Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 - Burma (Myanmar)

Events of 1994

Human Rights Developments

The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a military body established as a temporary government in Burma after the pro-democracy uprising in 1988, continued to be responsible for forced labor, especially on infrastructure projects; arbitrary detention; torture; and denials of freedom of association, expression, and assembly. Fighting with armed ethnic groups along the Thai and Chinese borders continued to diminish, as the SLORC reached a cease-fire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization in February and opened talks with others.

Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition, remained under house arrest but for the first time since her detention in July 1989 was permitted to meet with visitors outside her family. On September 21, as the U.N. General Assembly opened in New York, she was allowed out of her house for a televised meeting with the chair and secretary-1 of the SLORC, Senior General Than Shwe and Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt. A second meeting took place on October 28.

Some seventy political prisoners were released during the year under SLORC Order 11/92, though there were no details of those released, and it was likely that at least some had served their full sentences.

The National Convention, the constitutional forum established by the SLORC in January 1993, continued with no clear end in sight. Members of political parties elected in May 1990 made up only 14 percent of the 700 delegates, the rest being hand-picked by the SLORC.

In September, some of the principles on which the constitution would be based were announced. Ethnic nationality was one. Burma is currently divided into seven states, named after the majority ethnic nationality in the area, and seven divisions where Burmans are the majority. Under the new constitution these states and divisions (renamed "regions") would have equal status, and smaller ethnic nationalities which previously had no representation in the legislature would be given self-administered zones or divisions if they made up more than 0.1 percent of the population in any one area. In cases where ethnic nationalities were already represented in a state, they would not be allowed further representation, regardless of the size of their population in other areas. This arrangement could lead to increased ethnic tension and discrimination.

The legislature would have two houses, a House of Representatives and a House of Nationalities. In both houses, representatives from the armed forces, the Tatmadaw, would have a quarter of the seats.

Apparently believing that these measures were not sufficient to ensure the military's hold on power, the SLORC created another mechanism of control, the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Formed on September 5, 1993 to provide general assistance to the military and headed by civilian (but ex-military) members of the cabinet, it only became active in 1994. In January, mass USDA rallies were held across the country, which the SLORC claimed were attended by four million people, though western journalists present noted that the numbers were often less than half those claimed. Local residents and civil servants complained of being forced to join the rallies and become members of USDA.

Arrest and harassment of the political opposition continued. At least seven people were arrested in May when they stood to watch two foreigners who held aloft banners calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is not known if they were later freed or tried. On July 8 and 11, seven people were arrested for distributing pamphlets calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Although their names are known, no details were available on their trials or sentences. In September, a former UNICEF employee, Khin Zaw Win, and four members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, were arrested for passing "fabricated news" to foreign media and embassies and distributing "documents of expatriate groups." On October 9, Khin Zaw Win was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, and San San Nwe, a well-known writer and NLD member, to ten years. The others were all sentenced to eight years. They were tried under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and the 1957 Unlawful Associations Act. Most political prisoners in Burma are held under these two laws.

Following the cease-fire agreement with the Kachin, the SLORC continued to push for similar agreements with other ethnic groups based on the Thai border, aided by pressure from Thai authorities. In May, the Karenni Nationalities Peoples Liberation Front signed an agreement, while a second Karenni faction, the National People's Party, resumed talks in October, having suspended them in January after a SLORC attack on their troops near Loikaw. On October 9, the Shan State National Liberation Army, a small group of ex-Communist Party rebels, also known as the Red Pa-O, signed an agreement.

The New Mon State Party (NMSP) began talks early in the year, but they were suspended in July, following an attack by the Tatmadaw on a Mon refugee camp. At the end of the year the Karen National Union (KNU) remained the only major nationality group with which the SLORC had not begun direct talks.

As these discussions continued, little fighting was reported around the country, with the notable exception of the Shan state, where the SLORC launched a major offensive against drug warlord Khun Sa at the beginning of the year. In the course of that offensive, refugees arriving in Thailand in May claimed that up to 5,000 people from Keng Tung and Tachilek towns had been seized by the army to work as porters carrying ammunition and other supplies by the Burmese army. In mid-July the SLORC launched air strikes against Khun Sa's troops, in some instances targeting civilian villages alleged to be supporters of Khun Sa.

There was also fighting in Maungdaw Township, northern Arakan, between forces of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization and the Burmese army in late April. The RSO is one of two groups claiming to represent the 270,000 Muslims refugees who fled to Bangladesh in late 1991. The repatriation of these refugees continued through the year, and by November nearly 95,000 had gone back, amid charges that their return was involuntary. Under an agreement between the SLORC and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, nine UNHCR staff arrived in Arakan state in April to oversee their "re-integration" and resettlement. Despite their presence, some refugees returned to Bangladesh claiming that abuses by the military in Arakan state continued.

Forced labor took place on a massive scale across the country. Journalists visiting Burma noted that people, including shackled prisoners, were forced to dredge the moat in Mandalay, Burma's second largest city. In Bassein in southern Burma, 30,000 villagers forced to build a new airport reportedly received no wages, food, or medical supplies, despite a cholera outbreak at the site in June.

The most widely publicized forced labor project was the construction of a railway line from Ye in the Mon State to Tavoy in Tenasserim Division, a distance of 110 miles. Refugees from the project who arrived in Thailand estimated that 50,000 people a day were being forced to work here, using crude tools to clear the forest and scrub-brush and construct high embankments. The SLORC insisted that these projects were undertaken by "volunteers" under a traditional system of corvée labor (a form of unpaid labor owed by peasants and serfs to feudal rulers).

The trafficking of women into sex slavery in Thailand and elsewhere in Asia continued to be a major problem. There was also a rise in prostitution inside Burma, as the government-promoted tourism industry tried to attract tourists through promoting the sexuality of young girls and women. In a speech to senior police officers, the secretary-1 of SLORC in March noted, "Illegal activities such as gambling and prostitution [are] on the rise...while brothels and disreputable houses [are] known to enjoy police protection."

The Right to Monitor

There are no indigenous human rights groups in Burma, and the right to form any association in Burma is severely restricted. Individuals who passed on human rights information to journalists or through embassies faced arrest, as in the case of Khin Zaw Win who had assisted the U.N. special rapporteur on Burma in 1992.

The U.N. special rapporteur, Professor Yozo Yokota, on his mission in November 1993 was allowed access to prisoners in detention for the first time, although one man, Dr. Aung Khin Sint, cut short the visit for fear of reprisals later. U.S. Representative Bill Richardson was also allowed to meet with five political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been seeking access to political prisoners in Burma since 1989, continued its negotiations with the SLORC during the year.

The Role of the International Community

The international community continued to express its concern about persistent human rights abuses in Burma. In December 1993, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution by consensus urging the SLORC to restore democracy. It also called on the Secretary-General of the United Nations to assist in the implementation of the resolution. In October, talks were held between the secretary-general's office and the Burmese foreign minister.

The countries of ASEAN continued their policy of "constructive engagement" towards Burma, officially inviting the SLORC to the annual ASEAN ministerial meeting in Bangkok in July. Thailand, which sees itself as a center for regional development and already has extensive fishery and other economic deals with Burma, was supported in its overtures to Burma by Singapore, which signed trade and tourism development deals in Burma worth $465 million in 1993. In March the Singaporean prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, became the second head of state to visit Burma since the SLORC took power.

At the opening of the ASEAN meeting in July however, Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai in private meetings with the Burmese foreign minister urged the SLORC to start a dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Even as ASEAN countries ventured a few mild criticisms of Burma, the west moved away from a policy of isolating the SLORC. Led by Australia and the European Union a new, pro-active policy of "critical dialogue" was adopted, intended to end the western isolation of Burma in favor of direct contact. As part of this new policy, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans met with SLORC officials during the ASEAN meeting, and German, U.S., and U.K. officials went on missions to Rangoon in late October and early November.

On November 8, Japan announced it would be extending $10 million of aid for medical and humanitarian purposes. China continued to play an important role in Burma throughout the year. Arms shipments from China, including naval frigates, were reported in Jane's Defense Weekly, and trade between Burma and Yunnan Province alone rose by 26 percent in 1993 to U.S.$228 million, though the total trade between the two countries is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. China also granted millions of dollars' worth of soft loans, and was helping build new airports in Rangoon and Mandalay, roads from Yunnan to Mandalay, and several other smaller projects. Diplomatic ties were reinforced when China opened a consulate in Mandalay in August.

The U.S. remained the second largest investor after Thailand ($203 million, compared to Thailand's $210 million), despite the pull-out of the Amoco oil company from Burma in 1994. The Clinton administration, while maintaining a ban on any direct aid to SLORC, took the first tentative steps late in 1994 towards opening a dialogue, even as it continued its outspoken condemnation of Burma's human rights violations. However, implementation of an effective policy towards Burma during much of the year was hampered by internal divisions within the administration and the halting, disjointed efforts of a long-delayed White House review of Burma policy. Congress expressed frustration at the delays and made specific recommendations for U.S. actions.

President Clinton ordered a high-level review of Burma policy in mid-1993, but a formal discussion by the National Security Council did not take place until March 1994. A decision was made to endorse ongoing diplomatic efforts at the U.N., to press for appointment of a special envoy by the U.N. Secretary-General, and to continue quiet efforts to encourage restraint by some of Burma's arms suppliers. But decisions were deferred on some of the most controversial issues, such as economic sanctions and the role of U.S. investors, and no new significant policy initiatives were announced. In June, the administration told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that there were no plans to appoint an ambassador to Rangoon (the position has been vacant for four years). Divisions and debate within the government over how to deal with SLORC on the narcotics issue also continued throughout the year.

Despite the policy vacuum, the administration made ad hoc decisions in response to certain developments and opportunities. When Congressman Richardson was invited to Burma on February 14 for separate meetings with Khin Nyunt and Aung San Suu Kyi, he carried with him a letter to the Nobel laureate from President Clinton and closely coordinated his visit with the administration. Richardson urged SLORC to begin talks with Aung San Suu Kyi.

While the U.S. objected to Thailand's move to invite Burma to send an observer to the ASEAN post-ministerial conference, it did not try to block the decision. In advance of the ASEAN meeting, fifty-three members of the House and Senate wrote to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, urging the administration to call on ASEAN's member states to use their influence with SLORC to press for specific human rights improvements.

On July 15, the Senate unanimously adopted a resolution on Burma suggesting specific U.S. policy actions, including attempts to urge ASEAN states to join an arms embargo, imposition of a U.N. arms embargo, and steps to prevent Burmese refugees from being forcibly repatriated from Thailand and Bangladesh. The Senate also expressed opposition to "commercial arrangements that only provide financial support for the SLORC" or to sending an ambassador to Rangoon. The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar resolution.

On the fifth anniversary of her house arrest, President Clinton issued a strong statement urging SLORC to release "unconditionally Aung San Suu Kyi and all other remaining prisoners of conscience in Burma." He also called on SLORC to "begin a substantive dialogue" with the Nobel laureate.

In late October, the administration completed its review of Burma policy. Thomas Hubbard, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs, went to Rangoon on October 30 to present the new policy directly to Khin Nyunt, offering the SLORC "two visions of a future relationship with the U.S., either increased cooperation based on positive movement on human rights, democratization and counternarcotics issues, or increased isolation." He was accompanied by State Department officials from the bureaus of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and International Narcotics Matters. The administration insisted the trip did not represent a softening of its position towards SLORC. No immediate progress was announced as a result of the visit, and the delegation was denied access to Aung San Suu Kyi; Burmese officials told Hubbard they would continue talks with her and that they would allow prisons visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Asia

Human Rights Watch/Asia paid particular attention to advocacy work on Burma during the year, focusing on both bilateral and multilateral channels of pressure. Staff made policy recommendations and provided information on human rights in Burma to U.N. agencies as well as to the U.S., Japanese, European, and other governments, with the aim of continuing international pressure on SLORC to implement key U.N. recommendations and increase protection for Burmese refugees in Bangladesh and Thailand.

At the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva in February and March, Human Rights Watch/Asia joined other human rights organizations in pressing individual government delegations to support a strong resolution on Burma; the resolution was adopted on March 4. With other major American human rights groups, Human Rights Watch/Asia wrote to the U.N.Secretary-General on July 20, the anniversary of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest, urging him to use his good offices to assist in bringing about her release.

Human Rights Watch/Asia had meetings with staff of the UNHCR to discuss concerns related to the repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. On the issue of trafficking of Burmese women into Thailand, Human Rights Watch/Asia supported U.S. Congressional efforts to put pressure on the Thai government to enforce its own laws and respect internationally-recognized rights. (See the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project section.)

Human Rights Watch/Asia briefed Representative Richardson prior to his visit to Burma in February and on June 29, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee (Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific) on U.S. policy towards Burma. Human Rights Watch/Asia staff was routinely consulted throughout the year by Congressional offices drafting appeals, letters, or resolutions on Burma. In August, they briefed the President's director for national drug policy on human rights concerns and drug trafficking in Burma.

In May, Human Rights Watch/Asia sent a mission to the Thai-Burmese border to interview newly arrived refugees from the Mon State.

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.