Freedom in the World 2006 - Burma (Myanmar)

Political Rights: 7
Civil Liberties: 7
Status: Not Free
Population: 50,500,000
GNI/Capita: $105
Life Expectancy: 60
Religious Groups: Buddhist (89 percent), Christian (4 percent), other (7 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Burman (68 percent), Shan (9 percent), Karen (7 percent), Rakhine (4 percent), Chinese (3 percent), Mon (2 percent), Indian (2 percent), other (5 percent)
Capital: Rangoon


Following a leadership purge in late 2004, Burma remained under the firm grip of hard-liners within the military junta during 2005, and prospects for political reform seemed dimmer than ever. Although the National Convention, tasked with drafting a new constitution, was reconvened again by the regime in February, it was boycotted by the main opposition parties and thus failed to provide a veneer of legitimacy for the junta's strategy of positioning it as a first step on a planned "road map to democracy." Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party, spent her 60th birthday under house arrest, and the activities of the NLD were severely curtailed. Meanwhile, a wide range of human rights violations against political activists, as well as journalists, civil society actors, and members of ethnic and religious minority groups continued unabated throughout the year.

After being occupied by the Japanese during World War II, Burma achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948. The military has ruled since 1962, when the army overthrew an elected government buffeted by an economic crisis and a raft of ethnic-based insurgencies. During the next 26 years, General Ne Win's military rule helped impoverish what had been one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest countries.

The present junta, currently led by General Than Shwe, dramatically asserted its power in 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led, prodemocracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people. In the aftermath, a younger generation of army commanders created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country. However, the SLORC refused to cede power after it was defeated in a landslide election by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990. The junta jailed dozens of members of the NLD, which won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats in Burma's first free elections in three decades.

Than Shwe and several other generals who headed the junta refashioned the SLORC as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. The generals appeared to be trying to improve the junta's international image, attract foreign investment, and encourage an end to U.S.-led sanctions linked to the regime's grim human rights record. In late 2000, encouraged by the efforts of UN special envoy Razali Ismail, the regime began holding talks with NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which led to an easing of restrictions on the NLD by mid-2002. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and was allowed to make several political trips outside the capital, and the NLD was permitted to reopen a number of its branch offices.

Suu Kyi's growing popularity and her revitalization of the NLD during the first half of 2003 apparently rattled hard-liners within the regime. On May 30, a deadly ambush on an NLD convoy by SPDC supporters, in which an unknown number of people were killed or injured, illustrated the lengths to which hard-liners within the SPDC would go to limit an NLD challenge. Suu Kyi and dozens of other NLD officials and supporters were detained following the attack, NLD offices were once again shut down, and universities and schools were temporarily closed in a bid to suppress wider unrest. Since then, authorities have maintained their focus on containing the popularity of the NLD party. Suu Kyi was released from prison in September 2003 but remains under house arrest, as have other senior NLD leaders. Periodic arrests and detentions of political activists and other perceived threats to the regime, including journalists and students, remain the norm.

In August 2003, the junta announced that the National Convention (NC), which has the responsibility for drafting principles for a new constitution but which had not met since 1996, would be reconvened in May 2004 as part of its new "road map to democracy." However, it was boycotted by the main political parties, including the NLD and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), who did want to take part under conditions of extreme political repression. The proceedings themselves were heavily restricted in terms of format and operations – authorities handpicked most of the delegates and limited the scope of permissible debate from the outset – which did nothing to enhance the junta's legitimacy. The NC was adjourned in July 2004; although it was reconvened in February 2005, this six-week session was again boycotted by the NLD and SNLD. In a similarly restricted atmosphere, delegates agreed to draft principles that enshrine the military's role in government through the reservation of 25 percent of seats for the military in any future parliament.

Meanwhile, relations between the SPDC and numerous ethnically based rebel groups have remained tense and in several cases worsened during the year. The SPDC had verbally agreed to an informal ceasefire with the Karen National Union (KNU) in late 2003, but skirmishes between the two sides have continued, as have human rights violations in the Karen and other ethnic-minority states, and talks between both sides were put on hold during 2005. After a crackdown on Shan groups in February, the ceasefire agreement with the Shan State National Army (SSNA) unraveled, and an upsurge in fighting was reported from the Shan border areas.

This deterioration in relations may be the result of an October 2004 purge in which Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and head of military intelligence (MI), was removed from office and placed under house arrest. A relative moderate, Khin Nyunt had advocated limited dialogue with both the NLD and Burma's armed ethnic factions and had spearheaded several recently negotiated ceasefire agreements. His dismissal was followed by a widespread purge of his key allies, the dismantlement of the MI ministry itself, and takeovers of Khin Nyunt's extensive business interests. Khin Nyunt was reportedly given a 44-year suspended sentence for corruption in July and remains under house arrest, while at least 38 other relatives and associates have been sentenced to long prison terms of at least 20 years each. His replacement by hard-liner Lieutenant-General Soe Win – who has been accused of masterminding the May 2003 attack on Suu Kyi's motorcade – is a signal that the junta will continue to resist all pressure to reform.

Since the purge, there have been persistent rumors of tension within the junta's top hierarchy, and 2005 saw several reshuffles of both administrative and military personnel. Authorities are also moving ahead with plans to shift the country's capital 600km inland, to Pyinmana. Several bombings took place during the year, the most serious of which was a series of blasts in Rangoon that killed several dozen people and injured 162 in early May. Following the attacks, authorities banned three more opposition groups, citing their alleged involvement in the blasts. In September, the NLD called on the SPDC to reopen a limited dialogue with opposition parties, but thus far the junta has continued to take a hard line with both their political opponents and with the ethnic armed groups, and prospects for meaningful positive change remain dim.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Burma cannot change their government democratically. Burma continues to be ruled by one of the world's most repressive regimes. The SPDC rules by decree; controls all executive, legislative, and judicial powers; suppresses nearly all basic rights; and commits human rights abuses with impunity. Military officers hold most cabinet positions, and active or retired officers hold most top posts in all ministries, as well as key positions in both the administration and the private sector.

Since rejecting the results of the 1990 elections and preventing the elected parliament from convening, the junta has all but paralyzed the victorious NLD Party. Authorities have jailed many NLD leaders, pressured thousands of party members and officials to resign, closed party offices, harassed members' families, and periodically detained hundreds of NLD supporters at a time to block planned party meetings. After being allowed somewhat greater freedom during 2002, the NLD was subjected to another crackdown in 2003 that has largely continued. Although the party's main office was allowed to reopen in April 2004, its branch offices remain closed and several key party leaders, including Aung San Suu Kyi, remain under house arrest. In the run-up to the National Convention session held in February 2005, opposition party leaders and members faced heightened surveillance, intimidation, and arrest as they attempted to engage in peaceful political activities, according to Amnesty International.

Besides the NLD, there are more than 20 ethnic political parties that remain suppressed by the junta. A 2003 International Crisis Group report noted that ethnic-minority groups feel that they are denied a role in national political life and do not have a chance to influence policy decisions that affect them. Of the 28 ethnic parties that participated in the 2004 session of the National Convention, 13 raised issues concerning greater local autonomy, according to Amnesty International. In February 2005, at least 10 ethnic Shan politicians were arrested, including the senior leaders of the SNLD party, and in November, 9 were sentenced to lengthy prison terms and transferred to undisclosed locations.

In a system that lacks both transparency and accountability, official corruption is rampant at both the national and local levels. Burma was ranked 155 out of 159 countries surveyed in the Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The junta sharply restricts press freedom, owning or tightly controlling all daily newspapers and broadcast media. It subjects private periodicals to prepublication censorship, and also restricts the importation of foreign news periodicals. After the October 2004 purge, the new hard-line leadership took control of the censorship bureau and suspended 17 publications, most of them indefinitely. Under new censorship rules that came into effect in July, media are ostensibly allowed to offer criticism of government projects as long as it is deemed "constructive" and are allowed to report on natural disasters and poverty as long as it does not affect the national interest. Ironically, however, the junta forbade the Myanmar Times from publishing a Burmese translation of the new regulations, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. In May, authorities imposed a blackout on news related to the Rangoon bombings. Although several journalists and writers were released from jail throughout the year, others were arrested, and a number continue to serve lengthy sentences as a result of expressing dissident views. While some people have access to international shortwave radio or satellite television, the Committee to Protect Journalists notes that those caught accessing foreign broadcasts can face jail time. The internet, which operates in a limited fashion in the cities, is tightly regulated and censored.

Ordinary Burmese generally can worship relatively freely. However, the junta shows preference for Theravada Buddhism, discriminating against non-Buddhists in the upper levels of the public sector and coercively promoting Buddhism in some ethnic-minority areas. The regime has also tried to control the Buddhist clergy by placing monastic orders under a state-run committee, monitoring monasteries, and subjecting clergy to special restrictions on speech and association. A number of monks remain imprisoned for their prodemocracy and human rights work. Burma was once again designated a "country of particular concern" by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, whose 2005 report noted severe and systematic official discrimination against members of minority religious groups. Violence and discrimination against the Muslim minority continues to be a problem, the most serious of which was a deadly flare-up that occurred in Arakan state in January 2005. According to a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization, the regime has targeted the predominantly Christian Chin ethnic minority, destroying churches, intimidating and assaulting members of the clergy, and supporting coerced conversions to Buddhism.

Academic freedom is severely limited. Teachers are subject to restrictions on freedom of expression and publication and are held accountable for the political activities of their students. Since the 1988 student prodemocracy demonstrations, the junta has sporadically closed universities, limiting higher education opportunities for a generation of young Burmese. Most campuses were relocated to relatively isolated areas as a measure to disperse the student population. According to Amnesty International, teachers have recently been imprisoned for talking about or possessing books on historical political figures, and the licenses of private tutors have been withdrawn on political grounds.

Authorities continued to infringe on citizens' privacy rights by arbitrarily searching homes, intercepting mail, and monitoring telephone conversations. Laws criminalize the possession and use of unregistered electronic devices, including telephones, fax machines, computers, modems, and software.

Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. An ordinance prohibits unauthorized outdoor gatherings of more than five people, and authorities regularly use force to break up peaceful demonstrations and prevent pro-democracy activists from organizing events or meetings. Since the May 2003 crackdown, an increasing number of people have been detained for attempting to exercise their rights to freedom of association and expression. However, some public sector employees, as well as other ordinary citizens, are induced to join the pro-junta mass mobilization organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association. Domestic human rights organizations are unable to function independently, and the regime generally dismisses critical scrutiny of its human rights record from international nongovernmental organizations. Although Amnesty International was given permission to make two trips to Burma in 2003, it has not been allowed back into the country. Both UN special envoys assigned to monitor the situation in Burma have not been allowed into the country since March 2004, and one resigned in 2005 due to his inability to investigate the situation inside Burma.

Independent trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are illegal, and several labor activists are serving long prison terms for their political and labor activities. The regime continues to use forced labor despite formally banning the practice in October 2000. The International Labor Organization (ILO) and other sources report that soldiers routinely force civilians, including women and children, to work without pay under harsh conditions; in 2005, the ILO stated that Burma was the world's most "extreme case" of forced labor. Laborers are commandeered to construct roads, clear minefields, porter for the army, or work on military-backed commercial ventures. The practice appears to be most widespread in states dominated by ethnic minorities. Although the ILO monitors the situation on the ground, its personnel and suspected informants remain subject to harassment from the authorities, and in October, the junta threatened to withdraw from the ILO altogether.

The judiciary is not independent. Justices are appointed or approved by the junta and adjudicate cases according to the junta's decrees. Administrative detention laws allow people to be held without charge, trial, or access to legal counsel for up to five years if the SPDC feels that they have threatened the state's security or sovereignty.

Some basic due process rights are reportedly observed in ordinary criminal cases, but not in political cases, according to the U.S. State Department's 2005 human rights report. Pervasive corruption, the misuse of overly broad laws, and the manipulation of the courts for political ends continue to deprive citizens of their legal rights.

Detailed reports issued by Amnesty International have raised a number of concerns regarding the administration of justice, including laws and practices regarding detention, torture, trial, and conditions of imprisonment. Political prisoners are frequently held incommunicado in pretrial detention, which facilitates the use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and are denied access to family members, legal counsel, and medical care. In addition, political trials are conducted summarily and do not meet international standards of fairness. Prisons and labor camps are overcrowded, although conditions in some facilities have reportedly improved gradually since the regime began allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons in 1999.

The junta has periodically released some of those people arrested in the aftermath of the May 2003 violence. Following Khin Nyunt's removal, thousands of prisoners were released in November 2004, of which several dozen were being held on politicized charges. However, more than 1,350 political prisoners remain incarcerated, according to Amnesty International, and at least 33 prison sentences were handed down for political reasons during 2004. Most prisoners are held under broadly drawn laws that criminalize a range of peaceful activities, such as distributing pro-democracy pamphlets or reporting on human rights violations. The frequently used Decree 5/96 of 1996 authorizes jail terms of up to 20 years for aiding activities "which adversely affect the national interest." After the October 2004 purge, jails were also filled with suspected allies of General Khin Nyunt; several thousand were arrested, and beginning in November 2004, a number were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

The UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva condemns the regime each year for committing grave human rights abuses. Annual resolutions commonly highlight a systematic pattern of extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; arrests, incommunicado detention, and "disappearances"; rape, torture, inhuman treatment, and forced labor, including the use of children; and forced relocation and the denial of freedom of assembly, association, expression, religion, and movement. Police and security forces that commit such abuses operate in a climate of impunity, as such incidents are not commonly investigated and prosecutions are rare.

Some of the worst human rights abuses take place in the seven states dominated by ethnic minorities, who comprise approximately 35 percent of Burma's population. In these border states, the tatmadaw, or Burmese armed forces, kill, beat, rape, and arbitrarily detain civilians. For example, a April 2004 report issued by the Karen Women's Organization documents numerous cases of rape committed against Karen women by members of the army as part of a strategy to intimidate, control, and shame ethnic-minority populations. As enumerated in an Amnesty International report released in September, soldiers also routinely destroy property and seize livestock, cash, property, food, and other goods from villagers.

Tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon states remain in squalid and ill-equipped relocation centers set up by the army. The army has forcibly moved the villagers to the sites since the mid-1990s as part of its counterinsurgency operations. The army continues to forcibly uproot villagers; press reports indicate that at least one million people have been internally displaced by these and other tactics. A June report issued by Human Rights Watch detailed the causes and consequences of displacement in Karen State, which include civilians' lack of access to adequate food, housing, income, education, and health care.

In addition, according to Refugees International, an estimated several million Burmese have fled to neighboring countries, including Thailand, India, and Bangladesh. Thailand continues to host at least 145,000 Karen, Mon, and Karenni in refugee camps near the Burmese border, as well as hundreds of thousands more who have not been granted refugee status. In March, a renewed offensive by the regime (aided by the United Wa State Army) that targeted the Shan State Army led to intensified abuses against and the displacement of thousands of civilians in Shan state.

A number of other ethnic-minority groups complain of systematic discrimination at the hands of the regime, including a lack of representation in the government and military, economic marginalization, and the suppression of their cultural and religious rights. The junta has committed particularly serious abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority in northern Rakhine state. A 2004 report published by Amnesty International noted that the vast majority of Rohingyas are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, their right to own land, and their ability to marry. In addition, they are regularly subjected to arbitrary taxation and other forms of extortion, as well as forced eviction and land confiscation, at the hands of Burmese security forces. More than 250,000 Rohingyas remain in neighboring Bangladesh, where they fled in the 1990s to escape extrajudicial execution, rape, forced labor, and other abuses.

The junta continues to face low-grade insurgencies waged by the KNU and at least five other ethnic-based rebel armies. The junta agreed to an informal ceasefire with the KNU in December 2003, but hostilities reportedly continue. Seventeen rebel groups, however, have reached ceasefire deals with the junta since 1989, under which they have been granted effective administrative authority of the areas under their control and are able to retain their own militias. While army abuses are the most widespread, some rebel groups forcibly conscript civilians, commit extrajudicial killing and rape, and use women and children as porters, according to the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report. A 2002 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report documented the widespread use of children as soldiers by 19 different armed opposition groups, as well as by the Burmese army, where at least 70,000, or 20 percent, of active-duty soldiers are estimated to be under the age of 18. Although authorities announced the formation of a committee to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in late 2003, the practice has continued unabated, although a small number of recruited child soldiers have been released, largely as a result of pressure from international groups, according to HRW.

Burmese women have traditionally enjoyed high social and economic status, but domestic violence is a growing concern, and they remain underrepresented in the government and civil service. A September 2004 report by the Women's League of Burma detailed an ongoing nationwide pattern of sexual violence against women by SPDC military personnel and other authorities, including rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage. Criminal gangs have in recent years trafficked thousands of women and girls, many from ethnic-minority groups, to Thailand and other destinations for prostitution, according to reports by HRW and other groups.

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