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Ten years after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising was crushed by the army, Burma continued to be one of the world’s pariah states. A standoff between the government and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, general secretary of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), and other expressions of nonviolent dissent resulted in more than 1,000 detentions during the year. Many were relatively brief, others led eventually to prison sentences. Human rights abuses, including extrajudicial executions, rape, forced labor, and forced relocations, sent thousands of Burmese refugees, many of them from ethnic minority groups, into Thailand and Bangladesh. The change in November 1997 from the ruling State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to the gentler-sounding State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) had little impact on human rights practices and policies; the SPDC’s euphemism for continued authoritarian control—”disciplined democracy”— indicated no change. In addition to pervasive human rights violations, an economy in free fall made life even more difficult for the beleaguered population.

Human Rights Developments
The SPDC ‘s first steps briefly raised hopes for change. In December 1997, the minister for home affairs held an unprecedented, if unproductive, meeting with NLD members. In January, the SPDC continued an unexpected anti-corruption drive that had begun in late 1997, this time extending it to the police force. Five police chiefs were forced to resign, and the Rangoon division police chief was sacked. In a seminar on the economic crisis, held in Rangoon on January 20-21, SPDC Secretary-1, Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, urged all participants to freely discuss Burma’s economic problems, the first time anyone in the military government had called for opinions.

Optimism that the government was opening up quickly waned, however. Between December and February, a new wave of arrests of political dissidents and student activists took place, and seven members of the NLD, arrested in 1997, were given longprison terms. On March 1, Khin Nyunt gave a press briefing in which he named several men, some of them students, whom he accused of having taken part in plots to assassinate SPDC leaders or otherwise disturb the peace. Of those arrested, six—Ko Thein, Khin Hlaing, Naing Aung, Thant Zaw Swe, Myint Han and Let Yar Htun—were sentenced to death for their part in alleged bomb plots. Thirty-three others were given harsh sentences, including Aung Tun, sentenced to fifteen years under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act and the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act for publishing a book describing the history of the student movement in Burma. In connection with Aung Tun’s research, veteran politician and independence hero Thakin Ohn Myint, aged eighty, was sentenced on May 5 to seven years’ imprisonment with hard labor.

In April NLD parliamentarian Daw San San, who had been arrested during the October 1997 clampdown, was sentenced to serve the remainder of a twenty-five-year jail term she had received for alleged treason in December 1990. She had been released under an amnesty in May 1992, but on condition that she did not take part in political activities. However, a radio interview she gave to the British Broadcasting Corporation in June 1997 was now claimed as “evidence” that she had broken the conditions of her release.

Tensions rose dramatically in May. On the eve of the May 27 anniversary of the 1990 election, which the NLD had won, the SPDC permitted the NLD to hold a party meeting at Aung San Suu Kyi’s Rangoon home. Over 200 NLD supporters and parliamentarians, however, were detained for having either attended the meeting or attempting to do so. Even so, those present passed a resolution demanding that a parliament be convened by August 21.

That demand triggered a crackdown which persisted as of this writing. Initially, the SPDC imposed travel restriction orders on NLD officials, using the 1961 Habitual Criminal Offenders Act, which puts repeat offenders on permanent bail, forcing them to sign in with local authorities on a daily basis. Many NLD members refused to sign in, and as a result by mid-July some seventy-nine parliamentarians were reported to have been detained.

As the arrests mounted, Aung San Suu Kyi made attempts to meet with party activists outside Rangoon. Her moves were the result of a decision by NLD leaders to risk personal safety in order to force the government to the discussion table. On June 29, Aung San Suu Kyi was among a group of NLD leaders injured in a scuffle when the military forcibly prevented a student discussion group from meeting outside her home. Subsequently, she tried to leave Rangoon four times. On July 7 and 21, she was stopped en route to visit party members and prevented from reaching her destination. On July 24, her car was stopped as she attempted to visit Bassein. This time, the stand-off lasted for six days and ended only after the military forcibly entered her car and drove her back to Rangoon. On August 12, she made another attempt to reach Bassein, and when her car was stopped at the same point, she remained inside for thirteen days with little food or water. Only a suspected kidney infection and jaundice forced her to return to Rangoon.

This was the prelude to the mass detention of NLD supporters. In mid-August, SPDC leaders held two “confidence-building” meetings with NLD officials, including the party chairman Aung Shwe. They pointedly refused, however, to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi. Then, as the NLD August 21 deadline approached, a stream of editorials in the state media accused the NLD of treason, claiming no parliament would be allowed to meet until a new constitution was drawn up. Subsequently, over 700 NLD members were detained, bringing the number of elected parliamentarians in detention to 194.

In addition to opposition politicians, students were also the target of arrests. Although the universities had remained closed since December 1996, dozens of students were reportedly arrested in sporadic demonstrations in Rangoon in August and September, including members of two student-backed organizations, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions and the Democratic Party for New Society. In September, a number of junior army officers were also reportedly detained for expressing pro-democracy sentiments, and there were reports of the arrest of Buddhist monks in the northern city of Mandalay.

Prison conditions continued to be a source of concern. In a rare event in February, the International Committee of the Red Cross was allowed to hold a seminar on health matters for Burma’s prison doctors in Rangoon. Three well-known detainees were reported to have died in custody during the year, their deaths almost certainly exacerbated by prison conditions or ill-treatment: Aung Kyaw Moe, a student leader, Thein Tin, an NLD Rangoon division organizer, and Saw Win, an NLD parliamentarian.

In ethnic minority areas, the Burmese armed forces used a mixtures of carrots and sticks to deal with ethnic discontent and armed opposition forces. In areas of armed opposition where cease-fires had been reached, local groups reported progress on development and social initiatives, especially in Kachin state. By contrast, in other war-zones there was continued fighting, with attendant grave human rights abuses. Despite repeated international condemnation, the Burmese army’s use of forced labour was widespread, confirmed in a major investigation and report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published in August ( see below).
The government stepped up its practice of targeting villagers suspected of supporting ethnic insurgents. Forced relocations were especially prevalent in the central southern Shan state, Kayah (Karenni) state, Karen state and Tenasserim division, all of which were areas where peace talks or cease-fires had broken down in the previous three years.

In addition, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a breakaway group from the rebel Karen National Union formed in late 1994 with the support of the Burmese army, renewed its terror campaign against Karen refugees in camps in Thailand. In a series of attacks on Huay Kaloke, Mawker, and Mae La refugee camps during March and April, at least four refugees were killed, over

fifty wounded,and thousands made homeless.

As of November, some 21,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Rakhine (Arakan) state were still living in the two remaining official camps in Bangladesh, with most of the 260,000 who fled from Burma in 1991-92 having been repatriated by 1997. At the same time, new refugees continued to arrive, citing forced labor and other human rights abuses, but were denied entry to the refugee camps.

The year witnessed increased surveillance and occasional arrests of foreign visitors and journalists. One man of Australian and British citizenship, James Mawdsley, was sentenced to five years for breaking immigration laws when he entered the country, withouta visa, via Thailand in April. He was eventually released as a humanitarian gesture in August. At least five freelance reporters who entered the country with tourist visas were known to have been deported (usually after they tried to make contact with Aung San Suu Kyi or NLD officers), while those who declared their profession in their applications were denied visas from the middle of the year. The SPDC attempted to block all international reporting, and NLD telephone lines were routinely tapped and cut off if foreign journalists managed to get through.





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