(New York) - As the United Nations General Assembly this week begins its annual consideration of human rights in Burma, Human Rights Watch urges U.N. member states to call on the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to immediately and unconditionally release opposition supporters and to ease restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

During the last three months, more than 200 members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) elected to parliament in 1990, as well as hundreds of local NLD organizers, students, and members of ethnic minorities suspected of being NLD supporters, have been arrested or detained for peaceful political activity. While over one hundred have been released, 544 NLD members were still in detention as of early November by the government's own count. The NLD has accused the authorities of forcing those in detention to answer questions on their political beliefs, sign statements that they do not support the NLD leadership, and charging those who refuse with a variety of different crimes. On October 21, further concerns about custodial treatment were raised when fifty-three-year-old U Aung Min, head of the NLD's Mandalay division office, died suddenly after forty-five days in detention from what the authorities described as "lymph-gland cancer." He was previously being reported to be in good health.

The SPDC says it was forced to take draconian measures such as mass arrests because the NLD had embarked on a political confrontation that could destabilize the country. The real aim, however, appears to be to quash all signs of dissent, even as international concern over developments in Burma is growing. In September and October, the European Union called for tougher sanctions against Burma, including the banning of even transit visas for SPDC officials. The U.K. government called for Burma's expulsion from the International Labor Organization in protest against its continued use of forced labor. The World Bank severed financial relations with the SPDC for Burma's failure to repay past loans. A report issued in September by Justice Rajsoomer Lallah, Special Rapporteur on Burma for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, was a devastating critique of the country's human rights practices. On October 7, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, deplored the "intensifying wave of repression" and urged the SPDC government "to undertake a process of reconciliation with the opposition and cooperate fully with the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations." And in late October, U.N. special envoy Alvaro de Soto visited Rangoon in an effort to see whether the political impasse that led to the crackdown could be broken. Two weeks later, that question remained unanswered.

Background to the Crackdown

The arrests were triggered by the NLD's announcement that it would give the SPDC until August 21 to allow the parties that had won the 1990 elections to convene a "people's parliament" in line with the poll results. The NLD was the overwhelming winner in those elections, but the military government never allowed the elected parliament to meet. Instead, it continued to insist that political reform had to be preceded by constitutional change, and that change could only be debated or introduced by its own hand-picked National Convention, instituted in January 1993 by the then State Law and Order Council (SLORC), the SPDC's predecessor in name.

The NLD withdrew, and was subsequently banned, from the convention in November 1995, in protest against pervasive restrictions on freedom of expression and association. Subsequent attempts at rapprochement came to nothing. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders therefore asserted that they had only set the August 21 deadline after eight years of trying to initiate meaningful dialogue with the government.

The government responded to the ultimatum by intensifying security operations around the country, arguing that any attempt to convene a parliament would be illegal without a new constitution in place. Aung San Suu Kyi herself twice staged roadside protests in her vehicle for a total of eighteen days after she was blocked by security forces during a series of attempts to travel outside Rangoon. Only ill-health forced her return to the capital. At the same time, growing numbers of local party members were detained or forced to report daily to the district authorities to prevent them from traveling to any parliamentary meetings. Official visas to foreign journalists were also halted, and eighteen foreign visitors (from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, the U.S. and Australia) were sentenced to five-year jail terms under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, then deported from the country, after being accused of handing out "subversive literature" commemorating the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations.

The crisis then rapidly worsened in late August and early September when the SPDC launched the most sustained crackdown on the NLD and other pro-democracy groups since shortly after the 1990 election. Over 1,000 opposition supporters were detained in a campaign of mass arrests, some for relatively short periods. Subsequently, state television and the government's Internet website showed pictures of a number of the detained parliamentarians at government guesthouses where, it was claimed, they were being well-cared for after being "invited by the government to ask for their cooperation to help maintain the current peace, stability and development of the nation."

On September 14, eighty-five-year-old Thakin Khin Nyunt, the parliamentarian elected in 1990 from Yenanchaung constituency, was released as a humanitarian gesture, but the same day the NLD reported that other party members were being detained or charged with crimes, including U Kyi Toe and U Aung Than Nyunt of the NLD's Chauk Township Organizing Committee, who both, the NLD stated, received seven years' imprisonment with hard labor under Article 16 of the Penal Code, apparently for the "crime" of distributing NLD materials.

The political crisis then intensified on September 16 after the NLD decided on the formation of a ten-person "Committee Representing the People's Parliament" (CRPP). Except for Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, and U Aye Thar Aung (an ethnic minority representative), the members were all elected parliamentarians. Claiming the mandate of over 50 percent of the parliamentarians elected in 1990 (251 of the 485 MPs), the CRPP began to act like a legislative body. It first announced that all laws decreed by the SLORC/SPDC since 1988 were invalid unless approved by the people's parliament. To legalize its existence, the CRPP then approved the 1990 election law, but it swiftly moved on to repealing what it described as "repressive" legislation from earlier political eras, singling out the widely-used 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and the 1975 State Protection Law, both of which the CRPP "revoked" on September 28. It also criticized what it described as the government's "violations of the law," including the misuse of the Penal Code, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, and the 1961 Habitual Criminal Offenders Act to detain or restrict NLD members. The CRPP has also called for the right for the NLD to hold public meetings and for the amendment of the Citizens' Rights Protection Law to include the protection of basic rights of individuals vis-a-vis the state.

To date, the SPDC has taken no direct action against the CRPP, which it terms the "Gang of Ten." It does, however, regard the creation of the CRPP as one of several "whimsical" measures taken by the NLD that it sees as endangering the government's political and economic reform process, and has justified the mass detentions accordingly.

Commentaries in the official Burmese-language media have been far more vitriolic. The NLD has been repeatedly accused of treachery, and Aung San Suu Kyi has been personally attacked and accused of foreign allegiances, largely on account of having a British husband. Such attacks have been repeated at government-organized rallies across the country, where representatives of different citizens' groups have denounced the NLD. The denunciations are then frequently broadcast on state television. At one rally at Keng Tung in the eastern Shan state on October 8, speakers called for the deportation of Aung San Suu Kyi and accused the NLD, the "minion of neo-colonialists," of "inciting unrest" with foreign assistance to try and gain power. At another rally on October 20 in Sittwe, Rakhine state, speakers accused Aung San Suu Kyi of a "wicked scheme" to obtain power through "impoverishing the people" by calling for international trade boycotts.

Ethnic Minorities

The loyalty of Burma's ethnic minorities has also become a key issue between the NLD and the government. In late September, the government warned that the NLD's campaign to convene parliament could lead to the "disintegration of the Union" by causing distrust between the government and ethnic minority peoples, who make up an estimated third of the country's 48 million population. In announcing the people's parliament, the NLD claimed that it had the support of four ethnic nationality parties which together had won forty-one seats in the 1990 election: the Arakan (or Rakhine) League for Democracy, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, Mon National Democracy Front, and the Zomi National Congress. These four parties were also represented in the CRPP. As a result, a number of ethnic minority parliamentarians were reported to have been taken into detention during the crackdown, including eighty-year-old Dr. Saw Mra Aung of the Arakan League for Democracy, who has been named chairman of the people's parliament by the CRPP, and Nai Ngwe Thein, Dr. Min Soe Lin, and Dr. Min Kyi Win of the Mon National Democracy Front. The last three have since been charged under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, according to opposition sources.

Pressures on ethnic minority groups further escalated when the NLD/CRPP announced that four different ethnic groups that had concluded ceasefire agreements with the government—the Karenni Nationalities People's Liberation Front, Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organization, Kayan New Land Party, and New Mon State Party—also supported the NLD's parliamentary call. The agreement of ceasefires with most of the country's major ethnic insurgent organizations has been one of the military government's most-publicized achievements since 1989. The CRPP's claim of ethnic minority support thus prompted the SPDC to repeatedly urge the ceasefire groups to publicly reject the NLD's people's parliament. Eventually, over a dozen parties did so, although many were clearly reluctant to take sides in a struggle they privately wanted the NLD and SPDC to resolve between themselves. Said the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in an official statement on October 6: "The KIO emphatically suggests that various parties and organizations, which have different viewpoints, eradicate bitterness and emnity through processes of coordination, thereby reaching an agreement to cooperate, in the interest of the Union and the entire people."

Students and NGOs

The clearest evidence of the SPDC's intention to quash any opposition came with the October 7 press statement by Col. Thein Swe of the Office of Strategic Studies. Claiming a complex conspiracy "to incite anarchy" on the part of the NLD, student organizations, armed opposition groups and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the military authorities announced that fifty-four people, including twenty-three NLD members and some students, had been arrested. The SPDC's accusations, and the arrests of the students, were made after several small student protests broke out in Rangoon during August and September. At the time, the authorities appeared to be trying to reopen the country's universities, which had been closed since earlier student demonstrations in December 1996. The SPDC therefore charged that the NLD and other democracy activists were using the students as a cover to try and cause greater volatility and support for the people's parliament.

In fact, eyewitnesses contended that most of the protests were over local student grievances, especially those at Rangoon Institute of Technology where returning students discovered that they would immediately be required to sit exams without time for study or revision. Indeed, even in the SPDC's published accusations there is no evidence that those arrested were involved in anything other than peaceful political activities.

The government has not released the names of any of those detained, but, according to opposition sources, those arrested include Tun Myint Aung, Myo Min Zaw, Yan Aung Soe, and Thet Win Aung, who were members or allies of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), and the NLD parliamentarians, U Toe Bo from Yebyu Constituency, and U Soe Myint of Minbu Constituency-1, who was also librarian at Aung San Suu Kyi's Rangoon compound. In his statement, Col. Thein Swe attempted to connect these people to a line of instructions from underground or armed opposition groups along the Thai-Burma border, including the Democratic Party for New Society, All Burma Students Democratic Front, and Karen National Union.

Student groups in Burma, however, claim that the latest arrests mark the acceleration of a government clampdown on a new generation of students. The security services previously had concentrated on the 1988 generation of pro-democracy students, whose leader, Min Ko Naing, remains in prison amid continuing concerns about his state of health. Following the arrest early this year of the ABFSU central committee member Aung Tun, who had been writing a history of the student movement, the authorities began detaining individuals and breaking up literary groups or circles, a popular vehicle by which students have traditionally met and organized. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma, Aung Tun was sentenced to fifteen years' imprisonment in March under Article 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law. The Special Rapporteur also reported that another student leader, Aung Kyaw Moe, who was serving a 14 year jail term in Thayawaddy Prison, died in the prison hospital on May 23 "after being beaten by prison authorities." The ABFSU itself calculates as many as 500 students have been detained in recent months and has provided Human Rights Watch with the names of sixty-five students and NLD youth members whom it believes are currently detained.

The SPDC has also accused the international media and four foreign NGOs—the Open Society Institute of the international financier George Soros, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the US-based National Endowment for Democracy and the Canadian International Center for Human Rights and Democratic Development—of supporting the recent unrest and protests, principally through assistance to border-based groups, expatriates and individuals in Thailand. "NGOs in the name of democracy are using all possible devious means and exerting all kinds of pressure to destabilize the internal situation," said Col. Thein Swe. This is a charge the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) swiftly denied.

In short, after three months of escalating tensions and constant security pressures, the human rights situation remains grim, and the political situation remains deadlocked. The prospects for a genuine dialogue between government and opposition have dimmed over the issue of Aung San Suu Kyi's participation in any talks. The SPDC regards her as "an unelected private citizen" and "celebrity" whom it would be inappropriate to include in official meetings. The NLD, according to the government, is insisting that she take part in any talks. As long as the impasse remains unresolved, the arrest, detention, and intimidation of NLD members and supporters is likely to continue.