Myanmar: Pro-Democracy Activists

  • Author: Tessa Piper
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    1 May 1994


Thousands of peaceful demonstrators were arrested and thousands more killed during the military crackdown on pro-democracy activists that took place in the wake of country-wide civil unrest in Myanmar in 1988. Thousands of others sought safety in parts of the country under the control of ethnic minority opposition groups, or else fled across the country's borders into Thailand and India. Thousands more were arrested, or fled, both before and after the elections held in May 1990. These events have been well documented and will not therefore be discussed in detail here. (For further information about this period see for example the following Amnesty International documents: Amnesty International, November 1989 (ASA 16/23/89); May 1990 (ASA 16/04/90); November 1990, (ASA 16/10/90); September 1991, (ASA 16/06/91); December 1991 (ASA 16/10/91).

This paper looks at the current reality for pro-democracy activists living in Myanmar. It looks at the types of repression experienced by pro-democracy activists and by the population of Myanmar as a whole. Starting with political imprisonment and the treatment of political prisoners in detention, the paper goes on to look at the other measures used by the government to deter anti-government activity. It discusses the forcible relocation of urban populations as a means of dispersing potential political opposition, and the use of surveillance, harassment and intimidation to inhibit involvement in opposition political activity. The paper also addresses the issue of portering and forced labour, which historically has primarily affected ethnic minorities in rural areas, but which in the last few years has also affected urban residents.

The paper also assesses the situation of pro-democracy activists who have fled either to parts of the country controlled by armed ethnic opposition groups or else to Thailand or India, and the risks they face of being returned to Myanmar. It concludes by evaluating the current political climate in Myanmar and assessing its implications for pro-democracy activists who may be returned there.


The ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) has regularly resorted to political imprisonment as a means of repressing political dissent in Myanmar ever since it came to power in a coup in September 1988. Political imprisonment affects men and women of all ages and from a variety of walks of life. Among those who have been detained for their peaceful opposition to the SLORC are religious and community leaders, students, politicians, teachers, doctors and lawyers as well as writers, artists and workers. This has led Amnesty International to conclude that anyone thought to be critical of the SLORC risks arrest, torture and unfair trial as a result of involvement in peaceful political activity (Amnesty International, October 1993, 4).

It is difficult to estimate the scale of political arrest and imprisonment in Myanmar. There are several reasons for this. First, there is no routine public documentation of arrests. Many of those who are detained are never formally charged or tried; others have false criminal charges brought against them. The severe restrictions the SLORC has placed on access to information about prisoners by independent investigators, and the harsh threats and punishments aimed at those who might try to communicate such information to the outside world, make detailed and accurate data extremely difficult to obtain. Furthermore, past SLORC statements concerning figures for political imprisonment have proved totally unreliable. For example, over a two and a half year period between October 1989 and April 1992 the SLORC denied holding any political prisoners at all. By contrast, unofficial sources claimed that more than 3,000 people were imprisoned for political reasons in the second half of 1989 alone (Amnesty International, October 1992, 7). These factors make it likely that the information that non-governmental organizations have been able to compile about the scale of political imprisonment in Myanmar by no means represents the total picture.

Nonetheless, it does seem clear that the rate of political arrests has declined significantly since 1991. In addition, large numbers of political prisoners have been released. Between April 1992, when the SLORC issued Declaration 11/92 which stated that all political prisoners not deemed a threat to national security would be released, and December 1993 some 2000 political prisoners are reported to have been released (Amnesty International, January 1994, 2). Since then further releases are reported to have taken place, with the result that the number of political prisoners released since April 1992 is believed to have risen to around 2,500.

While the decline in the number of political prisoners is welcome, it would be wrong to assume that this reflects a reduction in the level of repression of political opponents. Rather, the reality is that it is no longer necessary for the SLORC to resort to mass political imprisonment in order to maintain its control over the population and silence political protest. Instead it can, and does, rely on a highly effective surveillance system and the use of threats and intimidation in order to ensure that all but the bravest critics, or potential critics, are initimidated into refraining from public opposition to the SLORC. (These methods are described further in Section 5, below.)

Nevertheless, political imprisonment remains an important tool used by the SLORC against its political opponents, albeit on a lesser scale than between 1988 and 1991. In its latest report, published in January 1994, Amnesty International estimated that hundreds of political prisoners remained in detention, and confirmed that arrests of political opponents continue (Ibid., 4-6).

2.1 Politicians

Politicians - especially those from the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) - have been subjected to severe persecution by the SLORC. So too have members of political parties, thousands of whom were arrested in the run up to, and following, the May 1990 elections.

In spite of the NLDs overwhelming victory in the elections, when it gained over 80% of the parliamentary seats, the SLORC has refused to allow parliament to convene. Since then various forms of repression have been instituted which have rendered effective opposition political activity virtually impossible. By the end of 1993, according to the U.S. State Department, of the 485 members of parliament elected in the 1990 election, 174 had either been disqualified, resigned under pressure, gone into exile, been detained, or died. In addition, of the more than 200 political parties registered to contest the May 1990 elections, only ten remained formally legal at the end of 1993 (U.S. State Department, 1994), and even they are extremely restricted in the activities they can undertake.

Those politicians who are not in detention are subjected to severe restrictions on their activities. Over the past eighteen months those targeted for particular attention have been the delegates to the National Convention which was convened by the SLORC in January 1993. (The stated purpose of the National Convention is to set down principles for the drafting of a new Constitution; the previous - 1974 - Constitution having been suspended when the SLORC took power in a coup in September 1988. The National Convention has to decide several controversial issues, including the size of the armed forces' representation in the new parliament, the nature of emergency powers, and the arrangements for the transition to a nominally civilian government. There is little doubt, however, in view of the way the National Convention has proceeded to date, that the SLORC intends merely to use the National Convention as a means of giving the illusion of a democratic process, while ensuring that any decisions made by it reflect the wishes of the SLORC.)

The proceedings of the National Convention have been carefully monitored, and indeed stage-managed, by the SLORC with even limited opposition being quickly suppressed. National Convention delegates have no real freedom of association and expression. They are kept under close surveillance and those who publicly disagree with or even question the SLORC's proposals regarding the National Convention face harassment, interrogation, threats, disqualification and detention.

For example, in June 1993 a member of parliament-elect from Chin state was reprimanded after he made a speech in which he criticized the SLORC's proposal to rename the states. Following the incident the SLORC made it a requirement that all speeches by delegates must in future be approved by National Convention officials before they can be presented at the Convention (Amnesty International, January 1994, 3). Three months later another National Convention delegate, NLD Chairman Aung Shwe, was also reprimanded by SLORC officials for opposing certain clauses in the new constitution favoured by the military (Far Eastern Economic Review, 28 October 1993, 32).

Other delegates to the National Convention who have attempted to present their views, have experienced much harsher punishment. Dr Aung Khin Sint and an associate, Than Min, both of whom are senior member of the NLD, are currently serving 20 year prison terms following their arrest in August 1993 for writing and distributing letters and leaflets to fellow delegates (Bangkok Post, 4 November 1993). The authorities allege that the letters contained threats, but Amnesty International has found no evidence to support this accusation and instead argues that Aung Khin Sint was simply expressing his views on the issues raised at the Convention (Amnesty International, January 1994, 7). Aung Khin Sint was one of the prisoners visited in Insein prison by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yozo Yokota, in November 1993. Even in his cell it was clear that the prisoner felt that he was at serious risk of additional punishment if he said anything to the UN Special Rapporteur that the SLORC might not approve of. Aung Khin Sint's concern was evidenced by his comments to the UN Special Rapporteur. He spoke in Burmese and indicated that he had been told to do so by the authorities, even though he had done his medical training in England and obviously spoke English well. Aung Khin Sint advised the UN Special Rapporteur that those to whom the latter spoke during his visit could face harassment or even imprisonment as a result. He also said that he feared that if he answered "wrong" to the UN Special Rapporteur's questions his 20 year sentence would become 40 years (United Nations, 16 February 1994, 11).

During his visit the UN Special Rapporteur experienced at first hand another example of the restrictions placed on politicians. He was denied the opportunity of meeting privately with the representatives of three of the political parties participating in the National Convention, despite his special request to be permitted to do so. Instead the SLORC insisted that the meeting take place at a government guest house. As the UN Special Rapportuer noted "[...] the location and atmosphere were evidently not conducive to a free and unencumbered exchange of views." (United Nations, 16 February 1994, 14-15).

But it is not only political opponents of the SLORC at the National Convention who face severe punishment if they attempt to publicly state their views. Scores of others who engaged in peaceful political activity were also detained during 1993 (U.S. State Department, 1994), some of whom were tried. Among them was Ma Thida, a 27-year-old NLD activist who is also a medical doctor, writer and close associate of NLD General Secretary and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Ma Thida was arrested in August 1993 and sentenced two months later with ten other NLD activists to 20 years' imprisonment on various political charges including having contacts with an illegal organization and distributing leaflets (Bangkok Post, 4 November 1993).

Other politicians remain in jail serving long terms of imprisonment for their peaceful opposition to the Myanmar government. Retired General Tin U and retired Colonel Kyi Maung, both prominent NLD leaders, remain in detention. Tin U, a founder and Chairman of the NLD aged in his late 60s is still in jail following his arrest in July 1989. Kyi Maung, aged in his mid-70s, was arrested in October 1990 and received two ten year sentences after unfair trials by military tribunals in November 1990 and May 1991. He has also been stripped of his status as a member of parliament-elect and disqualified from seeking election for ten years (Amnesty International, October 1993, 6).

Myanmar's best known political prisoner, NLD Secretary General Aung San Suu Kyi, is now in her fifth year of house arrest. Despite repeated requests by the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar to be allowed to visit her, he has not been allowed to do so. In February 1994, however, U.S. Congressman Bill Richardson and four others were permitted to meet with Suu Kyi, her first visitors other than family members since she was put under house arrest in July 1989. The SLORC has consistently stated that she would be freed immediately if she were prepared to stop being involved in politics and agreed to leave the country, but during her meeting with Congressman Richardson, Suu Kyi confirmed that she has no intention of agreeing to such conditions. Speculation that the visit could be a prelude to Suu Kyi's release in July 1994, when she would have spent the maximum permitted five years under house arrest, appears to have been premature however, with a SLORC official confirming after the meeting that the Nobel Peace Prize winner would remain under house arrest at least until 1995 (Associated Press, 15 February 1994).

It is not hard to understand why politicians have been the focus of this kind of repression. During the pro-democracy demonstrations politicians succeeded in organizing large numbers of civilians in peaceful protests against the government. Not only that, but in spite of intimidatory tactics, including the arrest of thousands of people, the opposition political parties managed to secure massive support in the 1990 elections. Their ability to do so thus makes them a serious potential threat to the continued power of the SLORC. By imposing severe restrictions on their activities the SLORC has been able to put an end to organized political opposition in Myanmar. At the same time, the heavy sentences imposed on politicians engaging in anti-government activities no doubt serve as a strong deterrent, inhibiting all but a small minority from engaging in similar activities.

2.2 Students

Students too played a very prominent role both in the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 and in opposition activity since then. This has ensured that students, like politicians, are a particular target of intimidation and harassment. Yet, despite severe restrictions on political activity students have continued to protest against military rule. Like all other pro-democracy activists, students involved, or suspected of involvement, in such activities risk arrest, unfair trial and torture.

Following the 1988 demonstrations the SLORC took a number of steps to prevent any further student-led protests. All educational institutions were closed for nearly three years, and before universities could be reopened students, their parents, and teachers were obliged to pledge not to engage in political activities (Amnesty International, October 1992, 11). Since then, educational institutions have been closed periodically, and when open are kept under strict military supervision and the activities of students closely monitored (Asia Watch, 17 January 1992, 2). A fifth national university was opened outside Rangoon in November 1993 in a move widely believed to be intended primarily to disperse and isolate students (U.S. State Department, 1994).

Despite the level of repression they face, students have continued to engage in anti-SLORC activity and continue to be subject to speedy retribution as a result. In December 1991 about 900 students were arrested following demonstrations at Yangon and Mandalay universities (Amnesty International, October 1992, 9-10). (Following these, universities and colleges of higher education were again closed, this time for eight months.) During 1992 over 200 students were among those who received long prison sentences for participating in the December demonstrations (U.S. State Department, 1993).

Long prison terms often await students involved in peaceful opposition political activity. Seven students, all members of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), an association of student groups formed during the 1988 civil unrest, are currently serving ten year sentences imposed by a military tribunal in September 1992. The seven - Maung Naing Naing, Maung Tun Tun, Maung Nay Yein Kyaw, Maung Soe Naing, U Tin Tun, U Tun Shein and U Swe Tint - were arrested in Yangon in June 1992 for distributing anti-government leaflets which criticized the then forthcoming National Convention. They were charged under Section 5j of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which provides for long terms of imprisonment for non-violent activities construed as threatening public order or the security of the state, a provision often used against political detainees (Amnesty International, October 1993, 6).

Students nonetheless continue to try to commemorate important political events, in particular the killings by security forces of student activists in 1962, 1974, 1976 and 1988, and to face reprisals as a result. In July 1993 several students were arrested during a demonstration at Yangon University to commemorate the anniversary of the student union building's demolition by security forces in 1962, when scores of students were killed. Of the arrested students, six were later sentenced to five years' imprisonment. At least one of those tried is reported to have been beaten in detention (Amnesty International, January 1994, 6).

2.3 Others

While students and politicians have been the groups most consistently repressed by the SLORC, the determination of the SLORC to stamp out all forms of opposition to its rule means that political imprisonment is the price that very often has to be paid by anyone - regardless of age, occupation or status - who engages in any form of peaceful opposition political activity in Myanmar.

Monks have historically been at the forefront of political protest in Myanmar and continued this tradition during the pro-democracy protests, when these highly respected community figures played key leadership roles. Dozens of monks were arrested for their involvement in the 1988 protests (Article 19, December 1991, 63) and at least 350 monks, including many who were well-known and highly venerated, were reportedly detained during and after October 1990 (Amnesty International, October 1992, 10-11). The 1990 arrests were sparked by the refusal of monks throughout the country to perform religious ceremonies for military personnel and their families in protest at troops opening fire on a peaceful march in Mandalay in August. Since then the SLORC has placed additional restrictions on the activities of monks, and any actions perceived by the authorities as having political implications are swiftly clamped down upon. As a result monks are now largely confined to functioning only on a ceremonial level.

Despite the news of releases in 1993 of some monks imprisoned for participating in the 1988 pro-democracy rallies and the 1990 boycott action (U.S. State Department, 1994) a small number, including at least four senior Buddhist monks, were known to still be held in Insein prison and elsewhere in mid-1993 (The Sunday Post, 12 September 1993) and are believed to remain in detention to date.

The SLORC is swift to crack down on all forms of criticism, however minor. This is demonstrated in the case of Zargana, a well known comedian and one-time dentist (Zargana means 'pincers'). He was detained for nearly four years, from May 1990 until March 1994, for performing a satirical sketch about the then Chairman of the SLORC (Burma News, Spring 1994, 2).

Others who have attempted to pass on details of the suppression of opposition political activity have also been jailed. Lawyer Nay Min who is believed to have been tortured while under interrogation, is currently serving a fourteen year prison sentence for sending information to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) during the pro-democracy protests in August and September 1988 (Amnesty International, November 1990, 8).


3.1 Prison Conditions

Prison conditions in Myanmar are very poor. Prisoners are routinely restrained by shackles, deprived of food and water, and held in extremely overcrowded cells with poor sanitation. A political prisoner released from Mawlamyine (Moulmein) Prison in January 1993 described conditions there as follows :

There were 300 people on one floor, all in one room. We had only three buckets of water per day, and in the corner was the only toilet. We had to sleep in rows, 150 in each row. There was very little room to move [...] I had shackles on the whole time, during the day and night. The chain goes through the ankles to the belt [round the wrist] and down the other ankle. Only political prisoners have shackles on the whole time [...] I had sores on my legs." (Amnesty International, October 1993, 9).

Prisoners who protest about the conditions in prison face beatings and food and water deprivation as punishment (Ibid.).

There is also evidence that political prisoners are often in ill-health and are denied adequate medical treatment. For example, Amnesty International has found that prisoners rarely receive any medical treatment for diseases commonly found among inmates, such as malaria, skin conditions and dysentery (Amnesty International, October 1993, 9). There are also reports that in some cases those who complained of a medical problem have been beaten (United Nations, 17 February 1993, 18). Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar has received reports that medical treatment, if provided, is said to be insufficient in quality and quantity, both in terms of medication and of medical supervision (Ibid.).

This would certainly appear to be borne out by Amnesty International's comments regarding Insein prison, Yangon's main prison which has a population of nearly 5,000. The organization reports that medical facilities there are extremely limited and that despite the presence of a doctor in the prison many prisoners are without proper medical attention. The prison infirmary is said to be very poorly equipped, with prisoners having to rely on their families to provide them with the medicines they require. Even then, Amnesty International reports, these medicines do not always reach the prisoners (Amnesty International, 21 April 1994, 1).

The examples of three prisoners currently detained in Insein prison confirm these findings. NLD activist Ma Thida (see page 4 for further information), is held in solitary confinement in a cell with little light and has said that she suffers from a gastric ulcer and endometriosis. She has also suffered weight loss during her imprisonment and is reported to be very weak and thin. Win Tin, a 64-year-old former journalist and a leader of the NLD who has been in solitary confinement for five years, is suffering from spondylitis; he wears an ill-fitting neck brace which causes discomfort. In addition he has an uncorrected squint in one eye and has difficulty in focusing. He has also lost several teeth and is in need of dental treatment. Win Tin is totally dependent on his family to provide him with the medicines he needs as well as with dietary supplements. Amnesty International reports that he has received very little medical care while in prison and is in urgent need of medical attention (Amnesty International, ibid, 1-2).

Both Ma Thida and Win Tin were visited in Insein prison by U.S. Congressman Richardson in February 1994 and he confirmed that they were in poor health and clearly in need of medical treatment. During his visit to the prison the Congressman also met Paw U Tun alias Min Ko Naing, a prominent student leader, who is serving a 15 year sentence imposed by a military tribunal in a trial which Amnesty International describes as "blatantly unfair". Following Min Ko Naing's arrest in March 1989 there were widespread reports that he had been severely tortured and as a result was in poor health (Amnesty International, January 1994, 5). Concerns about Min Ko Naing's poor mental health were confirmed by the Congressman's February 1994 visit, following which he stated that the student leader was still unquestionably suffering from "psychological damage" (Washington Post, 16 February 1994).

The fact that Richardson was allowed to see these three prisoners in spite of their poor physical - and in one case mental - health, raises serious questions about how much worse other, less well-known, political prisoners may be being treated, and how much worse the conditions of their detention may be. Concerns about the overall treatment of political prisoners is further heightened by the continuing refusing of the SLORC to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit any detainees or convicted prisoners.

3.2 Torture

In its latest report Amnesty International confirms that the torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners continues to be a common occurrence in Myanmar's jails (Amnesty International, January 1994, 1). In some cases torture, or torture aggravated by the conditions of detention, has led to prisoners dying in detention (United Nations, 17 February 1993, 18).

A wide range of torture methods has been reported. During interrogation, when torture and ill-treatment is said to be routine, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar has noted that it can take the form of beatings, sleep, food and water deprivation, electric shock, near suffocation, and psychological torture, including threats of death to the individual and his family (United Nations, 16 November 1993, 28). Other methods which Amnesty International says have been consistently reported for many years include being forced to "ride the motorcycle" (standing with arms outstretched and legs bent for prolonged periods); the "helicopter" (suspension by the wrists or feet from a ceiling fixture and then being spun around); and the "iron road" having iron or bamboo rods rolled up and down the shins until the skin is lacerated) (Amnesty International, October 1992, 14).

A former political prisoner described his treatment by the Military Intelligence at an army barracks in mid-1992:

I was interrogated every other day for two weeks. They beat me, tied me up by my wrists, and rubbed a bottle up and down my shins [...] There were three people interrogating me [...] they would also torture me. It lasted 20 minutes a day, with each one taking a turn each. They put a bag over my head, and poured water over me for a long time [...] there was a very small hole in the bag in order to breathe, but it was still difficult [...] they also beat me with an iron rod covered with rubber so it wouldn't leave marks [...] I was beaten a lot around the ribs and back. (Amnesty International, October 1993, 9).

Victims have said that torture is used both to punish them and to compel them to cooperate with their interrogators. Many victims of torture have been forced to sign "confessions" admitting to anti-government activities or implicating colleagues or friends in such activities and some have been forced to sign documents confirming they were well treated during interrogation or in jail. Others have said that they had been held in incomunicado detention following torture to allow time for the physical signs of torture to heal before anyone could see them (Amnesty International, October 1992, 14).


In addition to the use of deterrents such as political imprisonment and torture, the SLORC has instituted a number of mechanisms designed to intimidate those suspected of opposing them, and thereby inhibit them from undertaking any anti-government activity. One example of this is the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people from urban areas that has been carried out over the past five years. (This should not be confused with the forced relocation of ethnic minorities which is a separate issue not addressed in this paper.)

Since 1989 an estimated 500,000 urban residents throughout the country have been forcibly resettled by the SLORC (US State Department, 1994). The SLORC claims that the civilians from urban areas who are resettled are either volunteers or else were forced to move because they were living illegally as squatters or homeless people (United Nations, 17 February 1993, 10-11). Further, that the resettlement policy is part of its "development programme" and that the policy fulfils legitimate urban planning objectives. To some extent this is true - road widening, the building of new roads, and other construction works has certainly been carried out in major towns - with the result that people have been obliged to move in order to make way for them. But informed sources have provided strong evidence to suggest that in at least some cases the forced resettlement of civilians from urban areas has been carried out as part of a deliberate strategy to break up centres of potential political opposition.

It can be no coincidence for example that large numbers of urban dwellers, including many who were anti-SLORC, were forcibly evicted from their homes and relocated to shanty towns outside Yangon in the run up to the May 1990 general elections. Citing newspaper and radio reports, the U.S. Committee for Refugees has said that tens of thousands of Yangon residents were estimated to have been thus affected, and that similar evictions also took place in Mandalay and Taunggyi (U.S. Committee for Refugees, May 1990, 13-14).

The motives of the SLORC must also be questioned in other cases. In January 1990 the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that hundreds of houses in central Yangon had been razed and their occupants forcibly evicted without compensation. Most of them were resettled in shanty towns, located far outside the city. The Review pointed out that many of those affected were people who had participated in the 1988 demonstrations. A little earlier, hundreds of other families were evicted from Bahan township in Yangon, where NLD Secretary General Aung San Suu Kyi was standing as an election candidate (Far Eastern Economic Review, 25 January 1990). In another case an estimated 20,000 civilians were removed from the town of Pagan and their houses, some of which were centuries old, were bulldozed. This took place just one month before the May 1990 elections, raising suspicions that it was carried out in order to prevent the inhabitants from talking to foreign tourists (Article 19, December 1991, 38).

Since the 1990 elections reports of forced relocation from urban areas have declined, although it does continue to occur. In August 1993 hundreds of residents in Mawlamyine are reported to have been forcibly moved from their homes, and their houses, a mosque and a church destroyed, in order to make way for a market. In the course of this at least fourteen people protesting the use of force against the residents are reported to have been arrested (Reuter, 26 August 1993).

Conditions at the sites to which these people have been moved vary widely. While some have proven popular, the location of others has caused severe problems for the inhabitants. For example, some are built on former rice paddy land and therefore subject to flooding in the rainy season; others lack adequate transportation, medical facilities, shelter or sanitation (U.S. State Department, 1994), with the result that local health workers have privately reported high fatality levels at many of the sites due to malaria and poor sanitation (Article 19, December 1991, 38).

In some cases, ethnic Burmans are reported to have been relocated to ethnic minority areas amid allegations that this has been done for political reasons. Jack Dunford, head of the Burma Border Consortium, a non-governmental organization that provides material assistance to refugees living on the Thai-Myanmar border, argues that there is evidence that this policy is a systematic attempt by the SLORC to destroy the homogeneity of ethnic minority areas. In doing so, he suggests, the SLORC is seeking to reduce the validity of future claims for autonomy for these areas by ethnic minorities (Dunford, 1993, 15).


Less dramatic than forced relocation, but equally effective as a means of silencing potential critics, is the use of a highly sophisticated intelligence network through which the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) monitors the activities of ordinary citizens. In addition to regular surveillance, unannounced searches of private houses are often carried out, private correspondence and telephone calls are selectively monitored and contacts or communications involving foreigners are subject to intense scrutiny (U.S. State Department, 1994).

Former political prisoners are marked out for particular attention. Many of them will have been obliged to sign documents at the time of their release stating that they would cease all further involvement in politics. They are also subject to surveillance and some are required to report regularly to the local authorities - sometimes as often as twice a day. During the UN Special Rapporteur's visit to Myanmar in December 1992 several former political prisoners were apparently warned by the authorities that they risked rearrest if they tried to contact him (Amnesty International, October 1993, 11).

But it is not only former political prisoners who are subjected to this kind of intimidation. The friends and families of known dissidents, including the relatives and associates of students and pro-democracy activists who have fled Myanmar since the 1988 demonstrations, also face routine surveillance, interrogation, threats and intimidation by members of the MIS (Ibid.). Meanwhile, those who try to pass on information about the political situation in the country can find themselves similarly harassed. This was the finding of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, who reported after his December 1992 visit that many people who had wanted to provide information to him were prevented from doing so, because of threats and intimidation by the military intelligence (United Nations, 17 February 1993, 44).

Any sign of support, however tacit, for the aims of political opponents to the SLORC can have serious consequences for ordinary civilians. During 1991 over 15,000 civil servants were dismissed from their jobs during a massive purge, a SLORC official warning that "we are done with educating and warning public servants to behave themselves" (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), January 1994, 2). Government employees, including teachers and professors, are warned against criticizing the government and are instructed not to discuss politics at work (U.S. State Department, 1994), and under Order No. 1/91, issued in April 1991, public service personnel and their dependents are explicitly prohibited from engaging in "party politics" (Amnesty International, October 1993, 11).

More recently the pressure that has been applied to the civilian population has focussed not so much on preventing involvement in any opposition political activity, but in pressing them to lend their support to a new government supported organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), established in September 1993. In January 1994 mass rallies organized by USDA were held across the country, ostensibly to demonstrate widespread popular support for the guidelines being drawn up for the new constitution by the National Convention. However, reliable reports state that hundreds of thousands of people were coerced by the military to attend mass rallies (The Sunday Post, 23 January 1994; The Nation, 5 February 1994). Government workers are said to have been warned that they would face sanctions for failure to attend, while schoolchildren were threatened with expulsion. In the countryside there were reports that village headmen were said to have been ordered by the military to fill quotas for attendance or face severe consequences. Only university students are understood to have been exempt from the rallies, apparently because of fears that they might cause a disturbance if they attended (Radio Australia, 26 January 1994, in BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 27 January 1994).

From the evidence it seems clear that the combination of surveillance, intimidation and harassment that the civilian population has to endure on a daily basis, acts as a sufficient deterrent to ensure that the vast majority of them avoid involvement in any political activity out of fear of the harsh punishment that would undoubtedly follow. In addition, it would appear that the civilian population is now sufficiently cowed by the threat of reprisals that the SLORC is able to go so far as to oblige them to engage in political activities that give the impression of active civilian support for SLORC policies.


The army's lack of mechanized transport, coupled with the difficult terrain in jungle and mountainous regions of the country where there are no roads, means that the military has traditionally relied on civilians to work as porters for the army or as labourers on construction projects of various kinds. This has been a common occurrence for decades but one which, until recently, has mainly affected the members of ethnic minorities. However, the staggeringly rapid growth in the size of the Myanmar army which has doubled in a mere six years - from an estimated 170,000 in 1988 (Asia Yearbook 1989, 94) to between 350-400,000 today (The Nation, 29 January 1994) - and the increase in its areas of operation have resulted in a concomitant increase in the army's demand for porters. As a result, while the majority of those taken as porters or labourers for the army continue to be members of ethnic minorities, Amnesty International concluded in 1992 that "those seized now come from almost any area of the country and from any ethnic or religious community, including the majority Buddhist Bamar [Burman]" (Amnesty International, October 1992, 18).

Ethnic Burmans from towns and cities have been particularly at risk of being seized by the military during offensives against the various ethnic minority groups fighting the government, when demand for porters is particularly high. In such instances local people have been unable to provide the military with enough porters with the result that seizure becomes more arbitrary and often takes place far from the war zone. In June 1993 the Thai daily, The Nation, cited testimonies from escaped porters who revealed that soldiers were periodically stopping buses or trains, or surrounding cinemas and arresting everyone inside for use as labour for the army. The former porters reported that only those with military connections or enough money for bribes were able to avoid being taken (The Nation, 23 June 1993). Those who are taken have no right to refuse the military's demands or to protest the fact that they are being held against their will, and are seldom told how long they will be held (Amnesty International, October 1993, p. 14).

Prisoners - both political and criminal - are also used for portering and forced labour, and may be transported long distances from various jails to work as porters or to labour on other projects for the military. In 1992 at least 1,000 prisoners from jails in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other cities were sent to work as porters during the military's dry season offensive against the headquarters of the Karen National Union (KNU) and the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) (U.S. State Department, 1993). Prisoners, including political prisoners, are also reported to work alongside civilian labour gangs on a variety of work projects (Amnesty International, October 1992, 20). For example, prisoners are reported to have been among civilians being used as forced labour by the military to construct roads in the eastern Shan States in October 1993 (Amnesty International, October 1993, 21).

6.1 Human Rights Violations During Portering and Forced labour

The government has made no effort to hide its use of civilians as porters and labourers. Indeed, Myanmar's Legal Code does not prohibit the use of forced labour. Nevertheless, while pointing out that it regards it as perfectly legitimate to expect civilians to provide labour to the state, the government categorically denies that labour on behalf of the state, and particularly portering, is forced (United Nations, 17 February 1993, 35).

There is plenty of evidence to contradict this, as well as to confirm that torture and ill-treatment regularly occurs in the context of both forced labour and portering. In a formal representation to the International Labour Organization (ILO) the ICFTU describes the practice of portering in Myanmar as follows:

Reliable reports [...] have revealed the widespread use of porters by the military in Myanmar and the inhumane working and living conditions to which they are subjected [...] Civilians of both sexes and of advanced ages, young and middle, and a variety of fitness levels are forcibly and arbitrarily seized by local police and military units to serve essentially as "beasts of burden" for the army. They work at the mercy of the soldiers, bearing heavy loads and receiving very little rest or food. Many porters are physically and/or sexually abused by the soldiers they serve. They are worked until they are either too sick or hurt to walk any further, some are killed by mines, in cross fire, or by the units they serve, some manage to escape. (ICFTU, January 1993, 20).

This is backed up by the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar who in February 1993 reported having received reliable testimonies of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the context of forced portering (United Nations, 17 February 1993, 47). Following his most recent visit to Myanmar, in November 1993, he concluded that serious cases of torture continue to occur. The UN Special Rapporteur found that it typically takes the following forms: forcing people to carry heavy loads (in most cases about 50kg) of weapons, ammunition, food and other supplies for the army in mountainous areas and in harsh weather conditions; beating, drowning and stabbing in cases of disobedience or attempts to escape; and raping and other sexual assaults (United Nations, 16 February 1994, 19).

A 15-year-old boy, an orphan who was supporting his blind grandmother by selling goods on the street, was arbitrarily seized by the army along with some 500 other men in October 1992. He described his treatment as a porter before he managed to escape:

[...] I had a fever and could not carry on. They kicked me in the side of my chest - even now the scar has not healed [...] I am still having treatment for my injury. The medics say I have three broken ribs. I hurt inside a lot, and it is difficult to move around." (Amnesty International, October 1993, 19).

The U.S. State Department estimates that hundreds of deaths occurred in the context of forced portering during 1993, most of them caused by disease and overwork, although reports of mistreatment and rape were also common. It found that when porters are wounded, ill or unable to continue their work, they are at risk of being left unattended to die (U.S. State Department, 1994).

Torture and ill-treatment is also reported in the context of forced labour. Labourers, who are detained in labour camps and work under armed guard, are given very little food and frequently fall ill with malaria (Amnesty International, October 1993, 21). According to a February 1993 report in The Times this was true in the case of some of the prison labour - among them students seized in Yangon during the suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 - working under armed guard in Shan State building a road (The Times, 27 February 1993).

Like porters, labourers are often severely ill-treated, and even killed. Amnesty International reports that many labourers have died from exhaustion and neglect, others have been beaten to death, and still others have been deliberately killed for disobeying orders or for trying to escape (Amnesty International, October 1992, 17). During 1992 casualties were said to have been especially high on the new Myitkyina-Sumprabum-Putao highway, where both prisoner and civilian labour was being used. A Christian pastor who travelled along the road said: "There are many prisoners that are dying [...] When the prisoners cannot work or try to escape they are shot by the soldiers." (Idem, 20).

With the reduction in insurgent activity brought about by the on-going, and in some cases concluded, ceasefire negotiations between the SLORC and the various armed ethnic opposiiton groups, the demand for porters in combat zones will certainly continue to decline. However, this should not be taken as a sign that the use of civilians as porters and forced labour for the army will cease. On the contrary, as the military gains access to parts of the country formerly under the control of armed ethnic opposition groups it will certainly initiate new infrastructure projects. In addition, the SLORC already has a variety of large scale development projects planned and underway in other parts of the country, such as the construction of new roads and railways. These indicate that, at least in the coming months and possibly years, demand for civilian labour will continue and that force is likely to go on being used in order to meet those demands.


7.1 Pro-Democracy Activists in Thailand

Thousands of pro-democracy activists have fled to Thailand since 1988. However, they enjoy no effective protection against being forcibly returned to Myanmar in spite of the risks that they face there. Indeed, since late 1988 thousands of dissidents have been repatriated to Myanmar. Thousands more, fearing forced deportation by the Thais into the hands of the SLORC, are believed to have returned to Myanmar independently. Details about the repatriation of dissidents from Myanmar between 1988 and 1991, as well as the ill-treatment to which they have been subjected in Thai detention centres, have been documented in reports by Amnesty International, Asia Watch and the U.S. Committee for Refugees (See for example Amnesty International, August 1991; Asia Watch, 20 March 1992; and U.S. Committee for Refugees, May 1990, for details.)

The vast majority of the pro-democracy activists from Myanmar currently living in Thailand are students and as of 29 April 1994, a total of 2,325 were registered with the UNHCR as "persons of concern" (UNHCR, 29 April 1994). The Thai authorities have repeatedly sought to encourage the students to move to a holding centre (commonly known as the "safe area") in Rachaburi province but they have been largely unsuccessful - as of January 1994 the number of students in the holding centre totalled only 156 (Bangkok Post, 9 January 1994). This is because, despite the assurances of the Thai authorities that no inmates in the holding centre would be forcibly repatriated as long as the political situation in their homeland has not improved, the students fear that the holding centre may be used as a detention centre or as a springboard for repatriation. (The past actions of the Thai government in repatriating pro-democracy activists, either to camps in minority-held areas or into the hands of the SLORC, lend considerable justification to their fears.) As a result, students try to avoid the holding centre unless they already have a guarantee of permission to resettle in a third country. Those who refuse to enter the holding centre, however, are vulnerable to the risk of imprisonment and deportation by the Thai authorities for "illegal immigration".

The Thai government has stepped up pressure on pro-democracy activists in recent months as its relations with the SLORC improve. For example, the Thai authorites have in the past been prepared to turn a blind eye to the political activities of exiles living on Thai territory, but in December 1993 the authorities announced their intention to crack down on all future political activity by Myanmar students (Hong Kong Agence France Press, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 7 December 1993). But it is with the successful conclusion of ceasefire talks between the SLORC and the various armed ethnic opposition groups that the pro-democracy activists living in Thailand will be at most risk. If, or more likely when, these ceasefire agreements are reached, the Thai government is likely to point to the agreements as a sign that the political situation in Myanmar has improved sufficiently to allow for the repatriation of students and other pro-democracy activists. Their argument will be reinforced if - as some analysts are suggesting may happen - the SLORC offers in the coming months an amnesty for pro-democracy activists currently living in exile.

7.2 Pro-Democracy Activists in Ethnic Minority Controlled Areas

In addition to the thousands of students and other civilians who escaped to Thailand from 1988 onwards, several thousands more fled to parts of Myanmar controlled by the different armed ethnic opposition groups. The majority subsequently returned home, slipping back into government controlled areas secretly to avoid arrest. But an estimated 3,000 or more students remain in ethnic minority controlled areas and have joined the armed resistance to the SLORC.

As well as having implications for students living in Thailand, the ceasefire negotiations that have been taking place between the SLORC and the ethnic minority groups affect even more directly the pro-democracy activists living in areas controlled by these groups. They rightly fear that the ceasefire agreements are likely to result, sooner or later, in their being obliged to leave the relative security of the minority controlled areas.

Already, the students living in these areas are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult position. Following the negotiation of a ceasefire agreement between the SLORC and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the vice chairman of the All Burma Students' Defence Force (ABSDF, the largest of the armed pro-democracy groups formed after the SLORC took power) confirmed that the students living in KIO controlled territory - estimated to number some 700 or so - although still allowed to carry arms, have been banned from launching military operations there (Reuter, 13 January 1994). The same month one of the factions of the Karenni armed opposition groups was reported to have confiscated weapons from some 300 students who have been fighting alongside them (The Nation, 22 January 1994).

The 2,000 or so students in areas controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) are similarly looking more and more beleaguered, and although the ABSDF has vowed to press on with their war against the ruling SLORC (Reuter, 13 January 1994) it is difficult to see how much longer they will be able to do so. For the last few years the students, as well as opposition politicians, have used Manerplaw, where the Karen headquarters is situated, as their base. The KNU has also supplied them with weapons. If the ceasefire talks between the various ethnic opposition groups and the SLORC are successful it is hard to imagine how these groups will be able to resist demands from the SLORC to stop providing support to the students. The effect of the loss of backing from the ethnic opposition groups, coupled with the increasingly hard line being taken by the Thai government with respect to anti-SLORC activities on its territory, is sure to significantly - if not fatally - weaken the position of the armed student groups. The signs are already beginning to show. Within a week of the KNU announcement in January that it would hold separate talks with the Myanmar government there were reports that Karen soldiers had confiscated weapons from the students and detained twelve people, all members of a hard-line faction of the ABSDF which is strongly opposed to bilateral talks between the KNU and the SLORC (The Nation, 22 January 1994). Although the detentions were brief, they served to highlight the tensions that have resulted from the KNUs decision to enter into ceasefire negotiations with the SLORC.

Pro-democracy activists in the ethnic minority controlled areas are also feeling the squeeze from across the border. Thailand is keen to improve its ties with Myanmar and has already taken some steps to clamp down on anti-SLORC political activity on its territory. But it has also extended its tough approach to members of the NCGUB, formed in December 1990 by several members of parliament elect, who are living on the other side of the border. In December 1993 the Thai government announced that it had refused to grant visas to Myanmar's prime minister-in-exile Sein Win and other key opposition leaders, thereby making it impossible for them to return from the United States to their headquarters at Manerplaw, in KNU controlled territory. Thailand's national security chief told Reuter that Bangkok had denied the visas as part of its commitment to stop Myanmar opposition figures from using Thai territory to fight the SLORC (Reuter, 15 December 1993).

The increasingly hardline approach of Thailand, coupled with the strong indications that ceasefire talks between the SLORC and the armed ethnic opposition groups still fighting the government will soon be completed, mean that the avenues open to the pro-democracy groups living in Thailand and along the border are becoming increasingly few. There can be little doubt that this is one of the aims of the SLORC, which has shown no inclination to hold negotiations with the pro-democracy groups. Requests by some of the armed ethnic opposition groups for the SLORC to negotiate with the Democratic Alliance of Burma (DAB), an umbrella organization made up of a number of ethnic and pro-democracy groups, have been repeatedly rejected by the SLORC. By insisting on bilateral talks with individual ethnic minority groups, the SLORC has created divisions between them and the pro-democracy armed student groups, thereby significantly weakening the latter, whom the SLORC now regards as its main political enemy.

7.3 Pro-Democracy Activists in India

Pro-democracy activists also fled to India following the 1988 demonstrations, although in much smaller numbers than those entering Thailand. Altogether an estimated 800 students and politicians crossed the border into India (Article 19, December 1991, 33), mainly into Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur states. By January 1992 a study by Swiss Aid calculated that the figure had fallen to about 100 (Swiss Aid, January 1992, 6).

India was highly critical of the military repression that followed the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations and gave assurances that no refugees from Myanmar would be repatriated. There have, however, been at least two seemingly isolated instances when this has occurred, one in February 1990 and one later in that year, but in both cases it appears that local, rather than central government, authorities were reponsible for the refoulement (International Commission of Jurists, October 1992, 7; Mohanraj, January 1992, 10).

No other cases of repatriation of pro-democracy activists from India are known to have taken place. Although there has as yet been no indication that the Indian government intends to change its policy of offering sanctuary to pro-democracy activists from Myanmar, the recent thawing in India-Myanmar relations may result in a hardening of the Indian authorities' attitude towards Myanmar refugees in its territory. The continuing security of pro-democracy activists in India therefore needs to be carefully monitored.

7.4 Fate of Returnees

While detailed information is not available about the fate of the vast majority of those who have returned home after fleeing either to the border areas or to other countries following the 1988 demonstrations, there is evidence that pro-democracy activists who do so risk being subjected to serious human rights violations. The abuse to which returnees are known to have been subjected to in the past upon their return to Myanmar ranges from arrest and torture, to death.

For example, of the several hundred students repatriated from Thailand in December 1988 and early 1989, as many as 50 were reported by the U.S. State Department to have been arrested upon their return and some of them subsequently died in custody (Lintner, 1991, 184). Many others who returned home following promises made by SLORC of amnesties for pro-democracy activists were arrested, tortured or else disappeared upon their return. One of them was Maung Maung Lwin, a history student at Yangon University, who was arrested and tortured in July 1989 after being repatriated from Thailand (Article 19, December 1991, 15). The SLORC's blatant disregard for assurances it has made in the past regarding the treatment of pro-democracy activists returning to Myanmar must surely raise very serious doubts about the likelihood that the SLORC would honour any future assurances it may give with respect to dissidents being repatriated to Myanmar.


Since it came to power in the September 1988 coup, the SLORC has refused to tolerate political dissent. Instead it has sought to put an end to all political opposition in Myanmar through the use of highly repressive tactics, and has largely succeeded in doing so.

Over the last two years the SLORC has taken some steps which, on the surface, appear to indicate that it is instituting measures to improve its human rights record. Up to 2,500 political prisoners have been freed. Military tribunals - which presided over manifestly unfair trials - have been abolished. Progress is being made in peace negotiations between the SLORC and the various armed ethnic opposition groups, thereby offering the hope of an end to nearly half a century of armed insurgencies and the large scale human rights violations that have accompanied them. These steps are to be welcomed. But they also need to be placed in context. Hundreds of pro-democracy activists remain in detention in Myanmar, and the torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners is still common. Anyone who actively opposes the government risks becoming a victim of such treatment.

The result of the rigorous suppression of dissent in Myanmar has resulted in what Amnesty International describes as "a climate of fear and intimidation" (Amnesty International, October 1993, 11), which pervades the whole country. The UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar is in no doubt either about the severity of the restrictions placed on the enjoyment of civil and political rights. After his most recent visit to Myanmar, in November 1993, he concluded:

The people do not generally enjoy freedoms of thought, opinion, expression, publication and peaceful assembly and association. They seem to be always fearful that whatever they or their family members say or do, particularly in the area of politics, would risk arrest and interrogation by the police or military intelligence (United Nations, February 1994, 24-25).

Despite some changes there is thus no indication that the SLORC has changed its attitude towards peaceful opposition political activity, nor any indication that it is likely to do so in the near future. While the nature of the human rights violations appears to be changing - fewer mass arrests and fewer political prisoners for example - human rights violations nonetheless continue to be perpetrated on a massive scale. More importantly they continue to be perpetrated in a climate of impunity which ensures that the very severe system of repression that is now in place in Myanmar is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Writing in August 1991 Amnesty International concluded that any Myanmar national who is politically active and is forcibly returned to Myanmar is at risk of imprisonment, torture, disappearance or execution (Amnesty International, August 1991, 1). Large numbers of the pro-democracy activists living either in ethnic minority controlled areas or in Thailand and India have been very active and vocal in their continuing opposition to the SLORC during their exile - in some cases peacefully, in others through armed resistence. In the light of this, and the evidence of the SLORC's continuing severe repression of political opponents, there is no reason to believe that the risks highlighted by Amnesty International in 1991 are any different from those facing pro-democracy activists returning to Myanmar today.


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Washington Post,

"U.S. Congressman Tries to Mediate in Burma", 16 February 1994



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