WORLD REPORT 2001 - Burma

The Burmese government took no steps to improve its dire human rights record. The ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) continued to pursue a strategy of marginalizing the democratic opposition through detention, intimidation, and restrictions on basic civil liberties. Despite international condemnation, the system of forced labor remained intact.

In the war-affected areas of eastern Burma, gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law continued. There, the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and Karen National Union (KNU), as well as some other smaller groups, continued their refusal to agree to a cease-fire with the government, as other insurgent forces had done, but they were no longer able to hold significant territory. Tens of thousands of villagers in the contested zones remained in forced relocation sites or internally displaced within the region.


Human Rights Developments

The SPDC continued to deny its citizens freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement. It intimidated members of the democratic opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) into resigning from the party and encouraged crowds to denounce NLD members elected to parliament in the May 1990 election but not permitted to take their seats. The SPDC rhetoric against the NLD and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, became increasingly extreme. On March 27, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, in his Armed Forces Day address, called for forces undermining stability to be eliminated. It was a thinly veiled threat against the NLD. On May 2, a commentary in the state-run Kyemon (Mirror) newspaper claimed there was evidence of contact between the NLD and dissident and insurgent groups, an offense punishable by death or life imprisonment. In a May 18 press conference, several Burmese officials pointed to what they said were linkages between the NLD and insurgents based along the Thai-Burma border, and on September 4 the official Myanmar Information Committee repeated this charge in a press release after Burmese security forces raided the NLD headquarters in Rangoon.

The SPDC released several high-profile political prisoners during the year, but continued to arrest individuals engaged in peaceful political activities. It extended clemency on medical grounds to NLD Youth member Tun Zaw Zaw, also known as Tun Tint Wai, on December 19 after his mother appealed for him to be released to seek treatment for an eye disease. He had served two years of a seven year prison term imposed on politically-motivated charges of forgery and cheating. Moe Thu (Sein Myint), former editor of the economics magazine Danna, was released on January 3, 2000, following the death of his wife. He had been in prison since June 1996. On May 22, the government released Cho Nwe Oo, who had been in prison since 1995 for a protest at the funeral of the former prime minister, U Nu. The thirty-two-year old doctor had two years of his sentence still to serve at the time of release. The government released six elderly men, five of them reportedly NLD members, shortly after a request for the release of the men and other prisoners made by the U.N. Secretary-General's special envoy for Burma, Razali Ismail, during his October 2000 visit to Burma. On October 20, the government released British activist James Mawdsley following strong protests earlier in the month by the British foreign ministry over reports that Mawdsley had been beaten in detention and a statement by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that he was being held unlawfully. He had served one year of a seventeen-year sentence for distributing pro-democracy leaflets in Burma.

There were also new arrests. On April 24, the SPDC detained a member of the Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP), the shadow legislature established by the NLD. Aye Tha Aung, chairperson of the CRPP's Committee on Ethnic Nationalities Affairs, was reportedly sentenced to twenty-one years of imprisonment in June to be served at Insein prison, where conditions were particularly harsh. In May, the authorities arrested Tint Wae, Kyaw Myo Min, and Ma Htay Htay for allegedly distributing the dissident newspaper MoJo, and sentenced them to seven years in prison. Later the same month, the government arrested over one hundred NLD members in an apparent attempt to suppress political protests to mark the tenth anniversary of the 1990 election.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued to monitor the conditions of thousands of prisoners, and was able to establish offices in Kengtung in Shan state, Pa-an in Karen state, and Moulmein in Mon state to begin to monitor the condition of civilians in eastern Burma.

On August 24, Burmese officials took action to prevent the freedom of movement of NLD General Secretary Aung San Suu Kyi, Deputy Chairman Tin Oo, and a dozen other party members, forcing their two vehicles off the main road in the town of Dala, on the outskirts of Rangoon. Government forces refused to allow the party to proceed to the NLD branch office at Kunyangon, thirty miles from the capital, and urged them to return to Rangoon because of "security concerns." The NLD officials refused to do so and, instead, camped in their cars, but on September 3, police forcibly returned them to Rangoon. Officials reportedly handcuffed Aung San Suu Kyi and Tin Oo. The day before, security forces had raided the NLD headquarters in Rangoon and confiscated numerous documents. The government claimed that the raid had uncovered damning evidence that NLD members were helping insurgent groups to smuggle explosives into Burma and confined nine NLD executive committee members to their homes pending completion of an investigation. The government's move sparked international condemnation. Foreign diplomats were permitted to visit the nine detainees on September 14 and the NLD members were then permitted to move about Rangoon.

On September 21, however, the government blocked a bid by Suu Kyi and other NLD members to travel by train to Mandalay. Suu Kyi and eight other NLD executive members were placed under effective house arrest. Deputy Chairman Tin Oo was held at an unknown location. The nine executive members were still being held as of October 2000.

The SPDC failed to put a stop to its use of forced labor for infrastructure development, the construction of Buddhist structures, maintenance of military camps, and portering for army patrols. A delegation from the International Labour Organization (ILO), visited Rangoon and other areas at the SPDC's invitation from May 23-27, shortly before the June annual conference of the ILO. In its report on the visit, the ILO again called for the SPDC to cease the use of forced labor, repeal or amend legal provisions for forced labor in the Village and Towns acts, monitor compliance, and penalize those who employed forced labor. Burmese Minister for Labour Maj. Gen. Tin Ngwe wrote a letter dated May 27 to the ILO's director-general, stating that the SPDC leaders "have taken and are taking the necessary measures to ensure that there are not instances of forced labor in Myanmar." The ILO conference, however, concluded that the SPDC had failed to end the practice and gave the SPDC until November 2000 to institute reforms or suffer possible sanctions. On October 19, an ILO delegation traveled to Rangoon to assess whether forced labor was still in use.

Tens of thousands of villagers in the conflict areas of central Shan state, Karenni state, Karen state, Mon state, and eastern Tenasserim division remained in forced relocation sites and faced curfews, looting, and restrictions on movement at the hands of the Burmese army. Shan refugees escaping to Thailand reported that strict curfews had been implemented in Burmese government relocation sites forbidding Shan villagers from leaving their homes between dusk and dawn and, in some instances, prohibiting speaking and imposing a strict lights-out policy. Tens of thousands of other villagers in eastern and southeastern Burma remained displaced in the forests or in areas contested by the army and insurgent groups.

In the west, the SPDC continued to deprive ethnic minority Muslim Rohingya of full citizenship rights. The Rohingya were subject to restrictions on their freedom of movement, arbitrary taxation, and extortion by local officials. Forced labor was also common. A direct consequence of ongoing abuses was the gradual movement of Rohingya refugees into the Bangladeshi labor market. Some 20,000 refugees remained in Nayapara and Kutapalong refugee camps in Bangladesh as of October 2000, but the camps remained officially closed to new arrivals.

On July 27, the SPDC reopened many of the country's universities, which had been closed since 1996. Many campuses, however, had been relocated to rural areas since the mid-90s and the doors of the University of Rangoon, a former hotbed of political activity, remained shut for all but final year students.

Defending Human Rights

No human rights organizations were allowed to operate in Burma.

The Role of the International Community

The international community was still far from developing a common approach to continued human rights abuses in Burma. In March, fourteen governments were represented at a meeting in South Korea convened by the United Nations to discuss how to advance Burma's political development. They included the U.S., Australia, Canada, and several E.U. and Southeast Asian states, as well as the U.N. secretariat and the World Bank, but no new and coherent strategy emerged.

United Nations

In April, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail as his new special envoy for Myanmar, replacing Alvaro de Soto. Razali made his first visit to Rangoon from June 30 to July 3 when he met with SPDC officials, NLD leaders, and foreign diplomats. During his second visit on October 9-12, he met with Aung San Suu Kyi and Senior Gen. Than Shwe, the first time any special envoy had been able to do so.

The U.N. General Assembly and U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed consensus resolutions in November 1999 and April 2000, respectively, expressing concern over human rights abuses in Burma and the ongoing political stalemate. In reports in January and August, U.N. Special Rapporteur Rajsoomer Lallah focused on the lack of respect for civil and political rights, obstacles in Burma to the realization of economic, social, and cultural rights, and abuses faced by vulnerable groups. The SPDC refused to admit Lallah to Burma for the fifth year in a row.

United States

The U.S. government position on Burma did not change. On May 19, President Clinton renewed sanctions on new private investment in Burma. On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected a Massachusetts state law, which would have penalized companies investing in Burma, ruling that Congress had preempted it by establishing a sanctions policy. In another case brought by fifteen Burmese villagers, a U.S. federal court ruled on September 1 that Unocal corporation and its partners knew of and benefited from forced labor on the Yadana natural gas pipeline between Burma and Thailand, but that there was insufficient evidence that Unocal could control the abuses, and that the court therefore lacked jurisdiction over the case. The plaintiffs planned to appeal to the federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Two U.S. government reports sharply criticized the SPDC. In February, a Labor Department report concluded that forced labor, denial of the right to organize, and forced relocation remained pervasive, while abusive child labor was not uncommon. In September, the State Department announced that Burma was one of a number of countries that maintained serious restrictions on religious freedom.

On August 31, both Vice-President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeline Albright publicly condemned the SPDC for its treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD members and called for the SPDC to guarantee their freedom of movement and other fundamental human rights. In his September 6 address to the U.N. Millennium Summit, President Clinton denounced the SPDC for confining Aung San Suu Kyi to her home. On September 11, the State Department released a joint statement signed by Albright and ten other women foreign ministers condemning the SPDC's violation of the basic human rights of NLD members.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) tightened sanctions against Burma's leaders while renewing engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), of which Burma is a member. On April 10, the E.U. strengthened its common position by prohibiting the sale, supply, and export to Burma of equipment which could be used for internal repression or terrorism, and by freezing the funds of important government functionaries and publishing their names. On September 21, the E.U. issued a statement of concern about the treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi and called for the SPDC to lift all restrictions on her freedom of movement. The E.U. went ahead, however, with plans for the first meeting of E.U. and ASEAN foreign ministers since Burma joined ASEAN in 1997, scheduled at this writing to be held in December in Vientiane, Laos. Switzerland and Liechtenstein in October placed sanctions on Burma in line with the E.U. common position. On October 6, the E.U. presidency issued a declaration in support of the U.N. special envoy's mission.


Japan continued its two-track policy towards Burma, urging democratization and respect for human rights and suspending any new aid until there were "visible signs" of progress, while also maintaining political ties with Rangoon. On November 28, 1999, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi met with Senior Gen. Than Shwe at the Manila summit of leaders from ASEAN, China, South Korea, and Japan. His meeting was followed a few days later by a "personal" visit to Burma by former Japanese premier Ryutaro Hashimoto. Both leaders told the SPDC that Japan would not resume official development assistance absent visible political and economic reform. Hashimoto also recommended that the SPDC re-open all Burmese universities. In late June, Japan sponsored a two-day workshop on economic reform in Rangoon, originally scheduled when Obuchi and Senior Gen. Than Shwe met in Manila in November 1999. No new Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans or grants were announced during the workshop, though it was widely viewed as a possible step towards resuming bilateral aid. Some Japanese companies-including a fertilizer manufacturer and Toyota car dealer-pulled out of Burma during the year due to the difficulties they encountered operating there. In September, the Japanese government protested the virtual house arrest of the NLD executive committee.

In multilateral forums, Japan sought to dilute or deflect actions critical of the SPDC. It voted against the resolution on forced labor at the ILO and did not cosponsor the Burma resolution adopted by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.


Australia sought to cultivate greater respect for human rights through a long-term strategy of engagement with Burmese authorities on human rights. Urging the creation of a Burmese national human rights commission, the Australian government financed two human rights workshops in July for mid-level Burmese civil servants and a third in October. On August 10, at meetings of the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, the SPDC reiterated its intent to establish a commission. Not everyone within the Australian government had confidence in the SPDC's rhetorical commitment to change, however. In a July 21 cable to Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, Ambassador Trevor Wilson wrote that the SPDC was "determined to remain in power at all cost, allowing only marginal reforms in the economy and society." The Australian government criticized Rangoon over the treatment of the NLD but did not reassess its existing policy.

Association of South East Asian Nations

Thailand broke with the ASEAN position of non-interference in the internal affairs of member nations by abstaining from the vote on the ILO resolution criticizing Burma (all other ASEAN members voted against), and, in August, by criticizing the SPDC's treatment of Suu Kyi and the NLD. Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan said Burma's actions could scuttle the planned December meeting of ASEAN and E.U. foreign ministers. In September, the Thai government called for the ASEAN troika-the association's present and immediate past and future chairpersons-to address the situation in Burma. Vietnam, the current chair, refused to activate the troika, claiming the issue was a Burmese internal affair.

World Bank

The World Bank in a report in late 1999 linked Burma's poor economic performance to poor governance. The bank continued to deny loans to Burma and refused to consider sending a high level delegation to Rangoon unless the SPDC affirmed in writing its commitment to carrying out significant economic reforms.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


Living in Limbo: Burmese Refugees in Malaysia, 8/00

Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Still No Durable Solution, 5/00