WORLD REPORT 1999 - Burma

Ten years after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising was crushed by the army, Burma continued to be one of the world’s pariah states. A standoff between the government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, general secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and other expressions of nonviolent dissent resulted in more than 1,000 detentions during the year. Many were relatively brief, others led eventually to prison sentences. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, rape, forced labor, and forced relocations, sent thousands of Burmese refugees, many of them from ethnic minority groups, into Thailand and Bangladesh. The change in November 1997 from the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to the gentler-sounding State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) had little impact on human rights practices and policies; the SPDC’s euphemism for continued authoritarian control—”disciplined democracy”— indicated no change. In addition to pervasive human rights violations, an economy in free fall made life even more difficult for the beleaguered population.

Human Rights Developments
The SPDC ‘s first steps briefly raised hopes for change. In December 1997, the minister for home affairs held an unprecedented, if unproductive, meeting with NLD members. In January, the SPDC continued an unexpected anti-corruption drive that had begun in late 1997, this time extending it to the police force. Five police chiefs were forced to resign, and the Rangoon division police chief was sacked. In a seminar on the economic crisis, held in Rangoon on January 20-21, SPDC Secretary-1, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, urged all participants to freely discuss Burma’s economic problems, the first time anyone in the military government had called for opinions.

Optimism that the government was opening up quickly waned, however. Between December and February, a new wave of arrests of political dissidents and student activists took place, and seven members of the NLD, arrested in 1997, were given longprison terms. On March 1, Khin Nyunt gave a press briefing in which he named several men, some of them students, whom he accused of having taken part in plots to assassinate SPDC leaders or otherwise disturb the peace. Of those arrested, six—Ko Thein, Khin Hlaing, Naing Aung, Thant Zaw Swe, Myint Han and Let Yar Htun—were sentenced to death for their part in alleged bomb plots. Thirty-three others were given harsh sentences, including Aung Tun, sentenced to fifteen years under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act and the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for publishing a book describing the history of the student movement in Burma. In connection with Aung Tun’s research, veteran politician and independence hero Thakin Ohn Myint, aged eighty, was sentenced on May 5 to seven years’ imprisonment with hard labor.

In April NLD parliamentarian Daw San San, who had been arrested during the October 1997 clampdown, was sentenced to serve the remainder of a twenty-five-year jail term she had received for alleged treason in December 1990. She had been released under an amnesty in May 1992, but on condition that she did not take part in political activities. However, a radio interview she gave to the British Broadcasting Corporation in June 1997 was now claimed as “evidence” that she had broken the conditions of her release.

Tensions rose dramatically in May. On the eve of the May 27 anniversary of the 1990 election, which the NLD had won, the SPDC permitted the NLD to hold a party meeting at Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home. Over 200 NLD supporters and parliamentarians, however, were detained for having either attended the meeting or attempting to do so. Even so, those present passed a resolution demanding that a parliament be convened by August 21.

That demand triggered a crackdown which persisted as of this writing. Initially, the SPDC imposed travel restriction orders on NLD officials, using the 1961 Habitual Criminal Offenders Act, which puts repeat offenders on permanent bail, forcing them to sign in with local authorities on a daily basis. Many NLD members refused to sign in, and as a result by mid-July some seventy-nine parliamentarians were reported to have been detained.

As the arrests mounted, Aung San Suu Kyi made attempts to meet with party activists outside Rangoon. Her moves were the result of a decision by NLD leaders to risk personal safety in order to force the government to the discussion table. On June 29, Aung San Suu Kyi was among a group of NLD leaders injured in a scuffle when the military forcibly prevented a student discussion group from meeting outside her home. Subsequently, she tried to leave Rangoon four times. On July 7 and 21, she was stopped en route to visit party members and prevented from reaching her destination. On July 24, her car was stopped as she attempted to visit Bassein. This time, the stand-off lasted for six days and ended only after the military forcibly entered her car and drove her back to Rangoon. On August 12, she made another attempt to reach Bassein, and when her car was stopped at the same point, she remained inside for thirteen days with little food or water. Only a suspected kidney infection and jaundice forced her to return to Rangoon.

This was the prelude to the mass detention of NLD supporters. In mid-August, SPDC leaders held two “confidence-building” meetings with NLD officials, including the party chairman Aung Shwe. They pointedly refused, however, to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. Then, as the NLD August 21 deadline approached, a stream of editorials in the state media accused the NLD of treason, claiming no parliament would be allowed to meet until a new constitution was drawn up. Subsequently, over 700 NLD members were detained, bringing the number of elected parliamentarians in detention to 194.

In addition to opposition politicians, students were also the target of arrests. Although the universities had remained closed since December 1996, dozens of students were reportedly arrested in sporadic demonstrations in Rangoon in August and September, including members of two student-backed organizations, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions and the Democratic Party for New Society. In September, a number of junior army officers were also reportedly detained for expressing pro-democracy sentiments, and there were reports of the arrest of Buddhist monks in the northern city of Mandalay.

Prison conditions continued to be a source of concern. In a rare event in February, the International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to hold a seminar on health matters for Burma’s prison doctors in Rangoon. Three well-known detainees were reported to have died in custody during the year, their deaths almost certainly exacerbated by prison conditions or ill-treatment: Aung Kyaw Moe, a student leader, Thein Tin, an NLD Rangoon division organizer, and Saw Win, an NLD parliamentarian.

In ethnic minority areas, the Burmese armed forces used a mixtures of carrots and sticks to deal with ethnic discontent and armed opposition forces. In areas of armed opposition where cease-fires had been reached, local groups reported progress on development and social initiatives, especially in Kachin state. By contrast, in other war-zones there was continued fighting, with attendant grave human rights abuses. Despite repeated international condemnation, the Burmese army’s use of forced labour was widespread, confirmed in a major investigation and report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published in August ( see below).
The government stepped up its practice of targeting villagers suspected of supporting ethnic insurgents. Forced relocations were especially prevalent in the central southern Shan state, Kayah (Karenni) state, Karen state and Tenasserim division, all of which were areas where peace talks or cease-fires had broken down in the previous three years.

In addition, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a breakaway group from the rebel Karen National Union formed in late 1994 with the support of the Burmese army, renewed its terror campaign against Karen refugees in camps in Thailand. In a series of attacks on Huay Kaloke, Mawker, and Mae La refugee camps during March and April, at least four refugees were killed, over

fifty wounded,and thousands made homeless.

As of November, some 21,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Rakhine (Arakan) state were still living in the two remaining official camps in Bangladesh, with most of the 260,000 who fled from Burma in 1991-92 having been repatriated by 1997. At the same time, new refugees continued to arrive, citing forced labor and other human rights abuses, but were denied entry to the refugee camps.

The year witnessed increased surveillance and occasional arrests of foreign visitors and journalists. One man of Australian and British citizenship, James Mawdsley, was sentenced to five years for breaking immigration laws when he entered the country, withouta visa, via Thailand in April. He was eventually released as a humanitarian gesture in August. At least five freelance reporters who entered the country with tourist visas were known to have been deported (usually after they tried to make contact with Aung San Suu Kyi or NLD officers), while those who declared their profession in their applications were denied visas from the middle of the year. The SPDC attempted to block all international reporting, and NLD telephone lines were routinely tapped and cut off if foreign journalists managed to get through.

Defending Human Rights
Draconian laws preventing freedom of association and expression remained in place, so that ten years after the SLORC/SPDC assumed power, Burma still had no indigenous human rights organizations.

In August, eighteen foreign human rights activists (from Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, the U.S., and Australia) were arrested in Burma while handing out leaflets commemorating the 1988 uprising. After interrogation, they were charged under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, then immediately deported.

For the third year running, the Special Rapporteur to Burma, Justice Rajsoomer Lallah, was also denied permission to visit the country.

The Role of the International Community
International policies towards Burma continued to be contradictory. While Western governments supported limited sanctions and the political isolation of the SPDC, Burma’s Asian neighbors called for closer engagement. In particular, China remained Burma’s most important trading partner and arms supplier, while contacts with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased following Burma’s 1997 admission to the organization.

United Nations
Concern over the suppression of human rights in Burma was again expressed through a number of U.N. bodies during the year. In particular, consensus resolutions were passed by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1997 and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in April 1998, noting a broad range of human rights concerns and calling on the SPDC to protect democratic freedoms and institute dialogue with leaders of political parties, including the NLD and ethnic minority groups. Following Burma’s 1997 accession to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the annual report of the Special Rapporteur, Rajsoomer Lallah, also highlighted incidents of forced labor and rape as well as the plight of refugee women. Alvaro de Soto, representing the U.N. secretary-general’s office, visited Burma in January, where he met both SPDC leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi.

In August, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, at U.S. urging, offered to send Ismail Razali, the former Malaysian representative to the U.N. as well as former president of the General Assembly, to Burma to facilitate talks between the government and the opposition. But the SPDC almost immediately rejected the offer, in part because of its American origins.

Longstanding U.N. concerns over the practice of forced labor by the military authorities in Burma gained further urgency with the August report of the ILO, which concluded that compulsory labor was “pervasive” in Burma, widely performed by women, children and the elderly, especially forced on ethnic minority groups, and frequently accompanied by physical abuse, including beatings, torture, rape and murder.

The role of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also gained new prominence in Burma. With an office in Arakan and efforts underway to wind down operations on the Bangladesh border, the UNHCR also turned its attention to Thailand after being invited by the Thai government to begin negotiations over a new monitoring role there. Some feared that role might lead to the eventual repatriation of over 100,000 refugees to Burma.

European Union
During 1998, the European Union (E.U.) ban on arms sales to Burma remained in place as did the restriction against SPDC officials visiting E.U. countries. The European Commission’s March 1997 decision to suspend trading benefits to Burma under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) program was also imposed, effectively excluding Burma from participation in E.U.-ASEAN discussions. The SPDC was notably not invited to the Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) summit in London in April. In addition, individual E.U. members imposed new restrictions of their own: the Labour government of the United Kingdom announced a new policy to “actively discourage” tourism in Burma, the first time a British government had made such a move over any country. An E.U. mission to Burma to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi and SPDC leaders was also proposed in August but rejected by the SPDC.

Despite condemnatory statements by E.U. bodies over the political and human rights situation in Burma, European companies went ahead with investments. The gas pipeline constructed across southern Burma to Thailand by the French oil giant Total, in partnership with the U.S. corporation Unocal, was completed in mid-year, while the British oil company Premier began construction of a new pipeline in the same area, despite E.U. recommendations against trade in Burma. The E.U. filed a brief in July with the U.S. district court in Massachusetts, invoking World Trade Organization agreements and stating that the 1996 Massachusetts Selective Purchasing Law, banning state business with companies that invested in Burma, was inhibiting U.S.-E.U. relations.

U.S. and Canada
The U.S. policy of economic and trade sanctions against Burma continued during 1998 and was strongly supported by members of Congress and officials of the Clinton administration. At the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in July, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke out forcefully on Burma. The U.S. continued to oppose any World Bank loans to Burma; in September, the bankdeclared that Burma was in arrears for its debts and that World Bank assistance could not be considered until they were paid.

The State Department repeatedly condemned the political crackdown on the NLD, warned that any moves against Aung San Suu Kyi would escalate the international response, and urged other governments including Japan to impose sanctions. The U.S. strongly protested the detentions and prison sentences given to political activists in May, calling on the Burmese government to “guarantee the basic rights to due process and to release those imprisoned for the peaceful expression of their political views.”

In April, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Bill Richardson, tried to visit Burma as part of a tour of South Asia but was denied a visa by the SPDC. The formal reason given for the decision was the U.S. ban on travel by SPDC government officials.

Narcotics policy on Burma shifted during the year. Burma is classified by the State Department as the world’s largest producer of illicit opium and heroin. But although Burma was decertified in 1998 for narcotics assistance, the U.S. decided in early 1998 to give up to $3 million towards a new crop substitution program by the U.N. Drug Control Program in the Shan State, along the China border. Narcotics programs have generally entailed cooperation with the Burmese military, but it was not clear whether this assistance did in fact mean any closer cooperation with the authorities.

The Canadian government publicly urged Burma’s rulers to initiate a “meaningful dialogue” with the NLD and condemned the travel restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and others. But Ottawa did not impose any sanctions beyond the withdrawal of GSP (Generalized System of Preferences) trade benefits in August 1997. Canada joined six other governments in issuing an appeal at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Manila urging the SPDC to end the standoff with the NLD.

The first full year of Burma’s membership of ASEAN was marked by contradictory signals over what influence the organization might have in the country’s future. In general, ASEAN members continued their support for a policy of “constructive engagement,” arguing that Western isolation of the SPDC and trading sanctions were both discrimatory and counterproductive. Not all of ASEAN’s engagement was itself constructive, however: According to Jane’s Defence Weekly , a Singapore government-owned company (Chartered Industries) provided a prefabriacted factory to produce small arms and ammunition that was shipped to Burma in February.

At the same time, there were increasing indications of ASEAN frustration with Burma in both political and economic affairs. The regional financial crisis cuts two ways. Not only did the financial constraints in several ASEAN states, notably Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, curtail joint economic projects, but from the beginning of the year the SPDC also shut off its borders to imports, trying to salvage the value of the rapidly falling Burmese kyat . In particular, Thailand was frustrated by the continued closure by the SPDC of the Myawaddy-Mae Sot Friendship Bridge, a prestige Thai investment, as well as attacks by both Burmese army and DKBA troops along different parts of the border. The refugee crisis in Thailand became a matter of growing ASEAN concern.

As a result, although diplomatic exchanges between the SPDC and ASEAN members accelerated, there were also signs of ASEAN disapproval of the Burmese government. In December 1997, Aung San Suu Kyi sent a recorded message to ASEAN leaders for their annual informal summit, calling on them to support political change in Burma, and this call was generally heeded. In March, the Malaysian foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi, held a two-hour meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, while southeast Asian nongovernmental organizations, led by the Alternative ASEAN Network, stepped up their campaign for democracy in Burma.

The most significant moves, however, came from Thailand and the Philippines, which advocated steps towards more open debate within ASEAN that would permit criticism of fellow members, like Burma.

Japan continued its two-track policy on Burma, providing limited economic assistance to the Rangoon government while urging improvements in human rights and restoration of democratic rule. A controversial decision in March to resume a $19.5 million Official Development Assistance (ODA) project to extend the Rangoon airport, initially suspended in 1988 following the military coup, was opposed by Japanese parliamentarians of both the ruling coalition and the opposition. The cabinet went ahead with the project, however, after a pro-business lobby in the Diet apparently convinced them it was “humanitarian aid” needed to restore airport safety. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly called on Burma to improve human rights and begin a “meaningful dialogue” with the democratic opposition and Aung San Suu Kyi, but ministry officials said there were no explicit conditions attached to the ODA funds. The U.S. publicly and privately protested the decision.

Also in March, Japan gave Burma a $16 million grant in debt relief and took the lead in persuading the U.N. Drug Control Program to sponsor a seminar in Rangoon. At the meeting, Japan pledged $800,000 for crop substitution programs and agreed to give the funding without adequate measures in place to monitor its use. For the first time, Japan also agreed to fund efforts by NGOs to assist Burmese refugees on the Thai border; it gave $75,000 in early July.

Following the ASEAN meeting in Manila in July, Japan joined other governments in publicly calling on Burma to engage in the dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi. When Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura visited the U.S. in mid-August, he agreed with U.S. Secretary of State Albright to urge Burma to remove restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi’s movements and to cease harassment of the opposition.

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Unwanted and Unprotected: Burmese Refugees in Thailand , 9/98