Human Rights in Burma


Human Rights in Burma
   Although violations of basic human rights were widespread during the Ne Win era (1962-1988), especially in ethnic minority areas, such as Karen (Kayin) and Shan States, human rights in Burma did not become an issue of major international concern until 1988, when the State Law and Order Restoration Council seized power and suppressed the popular movements of Democracy Summer with great brutality. Monitoring by the UN High Commission for Human Rights, government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of State, international nongovernmental organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and Burmese groups, such as the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Karen Human Rights Group, has revealed systematic abuse in practically every category of the 1949 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has one of the poorest records on rights worldwide, reflecting the absence of a consistent and fair rule of law and the junta's conviction that national unity can only be achieved through force.
   The SPDC uses an array of laws, such as the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, the Unlawful Associations Act, and the Law to Safeguard the State from the Dangers of Those Desiring to Cause Subversive Acts, to detain and imprison nonviolent oppositionists, especially members of the National League for Democracy (NLD). Once in jail, political prisoners, who are estimated to number around 1,600, are frequently subjected to torture and solitary confinement and receive little or no medical care. Many have died in prison. Often, those who are detained for long periods of time are not even formally charged or tried before a judge (most famously Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been put under house arrest three times as of 2005). Political prisoners sometimes have their sentences arbitrarily extended while in jail. Outside of jail, dissidents are frequently bullied or attacked by members of the progovernment Union Solidarity and Development Association, who were involved in the "Black Friday" Incident of May 30, 2003. The SPDC has resorted to a wide variety of obstructive tactics to prevent the NLD and other moderate groups from engaging in ordinary political activities.
   All publications are censored by the Press Scrutiny Board, and comments critical of the government are harshly punished, for example, the imprisonment of the comedian Zargana and the Moustache Brothers for satirical remarks made at the junta's expense. Information technology is carefully controlled, and Burma is one of the few Asian countries where access to the Internet is not widely available because of government restrictions. Military Intelligence informers keep a close watch on the population, especially university students, who were the core of the Democracy Summer protests, a system that creates widespread social distrust and alienation. The military has defrocked and imprisoned members of the Sangha who oppose them, contrary to Buddhist principles, which state that monks can only be expelled from the Order by their superiors. It has also ruled that members of the NLD and other political parties cannot be ordained as monks.
   Official discrimination against members of ethnic and religious minorities has been a part of Burmese life since at least the Ne Win era, including indigenous groups, such as the Karens (Kayins), Karenni, Shans, Chins, and Kachins, as well as descendants of people who came from the Indian Subcontinent during the British colonial period, most of whom are Muslim, Christian, or Hindu. A Citizenship Law passed in 1982 distinguishes among three unequal classes of citizens, with only the first group (descendants of people resident in Burma before the First Anglo-Burmese War) entitled to full privileges. Each Burmese citizen is required to carry a national identity card, which states his or her ethnicity and religion. Because these cards are necessary to secure permission to travel, conduct business, and perform other important tasks, ethnic and (especially) religious minorities are vulnerable to unfair treatment by government officials. The activities of non-Buddhist religious communities, especially Muslims of South Asian descent and ethnic minority Christians in the border areas, are tightly restricted (e.g., Muslims cannot construct new mosques, while old ones are sometimes demolished). In 1978 and again in late 1991, 200,000-300,000 Muslim Rohingyas, residents of Arakan State, were forced to flee to Bangladesh because of Tatmadaw persecution.
   Crimes against women by the military are widespread, especially in ethnic minority areas, such as Shan State, and appear to be systematic, despite heated denials by the SPDC. In insurgent controlled or contested areas, soldiers frequently subject village women to violent sexual abuse, and the arbitrary killing of men, women, and children is not uncommon. Life has become so difficult for minority communities that hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled to Thailand and other neighboring countries, where they struggle to survive in refugee camps or as illegal aliens.
   "Welfare rights" are largely ignored, as the government allocates at least 45 percent of total spending to the military while neglecting education and health. The quality of hospitals, clinics, and schools has declined since the end of Ne Win socialism in 1988. Between 1962 and 1988, a minimum, though not necessarily high, standard of public education and health care were available to all. Now only those who can pay have access to adequate schools or health care. The government has not adopted a comprehensive strategy to combat the spread of AIDS, and hospitalized patients often have to buy their own medicine on the black market. Ninety-eight percent of schoolchildren drop out before finishing high school. Universities have been closed for long periods since 1988; when open, they operate under heavy restrictions. Lack of rational economic planning on the part of the government keeps both rural and urban populations desperately poor in an inflationary economy, spawning social problems such as the entry of poor women into the domestic and international sex industry and a flourishing drug economy.
   Forced labor and forced relocation affect millions of Burmese, including both Burmans and ethnic minorities. The use of child soldiers in the Tatmadaw is also widespread, and insurgents recruit them as well.
   The SPDC's reaction to international criticism of its human rights record has been to deny the allegations or argue that some practices, such as forced labor (described as labor contributions), are a part of Burma's traditions. At times, the government has shown some responsiveness to outside criticism, such as negotiating with the International Labour Organization over the issue of forced labor in 2000-2002, and allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit political prisoners since 1999. The government of Australia has sent experts to train Burmese officials in human rights awareness. Since 1988, there has been little evidence that such concessions represent a significant change in junta attitudes about basic human rights.
   See also Insein Jail; Min Ko Naing; Tatmadaw and Burmese Society.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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