Rights Abuses Fuel Deaths

In military-ruled Burma, a new survey shows human rights violations causing increasing child deaths.


Children affected by a cyclone in Burma's Irrawaddy Delta region wait for food from a boat, May 23, 2008.

BANGKOK—Human rights abuses by Burma's military junta are causing massive health problems and increasing deaths among children, according to a new medical study.

The survey, conducted in conflict-ridden eastern Burma by community health groups including the Backpack Health Workers' Team and the Burma Medical Association, revealed that households suffering rights violations had "worse health outcomes," according to their report aptly titled "Diagnosis: Critical."

"In areas where there are human rights violations, malnutrition among the children is found to be three times higher," Cynthia Maung, the head of the Backpack Health Workers Team, told a press conference.

"In those areas, the child mortality rate is two times higher. Therefore, healthcare and social workers feel that human rights violations are causing these health problems," she said, calling for an immediate halt to the violations.

Survey questions

The survey covered about 30,000 people of the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and Palaung ethnic groups in eastern Burma burdened by decades of civil conflict and human rights abuses by the military junta, survey organizers said.

Burma, one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, is home to dozens of ethnic groups. Armed rebellions have been going on since independence in 1948 in the country’s eastern frontier areas as groups pressed for increased autonomy.

They survey identified high birth and mortality rates in the conflict-affected area as "more comparable to recent war zones such as Sierra Leone than to Burma's national demographics."

Naing Aye Lwin, also from the Backpack Health group, said several questions were posed to the people in the surveyed areas to draw any links between health and human rights.

"For example, when interviewing displaced people, we asked whether any children had died in their families during the past six months or year, who had died, how many children under five had died," Naing said.

"Since they are displaced people, there's human rights violations. The death rate of these people is three or four times higher than ordinary people. Therefore, the health data is very much related to human rights violations."

Displaced people

Map showing ethnic minorities in Burma. Credit: RFA
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Currently, there are at least 446,000 internally displaced people in the rural areas of eastern Burma.

Burma’s health indicators for child, infant, and maternal mortality rank amongst the worst in Asia.

The country's infant mortality rate was estimated by UNICEF at 54 per 1,000 live births in 2009 while its under-five-year-old mortality rate was at 71.

But the number of deaths in Burma's eastern states is more alarming as the population grapples with high levels of displacement and little to no access to state healthcare systems—the infant mortality rate is 73 per 1,000 births and the under-five mortality rate is 138.

In some eastern Burma conflict zones, the number of mothers who die at birth has jumped to 1,000–1,200 deaths per 100,000 live births compared with the national rate of 240.

The future remains bleak, according to the report.

"The ongoing widespread human rights abuses committed against ethnic civilians and the blockade of international humanitarian access to rural conflict affected areas of eastern Burma by the military junta mean that premature death and disability, particularly as a result of treatable and preventable diseases like malaria, diarrhea, and respiratory infections, will continue," it said.

The situation also posed a "direct health security threat" to Burma’s neighbors, particularly Thailand, where the highest rates of malaria occur on the Burma border.

Asked to predict the situation after the Nov. 7 elections conducted by the junta, which many observers have called a sham, Cynthia Maung said, "If we look at the areas where the survey was conducted, we saw that they didn't have household registrations, population records, birth and death records for many years."

"So, they can be displaced any time, and these human rights violations can continue any time. Specifically, the military government can expand its military units in the ethnic areas, saying they are doing development work, and they can increase forced relocations," she said.

"We are concerned about that."

Reported by Tin Aung Khine for Radio Free Asia's Burmese Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai