Human Rights Developments
Any hope that the July 1995 release of opposition leader and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi might be a sign of human rights reforms by the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) government were destroyed during 1996 as political arrests and repression dramatically increased and forced labor, forced relocations, and arbitrary arrests continued to be the daily reality for millions of ordinary Burmese. The turn for the worse received little censure from Burma's neighbors, who instead took the first step towards granting the country full membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and welcomed SLORC as a member of the Asian Regional Forum, a security body.
Twice during the year there were mass arrests of opposition supporters. In June a new law was promulgated making even verbal criticism of the government an offense carrying a twenty-year sentence. Meanwhile in ethnic minority areas more than 85,000 people were forcibly evicted from their homes to military-run work camps or garrison towns. During the year U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Ghali=s envoys were twice refused entry, and by October neither they nor the U.N. special rapporteur on Burma had received invitations to visit the country.
On November 28, 1995 the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), the party led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, withdrew from the National Convention, condemning it as a "sham." (The convention had been set up by the government in 1993 to draft a new constitution.) The SLORC then banned the NLD from returning, and the convention continued to meet despite having only seventeen elected representatives sitting with the 577 government-chosen delegates. It adjourned at the end of March and had not been recalled by the end of October. The NLD's boycott of the convention marked the beginning of a year-long confrontation between the SLORC and the NLD which led to the detention over 1,000 NLD supporters between November 1995 and October 1996. The majority of them were released after being detained for up to one month without charge, but more than eighty were still in custody by November, with half of those having received summary trials and sentences of seven to ten years. The true figure was almost certainly higher, as there was almost no information about those detained outside Rangoon.
On January 4, the NLD celebrated independence day in the home of Daw Suu. Twelve performers from a musical troupe who had come from Mandalay were arrested when they returned to their homes. Eight were released a month later, but four were charged under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for "spreading false news" and were sentenced to seven years each. On January 27, six NLD members were arrested for having written a poem to commemorate the 1991 death in detention of their colleague U Tin Maung Win. Three were released, but the others were sentenced to seven years. In April the NLD was refused permission to hold new year's celebrations in the compound of Daw Suu's house.
In May the NLD announced that it would hold a general party meeting to commemorate its election victory in 1990 and discuss future activities. This would have been the first time all NLD members of parliament had met since the 1990 election. In response, the government began arresting NLD MPs from their homes or off buses and trains as they tried to make their way to Rangoon. By May 27, when the meeting opened, 235 MPs and twenty-three party members had been detained. In response to international outrage at the detentions, the SLORC claimed that they were all being held in government guest houses and would shortly be released. In reality, most of those arrested were held in military compounds or military intelligence centers, and in Rangoon some were taken directly to Insein jail.
By the end of June all but twelve of those originally detained were released. Almost immediately notices appeared in the government-controlled media announcing the resignations, usually for "health reasons," of NLD members as elected representatives and as party members. By August thirty-five MPs had resigned. Daw Suu reported that they had done so under immense pressure from the SLORC, and at least one parliamentarian, U Chit Twe, was arrested for refusing to do so. In addition, the MP Dr. Aung Khin Sint (who had only been released after three years in jail in March 1996) announced his resignation in June but was seen in July standing with Daw Suu at the weekend meetings. He was subsequently rearrested on July 23, and was convicted and sentenced on September 13. No details were released about the outcome of his sentence. As of early November, a total of twenty-six elected NLD members of parliament remained in detention.
They were joined by yet more NLD members arrested between June and September. Key workers from the party's headquarters at Daw Suu's house and effective regional organizers were particularly targeted. On August 19, the SLORC announced the sentencing of twenty-eight people. These included U Win Htein, Daw Suu's assistant and spokesman, who was sentenced along with three others to seven years in prison for having had a video made showing barren fields to illustrate the failure of the government's agricultural policy; Win Htein was later given an additional seven years for unspecified offenses. Three other NLD members, including elected parliamentarian U Kyaw Min, were sentenced to ten years for allegedly inciting unrest among students; three others were sentenced to seven years; and nineteen people from the Chin state, including two MPs (U Do Thaung and Khun Myint Htun) and two monks were each sentenced to seven years= imprisonment for allegedly having been in contact with exiled Burmese opposition groups. In the government press reports concerning the latter arrests, two U.S. citizens, including a representative of the International Republican Institute, were cited as their contacts abroad. On September 23, the same newspaper announced that a further nine students had been arrested for distributing leaflets outside Daw Suu's house.
Despite these setbacks, the NLD continued to push for its members= rights to meet and work as a political party and on September 27, the anniversary of the formation of the party, Daw Suu called a second party congress. The government's response was immediate and harsh. Armed troops blocked off all access to Daw Suu's house the night before the congress was due to begin and arrested 109 party members, including sixty-one MPs who had already arrived. Others were prevented from leaving their home towns. Over the next two days up to 800 supporters were arrested, as they gathered at the NLD's headquarters in downtown Rangoon or waited near the barricades to get a glimpse of Daw Suu. By October 2 the military had begun to release some of those arrested but some were thought to face long jail terms.
In addition to the arrests, two political prisoners died in detention during the year, and twenty-one prisoners were badly beaten for allegedly having attempted to send information about prison conditions to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Burma. Among those beaten was U Win Tin, a founding member of the NLD who had been in jail since 1989 and was known to be in poor health. Win Tin was given an additional five-year sentence under prison rules, while the other twenty received between an extra twelve and five years each. James Leander (Leo) Nichols, an honorary consul representing Nordic countries and Switzerland in Burma, died in June after just two months in jail. He had a longtime heart condition which was exacerbated by his treatment in jail, where he was held in solitary confinement and pressured to sign false confessions. U Hla Than, an NLD parliamentarian, died in August from tuberculosis, reportedly linked to his being HIV-positive. Hla Than had been in jail since 1990, and concern was expressed that he may have contracted the AIDS virus while in jail, where doctors frequently reuse needles without proper sterilization.
Despite these arrests and news of the appalling treatment of political prisoners in jail, citizens continued to show their support for Daw Suu and the NLD. Thousands of people gathered outside the gates of Daw Suu's house every Saturday and Sunday to hear the NLD leaders speak. The intimidation of the crowds increased as the year progressed, with reports from June onwards that military intelligence personnel used videotapes of the meetings to identify civil servants or people who had relatives in the civil service, and threatened to dismiss them if they continued to attend the meetings. On September 27, barricades were erected across the main street leading to Daw Suu's house, and hundreds of supporters were arrested as they waited near the barricades to hear her. The barricades were taken up and then put back several times during October, and the weekend gatherings were effectively banned. As a counter-measure, the SLORC forced thousands of people to attend mass political rallies during June and July where the crowds pledged their loyalty to the government. All civil servants were threatened with dismissal if they did not attend the rallies, and school children, farmers and day laborers were ordered onto buses and taken to the rally sites.
The political impasse was not restricted to the SLORC's confrontations with the NLD. Just as important was the standoff between the SLORC and ethnic nationalities over the next chapter of the new constitution which must be agreed upon before the convention can reconvene. The chapter concerns the division of power between the central government and local government at the regional and state level; it was therefore the first attempt at political discussion between the armed ethnic groups who agreed to military cease-fires with the SLORC before the end of 1995; as of late September the discussions were reported to be deadlocked.
Several of these groups, especially those from the Shan state, demanded increased political representation for the ethnic groups at the central level. Aware of the dangers of the democratic and ethnic opposition forming a common platform, the SLORC reportedly issued a stern warning to all ethnic representatives not to meet with Daw Suu or other NLD members.
In December 1995, five members of a Karen cultural organization in Rangoon were arrested and held for five days for having invited Daw Suu to join them for Karen New Year celebrations. Daw Suu herself was stopped as she was driving towards Insein township, where the celebrations were being held, and questioned for an hour in the nearby military headquarters.
For populations living in areas where armed groups have not yet signed cease-fires with the SLORC C southern Shan, eastern Karenni and Karen, northern Arakan and southern Chin states C 1996 was another year of extensive repression and abuse by the Burmese army as it targeted civilians in an attempt to deny the rebel groups any local support.
The size of the military continued to grow, with an estimated 350,000 troops at year's end. This expansion lead to increased reports of forced conscription, particularly of boys under the age of eighteen, and many under fourteen.
In Shan state, former members of the Mong Tai Army of drug warlord Khun Sa formed new groups following his surrender in January. These groups, some of whom had already left Khun Sa in August 1995, were reported to have a total of 8,000 men under arms by July, but their presence led to intensified military operations by the Burmese army in Shan state. From early March onwards, the military began to force more than 450 villages in the area between Namsan, Kueng Heang and Mong Nai to move to sites along main roads or near army garrison towns. Over 60,000 people were affected by the orders. None of them received any food or financial help in the new areas, and those relocated near roads were forced to work with no pay to widen and improve the roads. Access to this area was strictly forbidden. As many as 10,000 people, mainly young men and women, were reported to have fled to Thailand, where they were refused permission to seek asylum and instead sought employment as illegal migrant workers.
In Karenni state, there was a renewed military offensive against the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in January, in which Swiss-made Pilatus aircraft were used to strafe KNPP positions and civilian villages. As the fighting died down, the SLORC began a new tactic in May when ninety-six villages from the Sha Daw area were forced to move to Sha Daw town. In June and July the relocation area was extended to southern Karenni state, near Ywathit town, just east of the state capital Loikaw. Altogether 25,000 people were reported to have been affected by the relocations by the end of the year. In the relocation sites, soldiers gave the villagers enough food for ten days but nothing else. Most of the relocations took place during the rainy season, compounding the difficulties for families forced to walk for days to the new sites and find shelter. Eight thousand people fled to Thailand, where refugee camps for the Karenni have been established since 1985, and the new arrivals reported that as many as 150 people, mainly children, had died in Sha Daw from malnutrition-related diseases.
In Karen state the SLORC also relocated thousands of villagers in the Kawkereik area, and thousands more were forced to build roads designed to improve the military's access to areas previously under the control of the Karen National Union (KNU), an armed opposition group. Villagers also suffered repression from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a group with close links to the SLORC, which forced people to move to their headquarters at Myaing Gyi Gnu. The DKBA also continued their attacks on Karen refugees in Thailand, frequently also robbing and killing Thai citizens.
In the western part of the country, over 10,000 people fled from Arakan state to Bangladesh during the year. There they joined the 50,000 refugees remaining from the 1991-92 exodus when 270,000 Muslims fled gross human rights abuses by the Burmese military. The UNHCR has been present in Arakan overseeing their reintegration since 1994, but it was unable to curb all but the most serious physical abuses. Forced labor, forced relocations, and the Adisappearance@ of men accused of working for the Rohingya rebel organizations continued. In addition the Burmese government implemented new restrictions on travel, requiring all Rohingyas (including returnees) to stay within their village boundaries. The SLORC continued to refuse to acknowledge the Rohingyas as full citizens, leaving them vulnerable to abuse and racial harassment. Despite the ongoing abuse suggested by the flight of so many new refugees to Bangladesh, over 5,000 refugees were repatriated during the year, and 15,000 were cleared to return by the Burmese government.
The Right to Monitor
While the government continued to prohibit the formation of indigenous human rights groups and no international human rights organizations were permitted official access to the country, the National League for Democracy worked to expose the arrest and illegal treatment of party members. In February, it was reported that the NLD had established a Legal Advisory Committee, headed by U Tin Oo, which would work to give legal assistance to those detained for their political opinions and activities. In March two letters from the Executive Committee of the NLD were sent to Gen. Than Shwe, chairman of the SLORC, protesting the illegal detention of party supporters and requesting that those elected in 1990 be called to form a parliament. By the end of the year, however, increased intimidation and the arrest of key party members had largely stifled the NLD's voice.
U.N. bodies were refused access to the country during the year. In March the U.N. secretary-general's representative, who had been mandated by the December 1995 resolution of the U.N. General Assembly to assist in the implementation of the resolution and the dialogue between all parties in Burma, was told that the government was too busy to receive him until August. By the end of September, the representative had still not received an invitation to go. Similarly, in April an International Labor Organization delegation which had received permission to visit the country and investigate the government's compliance with Article 87 of the ILO conventions (freedom of association) were told on their arrival in Bangkok, on a stopover to Burma, that their invitation had been rescinded. In June a new Special Rapporteur to Burma, Rajsoomer Lallah, was appointed by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights but by the end of October, he had not received any response to his repeated requests to conduct an investigative mission to the country as his mandate requires. No U.N. agencies working in Burma were permitted access or to give assistance to those forcibly displaced in the Karenni and Shan states.
The government's promotion of Burma as a tourist destination and relaxation of visa restrictions led to an increase during the year in the numbers of international activists who could visit the country, but Burmese whom they contacted were often detained for questioning or sometimes arrested and sentenced.
Increasing numbers of foreign journalists visited the country, often on tourist visas as the government introduced new restrictions on the press, both domestic and foreign. In May a number of foreign journalists had their visas revoked, preventing travel to Burma; in July the foreign minister admitted that the government maintained a blacklist of journalists who wrote "bad things" and later that month embassies issued a new warning with all visa applications that journalists posing as tourists in order to enter the country would be heavily fined and deported if discovered while in Burma. Throughout the year, the government used its control of all domestic media sources to issue increasingly virulent attacks against foreign media. The government continued to jam broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America and frequently disconnected the telephone line to Daw Suu's house at times when interviews had been prearranged. In April, the work of Human Rights Watch/Asia, Amnesty International and Article 19 was attacked in an article in the magazine Kyemon, which accused these groups of "dancing to the CIA's tune."
The Role of the International Community
During the year there was increased activity on Burma from the international community, but as western and Asian governments took very different approaches, it had little impact on the domestic situation. There was some good news, however. The release of Daw Suu, and her access to the international media, brought the situation in Burma to the notice of ordinary people everywhere, spurring grassroots campaigns in the west, and to a lesser extent in Asia, which pressed with gathering strength for governmental action. In the U.S., a campaign was launched to introduce legislation which would bring additional economic sanctions against the Burmese government should Daw Suu be arrested or in the event of "large-scale repression." By September the legislation, though somewhat weakened, came into effect.
Also in the U.S. students and ecumenical groups supporting an international boycott of Burma succeeded using state and city-level legislation to force several U.S. companies to withdraw from Burma. In Europe too, advocacy groups called for consumer boycotts to compel Heineken, Carlsberg and British Home Stores to leave Burma, while also pressing their governments and the European Union to introduce punitive sanctions. In Asia, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations repeatedly urged their governments not to admit Burma into ASEAN, while Malaysian groups also protested the state visit by Burma's premier Gen. Than Shwe in June 1996.
Despite the adoption by consensus of a strong U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Burma on human rights grounds in December 1995, there was little evidence of cooperation and coordination to press for human rights improvements as the year progressed. Governments seemed to consider the release of Daw Suu in July 1995 enough of an "improvement" to soften their stance towards the government, and some, particularly Burma's neighbors, continued to soften even after the arrest of scores of her supporters. Having requested the U.N. secretary general to assist in the implementation of the resolution, U.N. member states did little to assist his representative in gaining access to Burma.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur to Burma, Prof. Yozo Yokota, resigned from his position in April, citing a lack of political and financial backing from U.N. member states which had made it increasingly difficult to fulfill his mandate. His replacement, Rajsoomer Lallah, a former chief justice of Mauritius, was appointed in June. The SLORC had approached the U.N Human Rights Commission to put forward the name of a Filipino and refused to acknowledge Lallah's appointment.
As the internal situation deteriorated during the year, grassroots campaigns were able to push western governments into taking punitive measures to back up their rhetoric of condemnation. Following the death in custody of Leo Nichols, Denmark pushed for Europe-wide economic sanctions against Burma but failed to gain the support of Britain, France and Germany. The Danish action did result, however, in the European Union reconsidering its position on Burma, and on October 29 the E.U. adopted a new legally-binding policy which maintained the existing embargo on arms and withdrawal of military personnel from embassies in Burma, and enacted a ban on visas for senior SLORC officials and suspension of high-level bilateral visits to Burma by E.U. government officials. The policy was due to be evaluated in six months, with a view towards extending it or taking further measures in response to developments in Burma. In addition, the British government placed a moratorium on all government-sponsored trade missions to Burma, although in September the chairman of the Asia-Pacific Advisory Group, which works closely with the U.K. Department of Trade and Industry, led a private business delegation there and was assisted by the British embassy in Rangoon.
Also in Europe, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the European Trade Union Committee brought a complaint against the SLORC and its use of forced labor, under the European Commission's legislation guiding the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). The GSP program is designed to give developing countries preferential trade tariffs. The European Commission started an investigation in January, the first of its kind, and a decision was expected in January 1997. This could lead to full or partial withdrawal of GSP from Burma.
In the U.S., the administration's Burma policy continued to respond to each crisis as it occurred, with no clear direction. Even when the SLORC accepted the "surrender" of drug warlord Khun Sa and allowed him to live in freedom in Rangoon, the U.S. found few ways of reacting. A reward of US$1 million was offered for his capture, but by the year's end there was no sign that he would ever face trial in the U.S. The U.S. led the international community in condemning the arrests in May and September, and on October 5 finally took action, implementing a visa ban on certain Burmese government officials and members of the military. The May arrests and the pending sanctions legislation in Congress prompted a mission of U.S. envoys to Asian states in June. The only concrete result was an agreement for increased coordination of policy towards Burma with Japan, but ASEAN countries took offense at what they saw as transparent posturing. China did not respond to the mission.
Japan, which was widely credited with having successfully pressed for the release of Daw Suu in July 1995, was forced by events in Burma to slow down its plan to resume aid. Japan=s ambassador in Rangoon, Yoichi Yamaguchi, met with Aung San Suu Kyi several times and tried to foster a dialogue between the NLD and the SLORC.
When the Burmese government rounded up NLD members in May, Prime Minister Hashimoto quickly condemned the arrests. Japan=s foreign minister, Yukihiko Ikeda, met with Burmese Foreign Minister Ohn Gyaw at the ASEAN ministerial meetings in Jakarta in June and protested a new law enacted by Rangoon banning public gatherings. At the same time, however, Japan actively supported Burma=s bid to become a member of ASEAN.
China remained Burma's steadfast ally throughout the year, and there was also an increasing rapprochement with India and Bangladesh. In ASEAN, while economic investments from Singapore and Malaysia soared during the year, the question of Burma's entry into the regional grouping was an issue of contention. In keeping with their new economic relationship, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir and Singaporean Senior Adviser Lee Kuan Yew were the most supportive of SLORC, with Mahathir calling for Burma to be admitted as a full member of ASEAN during the July 1997 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, and Lee advising Daw Suu that she would be "impotent" if asked to lead the country. However, Thailand and the Philippines, both countries with an active and vocal community of nongovernmental organizations, voiced their concerns about the arrests in May and September, and called for a reconsideration of "constructive engagement." Their opposition did not extend to refusing Burma entry into ASEAN, but they were concerned not to rush the membership process. In November 1996 the ASEAN ministers met to reassess the timing of Burma's membership.