Human Rights Developments
The military government in Burma, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, intensified political repression in the wake of the opposition's landslide victory in elections for a new National Assembly held in May 1990. Soon after taking power in September 1988, following an unprecedented nationwide uprising against the 26-year-old rule of General Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party in which security forces are believed to have killed an estimated 3,000 to 10,000 protestors, SLORC promised to deliver power to a civilian government as soon as elections could be organized.
In May, the first multiparty elections in Burma in thirty years were held, with the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), winning an overwhelming majority. Although the balloting itself is thought to have been relatively free and fair, tight martial-law restrictions prevented any real campaigning by political parties, and many party activists reported constant harassment by military authorities. SLORC also refused to consider releasing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin U, the NLD's top leaders, who had been arrested in July 1989 and were later barred from contesting the elections.
Despite the government's initial promise of a rapid transfer of power, SLORC soon backtracked and insisted that a new constitution would first have to be drafted and approved in a general referendum -- a process which some say may take several years. The NLD, in a resolution adopted in late July by its elected representatives, called for an immediate transfer of power under an interim constitution. SLORC responded to this challenge by arresting the NLD's acting leader, U Kyi Maung, and other senior party officials.
SLORC continues to rule through martial law, having abolished the 1974 Constitution and established military tribunals with sole jurisdiction over suspected political offenders and violations of martial-law regulations. Gatherings of more than four people are banned. Travel overnight beyond one's own township must be reported to township military authorities. Political freedom is virtually nonexistent, with the written press, television and radio owned and controlled by the military, and perceived anti-government activities punishable by one of three sentences: three years' imprisonment, life imprisonment or death. Fearing renewed unrest, the government has kept all universities and most secondary schools closed for the third year in a row. The total number of prisoners held for peaceful opposition to SLORC is unknown, but diplomats in Rangoon have put the number conservatively at over 3,000, with other estimates running as high as 30,000. SLORC is reported to be building or to have built a large detention camp in the Putao Valley, near the Tibetan border, for new political prisoners. In 1989, a leaked cable from then US Ambassador Burt Levin noted that one group of political prisoners had been chained together and marched from the town of Taunggyi into the jungle; it was later reported that the group had been taken to work in government-owned mines.
Torture of political prisoners is believed to be routine and has included severe beatings, electric shock, immersion in water for long periods, sleep deprivation, peeling off skin by rubbing wood or bamboo repeatedly against a person's shins, and applying salt or curry powder to wounds made with a knife or bayonet. On at least two occasions in 1990, political prisoners died shortly after being released from custody. In May, the family of a student who had been beaten to death was reportedly not allowed to see his body because of its mutilated condition. In November, U Maung Ko, a senior NLD official, was believed to have been beaten to death shortly after being arrested. Although authorities claimed that he had committed suicide after interrogation, his family stated that they doubted the official story and that his body bore marks of torture.
On August 8, the second anniversary of the 1988 uprising, large crowds demonstrated in Rangoon and several other towns for a transfer of power and the release of all political prisoners. In Mandalay, security forces fired on protestors, killing at least four people, including two Buddhist monks. Buddhist monks in Mandalay and other towns responded by refusing to perform religious services for members of the armed forces or their families. In mid-September, SLORC began to crack down on dissident monks, arresting hundreds and raiding over a dozen monasteries in Mandalay alone. At the same time, NLD offices in Rangoon and elsewhere were shut down and over 20 senior officials of the NLD, including elected National Assembly representatives, were arrested and imprisoned.
In late 1989 and early 1990, well over 500,000 people were forcefully evicted from their homes in Rangoon and other large towns and moved to isolated tracts in the countryside, for the most part areas without electricity, running water or proper sanitation. They were given short notice of the move, compelled to move to designed areas and often not given any compensation. It was widely believed that these forced relocations reflected SLORC's attempt to lessen the possibility of renewed unrest in urban areas.
In the meantime, SLORC continued efforts to achieve a military victory in the Burmese army's 40-year war against ethnic minority rebels. In early 1990, the army overran a number of rebel bases along the Thai border, sending 20,000 new refugees into Thailand. The Burmese army was reported to have killed, tortured or raped numerous civilians in ethnic minority areas during the 1989-1990 cold-weather offensive, but no accurate statistics were available. The Burmese army also forcefully rounded up hundreds and perhaps thousands of civilians to use as porters, carrying army supplies without adequate food or water, or as human minesweepers, walking ahead of army troops.
The new influx of Burmese refugees in Thailand brings the total to over 40,000, including 2,000 Burmese students who had fled Rangoon and other towns after the 1988 crackdown. In addition, there are believed to be tens of thousand of other Burmese "illegal immigrants" in Thailand whose reasons for leaving Burma are not know but who have been routinely repatriated by Thai immigration authorities. Thailand on at least five occasions, in March, June, July, September and November, forcefully repatriated a total of at least 2,000 refugees and "illegal immigrants." On all five occasions, it is believed that many or all of the returned people were arrested by Burmese security forces and may then have been used as porters or human minesweepers during army operations.
The Bush administration has continued its policy of suspending all assistance to Burma until power is transferred to an elected government, as well as of speaking out against human rights abuses. Calling SLORC a "xenophobic know-nothing group that maintains itself in power through sheer force," the administration has made clear its support for democratic change.
Prior to August 1988, the US government provided modest assistance of approximately $10 million annually, mostly for antinarcotics programs, including helicopters and herbicides.
In the wake of the crackdown, the United States not only suspended assistance but also actively encouraged other countries to do the same, especially Japan, Burma's largest donor. In addition, since September 1988, the US embassy in Rangoon has tried to minimize high-level contacts with the Burmese government, while lodging numerous private protests over human rights abuses. The United States has also tried quietly to discourage countries from selling arms to Burma and has itself imposed a de facto embargo on arms sales.
In early 1990, the chapter on Burma in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices focused attention on the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of people from Rangoon and other towns to the countryside, and the US embassy worked to collect information on the condition of the resettled communities.
The administration spoke out on several occasions against the repressive conditions surrounding the May election campaign and the continued detention of NLD leaders U Tin U and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. For example, on January 25, the State Department announced that the banning of leading opposition candidates coupled with "continuing human rights abuses including restrictions on political activities and debate all disturbingly point to the regime's intention to control the elections it has so repeatedly promised would be free and fair."
Nevertheless, the administration welcomed the final election results and expressed hope that SLORC would respect the opposition victory and transfer power. The State Department stated that the Burmese people "are to be congratulated for their courage and determination in the face of oppression" and warned that any refusal to transfer power was "bound to intensify the regime's domestic difficulties and international isolation."
In October, the Burmese government suddenly withdrew its agreement to accept the appointment of Frederick Vreeland, who was to have succeeded Burton Levin as US ambassador to Burma. The Burmese change of heart followed some controversy within the United States about Vreeland's career as a covert CIA official and, particularly, the White House's initial decision not to reveal his CIA background. Nevertheless, it appeared that the Burmese decision not to accept Vreeland's nomination was based on his testimony during his confirmation hearings in which he expressed support for a strong line against human rights abuses in Burma and said that US economic sanctions seemed "inevitable" in light of continued repression. By the end of 1990, the White House had not yet nominated anyone else to the post, effectively reducing the US presence in Burma to the level of chargé d'affairs.
In August, Congress passed legislation calling on the administration to impose sanctions on Burma if, by October 1, a transfer of power, a release of all political prisoners and other conditions had not been met. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, does not, however, require the administration to impose sanctions, and leaves to the administration's discretion the sort of sanctions to impose. In October, at a press briefing, the State Department said that it was "considering an embargo" but has not given other details. The US has reportedly tried to interest other countries in sanctions, particularly Japan and the EEC countries, but their response was unclear at year's end.
The US embassy in Bangkok demonstrated increased concern in 1990 over the situation of Burmese asylum-seekers in Thailand. Nevertheless, the embassy did not publicly criticize a number of forced repatriations -- some without any judicial proceeding -- which took place during the year. Furthermore, the US embassy has, by and large, limited its concern to Burmese students seeking asylum in Thailand and not to the much larger group of refugees in Ranong, in southern Thailand, including ethnic minority villagers and Burmese workers, who have been handed over to Burmese security forces and reportedly have faced severe mistreatment, including detention or forced porter service. Given the refugees' increasingly precarious situation in Thailand and the lack of a strong Thai government position on their situation, increased US attention could be very important for ensuring the protection of Burmese asylum seekers in Thailand.
Although antinarcotics assistance was suspended together with all other assistance in 1988, the US Drug Enforcement Agency as well as others in the administration are reported to have recommended a limited resumption of aid related to antidrug efforts. Resuming such assistance would send an unfortunate message of support to the Burmese government at a time when its human rights record is significantly worsening. There are also increasing reports of official Burmese complicity in drug production and trafficking.
The Work of Asia Watch
In March, Asia Watch issued a newsletter condemning continuing Burmese human rights abuses, particularly the banning of opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from the May elections and ongoing restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly. The same month, Asia Watch circulated a letter to the Burmese government from parliamentarians of several countries, including the US, Japan and India, condemning a wide range of human rights violations.
In May, on the eve of the general elections, Asia Watch issued a detailed report of human rights conditions in Burma, based on an investigative mission into Burma and to the Thai border areas. The report concluded that whatever took place on election day itself, the complete lack of political freedom in the country and the harassment and detention of political activists called into doubt whether the elections could be considered "free and fair."
Asia Watch called on the Burmese government to release all political prisoners; establish impartial investigations into all reports of torture, disappearance and other gross abuses, and prosecute those responsible; abolish the practice of incommunicado detention and establish safeguards against torture; suspend the use of military tribunals; withdraw all restrictions on basic civil liberties; abolish the use of forced porters for the army; establish independent investigations into reports of army abuses in the border conflict; and permit international organizations that operate confidentially and international relief organizations the full range of their protection activities.
In August, Asia Watch released another newsletter on the continuation of human rights abuses after the elections. It noted that SLORC had made no significant move toward a transfer of power to the elected National Assembly and that the human rights situation had deteriorated even further, with the shooting deaths of several demonstrators on August 8. Asia Watch again called on SLORC to respect the results of the May elections and immediately release all political prisoners.
In June, an Asia Watch press release drew attention to the forced repatriation of approximately 300 Burmese refugees from Thailand to Burma's Myawaddy township, and to the reported detention and mistreatment of these refugees upon their return by Burmese security forces.
Asia Watch has repeatedly called on the United States to continue to support human rights in Burma and, in particular, to impose economic sanctions in line with the Moynihan amendment. Asia Watch believes that sanctions could only help quicken the process of democratic change in Burma, especially if the US mobilized its allies to participate as well. After the Vreeland nomination was withdrawn, Asia Watch urged the Bush administration to ensure that the next nominee for ambassador to Burma would be someone equally committed to human rights concerns.
Throughout the year, Asia Watch worked in support of efforts to denounce Burmese human rights abuses before the United Nations General Assembly in New York and the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In particular, Asia Watch expressed its strong support for the appointment by the Human Rights Commission of a special rapporteur or independent expert to investigate the human rights situation in Burma. When the Commission did appoint an expert, Sadako Ogata, the Burmese government allowed her into the country in November but tried to deny her access to all but government-appointed sources. Asia Watch issued a public statement criticizing SLORC for obstructing the mission. Asia Watch also helped lobby for passage of a resolution, sponsored by Sweden at the General Assembly, expressing concern over the Burmese government's failure to transfer power to elected representatives, calling for a release of all political prisoners, and asking the Secretary General to report on the situation. Action on the resolution was deferred until the 1991 General Assembly session.