship Bridge which would connect the
Thai town of Mae Sot to the Burmese town of Myawaddy is a
very good example of this relationship.
When construction of the bridge was initiated with much
fanfare, people thought the two countries were indeed,
brothers. However, within a short time, problems erupted.
With little notice, the SLORC stopped all construction on their
side of the river and sent the Thai construction company
packing. Part of the problem was that land fill on the Thai
side was diverting the river slightly, causing erosion on the
Burmese side. Small as this issue might seem, it also resulted
in a forced boycott of all Thai goods crossing into Burma from
Thailand. Burmese traders caught with Thai goods are subject
to arrest, fines and even imprisonment. If such small events
can create such serious tensions, one cannot help but suspect
that Thai/ Burma friendship is very tentative indeed.
The problem stems from the fact that Thailand, especially the
military and some wealthy government officials, have their
own personal, economic agendas in mind when relating to
SLORC. SLORC, on the other hand, sees Thailand as one of
their most important allies in their rush to join ASEAN. Once
SLORC achieves ASEAN membership, they will no longer
need Thailand, and Thailand will no longer have any trump
cards for their push/pull relationship with SLORC. Thus the
Thai/Burma Friendship Bridge is perhaps an appropriate
symbol of the relationship between the two countries.
While, in the past, Thai policy seemed to kowtow almost
entirely to the wishes of SLORC, even to the point of taking no
action against the intrusion of SLORC troops into Thai
territory and the killing by those troops of several Thai border
personnel, several interesting changes have appeared in the
past few weeks. On August 4, the Thai Ambassador to Burma
paid a one hour visit to ASSK. This was done despite a
warning from SLORC that such a visit was not appropriate.
What was discussed in this meeting remains unknown to the
public, but Thai Foreign Minister Kasem said it was to give
moral support to her. Whether this heralds in a new Thai
policy towards SLORC remains to be seen, but it does suggest
that at least some Thai political leaders are starting to worry
that SLORC might not be around forever, so new relationships
must be formed to protect Thai economic interests in the
country. One of these interests is the gas pipeline running from
the Burmese gas fields in the Gulf of Martarban to Thailand to
produce much needed power for Thailand's growing industries.
Democratic forces have, on several occasions, suggested that
they would not recognize agreements made between foreign
businesses and SLORC once democracy is restored to the
country. If there is a chance that SLORC is losing control over
the country, some new relationships need to be quickly formed.
Some observers believe that the future will not improve this
relationship. Burma has now built up their army to almost
500,000 in number. If they are, indeed, able to solve some of
their internal problems, they will need some kind of enemy to
justify such a large army and the budget it will take to run it.
Perhaps Thailand will become this "enemy."
International pressure on SLORC has not abated much after
the release of ASSK. Japan seems to be the only country
which is expressing more interest in providing aid and
investments in the country, however there is no evidence that
they have started giving ODA again. The US continues to
discuss possible economic sanctions, and Australia strongly
voiced their opinion at the ASEAN meeting that more
substantial changes are needed in Burma before aid should
start flowing in.
Foreign companies, however, have taken ASSK's release as
justification to move quickly into the country. There is a
constant flow of foreign companies into the country seeking
investment opportunities. Not strangely, most of these
investments are in more short-term projects. Hotels continue
to be a major area of growth with more than 90 new hotels
being constructed around the country. Burma hopes to attract
at least 500,000 tourists in 1996, their Visit Myanmar Year.
The infrastructure cannot handle this kind of development and
people living around the hotels which are already in operation
complain of having their water and electricity constantly cut
If should also be noted that some foreign companies, including
Reabok of the US, are moving their factories to the Thai side
of the Thai/Burma border where they can make use of cheap
labor provided by the refugee camps there ....
In early August, Khin Nyunt, one of the most powerful men in
Burma and head of the Military Intelligence, said in a speech
to the people that there are no human rights abuses in Burma.
According to him the Burmese people are strong Buddhists,
they are gentle, polite, and loving. Therefore, human rights
abuses are impossible.
In reality, human rights abuses in Burma could be documented
step by step following each article in the UN Charter of
Human Rights. Virtually every right is being abused. Events
of the past two months have not changed that at all.
The most abuses take place in the areas of the country which
are most isolated. Since 1962, people in these areas have
suffered from summary executions, various forms of ethnocide,
loss of property and food, forced relocation, forced labor, rape,
religious persecution, arbitrary arrest, torture, imprisonment
without trial, heavy taxation, lack of representation in decision
making, etc. For many of them, this was normal life even
before Ne Win's military take over in 1962. As international
attention turns more and more to the urban political struggle,
these abuses may will increase. If SLORC can focus the
international eye on Rangoon, they can deal with the ethnic
insurgencies in the only way they believe effective -
eradication. They do this in many ways including:
1. SLORC soldiers are encouraged, through promises of
financial bonuses to marry local ethnic women. In effect, this
means the woman and her children become ethnic Burmans.
2. Ethnic minorities are not allowed to learn their own
languages in schools. In the Delta where at least two - thirds
of the ethnic Karen live, few people can now speak the Karen
language. This loss of cultural identity is a serious abuse of
cultural and ethnic rights.
3. Rural villages are constantly relocated, breaking apart the
village communities, and making it difficult for the people to
4. In the Chin State which is mostly Christian, children are
sometimes taken from parents and forced to study in Buddhists
schools in Rangoon. Churches are also torn down and
replaced with monasteries. Conflict between Christians and
Buddhists is encouraged.
5. Rape and killing of women by the military is common in
the border areas.
6. A special school has been set up by the Military Intelligence
to train young people from the ethnic groups. The school is
directly under the control of the MI and prepares the young
people to go back to their home areas as teachers and civil
servants. This school has now been upgraded to university
7. SLORC refuses to meet ethnic insurgencies half way in
negotiations, only demanding that the groups return to the
legal fold which means acceptance of SLORC as the legitimate
leaders of the country, and giving up their right to self
More than 90,000 people have fled into Thailand seeking
refuge. More live in Bangladesh, India and China. Even in
refugee camps, they face more violations of their rights. One
of the most psychological damaging is the constant threat of
forced repatriation back into areas controlled by SLORC. The
refugees should be given a say as to when they feel it is safe to
go home. Instead they are completely at the mercy of people
who neither sympathize with them nor feel uncomfortable to
use them as political and military pawns.
The UNHCR, because of the way it is structured, can do
nothing to guarantee their safety if the ruling elite do not invite
them to do so. This makes the UNHCR, and the UN
machinery in general ineffective in protecting the human rights
of the victims of political and military abuse. It is basically an
anti - people structure which relies on dictators and military
juntas for permission to protect those who are suffering the
oppression. While the UN bodies should respect the
sovereignty of a country, it is important to identify who
represents the sovereignty of that country: SLORC because
they have the most and biggest guns, or the 90% of the people
who, through the 1990 elections, said they did not want the
SLORC representing them. When the majority of the people
cry for help, should not the UN and all other international
bodies take heed?
Several months ago in the Karen State, soldiers of the
Democratic Kayan Buddhist Army (DKBA) under the control
of the SLORC, entered a small village and called all of the
people together. They demanded that everyone join their
organization or the local church would be burned to the
ground. Few people, Christian or Buddhist, heeded their
orders. The leader of the DKBA troops then went to the
Buddhist monastery which has a small generator, to get fuel to
burn the Christian church.
According to a peasant present at the event the Buddhist monk
told the DKBA, "I will give you the fuel. Then when you have
burned the church, come and burn down my monastery. If you
do not, I will do it myself. The Christians and Buddhists have
lived together in peace for many years. When they have a
celebration, we help them. when we have a celebration, they
help us. We all drink from the same river." The DKBA hung
their heads in disappointment and left.
While it all may seem a bit hopeless, it is not. There are many
signs of hope and there is much that can be done to support
that hope. The people of Burma, especially those living in the
deep interior areas, have been creatively fighting for peace and
justice for many decades now. We need not so much teach
them as we need to support them. This could be done in many
1. New political and economic structures for Burma should be
built from the grassroots (most fringe of the society) up, based
on their traditional forms of economy, leadership, and decision
making. These are the only kinds of structures which these
grassroots people can effectively and fully participate in.
All opposition groups and NGOs must take seriously the
village level structure which already exist and use the wisdom
of the villagers to build the new Burma. If this does not
happen, conflict will continue.
2. New forms of non - violent resistance need to be developed
to confront the global economic warfare which is now at the
center of international conflicts and which so victimize the
grassroots. These new forms of non - violent resistance may
already exist at the grassroots level. They should be identified
and shared with the international movements for justice.
3. Peace-making activities in Burma must focus on the root
causes of oppression in order to promote peace which is a true
and lasting peace with justice. Care must be taken to not
overly emphasize the writing of new constitutions, or designing
new federal systems for Burma. These systems, while
perhaps very democratic and well organized, will not bring
peace to Burma if the root causes of conflict have not been
identified and dealt with in a straightforward and effective
4. The UN, especially the UNHCR, needs to reorganize so
that it can respond to the oppressed rather than the oppressors.
It is important to remember that the only hope for true and
lasting peace in Burma is for full and free participation by the
village people. They must have a very strong role in designing
the economic and political structures which will rule Burma in
the future. NGOs who wish to work in and for Burma should
always make certain that they do not present an obstacle to
such a movement.
Human Rights SOLIDARITY is published by the Asian
Human Rights Commission
Flat E 3/F Kadak Bldg.
171 Sai Yee Street
Mong Kok, Kowloon,
Fax: (852) 2698-6367