1999 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 7.0
Civil Liberties: 7
Political Rights: 7


Two years after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) admitted Burma and claimed that the move would encourage the ruling junta to improve its human rights record, in 1999 the military showed no signs of easing its harassment of dissidents or its abuses against ordinary civilians.

Following the Japanese occupation in World War II, Burma achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948. The army overthrew an elected government in 1962 amid an economic crisis and insurgencies by ethnic-based rebel groups. During the next 26 years General Ne Win's military rule impoverished what had been one of Southeast Asia's richest countries.

In August and September 1988, the army opened fire on massive, peaceful, student-led pro-democracy demonstrations, killing an estimated 3,000 people. Army leaders General Saw Maung and Brigadier General Khin Nyunt created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country.

In 1990, the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats in Burma's first free elections in three decades. The SLORC then refused to cede power and jailed hundreds of NLD members. In 1993, a state-controlled constitutional convention drafted guidelines granting the military 25 percent of seats in a future parliament and formalizing its leading role in politics. The convention has met sporadically since then.

In 1995, the SLORC released the NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's preeminent pro-democracy campaigner, after six years of house arrest. The generals have rejected the 1992 Nobel laureate's calls for a dialogue on democratic reform. In December 1996, authorities quelled student demonstrations by shutting universities and detaining scores of people.

In November 1997, the SLORC reconstituted itself as the State Peace and Development Council. The relatively young generals who took charge sidelined more senior officers and subsequently removed some of the more blatantly corrupt cabinet ministers. The junta appeared to be trying to improve its international image, attract foreign investment, and encourage an end to U.S.-led sanctions. Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, the intelligence chief and formally one of the junta's top five members, continues to be the regime's strongman. In 1998, the junta intensified its arrests and harassment of NLD members after the party called for the parliament elected in 1990 to be convened. Riot police also reportedly arrested dozens of anti-junta protesters at Rangoon University in August. In August and September 1999, authorities arrested several hundred NLD activists and other dissidents ahead of expected demonstrations on Four Nines Day, September 9, 1999, to commemorate the army's crackdown on August 8, 1988. The protests failed to materialize.

The ethnic minorities that constitute more than one-third of Burma's population have been fighting for autonomy from the Burman-dominated central government since the late 1940s. Since 1989, the SLORC has co-opted 16 ethnic rebel armies with ceasefire deals that allow them to maintain their weapons and territory. The ceasefires have helped the regime and many former rebel groups to become major heroin traffickers.

The 1999 winter-spring dry season again witnessed increased fighting between the army and the predominantly Christian Karen National Union (KNU), the largest active insurgency group. Regular troops and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a pro-regime militia of KNU defectors, burned and looted villages in the eastern hills and attacked Karen refugee camps inside Thailand.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Burma continued to be ruled by one of the world's most repressive regimes. The junta controls the judiciary, and the rule of law is nonexistent. The SLORC has imprisoned or driven into exile most of its vocal opponents; severely restricted freedom of speech, press, and association, and other fundamental rights; and used a tightly controlled mass movement, the Union Solidarity Development Association, to monitor forced labor quotas, report on citizens, and intimidate opponents.

The army is responsible for arbitrary beatings and killings of civilians; forcibly uses civilians as porters, unpaid laborers, and human mine sweepers under brutal conditions, with soldiers sometimes killing weakened porters, or executing those who resist; summarily executes civilians who refuse to provide food or money to military units; arrests civilians as alleged insurgents or insurgent sympathizers; and commits widespread incidents of rape. The army's use of forced labor is greatest in the seven ethnic minority-dominated states. The laborers toil under harsh conditions and receive no compensation. In March, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Burma reported that these abuses continued to be widespread and that the situation was deteriorating.

Throughout the 1990s, the tatmadaw, or Burmese armed forces, forcibly relocated civilians as part of its counterinsurgency strategy against ethnic-based rebel armies. In 1996, the tatmadaw began major forced relocation operations in Shan, Karenni, and Karen states. Soldiers forcibly relocated more than 300,000 Shan civilians in Shan state alone. In June 1999, Amnesty International released reports documenting abuses by the tatmadaw against civilians in the context of forced relocation in these three states. The tatmadaw forced tens of thousands of civilians into designated relocation centers that lacked adequate food, water, health care, and sanitation facilities. Some civilians took to the forest, where they encountered equally inhospitable conditions.

In May, the Washington Post reported that in recent months authorities had begun village-by-village crackdowns, executing civilians who had allegedly aided the insurgents. By mid-1999, Thailand hosted some 120,000 mainly Karen, Karenni, Shan, and Mon refugees. Refugees reported abuses by the tatmadaw including forced labor and portering; arbitrary arrests and torture to punish alleged contact with rebel groups; and extrajudicial killings as punishment for returning to their villages or for being unable to perform portering duties. Amnesty International also reported that armed opposition groups from Shan, Karen, and other communities committed killings and other abuses against ethnic Burman civilians in these states. On Burma's western frontier, ethnic Chin communities also faced forced labor and other abuses.

In the early 1990s, some 260,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh to escape extrajudicial executions, rape, religious persecution, land confiscation, and other abuses in northern Arakan state. By mid-l997, all but 21,000 had been repatriated to Burma, but new refugees continued to cross into Bangladesh. The Rohingya refugee issue occurs in the context of the regime's broader persecution of the Muslim minority. The 1982 Citizenship Act was designed to deny citizenship to the Rohingyas and make them ineligible for basic social, educational, and health services. In August, church leaders in India said at least 1,000 ethnic Nagas had fled into India to escape forced conversions to Buddhism by the Burmese army.

In 1998, the opposition leader Suu Kyi estimated that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 political prisoners in Burmese jails. The same year, the London-based Financial Times carried a study showing that 78 NLD members of parliament (MPs) elected in 1990 have spent time in prison, 20 more were in exile, and 112 had either resigned or had been disqualified. In 1999, officials said 107 NLD MPs were imprisoned or detained. The junta used numerous broadly drawn laws to criminalize peaceful pro-democracy activities including distributing pamphlets, and distributing, viewing or smuggling out videotapes of Suu Kyi's public addresses. For example, Decree 5/96 of 1996 authorizes jail terms of 5 to 25 years for aiding activities "which adversely affect the national interest." The decree also authorizes the home ministry to ban any organization violating a separate law against public gatherings of five or more people.

Prison conditions are abysmal, and authorities routinely torture political prisoners and common criminals. More than 40 political prisoners have died in Insein prison since 1988. In May, the junta gave the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) permission to visit political prisoners for the first time since 1995, when the ICRC withdrew and accused the junta of impeding its work. The Far Eastern Economic Review reported that authorities began removing the most sensitive political prisoners to other jails, and that the 48 prisons open to the ICRC represented just 5 percent of Burma's 900-plus jails.

The junta continued to control tightly all publications and broadcast services. Several journalists remained imprisoned. Since 1996, unauthorized Internet use has been punishable by lengthy jail terms.

The Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence continued to arbitrarily search homes, intercept mail, and monitor telephone conversations. The regime's high-tech information warfare center in Rangoon can reportedly intercept telephone, fax, e-mail, and radio communications. In 1999, the government continued to slowly reopen universities since their closure in 1996, which has kept an estimated 400,000 students away from classes. When open, universities are closely monitored by authorities.

Criminal gangs have trafficked thousands of Burmese women and girls, many from ethnic minority groups, to Thailand for prostitution. The army forcibly recruits children and routinely uses child porters.

Authorities continued to closely monitor monasteries, interfere in Buddhist religious affairs, and hold many of the 300 monks arrested during a violent 1990 crackdown on monasteries. Reports in 1997 suggested that 16 monks had died in prison.

Trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are illegal. Several labor figures continued to serve long terms for their political and labor activities. In June, the International Labor Organization condemned Burma for its widespread use of forced labor. The junta's severe economic mismanagement has kept the population impoverished, drained virtually all hard currency reserves, and resulted in an inflation rate of at least 70 percent in 1999. Pervasive official corruption and the army's arbitrary taxes, levies, and seizures of food exacerbate the plight of ordinary citizens. Western and multilateral aid remained suspended because of the regime's human rights record.

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