Covering events from January - December 2002

Head of state and government: General Than Shwe
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: not signed

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), was released from de facto house arrest in May. There was no reported progress in confidential talks about the future of the country, begun in October 2000, between the ruling military government – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – and Aung San Suu Kyi. However, over 300 political prisoners were released during the year, bringing the total of those released since January 2001 to over 500. Some 1,300 political prisoners arrested in previous years remained in prison and some 50 people were arrested for political reasons, despite the SPDC's stated commitment to release political prisoners as part of their undertaking to work with the NLD. Extrajudicial executions and forced labour continued to be reported in most of the seven ethnic minority states, particularly the Shan and Kayin states. Civilians continued to be the victims of human rights violations in the context of the SPDC's counter-insurgency tactics in parts of the Shan and Kayin states.


As in previous years, the army was involved in skirmishes with the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-South). In May the SSA-South captured some SPDC outposts in eastern Shan State. The SPDC accused the Thai government of permitting the SSA-South to launch attacks from Thai territory and closed the 2,000-km border with Thailand until October.

General Ne Win, who headed the military government between 1962 and 1988, was placed under de facto house arrest with his daughter, Sanda Win, in March. He died in December; his daughter remained under house arrest. His son-in-law and three grandsons were arrested at the same time and detained at Insein Prison. In September the four were sentenced to death for high treason; their sentences were appealed but the first appeal was denied and further appeals were pending. The family was widely believed to have been involved in economic activities which were contrary to SPDC interests, and to have tried to influence some members of the military to support their businesses.

Political and economic developments

Dialogue on substantial issues between the SPDC and the NLD did not progress during the year. Some NLD offices around the country reopened, but the party did not receive permission to publish party materials. On several occasions NLD officials called on the SPDC to begin talks with them and to release all political prisoners. Students, NLD members and other activists calling for political change or who possessed publications by exiled opposition groups were arrested during the year.

During the latter part of the year, Myanmar's currency, the kyat, traded at over 800 kyat to the US dollar; the official rate remained six kyat to the dollar. Large increases in the price of rice and other commodities, severe power shortages, and the lack of major development assistance, led to further economic hardship for much of the population. Farmers continued to be forced to sell or give part of their rice crop to the government at significantly lower than market prices. The SPDC continued to spend a very small proportion of their budget on health, education and welfare.

The lack of adequate nutrition and the prevalence of preventable diseases in ethnic minority states, particularly in counter-insurgency areas, increased civilian suffering. The army continued to subject civilians to forced labour and extrajudicial executions in southern Shan State in counter-insurgency efforts against SSA-South. Thousands of Karen civilians in Papun District, northern Kayin State, continued to live in hiding from the army after their villages were destroyed. In April, civilians were forcibly relocated, extrajudicially executed or subjected to forced labour in Kya-in-seik-gyi and Kya-in townships in southern Kayin State, in the context of counter-insurgency measures against the KNU which continued to operate in these areas. Civilians in some parts of Mon State, particularly Ye township, were subjected to forced labour and land confiscation by the army.

Political prisoners

Some 50 people were arrested during the year, most apparently for their peaceful political opposition activities. Approximately 1,300 political prisoners remained behind bars, including 18 members-of-parliament-elect.

  • Among the prisoners of conscience held during 2002 were U Win Tin, Ma Khin Khin Leh; U Win Htein; Thet Win Aung, who had been sentenced to 59 years' imprisonment in January 1999; and Paw U Tun, alias Min Ko Naing, who was among almost 30 people held under administrative detention provisions after having served their sentences.
  • Prisoner of conscience Dr Salai Tun Than, a professor and member of the Chin ethnic minority in his seventies who had been arrested in November 2001 for a staging a peaceful demonstration, was sentenced in February to seven years' imprisonment amid ongoing concerns about his health.
  • Aung Thein and Kyaw Naing Oo, both NLD youth members, were arrested in July for possessing publications by an exiled opposition group. They were reportedly severely beaten during interrogation. They were sentenced in September to seven years' imprisonment.
  • Two university students, Thet Naung Soe and Khin Maung Win, were arrested in August for staging a peaceful protest at Yangon City Hall. In November they were sentenced to 14 and seven years' imprisonment respectively.
  • Ko Shwe Maung, an NLD supporter, was arrested in November in Mandalay, reportedly after distributing rice to poor children and making a bamboo hat, the NLD party symbol.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was released in May and was allowed to travel freely within the country. U Aye Tha Aung, a prisoner of conscience and leader of the Arakan League for Democracy, was released in August. Pastor Gracey, a Chin Christian minister, and Myo Mying Nyein, a writer, were released in February; Myo Mying Nyein had been imprisoned since 1990. Many of the political prisoners released during the year had completed their sentences.

Torture and ill-treatment

Reports of torture of political prisoners during initial interrogation by Military Intelligence continued to be received. Three political prisoners died in custody during the year, bringing the total known number of custodial deaths of political prisoners since 1988 to 73.
  • Sai Phat, a 61-year-old NLD Shan State vice-chairman and member of the Shan ethnic minority, died in detention in disputed circumstances in October in Kengtung, Shan State. He had been organizing local NLD activities when he was arrested in September, and was reportedly accused of instigating farmers not to pay a rice tax to the authorities. The SPDC stated that he died of cerebral malaria; opposition sources indicated that he may not have received adequate medical treatment.
Prison conditions
Since the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) began to visit prisons in Myanmar in 1999, conditions have improved. However adequate food and medical care for prisoners was lacking, which contributed to the poor health of some political prisoners. Convicted criminals were at risk of being sent to labour camps, where conditions were sometimes harsh, to work on infrastructure projects. They were also reportedly taken from prisons to porter for the army in counter-insurgency areas, placing them at risk of being killed in combat or of dying from ill-treatment and neglect.

Forced labour

SPDC Order No. 1/99 and Order Supplementing Order No. 1/99, which outlaws forced labour by the military and all other government officials and provides for punishments for those found responsible, appeared not to have been enforced by the SPDC in many parts of the seven ethnic minority states. Some civilians were told about the orders by the military, but there did not appear to be any decline in forced labour. Unpaid forced labour and extortion of money, food and other goods from civilians by the military continued in some areas of the Shan, Kayin, Chin, Rakhine and Mon states, and in the Tanintharyi Division. As part of the military's self-sufficiency drive, ethnic minority civilians were forced to work on infrastructure projects and on military farms, which had previously been confiscated from the civilian population. Civilians were subjected to forced portering, which entailed carrying heavy loads for soldiers over rugged terrain for extended periods, in counter-insurgency areas.
  • A Mon woman who worked as a day labourer in Thanbuyzat township, Mon State, was forced to build a road for 10 days in January by the military; she had to perform unpaid forced labour for several days every month.
  • A Shan man from Namzarng township was forced to carry meat for the army during forced portering duties in February. Despite paying "porter fees" twice per month to avoid being taken, he was forced to work on military farms and dig trenches.
Extrajudicial executions

Extrajudicial executions of ethnic minority civilians taking no active part in the hostilities continued to be reported, particularly in the context of the army's counter-insurgency activities when civilians were punished for alleged contacts with armed opposition groups.
  • In January Lun Kon, Sai Ohn Ta, Sai Nyunt, Pa Pan, Nang Leng, four-month-old Naing Naing, six Shan civilians from Murngkerng township, Shan State, were shot dead by members of Infantry Battalion 281 in Murngton township as they were travelling to Thailand.
International initiatives

In April the UN Commission on Human Rights adopted by consensus its 11th resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar for another year. The resolution expressed concern about the high level of human rights violations, and urged the SPDC to accelerate the pace of national reconciliation. In December a similar resolution was adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly.

In May the USA renewed limited economic sanctions against Myanmar. The European Union (EU) Common Position which provided for limited sanctions was renewed in April and again in October. EU troika visits took place in February and September.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) opened a liaison office in Yangon in June under a March agreement with the SPDC, and in September appointed a permanent Liaison Officer. The Liaison Officer met with the SPDC Implementation Committee and other officials, but no independent mechanism for investigating reports of forced labour had been established by the SPDC by the end of the year. The UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy visited the country three times in attempts to foster political dialogue between the NLD and the SPDC and to facilitate the release of political prisoners. The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar visited the country in February and October, when he was given unimpeded access to prisons and allowed to travel outside of Yangon.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.