Human Rights Developments and
the Need for Continued Pressure

July 1995, Vol. 7, No. 10



“It is not yet the end. There is still a long way to go and the way might be very, very hard. So please stand by...Don’t think we are there home and dry.”—Aung San Suu Kyi

The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on July 10, 1995, a day before the end of her period of detention under Burmese law, was a welcome move on the part of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Her release comes after years of international pressure on the SLORC, including five resolutions by the U.N. General Assembly and appeals from numerous governments, including the U.S., Japan and members of the European Union (EU). These governments, and the U.N. secretary-general, were quick to send messages applauding the release, though there were distinct differences in the response of Western countries, all of whom reacted in a spirit of “cautious optimism”—as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself put it— and Asian governments, including Japan and Thailand, who welcomed the move as “substantive progress.” At the same time, diplomats in Rangoon were quick to point out that the release was a measure of SLORC’s confidence in its strength in the country and its ability to hold down the lid on dissent. Indeed, it is difficult at this early stage to know whether the release of Daw Suu will lead to an improvement in the human rights situation in Burma, or whether it may only lead to further entrenchment as the SLORC achieves its main aim of increased international investment and economic aid and, as a result, finds less and less need to heed the calls from the international community for fundamental reform.

It is perhaps too early to say which road it will take, but it is certainly far too early to reward the SLORC with further investment and bilateral or multilateral assistance. “Of course, in the long run I think we would need international investment, but I don’t think we should rush into this...I want to study the situation carefully before I can say whether I truly believe that this is the right time for investment,” said Daw Suu, speaking to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on July 12, 1995. The SLORC itself has highlighted the linkage between rising levels of international investment and the failure of international efforts to bring an end to abuses. David Abel, Burma’s minister for planning and economic development, told reporters:

Although some western countries always cite human rights or democracy, these tools have not been effective because if you look at the amount of investment, the United Kingdom and the United States are the leading investors in our country.

Indeed, while other members of the National League for Democracy (NLD)—the political party Daw Suu founded—have been free to meet with Daw Suu at her home, and the crowds gathering outside her house have thus far faced no harassment, no other political prisoners have been released. Human Rights Watch/Asia estimates that at least 1,000 political prisoners remain in Burmese jails, including sixteen members of parliament elected in 1990. Moreover, by July 18, there had been no contact between Daw Suu and ranking members of the SLORC. On July 7, just days before the release, secretary-1 of the SLORC, Gen. Khin Nyunt, gave a speech outlining the “political, social and economic objectives” of the government in which he implied that Daw Suu would not be released and that the military planned to continue running the country. The following day, the government-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, carried an article titled “Destiny of the Nation - No.24,” which was a scathing attack on Daw Suu and her husband, British scholar Michael Aris. The article alleged that Daw Suu had “slandered the Tatmadaw [the armed forces] her father had founded to the point of opposing it, which was not a happy augury. She even misled those who had been supporting her with their eyes shut.” It also implied that in 1990, when the SLORC allowed the general election to take place without any interference, the NLD was “found to have resorted to unfair means to win the elections. Mobs coerced voters into casting their ballots to particular candidates. Whole communities were threatened to vote for party candidates if they did not want their homes to get burnt down.” The article claimed that the fact that the NLD nevertheless remained a legally recognized party was “an illustration of generosity.” These statements would suggest that Daw Suu and the NLD remain as threats in the eyes of the SLORC and that there is a long way to go before the human rights situation in Burma will improve.

Even though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been released, the overall human rights situation in Burma is worsening. On June 16, 1995, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that it will close its office in Rangoon later in July after the failure of negotiations to allow the organization access to Burma’s detention centers. Offensives have been renewed against ethnic minority groups, including the Karenni Nationalities People’s Party, which had signed a cease-fire with the SLORC as recently as March 1995. In areas where fighting has resumed, tens of thousands of villagers have been forcibly taken from their homes and fields to work for the army. Many have died from beatings and exhaustion. After the fall of the Karen National Union headquarters in January 1995, a breakaway group of ethnic Karen Buddhists, called the Democratic Buddhist Karen Organization (DKBO), which has an informal alliance with the Burmese army, attacked refugee camps in Thailand, killing several refugees and Thai villagers and abducting scores of others. In a further sign of regression on the human rights front, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities across Burma has increased during 1995. These communities have been forcibly relocated into government-controlled villages, while religious buildings and land have been confiscated. In Arakan State, from which 270,000 Muslims fled during 1991 and 1992, reports of forced labor and forced relocations of Muslims have continued. As the SLORC has moved to attract international investment, at least two million people have been forced to work for no pay under brutal conditions to rebuild Burma’s long neglected infrastructure.

The international community has long recognized that the detention of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was only one in a long list of abuses which the SLORC has been called on to address in successive U.N. resolutions. On December 13, 1994, at the United Nations, member countries passed by consensus the toughest resolution to date on Burma calling not only for the immediate release of Daw Suu and all political prisoners but demanding that SLORC undertake a series of other reforms. But there has also been an apparent softening in bilateral relations, with Western countries becoming the largest investors in Burma. The foreign minister of Japan announced on July 11 that he was willing to start talks with the Burmese government on the resumption of official loans and that he would visit Rangoon as early as August. Japan had already renewed aid to Burma and provided insurance credit for its companies investing there. China has continued its massive financial and diplomatic support to the SLORC, and Burma’s other neighbors, anxious about China’s dominance, have also sought closer relationships with the SLORC under a policy of “constructive engagement.” This policy is aimed at increasing economic ties while occasionally calling for further economic and political reform.



Human Rights Watch/Asia believes that following the release of Daw Suu, there are several steps that the SLORC must take in order to improve the human rights situation in Burma. First, all political prisoners, including elected representatives, should be unconditionally released. Second, the ICRC should be granted unrestricted access to Burma’s prisoners. Third, laws which restrict freedom of association, assembly and political participation must be repealed. In addition, forced labor in all its forms must be abolished and access by independent monitors permitted to verify this.

We urge the international community to respond to the release of Daw Suu by engaging in dialogue with SLORC about what specific steps they will take to implement the U.N.’s resolutions, while at the same time initiating direct, ongoing contacts with Daw Suu in order to discuss the human rights situation, and strongly supporting the efforts of the U.N. secretary-general. Any talks with SLORC should not take place without parallel discussions with Suu Kyi regarding the human rights situation in Burma. These diplomatic contacts must be accompanied by internationally coordinated measures to continue and increase pressure on SLORC to undertake fundamental human rights reforms. Some of these measures might be announced at the upcoming meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Brunei, beginning on July 29. Burmese foreign minister Ohn Gyaw has accepted an invitation to attend the meeting as a “guest” of the host country.

These measures should include, for example, a freeze on all future private investment until and unless forced labor in Burma has ended; continued suspension of bilateral assistance and a clear statement from the donor countries of the World Bank that multilateral assistance cannot be resumed until basic human rights and political reforms are undertaken and verified; a decision by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to conduct a Commission of Inquiry into forced labor; and a concerted effort to stigmatize China for its role as SLORC’s major arms provider.

In addition, the international community should closely monitor developments in Burma triggered by Daw Suu’s release and should respond promptly and vigorously to any attempts by SLORC to intimidate, harass, detain or restrict the activities of Burmese citizens (including Daw Suu’s party members and supporters) seeking to exercise their internationally recognized rights of freedom of association, expression and assembly. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights should urgently consider dispatching its Special Rapporteur for Burma to visit the country as soon as possible and should also explore the possibility of posting a continuing human rights monitoring presence in Burma.



Summary of Recommendations

Political Prisoners
The Political Process
The National Convention
Forced Labor
Discrimination Against Minorities

The Renewed Offensive in the Karen State
The Offensive Against Khun Sa

The United Nations
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)
The United States

To the State Law and Order Restoration Council
To the International Community



Human Rights Watch      July 1995      Vol. 7, No. 10

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