Burma | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Burma's ruling junta continued its tight grip over this impoverished Southeast Asian nation in 2001, even as it released some 200 political prisoners, the highest number of releases in several years. Late in the year, talks between the generals who run Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, the veteran pro-democracy leader who is under house arrest in Rangoon, were at a standstill. Analysts said the regime faces little real pressure for change because it has crushed the democratic opposition, largely defeated the few ethnic insurgencies still active in the border areas, and offset the effects of Western sanctions by stepping up trade with China and other Asian countries.

After being occupied by the Japanese during World War II, Burma achieved independence from Great Britain in 1948. The military has ruled since 1962, when the army overthrew an elected government buffeted by an economic crisis and a raft of ethnic-based insurgencies. During the next 26 years General Ne Win's military rule helped impoverish what had been one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest countries.

The present junta, currently led by General Than Shwe, has been in power since the summer of 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led pro-democracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people. In the aftermath, a younger generation of army commanders who took over from Ne Win created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country. The SLORC refused to cede power after holding elections in 1990 that were won in a landslide by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). The junta jailed dozens of members of the NLD, which won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats in Burma's first free elections in three decades.

Than Shwe, 68, and several other relatively young generals who head the junta, refashioned the SLORC as the State Peace and Development Council in 1997. In the process, they fired some of the more blatantly corrupt cabinet ministers. The generals appeared to be trying to improve the junta's international image, attract foreign investment, and encourage an end to U.S.-led sanctions linked to the regime's grim human rights record. Yet the junta took few concrete steps to gain international support. It continued to sentence peaceful pro-democracy activists to lengthy jail terms, force NLD members to quit the party, and periodically detain dozens of NLD activists. Some observers had expressed optimism when word leaked in late 2000 that the regime was holding talks with Suu Kyi, but there was no sign of a breakthrough in 2001, or even a sense of what was being discussed.

The junta continued to face low-grade insurgencies in border areas, waged by the Karen National Union (KNU) and at least five smaller ethnic-based rebel armies. A Burmese army offensive against the KNU early in the year drove some 30,000 villagers from their homes in eastern Burma, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported in January. More offensives were reported late in the year after the onset of the dry season. Thai troops, meanwhile, reportedly raided several narcotics labs inside Burma, run by a former Burmese rebel group, that help traffick millions of methamphetamine tablets to Thailand each year, according to the Review and other sources. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) trafficks the drugs with the reported help of Burmese soldiers and intelligence officials. The UWSA is one of about 15 rebel groups that have since 1989 reached ceasefire deals permitting them to maintain their armies and carry out some governmental functions in their territories. Like the UWSA, many are involved in narcotics trafficking.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Burma continued to be ruled by one of the world's most repressive regimes. The junta rules by decree, controls the judiciary, suppresses nearly all basic rights, and commits human rights abuses with impunity. Military officers hold most cabinet positions, and active or retired officers hold most top posts in all ministries. Diplomats say that junta leader General Than Shwe is ailing and is expected to be succeeded by General Maung Aye, the army commander and the regime's second-ranking official. However, they add, Maung Aye is locked in a behind-the-scenes struggle for the top spot with Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, the military intelligence chief and the junta's number three official. This jockeying for power reflects a broader split in the regime between supporters of Maung Aye, who oppose any type of reform, and those of Khin Nyunt, who favor modest reforms to boost Burma's flagging economy. Former strongman Ne Win, now 90, still wields some influence within the junta.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva condemns the regime each year for committing tortures, disappearances, and other grave human rights abuses. In its 2001 session in the spring, the commission praised the government for beginning a dialogue with Suu Kyi, but also deplored "the deterioration of the human rights situation and the continuing pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights" in the country.

Some of the worst human rights abuses take place in Burma's seven ethnic minority-dominated states. In these border states, the tatmadaw, or Burmese armed forces, often kill, beat, rape, and arbitrarily detain civilians with impunity, according to the United Nations, the United States State Department, and other sources. Soldiers also routinely seize livestock, cash, property, food, and other goods from villagers.

Tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in the Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon states and the Tenasserim Division remain in squalid and ill-equipped relocation centers set up by the army. The sites generally lack adequate food, water, health care, and sanitation facilities. The army forcibly moved the villagers to the sites in the 1990s as part of its counterinsurgency operations. Reports by Amnesty International in 1999 documented widespread army abuses while relocating the villagers. Press reports suggested that the army continued to forcibly uproot villagers in Karen, Shan, and other states in 2001, though on a smaller scale compared to the mid-1990s.

While army abuses are the most widespread, some rebel groups forcibly conscript civilians, commit some extrajudicial killings, and use women and children as porters, according to the U.S. State Department's February 2001 report on Burma's human rights record in 2000. Rebel fighters are occasionally accused of rape, the report added. Thailand continues to host some 120,000 Karen and Karenni refugees in camps near the Burmese border and some 100,000 Shan refugees who are not permitted by Thai authorities to enter the camps, Amnesty International said in December.

The regime continued to use forced labor in 2001 despite formally banning the practice in October 2000, Human Rights Watch said in June. The government outlawed forced labor just days prior to an unprecedented November 2000 call by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for its members and UN agencies to "review" their relations with Burma. Many interpreted the resolution as a call to tighten sanctions against the regime. A 1998 ILO report found substantial evidence that the junta systematically uses forced labor. The Geneva-based organization passed a resolution in 1999 calling the regime's use of forced labor "a contemporary form of slavery." The ILO, the U.S. State Department, and other sources say that soldiers routinely force civilians to work without pay under harsh conditions. Soldiers make civilians construct roads, clear minefields, porter for the army, or work on military-backed commercial ventures. Forced labor appears to be most widespread in states dominated by ethnic minorities.

Amnesty International said in 2000 that "torture has become an institution" in Burma and that victims include political activists, criminals, and members of ethnic minorities. Dissidents say that since 1988 more than 40 political prisoners have died in Rangoon's infamous Insein prison.

The junta denies citizenship to and has committed serious abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority in northern Arakan state. Lacking citizenship, the Rohingyas face restrictions on their movement and right to own land. They are also barred from secondary education and most civil service jobs. The government denies citizenship to most Rohingyas on the grounds that their ancestors allegedly did not reside in Burma in 1824, as required under the 1982 citizenship law. More than 100,000 Rohingya refugees remain in Bangladesh, where they fled in the 1990s to escape extrajudicial executions, rape, forced labor, and other abuses, according to reports by Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department, and other sources. The refugees include some of the 250,000 Rohingyas who fled to Bangladesh in the early 1990s but then largely returned to Burma, as well as newer arrivals.

Since rejecting the results of the 1990 elections, the junta has all but emasculated the victorious National League for Democracy (NLD). Authorities have jailed many NLD leaders, pressured thousands of party members and officials to resign, closed party offices, and periodically detained hundreds of NLD members at a time to block planned party meetings. In May, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a list of 85 Burmese lawmakers elected in 1990 who it said were in jails or government "guest houses" because of their peaceful political activities. Some have been held since 1990, but most were arrested in later crackdowns. Besides the NLD, there are nine other political parties, although most of them are moribund. A state-controlled convention began drafting a new constitution in 1993 that would grant the military key government posts in a civilian government and 25 percent of seats in a future parliament. However, the convention has not met since 1996 and never produced a final document.

The junta in late 2001 was holding some 1,600 political prisoners, Amnesty International reported in December. Many of the 200 political prisoners who were released in 2001 had reached the ends of their terms or had been held without trial for years, the organization added. Most political prisoners are held under broadly drawn laws that criminalize a range of peaceful activities. These include distributing pro-democracy pamphlets and distributing, viewing, or smuggling out of Burma videotapes of Suu Kyi's public addresses. The frequently used Decree 5/96 of 1996 authorizes jail terms of 5 to 25 years for aiding activities "which adversely affect the national interest."

Burmese courts respect some basic due process rights in ordinary criminal cases but not in political cases, according to the U.S. State Department report. The report also said that authorities in 2000 arrested and sentenced on fabricated charges nearly every lawyer with alleged links to the NLD. Prisons and labor camps are overcrowded, and inmates lack adequate food and health care. However, conditions in some facilities have reportedly improved somewhat since 1999, when the junta began allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons.

The junta sharply restricts press freedom, jailing dissident journalists and owning and tightly controlling all daily newspapers and radio and television stations. It also subjects most private periodicals to prepublication censorship. The regime released at least two jailed journalists in 2001, but continued to hold at least 18 others, the Paris-based Reporters sans Frontieres said in August.

Authorities continued to arbitrarily search homes, intercept mail, and monitor telephone conversations, the State Department report said. The regime's high-tech information warfare center in Rangoon reportedly can intercept private telephone, fax, e-mail, and radio communications. Laws and decrees criminalize possession and use of unregistered telephones, fax machines, computers and modems, and software.

Since the 1988 student pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta has kept universities closed on and off for a total of nearly seven years, limiting higher education opportunities for a generation of young Burmese. Moreover, since reopening universities in 2000 after a four-year hiatus, authorities have lowered standards and shortened the academic term at many schools, made students pledge loyalty to the regime, barred political activity on campuses, and relocated some schools to relatively remote areas. The few nongovernmental groups in Burma generally work in health care and other nominally nonpolitical fields.

Criminal gangs have in recent years trafficked thousands of Burmese women and girls, many from ethnic minority groups, to Thailand for prostitution, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and other groups. Women are underrepresented in the government and civil service.

Ordinary Burmese generally can worship freely. The junta, however, has tried to control the Buddhist clergy by placing monastic orders under a state-run committee, monitoring monasteries, and subjecting clergy to special restrictions on speech and association. Authorities also jailed more than 100 monks in the 1990s for their pro-democracy and human rights work; about half of these have been released, according to the U.S. State Department report. Buddhists make up around 90 percent of Burma's population.

There was "a significant increase in the level of anti-Muslim violence" in Burma between July 2000 and June 2001, according to the U.S. State Department's annual report on religious freedom covering that period. The regime "may have acquiesced" in some of the violence, the report added. Officials often reject or delay approval of requests by Islamic and Christian groups to build new churches and mosques.

Independent trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are illegal. Several labor activists continued to serve long prison terms in 2001 for their political and labor activities. Child labor is relatively common in small businesses, on family farms, and in other industries, according to the U.S. State Department report. The junta forces most state workers and many other Burmese to join a tightly controlled mass movement, the Union Solidarity Development Association. The Association monitors forced labor quotas, reports on citizens, and organizes meetings called to denounce the NLD and its members.

In recent years, the junta's economic mismanagement has contributed to periodic gas and power shortages, persistently high inflation rates, stagnant economic growth, and a hugely overvalued currency. Weak property rights and poor land ownership records further hamper economic development. The European Union and the United States, moreover, maintain economic sanctions against Burma and prevent it from receiving some multilateral aid because of its dismal human rights record. Meanwhile, official corruption is reportedly rampant. Given these problems, foreign investment has been limited.