Skip to main content

In June, Human Rights Watch issued a damning and all too resonant report on the plight of an estimated 650,000 internally displaced persons in eastern Burma, most from the large Karen minority. The Karen are part of a very grim overall picture. The human rights situation in Burma is horrible, says Brad Adams, HRW's director for Asia. Gross violations of international humanitarian law are regularly committed by government forces, including the continued recruitment and use of child soldiers, extrajudicial executions, rape of women and girls, torture, and forced relocation. Adams was recently interviewed by Dominic Faulder for The Irrawaddy.

Question: How bad is Burma's refugee problem?

Answer: Aside from Afghanistan, Burma has the largest and most chronic refugee problem in Asia. Other major refugee problems of recent times, from Cambodia and Vietnam, have long since ended. This reflects ongoing attacks and human rights violations by the Burmese army, particularly against ethnic groups. They flee to extremely poor places like Mizoram in India, Bangladesh and northwestern Thailand. They are overwhelmingly not economic migrants. Even with ceasefires in place, refugees are too scared to go back. They rightly distrust the intentions of the Tatmadaw [armed forces].

Q: Has Burma gone up or down HRW's table of miscreants?

A: We don't rank countries overall human rights situations. Each has a different history and different problems. What can be said is that Burma is one of the most repressive countries in Asia. The State Peace and Development Council appears dedicated to one thing only: staying in power. The wellbeing of individual citizens is not a concern. The military government severely restricts basic rights and freedoms. This continues despite promises which the SPDC has given everyone, particularly the political roadmap announced in 2003. I never thought the roadmap was anything but a publicity stunt, which sadly the Thai government in particular bought into. With the failed [constitution drafting] National Convention, the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and restrictions on the NLD and independent ethnic groups, there is no scenario now in which a path to democracy and national reconciliation seems possible.

Q: What are the SPDC's most egregious practices?

A: Despite the government's ratification of Order No. 1/99 in 2000, which bans forced labor, sources inside and outside of Burma continue to provide extensive reports of government-organized forced labor. These are primarily portering for military operations, construction of military bases, income generation projects for the military, infrastructure projects, and forced conscription into the military. There appears to be a direct correlation between forced labor and military activities in ethnic areas.

There are political prisoners all over the country. Freedom of expression ends the moment someone speaks critically of the government. In addition to individuals arrested for political reasons, the government continues to arbitrarily arrest and detain people for crimes such as failure to pay army taxes or to sell the required crop quota.

The SPDC does not allow domestic human rights organizations to function independently and is hostile to outside scrutiny. It refuses requests from UN Special Envoy Razali Ismail and UN Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro to visit. In short, the better question would be to ask the SPDC: What human rights do you respect?

Q: Is the situation worsening?

A: Things are certainly not improving. They aren't slaughtering students in the streets now, but thats only because students are too scared to risk that kind of public opposition. Civil and political rights are at a low ebb starting from a very low, almost nonexistent, base. Mismanagement and corruption keep the economy in a constant state of crisis and the number of extremely poor people high. A couple of years ago, enthusiasts for the regime said things were improving. It's hard to find people saying that now.

Q: Many Karen have taken refuge in Thailand as well as the larger number displaced inside Burma. Are any other minorities as badly affected?

A: The Karen are probably in the worst shape because the Karen National Union hasn't capitulated. Things are quite grim in Karen State, as we showed in our June report. But things are difficult in virtually all minority areas: Mon, Kachin, Chin, Arakan. As serious as it is, the fundamental problem of the state is not just in Rangoon with Suu Kyi and the question of elections and a new constitution. It's that most ethnic groups probably don't accept Burma as a political entity. We don't take a position on questions like this, but we do comment on human rights violations that make these things worse, as in Aceh, East Timor, Tibet, Xinjiang or Kashmir. It is hard to imagine a government in Rangoon dreaming up policies and actions that could alienate minority members of the state more completely. Even taking into account the way they've tried to buy off some groups and their leaders, the fundamental nature of their policy is the use of force and submission. It's difficult to see how this will ever lead to a stable outcome. It certainly will not lead to government by consent.

Q: Amnesty International issued a similar report to yours in the 1980s, clearly to little effect. Are reports enough?

A: With regimes that are impervious to pressure the answer is no. They have guns, we only have words. But who knows when the facts will catch up with them? It's only in retrospect that people can try to figure out what made the difference in the fall of an odious regime or relaxations that ultimately lead to genuine political liberalization. We will keep doing our job, publishing facts, trying to figure out the possible pressure points, working with other human rights advocates, until things change.

Q: The junta signed ceasefire agreements with over a dozen rebellious minorities in the aftermath of the failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising. The moving force behind those ceasefires, military intelligence chief and former prime minister Gen Khin Nyunt, has been purged. In his absence will the junta turn violently on the minorities in an attempt to distract attention from its complete incompetence?

A: Firstly, the portrayal of Khin Nyunt as a moderate always struck me as based on wishful thinking instead of evidence. I don't think people should project liberalism or even moderation on to a man who oversaw a very nasty military intelligence operation and never evinced any interest in human rights or democracy. The road map was a useful sham, nothing more, nothing less. Khin Nyunt saw agreements with ethnic groups as in the interests of the long-term continuance of power of the army. Snr-Gen Than Shwe appears to think otherwise, and we see the results now with the many military actions since Khin Nyunt was dismissed.

Q: Thailand is the country most affected by exoduses of refugees and economic migrants from Burma. Does it benefit more than it suffers from this phenomenon?

A: It's hard to say. Economically, Thailand uses a lot of cheap Burmese labor to underpin its economy. That's one reason its threats to expel illegal migrants usually fizzle out. People from Burma are generally treated very poorly and face indifference and reprisals if they complain about mistreatment at work or police abuse. There certainly are a lot of costs associated with keeping the Thai military on alert at the border. Politically, Thai policy towards its neighbors has long been to want them to be stable, but not too stable. It should want prosperous democracies as neighbors.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country