The Burmese military regime’s widespread and systematic abuse of human rights has caused millions of people in Burma to flee their homes, resulting in large populations of refugees and stateless people on Burma’s borders with neighbouring countries as well as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country itself.
The situation for people in Burma continued to worsen significantly in 2007, while the conspicuous personal wealth of the Generals was displayed at events such as the wedding of Than Shwe’s daughter, where the value of wedding presents was estimated at over a million US dollars. Meanwhile, public health standards declined even further, with AIDS/HIV, malaria and TB killing many people. The junta obstructed the work of humanitarian aid organizations by introducing a code under which relief work could only be conducted as directed by SPDC. Many aid organizations, including the Red Cross, found these restrictions unacceptable and regretfully were forced to discontinue much of their work for the people.
Campaigns against ethnic minority people by the SPDC continued. Brutal oppression of Karen and Rohingya people have been described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in recent reports.
The environmental damage in Burma’s unique ecosystem continues to be of major concern. In spite of government regulations, which are apparently meant to control illegal logging, it is clear that SPDC personnel on the ground continue to profit from this illegal trade. New hydro-electric dams being constructed by Chinese companies on the Salween River threaten the traditional way of life of thousands of people, and over 126 rare species are also under threat from this work. The territory which is home to the Asian Tiger (also an endangered species) is seriously harmed by gold mining operations, although the junta claims that the area is a ‘reserve’. In short, the junta continues to say one thing and do another with regard to environment.
During the year, the United Nations representative, General Ibrahim Gambari, visited Burma on several occasions but failed to gain concessions from the junta. He was permitted to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi at a government Guest House, but this appears to have been largely a publicity exercise on behalf of the junta and no significant progress towards her release was achieved.
However, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Burma, Sergio Pinheiro (specialist in Human Rights) brought out extremely critical reports about the junta’s abuse of human rights in Burma. The junta responded by preventing him from re-entering Burma for much of 2007.
In August, the SPDC arbitrarily raised fuel prices by between 200% and 500%, literally threatening the survival of many people in Burma who were already barely managing to live. People began to demonstrate against these increased costs, and quickly they were supported by young Buddhist monks who put themselves forward to protect the people. At Pakkoku (a major centre of Buddhist learning), SPDC troops attacked monks who were demonstrating, and no apology for the injury and insult to the highly-respected monks has yet been offered by the SPDC. The demonstrations increased, with thousands of monks and citizens marching in towns throughout Burma, in protest against the junta, as witnessed in video footage throughout the world. Then on September 27th, the SPDC sent in troops with orders forcibly to break up the demonstrations. Unarmed demonstrators and monks were fired on by soldiers in scenes terribly reminiscent of the suppression of the 1988 Uprising. The junta imposed a news and media blackout, and the full extent of atrocities by the Burmese authorities against the demonstrators, their families and the monks, will probably never be known. Reports speak of crematoria around major cities working day and night. The monasteries were emptied as the SPDC forced monks to disrobe and return to their villages. Many of the remaining monks continued to refuse to accept alms from SPDC members, amounting to ‘excommunication’ of them. As this crackdown was carried out, a news black-out effectively prevented the world media from showing the real effects of the military’s response to the demonstrations. When internet and other services were restored, the censorship with which the regime controls information in Burma was heavily increased. Nonetheless, photographs taken from satellites over Burma showed that over the last ten years more than 200 villages in ethnic areas have been obliterated by SPDC action.
People who took part in the demonstrations were arrested in large numbers. Many of these were subjected to varying degrees of torture and then released without charge. It seems that the intention was to intimidate. An Indian MP described the actions of the Burmese junta as ‘state terrorism.’
In revulsion at the brutal suppression of the demonstrations, many people looked to the United Nations to bring a Resolution which would condemn the methods of the junta and attempt to protect the Burmese people from further oppression by their own government. The point was made that the UN has a ‘duty to protect’ such citizens. However, the United Nations Security Council failed to support the motion, and no Resolution was passed.
In spite of the violence, intimidation and oppression by SPDC, members of the NLD (National League for Democracy), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, continue their struggle for democracy. They denounced the actions of the junta and particularly the sham of the ‘Roadmap for Burmese democracy’ which was finally drawn up by the junta after years of stalling. This ‘Roadmap’ excludes most of the ethnic minority groups and it stipulates that 25% of parliamentary seats will be held by SPDC, thereby seeking to ensure continuing SPDC rule of Burma. It specifically prevents Daw Aung San Suu Kyi from standing for election.
The US and the EU both strengthened the carefully targeted sanctions against the junta, specifically sanctioning goods and services which are useful to the Burmese military. The union of jewellers in the US has introduced sanctions against Burmese gems (gem auctions give the junta its third-largest source of income). On the other hand, both China and India continue to supply the SPDC with arms as they vie with each other for exploration rights to the rich natural gas fields off the Arakan coast. ASEAN countries show themselves to be unwilling to bring the Burmese junta to book.
“The Metta Sutra of the Buddha”
This is the prayer of Loving-Kindness which the Burmese monks have been saying in their demonstrations against the military Junta during August-September 2007:
“May all beings be happy and at their ease. May they be joyous and live in safety. All beings, omitting none, whether weak or strong; small or great; in high, middle or low realms of existence; near or far away; visible or invisible; born or yet-to-be-born. May all beings be happy and at their ease. Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none harm another. But even as a mother loves, watches over and protects her child, her only child; so may all with a boundless mind cherish all living beings, radiating friendliness over the entire world without limit. May we cultivate a boundless goodwill, free from ill-will or emnity, and maintain the sublime abiding of this recollection.”
Burma - A Country Ruled by Fear
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a country of over 50 million people in an area the size of France. There are eight major and a number of minor ethnic nationalities speaking over 100 dialects. Of these, Burman is the largest group, numbering 60% of the population, followed by Shan, Karen, Arakan, Mon, Chin, Kachin and Karenni. For much of its history, Burma was a collection of independent kingdoms.
By the 19th Century, the British took advantage of political instability in Burma to colonize the country and later annex it to India as their empire pushed eastward through S.E. Asia. British rule continued into the 20th century but by the 1930’s, Burmese activists drew inspiration from the experiences of post-imperial independence movements throughout the world. By 1937, having gained a small measure of liberty under British rule, the Burmese had grown aware of Ireland’s own experience of struggle and according to historian Dr Peter Carey, looked upon Ireland as ‘an example of what could be done’. The Burmese established a nationwide book club with the intent of building a body of national and international works of assistance to the burgeoning independence movement. Of the 101 titles compiled, 21 were on Michael Collins, two on Eamon de Valera, and one each on James Connolly and Arthur Griffiths. The Burmese push for full independence gathered momentum during World War II. Under General Aung San (1915-1947), the Burmese first sided with the Japanese to remove the British, then when the imperial intentions of the Japanese became clear, switched to the British on assurances of post-war independence.
The 1947 signing of the progressive Panglong Agreement, by Burma’s majority Burman and other major ethnic groups, was followed by strife in which independence hero General Aung San and six members of his cabinet were assassinated. Nevertheless the agreement gave rise the following year to full independence and a new constitution based on principles of equality, voluntary participation and democracy.
A functioning but fragile democracy took root for 14 years (1948 -1962) until internal strife was exploited in a military coup, led by General Ne Win (1911-2002), and ushered in four decades of repression and international isolation.
Since 1962 therefore, Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship. By July 1988, growing unrest had forced the resignation of General Ne Win, architect of the 1962 coup, but one of the most critical events in Burmese history was to come on the 8 August 1988. A date forever known to the Burmese people as 8.8.88, saw hundreds of students, workers, teachers, farmers and monks demonstrating on the streets of all major towns and cities, demanding democracy. The military leadership acted with the utmost severity to restore its control - firing into demonstrators and killing many hundreds. Thousands fled the country. The new regime leadership renamed itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). It ordered the uprising be crushed, renamed Burma as Myanmar and diffused further unrest with the promise of free elections.
In May 1990, elections were permitted and the National League for Democracy party (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, (daughter of General Aung San), won 82% of parliamentary seats. Forbidden from forming a government, the NLD leadership was subsequently harassed, imprisoned or forced into exile. Aung San Suu Kyi was detained under house arrest from 1989 to 1996 and only released in the face of considerable international pressure. Today she is once again in detention at her house in Rangoon, having been re-arrested following a regime-inspired attack on her convoy of NLD vehicles in May 2003. Daw Suu Kyi is forbidden from receiving visits from colleagues and her mail and telephone continue to be censored and monitored.
Daw Suu Kyi is recognised internationally as a woman of courage and integrity. She has spent ten of the last 16 years in detention for her non-violent opposition and has been honoured with more than 60 international awards including the Nobel Peace Prize and the Freedom of both Dublin and Galway cities.
To this day, the regime in Burma, which has been renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), continues to conduct violent repression against political opponents and Burma’s many ethnic peoples. Among its documented human rights abuses are forced labour, conscription of child soldiers, arbitrary arrest, systematic use of rape and torture and extrajudicial executions. It is infamous for its strategy of intimidatory attacks on civilians, the use of sexual violence, the destruction of village communities and the wide-scale displacement of peoples, including internal displacement and refugees who flee over the borders into Thailand, India and Bangladesh.
[Notes compiled by Michelle Hoctor and Mary Montaut, BAI]
Burma Report on 2006
2006 marked a year when so little progress seems to have been made in relation to democratization in Burma. It began with the resignation of the UN special envoy to Burma, Razali Ismail, who had been refused entry to Burma since 2004. His UN colleague, Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Ibrahim Gambari made 2 trips to Burma for separate talks with the junta and the opposition leaders. However, both visits achieved very little and as soon as Gambari had left the country after his first visit, the regime extended Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention by a further year, which to-date amounts to over 11 years. International NGOs and humanitarian organisations faced increased restrictions by the military during he last year. Médecins Sans Frontières closed its office in Rangoon after four years, citing restrictions on its activities by the government as the reason. The Burmese military refused to renew the permit of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which ran a political reconciliation program. The International Committee of the Red Cross were ordered to close its offices in October 2006, these have since been reopened but the ICRC are not allowed access to detainees and prison visits. In 2006, the Burmese military launched fresh attacks on the Karen people, killing and arresting many people and forcing thousands to flee to the surrounding jungles.
There were some positive developments at international level. There are indications of fatigue among ASEAN leaders with the embarrassment caused by Burma’s human rights record and its impact on relations with the West and the EU in particular. The United Nations Security Council voted for the first time to officially place Burma on its agenda and although efforts by the US and UK to have the UNSC pass a binding resolution failed, Burma has been pushed up the international agenda and this serves to ensure engagement at high level UN secretariat.
Within Ireland, the level of interest among parliamentarians, politicians and the general public also increased in 2006. The collection of photographs of Karen refugees entitled ‘Burma: Forgotten Nation, Forgotten People’ was exhibited in 5 venues around the country. Irish peace activist, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, together with fellow Nobel laureates, issued a statement supporting the call on the UNSC to pass a binding resolution on Burma as did Irish singer Damien Rice in conjunction with a group of international artists.