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 the destruction of more than 3,500 villages in eastern Burma, widespread use of rape as a weapon of war against ethnic minorities, the forced displacement of over 1 million refugees and internally displaced people, tens of thousands of child soldiers, murder, torture, detention without trial, massive forced relocations, and forced labour. 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 labour 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 ethnic states the Burmese Army has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, often confiscating their land.
These gross violations are added to ongoing suppression of other fundamental freedoms. The most basic of globally recognised 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. Reporters Without Borders calls Burma a “censors’ paradise”.
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 15 years in jail. These are among many repressive measures enforced without regard to international standards or Burma’s own constitution.
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. There are almost 2,000 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.
The International Labor Organisation (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 labour, the ILO took the unprecedented action of urging all ILO members, including governments, labour unions and employers, to review their ties to the regime. In March 1997, the European Union withdrew Burma’s trade privileges because of the prevalence of forced labour 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 ethnic groups.