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Human Rights Developments

Burma (Myanmar) in 1992 remained one of the human rights disasters in Asia. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi continued under house arrest, and an unknown number of political dissidents remained in prison. Reports of military abuses against members of ethnic minority groups were frequent. Certain positive measures were taken by Burma's military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (slorc), such as the release of several hundred alleged political prisoners and slorc's accession to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. But the changes were largely superficial, and human rights violations persisted unchecked.

The year began with one of the most intensive dry-season offensives ever mounted by Burmese troops against the minorities living along the borders of Thailand, China and Bangladesh. By June, over 300,000 refugees from Arakan State, most of them members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, had fled into Bangladesh, with horrifying accounts of rape, forced labor and religious persecution. The Burmese government claimed that the Bengali-speaking refugees were illegal immigrants and never belonged in Burma in the first place.

In early April, Jan Eliasson, the U.N. Secretary General's new humanitarian relief coordinator, went to Bangladesh and Burma to discuss the crisis, visit the border area, and secure the safe and voluntary return of the refugees. Shortly afterward, Burma and Bangladesh reached an agreement that set the terms for the repatriation but contained no provisions for international monitoring on the Burmese side of the border. The repatriationwas to begin May 15, but the first refugees did not return until September 22, when 47 refugees were sent back without the knowledge of the Bangladesh office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (unhcr). A second group of 63 returned on October 12, this time after having been interviewed by unhcr officials. Although the latter were able to verify that the return of the 63 was indeed voluntary, there were no international monitors on the Burmese side to ensure that those repatriated would not be persecuted.

As of November, the Bangladeshi government had submitted to the Burmese government a list of 125,635 names of refugees it wished to repatriate; the Burmese government agreed to accept 13,060 names on the list, but neither the unhcr nor the Bangladeshi government was aware of the criteria used to select those deemed "eligible for repatriation." There is no indication that those named on the list had agreed to return. In response to domestic pressure on the Bangladeshi government to resolve the refugee issue, the repatriation was speeded up in November and nearly 1,000 people were sent back on November 25, some of them against their will, according to unhcr and relief workers.

slorc announced on April 28 the suspension of its fighting with the Karen insurgents. Although fighting did stop through the rainy season, by September Burmese troops had resumed military operations against the Karen, an ethnic minority living in a province adjoining northwest Thailand. The war sent hundreds of refugees into Thailand with accounts of forced labor, forcible relocations of entire villages, and summary executions. At the same time, Burmese troops reportedly built up their forces around the Mon territory in southeastern Burma, and accelerated operations against the Karenni, yet another ethnic group living along the northern Thai border. At the end of the year, minority leaders and relief workers were preparing for the possibility of a heavy influx of refugees, many from the estimated 100,000 internally displaced in Burma.

slorc made a concerted effort to improve its pariah image by making several superficial political changes. None substantially altered the repressive nature of the government. In April, General Than Shwe replaced General Saw Maung as prime minister, chair of slorc and Armed Forces commander-in-chief. Prior to his appointment, General Than Shwe was deputy commander of the Defense Service and army chief and known to be unswervingly loyal to Burmese strongman Ne Win who remained in control of the government even after his formal resignation in July 1988.

Also in April, slorc issued Declaration No. 11/92, announcing that political detainees who posed no threat to state security would be promptly released. The statement was the first acknowledgment by slorc that it held political prisoners. By late 1992, over 300 prisoners had been released, including at least 33 who had been elected to parliament in May 1990, but it was not clear that all 300 were political prisoners.

Declaration 11/92 also stated that "slorc will hold talks with the leaders of elected representatives from legal standing political parties and independent representatives within two months and that a national convention will be called within sixmonths in order to lay down basic principles to draw up a firm constitution." Over 100 of those elected to parliament in May 1990 had already been disqualified for a variety of spurious reasons. Of the 366 members of parliament who had not been disqualified, 29 were selected to participate in the first so-called "talks" held in June and July to discuss who would be invited to the national convention. Declaration 11/92 seemed to be an attempt to answer charges by the international community that slorc was making no progress toward handing power over to the parliament elected in May 1990, but slorc clearly had no intention of overseeing a transition to civilian rule. Indeed, on October 3, slorc announced that any new constitution would ensure "participation of the armed forces in the leading role of national politics."

Aung San Suu Kyi, now in her fourth year of house arrest, was allowed family visits for the first time in June and July 1992. However, in an interview with the BBC in Rangoon, Major General Khin Nyunt made clear that there was no role for her in Burmese politics and that the government had not changed its attitude toward her.

On August 24, Burma acceded to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. However, by the end of the year, the International Committee of the Red Cross (icrc) still was not permitted to visit prisons or provide medical or other humanitarian services to those in areas affected by the conflict between the Burmese military and various ethnic insurgencies.

Universities and colleges were reopened in August, after slorc had forced all university teachers back to school earlier in the year for courses on how to enforce discipline. The course included a loyalty test, and those who failed were fired. Over the year, according to the government-run newspaper, Working People's Daily, 160 lecturers from Rangoon University and 50 doctors from the Ministry of Health were fired on loyalty grounds.

The Right To Monitor

The United Nations Human Rights Commission passed a resolution on March 3, condemning Burma for human rights violations and appointing a Special Rapporteur to give a public report to the next meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Commission. However, the rapporteur, Professor Yozo Yokota, was not granted permission by slorc to visit Burma until December 1992.

No domestic human rights organizations are allowed to exist, nor is independent monitoring permitted within the country.

U.S. Policy

The Bush administration in 1992 issued strong public condemnations of Burma's human rights practices, labeling the government one of the worst violators in the world. It also took some steps to increase international political pressure on slorc-particularly among Burma's Southeast Asian partners-as well as to respond to the refugee crisis on the Bangladeshi border. However, the administration failed to impose any new economicsanctions against Burma or to push slorc's Chinese sponsors to stop supplying arms.

The State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices in 1991, issued in January 1992, noted that slorc had taken "further steps in 1991 to prolong its rule until a constitution and civilian leadership acceptable to the military can be produced. Such preconditions could well take years to fulfill." Later in 1992, the administration expressed skepticism toward slorc's "dialogue" with certain political groups. While acknowledging slorc's limited reforms, including the release of some political prisoners, the U.S. government continued to call for the release of all political figures, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the establishment of a democratically elected, civilian government. The State Department also publicly condemned the harsh sentences given to eight students sentenced by military tribunals in September.

The Administration once again refused to certify Burma for anti-narcotics assistance. The State Department's 1992 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report said that Burma was the largest source of opium and heroin worldwide, and that the production of illicit drugs has doubled since slorc took power.

At the United Nations Human Rights Commission, the U.S. government actively supported the resolution on Burma. The administration also indicated its commitment to press for passage of a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly in December.

Congress urged the Bush administration to take additional measures to isolate Burma. A Senate resolution adopted on May 19 took note of Chinese arms sales to Burma, a European Community (ec) arms embargo, and the ec's decision to withdraw military attaches from Rangoon, in urging the President to seek an international arms embargo. It also asked him to instruct the Secretary of State to "call privately and publicly for an end to China's military sales and economic support to Burma until such time as all political prisoners are unconditionally released." A similar resolution was passed by the House on June 2, urging the President to "seek a mandatory arms embargo on Burma." The House action was sponsored by Representative Stephen Solarz, who said such an embargo could help end the military assault driving refugees across Burma's borders, and that concern about Chinese arms "appears to be shared by most governments in the region." While the administration had imposed a ban on U.S. arms to Burma following the 1988 crackdown, it did not pursue international action because of its reluctance to confront China.

A House Foreign Affairs Committee bipartisan staff delegation traveled to the region in April and issued a report making recommendations for U.S. policy, including the option of comprehensive economic sanctions on trade and investment. But the Administration explicitly ruled out any restrictions on U.S. investment in Burma when its new Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, William Clark, was questioned by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The Administration currently has no further economic sanctions under active consideration," Clark said. "We should not take unilateral,purely symbolic actions which harm U.S. business interests and which the Burmese regime can ignore without difficulty." In fact, there were additional U.S. investments in Burma in 1992, including two oil contracts signed in June. The State Department failed to see the utility of U.S. sanctions as part of a broader effort to encourage Burma's largest trading partners, especially Japan and Southeast Asian nations, to take similar steps. The Australian government, acting on its own initiative, discussed with the U.S. the possibility of implementing trade and economic sanctions, but as of November 1992 no concrete actions had been taken.

In concert with other Western governments and Australia, the U.S. made a strong appeal for renewed pressure on Burma at the post-ministerial conference of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean) held in Manila in July. Secretary of State James Baker said, "Collectively, our message to the Burmese military must be loud and clear: release all political prisoners immediately...." Fifteen prominent members of Congress wrote to Baker before the meeting urging him to raise Burma at the asean conference. But the members of asean renewed their commitment to "constructive engagement" and rejected appeals to put pressure on Rangoon, although Malaysia did block Burma's attempt to attend the meeting as an observer, citing Burma's poor human rights record.

The U.S. responded to the Rohingya refugee crisis by expressing support for the efforts of the unhcr and the return of refugees under safe conditions. The U.S. also provided $3 million through the U.S. Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund for relief efforts in Bangladesh, plus another $191,419 for health and sanitation projects. Members of Congress from both the House the Senate wrote to Bangladeshi and Burmese authorities to urge a suspension of repatriation until unhcr is fully involved in the process, and firm guarantees are in place to ensure the protection of those who return.

The Bush administration's attempt to send a new U.S. envoy to Burma was stalled in March and remained in limbo at the end of the year. Acting on the nomination of Parker Borg, a career diplomat, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously recommended that the Senate not consider his nomination unless the administration publicly endorsed the assumption of power by the civilian government elected in May 1990, withdrew the U.S. military attaché in Rangoon, supported a U.N. arms embargo and opposed further U.N. Development Program funding for Burma. The administration objected to the precedent of the committee stipulating conditions on an ambassadorial appointment, and also maintained that it was essential to keep a military attaché in Rangoon to monitor Burmese military activities; it did not express opposition to the other terms of the committee's recommendations.

The Work of Asia Watch

Asia Watch worked in several ways in 1992 to raise the public profile of human rights concerns in Burma and to advocate U.S. policy options. Asia Watch sent several missions to Thailand toinvestigate abuses against Burmese citizens and published four reports on its findings: Human Rights in Burma (Myanmar) in 1991; Abuses Against Burmese Refugees in Thailand; Burma: Rape, Forced Labor and Religious Persecution in Northern Arakan; and Changes in Burma? The reports were widely distributed among the press, diplomatic community and parliamentarians, in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia.

In both New York and Washington, Asia Watch coordinated frequent roundtable discussions on Burma for representatives of dozens of organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental. When a new ambassador to Burma was under consideration in February, Asia Watch presented testimony on U.S. policy to the Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Throughout the year, Asia Watch staff offices responded to Congressional inquiries and provided input for resolutions adopted in the House and Senate. They stayed in close touch with the State Department and wrote to Secretary of State James Baker, urging him to raise the question of Burmese human rights abuses at a conference with asean foreign ministers in July.

Japanese policy toward Burma was a key issue in discussions with government officials and others in Tokyo during an Asia Watch mission in March.

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