Since an army coup overthrew Burma's
last democratically-elected government in 1962, military-run or
dominated regimes in Burma have been among the world's worst violators
of human rights. An already serious level of abuses climbed higher
after the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) (renamed
the State Peace and Development Council in November 1997) seized
power in September 1988. The junta removed all pretence of civilian
administration and marked its arrival by massacring thousands of
unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Rangoon and other Burmese
cities and towns.
Today, says Amnesty International, "torture has become an
institution" in Burma. Reports by the United Nations, Amnesty
International, Human Rights Watch, and other groups have repeatedly
detailed a gruesome litany of abuses, including murder, torture,
rape, detention without trial, massive forced relocations, and forced
labor Even before 1988, Burma's army faced allegations of serious
human rights abuses, especially in its campaigns against ethnic
groups along the country's borders. These severe violations continue
today, including arbitrary executions and forced labor of villagers
as military porters in combat zones. Children have been particularly
hard hit, both as direct physical victims of military abuse and
as members of affected families. In 2001, conditions in Shan State
and Karen State deteriorated as the junta launched wide-scale military
operations. Hundreds of thousands of people in those areas have
fled their homes to avoid conscription as porters or worse abuses.
While some have reached safety in Thailand, most remain internally-displaced
persons (IDPs). Only a few who are near the Thai frontier receive
even a little external food or medical assistance.
These gross violations are added to ongoing suppression of other
fundamental freedoms. Today, the most basic of globally recognized
civil and political rights are not respected by Burma's generals,
despite the fact that Burma is signatory to several of the most
important international human rights treaties. There is no freedom
of expression. Even art exhibitions must be approved by military
authorities. Beyond sports and romance magazines, the few independent
publications that survive are subject to severe censorship. The
regime's Press Scrutiny Board orders articles even obliquely critical
of official actions inked over or torn from offending issues, while
state newspapers are filled with crudely virulent attacks on democratic
Broadcast media are even more closely controlled. State-monopoly
radio and television offer endless images of the junta's generals
cutting ribbons and making speeches. Burmese do seek other sources
for accurate news. International radio stations such as the British
Broadcasting Corporation, the Voice of America, the Democratic Voice
of Burma, and Radio Free Asia estimate that their Burmese audience
is perhaps greater per capita than anywhere else in the world.
The junta's efforts to quash free expression continue. A 1996 SLORC
decree provides up to 20 years' imprisonment for anyone publicly
opposing the junta's policies. Under the 1996 "Computer Science
Development Law;' unlicensed possession of a fax machine or modem
is punishable by I 5 years in jail. These are among many repressive
measures enforced without regard to international standards or Burma's
own constitution. In Burma, the law is what the generals say it
is; it can and does change from day to day.
Freedom of association and assembly are denied. Political gatherings
are banned. Political parties such as the National League for Democracy
(NLD) are closely monitored and its members harassed or arrested.
Amnesty International estimates that there are at least 1,300 political
prisoners detained or imprisoned under severe conditions in Burmese
jails. Many prisoners have died in detention. Among the current
political prisoners are victorious NLD candidates in May 1990 elections
in which the NLD won over 80% of the seats.
Labor unions are not allowed. The International Labor Organization
(ILO) has detailed the junta's use of massive and widespread forced
labor in Burma, often under dangerous conditions. In October 2000,
after repeatedly failing to receive convincing assurances that the
junta is acting to end forced labor, the ILO took the unprecedented
action of urging all ILO members, including governments, labor unions
and employers, to review their ties to the regime.
Some of the worst forced labor abuses have been reported from southeastern
Burma, where a billion-dollar pipeline is being developed by a consortium
of America's UNOCAL and France's TOTAL oil companies and the Burmese
regime. Forced labor has also been used on tourism development projects.
In March 1997, the European Union withdrew Burma's trade privileges
because of the prevalence of forced labor and other abuses.
Religious repression is another long-time feature of military rule.
Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country, and the military regime
demands that Buddhist clergy support its rule. Troops have invaded
monasteries to remove Buddhist leaders who supported human rights
and the democracy movement.
Burma also has sizable Muslim and Christian communities. Muslims
in southwestern Burma are continuing targets for army attacks. Over
a quarter million fled to Bangladesh during a major army offensive
in 1989, and approximately 25,000 more escaped in 1997. Dozens of
mosques were ransacked and destroyed as anti-Muslim riots reportedly
instigated by the Burmese military flared in several Burmese cities
in March 1997, and a new spate of attacks in the Arakan region was
reported in late 2000. Christian churches are also closely monitored
by the army, and church activities country-wide are restricted.
In some border areas, especially the Chin Special Division and the
Karen State, churches have been wrecked by soldiers and religious
differences exploited by the junta to promote discord among minority
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