(New York) - The international community should demand accountability from the Burmese military government for the brutal crackdown in September 2007 on monks, activists, and other civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Repression in Burma has increased and the military government has failed to deliver on promises it made a year ago, despite international efforts at mediation.
The crackdown that began on September 26, 2007, was a brutal response to growing protests initially triggered in part by the doubling of fuel prices in mid-August 2007. In the following weeks, Buddhist monks in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other towns across Burma staged peaceful marches to protest government policies and poor living standards. Lay supporters gradually joined the marches, swelling to tens of thousands of people calling for political, economic and social reforms.
"Last September, the Burmese people courageously challenged their military rulers, and they were answered with violence and contempt," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The repression continues. While a handful of political activists have been released, more are being arrested and thousands remain in prison."
On September 23, 2008, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) announced the release of 9,002 prisoners from Burma's jails, among them seven political activists, including 78-year-old U Win Tin, a prominent activist and journalist imprisoned since 1989.
But in August and September 2008 alone, the Burmese authorities arrested an estimated 39 political activists and sentenced 21 to prison terms. On September 16, Burmese authorities arrested Nilar Thein, a prominent activist in hiding since the 2007 protests. Zargana, a famous activist and comedian, has remained in prison since July 2008 for publicly criticizing the SPDC's slow response to aid following Cyclone Nargis. The SPDC currently holds more than 2,100 political prisoners, including more than 800 arrested following the 2007 protests.
In the crackdown a year ago, Burmese security forces beat, arrested, detained and shot monks and other protesters in the streets of Rangoon. Police and plain-clothes paramilitary members arrested thousands of peaceful participants in the protests in nighttime raids on monasteries and their homes. In the following days, hundreds more were beaten, arrested and detained at makeshift detention facilities, police stations and jails.
In the most extensive documentation of the crackdown to date, Human Rights Watch documented at least 20 cases of extrajudicial killings, and dozens of beatings and arrests by riot police and army soldiers, assisted by local paramilitaries of the pro-government Union Solidarity and Development Association.
The true number of people killed may never be known, since there has been no investigation by Burmese authorities or UN investigators. The UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, made a report after his November 2007 visit, but acknowledged it was not a full investigation and recommended that the UN Human Rights Council call for investigations into the circumstances of the crackdown.
"It's a failure of the Burmese government and the international community that the perpetrators of killing, arbitrary arrests and torture during the September 2007 crackdown have not been brought to justice," Pearson said.
Instead, the SPDC has continued with its plans of pseudo-political reforms, conducting a constitutional referendum in May. The military government claims that there was a voter turnout of over 98 percent of eligible voters and that 92 percent of them endorsed a constitution that cements military rule. Human Rights Watch has reported on the human rights problems surrounding the referendum, including sharp restrictions on freedom of assembly, association, and tight controls on the media.
Since the September 2007 crackdown, the United Nations Secretary General's Special Advisor on Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, has made four visits to Burma. The SPDC made numerous promises to Gambari that is has failed to keep:
- Dialogue with the detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi did briefly resume but broke down;
- The constitutional referendum was not free and fair;
- Not all political parties are able to participate in the electoral process; and,
- The roadmap to democracy is neither credible nor inclusive.
"Despite an array of promises to the United Nations, the Burmese military government has not made good on any of them," Pearson said. "Rather than let Burma's rulers continue to engage in fruitless dialogue, the international community should demand real action."