Burma is a country of forty-five million people, over one-third of whom are ethnic minorities who mainly inhabit the mountainous border regions. Burma was a kingdom until 1823, when the British colonized the southwest of the country. By 1856, the whole of Burma was under British occupation and remained so until independence in 1948. Burma's first post-independence government was elected, and Burma remained a democracy until the military took over in a bloodless coup in 1962. The military, in different guises, has ruled ever since. Immediately after independence the Karen ethnic minority took up arms against the central government, in protest at the lack of constitutional provisions for self-rule in their state. The Karen were soon joined by the Communist Party of Burma and eventually, by the mid-1970s, nearly every major ethnic group in Burma was represented by armed groups. Civil war and ethnic strife have thus dominated Burma's history and have been the raison d'être of the armed forces in its thirty-five-year dominance of the country. Between 1962 and 1988 the military adopted a policy of total economic and political isolation from the international community, and though some U.N. agencies, including the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) had offices in Rangoon, there was little international reporting of the human rights situation in the country. Isolation and a reliance on military officers rather than technocrats in the government were to blame for an economic decline which drove the country from once being the rice basket of Asia to being declared a "least developed country" by the U.N. in 1987.

In March 1988 students in Rangoon took to the streets demanding an end to military rule and economic mismanagement, and by August the entire country had joined them in nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations. Six weeks later, realizing that it was losing control, the current military government, the SLORC, took power after killing up to 3,000 unarmed demonstrators. In response, the international community cut off all bilateral aid to Burma, and the U.S. and European Union (EU) imposed an embargo on all arms sales. The SLORC imposed martial law and enacted a series of decrees having the force of law, designed to severely restrict civil freedoms, while in remote ethnic minority areas of the country it stepped up military campaigns designed to boost the army's image as the savior of the nation. In an effort to increase the country's foreign exchange reserves, the SLORC announced an opening of the economy to foreign investment and trade, and the campaigns against ethnic groups were increasingly focused on those groups which had control of major trade routes with Thailand and other neighboring countries.

Realizing the impossibility of militarily defeating the ethnic armies, the SLORC embarked on a new policy of cease-fire negotiations in an effort to enforce control over the countryside. The first cease-fires were all with groups whose primary interests had long ceased to be political but were rather economic, as they were the main opium growers, heroin producers and traffickers in Burma.1 Since then a further fifteen armed groups have entered into cease-fire agreements, and one group, the Mong Tai Army (MTA) lead by Khun Sa, surrendered in January1996. In most cases the cease-fires permit the ethnic armies to maintain their weapons and men in the areas designated as their territory and to enter into trading and other business ventures in mainland Burma. The cease-fires do not include any discussion of a political settlement, however, and in some areas, notably the Wa and Mon states, there is a great deal of tension, leading some analysts to suggest that the military agreements may not hold. The Karen National Union (KNU), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) and the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA, formed by former MTA troops who did not agree with Khun Sa's surrender) are the main groups still at war with the Burmese army, and in their areas, violations of humanitarian law against civilians by the army continue to take place.

Despite opening up to foreign investment, Burma remains largely closed to international monitoring and is a party to few international legal instruments to protect human rights.2 The Burmese government appears to have acceded to a number of these, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, in an effort to improve its international image. Burma came under international scrutiny for its human rights record shortly after the SLORC took power in 1989. In 1990 the U.N. Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) ordered an investigation into human rights abuses by the SLORC, appointing a special rapporteur to the country under the confidential 1503 procedure. In 1992, the UNCHR resolved to make the procedure public after conditions failed to improve.3 The special rapporteur was permitted to conduct a week-long mission to Burma each year, but access was denied the new rapporteur in 1996. No international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have been officially permitted to enter Burma since 1988. In addition, since December 1994, the U.N. secretary general has been mandated by the General Assembly to assist in the implementation of U.N. General Assembly resolutions concerning Burma, although his office was also denied permission to visit the country in 1996.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was devised to recognize and protect the economic, civil, cultural, political and social rights of children. It came into force in 1990, and by April 1996 there were 187 countries which had become a party to the convention, leaving only six states (including the United States) which have not. Uniquely among United Nations conventions, the CRC includes within its articles (Article 44) a requirement for states parties to report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, based at the Center for Human Rights in Geneva, detailing progress towards implementation of the CRC. The committee can then make recommendations directly to the state party and may invite other specialized agencies, such as UNICEF, to provide expert advice.

Burma acceded to the CRC in August 1991, although with two significant reservations: Article 15, recognizing the right "to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly"; and Article 37, which states that "No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment or punishment." These reservations were both withdrawn in October 1993. On July 14, 1993 the government passed a new Child Law (SLORC Law No. 9/93) aimed at protecting "the rights of the child recognized in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child." In order to ensure full implementation of the law, it established of a National Committee on the Rights of the Child, chaired by the minister of social welfare, relief and resettlement. It also provided for the establishment of other committees at the state, divisional, district and township levels and to the dissemination of the Child Law and the CRC throughout the country, in all the major languages.

In accordance with Article 44 of the CRC, the government submitted a report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in February 1996. The government's report adds little to the limited information on the situation for children in Burma. It is a catalogue of actions which the government will take or is taking but includes few details of progress towards their implementation in the five years since Burma signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and there is little information at all about the current situation of children.

In most countries which have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, local and international nongovernmental organizations working with children contribute to the report by the government, or present alternative reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child at the U.N. Center for Human Rights. In the case of Burma, however, there are few, if any, truly independent local NGOs in Burma, and none of them have given information to the committee. Equally, of the few international NGOs working in Burma, none have chosen to submit any information publicly to the committee.

1 This includes ethnic soldiers of the collapsed Communist Party of Burma, the Wa and Kokang who are now represented by four groups which signed cease-fires in 1989. Each of these groups operates mainly in the northern Shan state and is dominated by ethnic Chinese drug warlords. See Bertin Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948 (Colorado: Westview Press, 1995.) It is important to note that, since then, opium and heroin production in Burma has more than tripled.

2 These are the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Slavery Convention and its protocols; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Burma has also signed, but not acceded to, the Convention on the Political Rights of Women and the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.

3 In 1990 the Special Rapporteur was Mrs. Sadako Ogata, who resigned in order to become the High Commissioner for Refugees. She was followed by Prof. Yozo Yokota in 1991, who held the post until he resigned, citing a lack of political and financial support for his mandate, in March 1996. The current rapporteur is Judge Rajsoomer Lallah, former chief justice of Mauritius.