Union of Myanmar

Head of state and government: General Than Shwe
Capital: Yangon
Population: 46.8 million
Official language: Burmese
Death penalty: retentionist

Scores of people were arrested for political reasons and 200 people, some of them prisoners of conscience, were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. More than 1,200 political prisoners arrested in previous years, including 89 prisoners of conscience and hundreds of possible prisoners of conscience, remained in prison. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced in May that it had begun to visit prisons and other places of detention. The military continued to seize ethnic minority civilians for forced labour duties and to kill members of ethnic minorities not taking an active part in hostilities, during counter-insurgency operations, particularly in the Kayin State. Forcible relocation continued to be reported in the Kayin State, and the effects of massive forcible relocation programs in previous years in the Kayah and Shan States continued to be felt as civilians were still deprived of their land and livelihood and subjected to forced labour and detention by the military.


There was a continuing stand-off between the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC, the military government) and the National League for Democracy (NLD, the main opposition political party which won the 1990 elections). Domestic and international efforts to initiate dialogue between them failed to break the deadlock. The NLD maintained its right to convene parliament and refused to dissolve the 10-member Committee Representing the People's Parliament (CRPP) in the face of the SPDC's demands to do so before considering dialogue. Although a peaceful civil disobedience campaign was planned by exiled opposition groups in September, the plan did not materialize after the pre-emptive arrest of scores of people by the SPDC. The Myanmar army continued to engage in skirmishes with ethnic minority armed opposition groups – the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South). The fighting caused further displacement of ethnic minority villagers. Sixteen cease-fire agreements negotiated in previous years between the SPDC and various ethnic minority armed opposition groups were maintained.

Repression and secrecy

The SPDC continued to severely restrict the activities of the NLD and other opposition groups, keeping anyone suspected of opposition to the government under surveillance. Opposition sources reported that the SPDC forced thousands of NLD members to resign in 1999. The SPDC announced that over 34,000 NLD members had resigned. Press censorship continued to be strictly enforced and independent information on human rights violations remained limited. Under a 1996 martial law decree, computer ownership and access to the Internet without government permission was punishable by a prison term of seven to 15 years. The government did not permit indigenous independent non-governmental organizations to function in Myanmar, although there were government-sponsored organizations such as the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association.

Although the ICRC was allowed to commence prison visits, the government continued to impose restrictions on access to the country by international human rights organizations and foreign journalists. However in July and October, AI delegates held meetings with Myanmar diplomats outside the country.

International initiatives

In March the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar submitted his report to the UN Commission on Human Rights. Throughout the year the SPDC continued to deny him access to the country. In April the Commission adopted by consensus its eighth resolution extending the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for another year and stating its grave concern "...at the increasingly severe and systematic violations of human rights in Myanmar". A strong resolution was also adopted by consensus at the UN General Assembly in December. In October the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General visited Myanmar, in part to encourage dialogue among ethnic minority representatives, the SPDC, and the NLD; however no progress was reported by the end of 1999.

The USA renewed sanctions banning new US investment in Myanmar in May, and in October the European Union (EU) renewed its common position on Myanmar, enacting limited sanctions. The Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been blocked since Myanmar joined ASEAN in July 1997 as a result of EU protests at Myanmar's human rights record. However the EU-ASEAN Joint Committee, a non-ministerial meeting, took place in May, although Myanmar was not allowed to speak. In August the Human Rights Commissioner of Australia visited the country and met with government officials about the possibility of establishing a human rights commission there.

In May the Director-General of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) issued a report which concluded that the Myanmar government had not amended its laws or practice with regard to the military's widespread use of civilian forced labour. At the International Labour Conference in June, the ILO ruled that Myanmar could no longer attend ILO meetings or receive any technical assistance until it complied with ILO Convention No. 29 on forced labour, to which the state became a party in 1955.

Political imprisonment

Prisoners of conscience U Ohn Myint and Dr Ma Thida were released in January and February respectively. Five NLD members of parliament-elect were also released, leaving approximately 40 members of parliament-elect arrested in previous years in prison. At least 1,200 political prisoners, most of them possible prisoners of conscience arrested in previous years, remained behind bars. Fewer than 50 NLD members who were arrested in 1998 after the NLD established the CRPP continued to be detained in government guesthouses and other detention centres without charge or trial. However, in November the NLD announced that 21 members of its youth and women's wings had been released that month. They had been arrested in September 1998 along with hundreds of other NLD members after the party announced the formation of the CRPP.

In May the ICRC announced that it was visiting prisoners and in November it stated that it had visited 19,000 prisoners, 700 of whom were being held for "national security reasons". Prison conditions amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment continued to be reported, especially in prisons outside Yangon (Rangoon), such as Myitkyina, Kachin State and Thayet Prison. However, some improvements were reported, including better sanitation.

In January, about 200 young political activists arrested in previous years received long prison sentences, including prisoner of conscience Thet Win Aung, who was given a sentence of 59 years. Some 80 people were arrested in the run-up to the civil disobedience campaign planned for September, including 19 people in Bago (Pegu) town, central Myanmar, in July. Three of them, including a three-year-old girl handed over to her family, were released but the status of the others was unknown.

Forced labour

The military continued to seize ethnic minority civilians for forced labour on infrastructure projects and for portering duties in the Shan, Kayin and Kayah States. Children from eight to 15 years were forced on a regular basis to work on a temple construction in Kunhing, Shan State, in January and February. Civilians were taken by the military for portering duties, carrying heavy loads for long periods, and were beaten if they could not keep up with the column. Forced labour was also reported in areas where cease-fires held, including the Mon and Kachin States, where teenaged children often worked on roads. In May the SPDC announced that the military had issued directives for the suspension of legislation which provides for forced labour (the 1907 Towns Act and the 1908 Village Act). It was not known if these directives were enforced. AI called for the legislation to be repealed.

Abuses by armed opposition groups

The KNU was reported to have killed eight to 13 civilian immigration officials in the Kayin State in February. In July the KNPP was believed to have killed two Karenni civilians who were acting as mediators between the SPDC and the KNPP. In November the SSA-South abducted nine Myanmar nationals belonging to the Shan ethnic minority from Thai territory, but released four shortly afterwards. One of the five remaining, said to be an SSA-South defector, was killed for alleged drugs trafficking. In October five armed Myanmar nationals called the Vigorous Burmese Students Warriors seized control of the Myanmar embassy in Thailand for 25 hours, holding over 80 people hostage (see Thailand entry).

AI country reports

  • Myanmar: The Kayin (Karen) State, militarization and human rights (AI Index: ASA 16/012/99)
  • Myanmar: Update on the Shan State (AI Index: ASA 16/013/99)
  • Myanmar: Aftermath – Three years of dislocation in the Kayah State (AI Index: ASA 16/014/99)

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