[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Canada Asia Work. Group:1/5 Burma R

Subject: Canada Asia Work. Group:1/5 Burma Report

Canada Asia Working Group brief on human rights in Burma, prepared for
UNCHR meetings, Geneva, Jan-Feb. 1994. (CAWG is the ecumenical coalition of
the Canadian churches on human rights and social justice issues in Asia.)

MYANMAR (BURMA)   (Part 1 of 6 parts)


Events in Myanmar (Burma until May 1989) since 1988 are now quite well
known and do not need to be listed in detail. The country is ruled by
a small military clique, the State Law and Restoration Council
(SLORC), formed on 18 September 1988, after the fall of the Burma
Socialist Programme Party of General Ne WIN.  SLORC was surprised by
its massive defeat in the national election of 27 May 1990 and refused
to hand power over to the National League for Democracy (NLD) who won
392 of the 485 contested seats despite SLORC's arrest of the NLD's
General Secretary, Aung San SUU KYI. At the same time, SLORC has
continued its war against its minority ethnic tribal groups with much

Since 1988, millions in Myanmar have suffered forced displacement,
arrest, torture, kidnapping, forced labour, persecution for religious
beliefs, imprisonment, impoverishment and/or violent death as SLORC
has sought to strengthen its control and exploitation of the country.
Many of the victims have been women and children, often from tribal
ethnic minority groups. SLORC's control is total (economic, political,
social and military) and is backed by an extensive internal
intelligence apparatus which produces a nationwide atmosphere of fear
and suspicion. SLORC has turned a once-prosperous and self-sufficient
land into one of the world's poorest and most oppressed countries. Nor
is the matter entirely internal, as hundreds of thousands of refugees
have fled into Bangladesh, Thailand, India and Malaysia, destabilizing
the region.[1]

Myanmar and the United Nations

In the last several years, broad international consensus has emerged
that the Union of Myanmar (SLORC) government is one of the most
serious human rights abusers in the world. Successive annual
resolutions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR)
and the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly have
been increasingly critical of the Myanmar government. The UNCHR
Subcommission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of
Minorities has also been extremely critical of the Union of Myanmar's
oppression of minority groups within the country.

The 1993 UNCHR resolution, unanimously adopted on 10 March 1993, goes
well beyond previous years' resolutions in its condemnation of the
Union of Myanmar government. The UNCHR expressed its "deep concern" at
the violation of human rights in Myanmar, including "the practice of
torture, summary and arbitrary execution, forced labour, including
forced portering for the military, abuse of women, politically
motivated arrests and detention, the existence of important
restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms and the
imposition of oppressive measures directed, in particular, at minority
groups". The resolution made 18 recommendations including the
establishment of democracy in Myanmar, the release of all political
prisoners (including Aung San Suu Kyi), restoration of basic human
rights (including the elimination of torture, abuse of women, forced
labour, disappearances and summary executions), protection of minority
rights, re-establishment of the rule of law and fair trials,
investigation of human rights abuses committed by the military and
other agents of the Myanmar government, improvement in the condition
of the country's jails and alleviation of the conditions that have
produced a massive flow of refugees from Myanmar into neighbouring

The resolution appeals to the Myanmar government to abide by the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants
on Human Rights; it urges Myanmar to become a party to the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading
Treatment or Punishment; it also urges the Myanmar government to
fulfil its obligations as a party to the Forced Labour Convention,
1930 (No. 29) and the Freedom of Association and Protection of the
Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87) of the International
Labour Organization. The UNCHR resolution also extended for one year
the mandate of the Special Rapporteur to continue direct contact with
the government and people of Myanmar, including political prisoners
and their families, and urged the Myanmar government to cooperate with
him. Finally, the Commission decided, given its seriousness, to keep
the Myanmar situation under review for further consideration by the
50th session of the UNCHR in early 1994.[2]

In August 1993, the UNCHR Subcommission on Prevention of
Discrimination and Protection of Minorities further condemned the
Myanmar government's ongoing violation of its citizens' human rights.
The Subcommission indicated that it was "deeply concerned at continued
reports of the routine torture and mistreatment of detainees and
prisoners by members of the Myanmar police, intelligence and military
forces" and "deplor[ed] the ongoing persecution of Muslims, Christians
and ethnic minorities and the numerous violations of human rights
entailed by the practices of forced conscription and porterage."

The Subcommission made six recommendations. In the first of these, it
called upon the Myanmar government "to ensure respect for human rights
and fundamental freedoms for all citizens, including all minorities,
notably through repeal of discriminatory citizenship laws and
immediate and unqualified cessation of all practices of torture,
arbitrary detention, forced conscription, forced porterage and forced
relocation, and of violent attacks on civilians, including children
and women, by the armed forces."  Other recommendations to the Myanmar
government included the implementation of the results of the election
of 27 May 1990, cooperation with the work of the Special Rapporteur
and the International Committee of the Red Cross and observance of
Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 regarding the
protection of civilians in armed conflicts not of an international
character. The Subcommission also invited the Myanmar government to
accede to United Nations human rights conventions and covenants to
which it is not yet a party, as indicated above.[3]

The UNCHR's Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in
Myanmar, Professor Yozo Yokota, visited the Union of Myanmar on 9-16
November 1993. In his preliminary statement to the Third Committee of
the General Assembly on 24 November 1994, he indicated that he was
able to make some of the visits he requested but expressed his
"disappointment" that he was not permitted to visit Aung San Suu Kyi;
that his meetings with leaders of the main political partners took
place in a government guest house rather than his office or residence
as requested; and that he "was unable to see other political leaders
detained or recently released, their defence lawyers, if any, and
families due to fear felt by them of possible subsequent
repercussions." Professor Yakota indicated a few developments "which
may lead to improvements in [the] human rights situation" in Myanmar
but concluded, "in spite of these developments, there are still many
serious restrictions and grave violations of human rights and
fundamental freedoms continuing in Myanmar." Professor Yakota's full
report will be made to the 50th session of the UNCHR in February

On 6 December 1993, the General Assembly Third Committee again passed
a very strong resolution condemning the Union of Myanmar's human
rights abuses. In addition to raising the above concerns, the
resolution stressed the "importance of free and confidential access to
prisoners by international humanitarian agencies", regretted "recent
harsh sentences meted out to a number of dissidents, including persons
voicing dissent in regard to the procedures of the National
Convention" and called upon the Myanmar government to respect fully
the obligations of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Article 3. Because
of the seriousness of the situation in Myanmar, the Third Committee
agreed to continue its consideration of human rights in Myanmar at its
49th session in 1994.[5]

Developments in Myanmar in 1993

The overall human rights situation in Myanmar has remained unchanged
in 1993. Whatever small improvements that have taken place (the
release of some political prisoners and commutation of death
sentences) have been balanced by SLORC's continuing arrests of
political opponents, its absolute control over the political and
economic life of the country and its widespread human rights abuses
against the people of Myanmar, especially in pursuit of the war
against the country's ethnic tribal minorities.

The Union of Myanmar government claims that it is engaged in a process
of moving the country towards democratic rule. To this end (according
to the Myanmar government), the National Convention was convened on 9
January 1993 in Yangon "in order to lay down basic principles to draft
a firm constitution".[6] However, the process has not been a free one.
All delegates are hand-selected by SLORC and one of SLORC's stated
aims in the Convention is to ensure the "participation of the Tatmadaw
[Army] in the leading role of national politics of the state in the
future."[7] The rules for delegates are quite restrictive and prohibit
"any words that may damage loyalty to the State" and walkouts or any
other shows of protest. They also state, "No paper or leaflets of any
sort which have not been approved by the National Convention Working
Committee are allowed to be brought in to either lodging or meeting
places." Delegates were also closely supervised by Military
Intelligence Service personnel during the first session of the

Despite all of SLORC's precautions, the National Convention did not go
as planned. There was much internal resistance both to SLORC's
insistence that the new constitution legalize its control of the
country and to SLORC's unwillingness to devolve any power to the
country's tribal ethnic minorities. The Convention abruptly adjourned
on 11 January and continued to convene and adjourn irregularly
throughout the year. Delegates steadily resisted SLORC's attempts to
guarantee a certain number of seats for the military (that is, SLORC)
in the legislative and executive sectors and in the Parliament. For
example, on 9 August when the Convention reconvened after a recess,
Khun Tun OO, Chair of the Shan National League for Democracy (SNLD),
bluntly rejected any future role of the military in government and
strongly advocated a "representative" type of democracy with sovereign
power vested in an elected legislature.[9] The National Convention is
again scheduled to reconvene in January 1994. The conclusion of the
UNCHR Special Rapporteur stands: "In regard to the National Convention
for the drafting of a new constitution, no evident progress has been
made towards turning over power to the freely elected civilian
Government. . . . Persons voicing dissent in regard to the National
Convention have been arrested and sentenced to long prison terms."[10]

At the same time that it was trying to manipulate the National
Convention, SLORC was faced with a delegation of Nobel Peace Prize
laureates, including the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who
wished to visit their fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate under house
arrest in Yangon, Aung San Suu Kyi. The Union of Myanmar government
denied the group entry into Myanmar. However, the group was able to
receive evidence of the Myanmar government's human rights abuses from
Burmese groups along the Thai border. The group called for economic
sanctions and a total arms embargo against Myanmar.[11]

Archbishop Tutu later likened Aung San Suu Kyi's imprisonment to that
of Nelson Mandela and SLORC's repressive regime to that of South
African apartheid. He rejected any policy of "constructive engagement"
with SLORC: "It is now time to admit that the policy of constructive
engagement with the SLORC is a failure, even as it failed to persuade
the apartheid regime in South Africa to make more than cosmetic
changes. . . . An international arms embargo is a first step. Trade
and investment restrictions should follow. International pressure can
change the situation in Burma. Tough sanctions, not constructive
engagement, finally brought the release of Nelson Mandela and the dawn
of a new era in my country. This is the language that must be spoken
with tyrants -- for, sadly, it is the only language they understand."

In response to the Nobel Laureates' attempted visit and the UNCHR's
harsh condemnation of the Union of Myanmar's human rights practices,
SLORC initiated in 1993 an intense international public relations
campaign to try to portray itself in a much more beneficent light. The
campaign has particularly concentrated on influencing members of the
U.S. Congress, both to reduce U.S. government opposition to the Union
of Myanmar's present political structure and to open new economic
links between Myanmar and the U.S. as a reaction to calls for economic
sanctions against Myanmar. The strategy includes all-expense-paid
visits to Myanmar with a very controlled agenda. Any U.S. political
leader who believes SLORC's claim that it is moving towards democracy
is incredibly gullible.[13]

One of SLORC's claims in international fora in 1993 is that it has
halted all military activity against ethnic tribal groups along
Myanmar's borders and is now prepared to move to peace talks with
these groups. This claim needs critical assessment. Independent
observers continue to report military activities in SLORC-occupied
border areas. For example, perhaps in preparation for an early 1994
assault on Manerplaw, the civilian population of large areas of Karen
State are undergoing military subjugation by the 99th Light Infantry
Division. An observer writes, "Entire regions of western Karen State
are being declared free-fire zones, while civilian populations are
being driven into relocation camps and garrison villages, where they
form a pool of slave labour and porters for future offensives." This
military campaign extends from Papun District in the north, through
central Thaton District, to Pa'an District in the south. It has
produced thousands of Karen refugees in Thailand and harrowing tales
of murder, torture, rape, enslavement and destruction which, taken
together, constitute ethnocide against the Karen people.[14]

Throughout 1993, SLORC has appealed to all the armed tribal ethnic
groups to come to the peace table. Considering the resistance SLORC is
encountering from its own tribal ethnic members in the National
Convention and by groups that have already settled with SLORC (such as
the Wa)[15], the peace offers have been treated with great suspicion
by members of the National Democratic Front (NDF), the federation of
the armed tribal groups. To date, SLORC's strategy is clearly to
divide and rule: both to divide the individual armed ethnic groups
from one another and from their alliance with the National League for
Democracy (NLD) in the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB) and the
NLD's interim government, the National Coalition Government of the
Union of Burma (NCGUB). The armed tribal groups are themselves open to
a peaceful settlement of the decades-long conflict but are not willing
to be party to a peace agreement that only reinforces or legitimizes
SLORC's rule over the country. Whether SLORC will respond positively
to the Democratic Alliance of Burma's offer to negotiate will be a
test of their commitment to a just peace rather than continued SLORC
dominance of the country.[16]