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Burma received an upward trend arrow due to the release of Aung Sang Suu Kyi from house arrest and the increased latitude granted to the NLD opposition party.
A quiet dialogue begun in October 2000 between the military junta and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi bore fruit this year, when the Nobel laureate was released from house arrest in May. Several hundred political prisoners were freed throughout 2002, and Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) was permitted to reopen a number of party offices. However, since Suu Kyi's release, there have been no further discussions regarding a possible return to constitutional government, and the ruling junta continues to wield a tight grip over all aspects of Burmese life.
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, studentled pro-democracy protesters, killing an estimated 3,000 people. In the aftermath, a younger generation of army commanders who succeeded 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 the 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 and several other generals who headed the junta refashioned the SLORC as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. 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.
However, in late 2000, encouraged by the efforts of UN special envoy Razali Ismail, the regime began holding talks with Suu Kyi, which led to an easing of restrictions on the NLD by mid-2002. Suu Kyi was released "unconditionally" from house arrest on May 6 and has been allowed to make several political trips outside the capital, while the NLD has been permitted to reopen some 45 offices in greater Rangoon. Nevertheless, analysts note that further talks have not taken place, and remain doubtful whether these signs of progress noted will evolve into a more meaningful dialogue over the future restoration of democracy.
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, although a number of other rebel groups have reached ceasefire deals with the junta since 1989. A serious dispute with neighboring Thailand erupted in late May, when the junta accused the Thai government of aiding rebel ethnic-minority forces along the border. For its part, Thailand criticized the Burmese government for its support to the United Wa State Army, which is involved in the production and trafficking of millions of methamphetamine tablets to Thailand each year. A series of military clashes led to the deaths of dozens of fighters, the closure of the border, and an escalation of nationalist rhetoric on both sides.
Burma continues 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. Official corruption is reportedly rampant.
Since rejecting the results of the 1990 elections, the junta all but paralyzed the victorious National League for Democracy (NLD). Authorities 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. Although the NLD has been allowed somewhat greater freedom following the resumption of talks between the junta and party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it continues to face restrictions on its activities. Besides the NLD, there are more than 20 ethnic political parties that remain suppressed by the junta.
Although several hundred political prisoners were released at intervals throughout 2002, more than 1,400 remain incarcerated, according to an Amnesty International report released in July. 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." The few nongovernmental groups in Burma generally work in health care and other nominally nonpolitical fields.
The junta sharply restricts press freedom, owning or tightly controlling all daily newspapers and radio and television stations and jailing dissident journalists. It also subjects most private periodicals to prepublication censorship. In October, dozens of dissidents were arrested and detained for possession of banned newspapers, and a number of journalists remained in jail throughout 2002.
Authorities continued to arbitrarily search homes, intercept mail, and monitor telephone conversations. 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 sporadically closed universities, limiting higher educational 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. In August, 15 university students were arrested and two were sentenced to prison terms for distributing pro-democracy pamphlets.
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. A number of monks remain imprisoned for their pro-democracy and human rights work. Burma was once again designated a "country of particular concern" by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which noted systematic official discrimination against members of minority religious groups. A Human Rights Watch report published in June alleged that the government had failed to protect Muslims from a significant increase in anti-Muslim violence throughout 2001, and that it had imposed restrictions on Muslim religious activities and travel.
Independent trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are illegal. Several labor activists continued to serve long prison terms for their political and labor activities. Child labor has become increasingly prevalent, according to the U.S. State Department report.
The regime continued to use forced labor despite formally banning the practice in October 2000, just days prior to an unprecedented 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. 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. A report published in October by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) alleged that the use of forced labor was on the rise and pointed to the complicity of multinational corporations in condoning the practice. However, the ILO was permitted to set up a liaison office in Rangoon in June.
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. Corruption, the misuse of overly broad laws, and the manipulation of the courts for political ends continue to deprive citizens of their legal rights. Prisons and labor camps are overcrowded, and inmates lack adequate food and health care. Amnesty International's 2001 report noted that at least 64 political prisoners have died in custody since 1988. However, conditions in some facilities have reportedly improved somewhat since the junta began allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisons in 1999.
The UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva condemns the regime each year for committing grave human rights abuses; this year's resolution, passed in April, accused Rangoon of "a continuing pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights," including extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; enforced disappearances; rape, torture, inhuman treatment, and forced labor, including the use of children; forced relocation and the denial of freedom of assembly, association, expression, religion, and movement; the lack of an independent judiciary; and delaying the process of national reconciliation and democratization.
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 U.S. State Department, and other sources. A report issued in May by the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women's Action Network accused the tatmadaw of systematically raping more than 600 women in Shan state between 1996 and 2001. Soldiers also routinely seize livestock, cash, property, food, and other goods from villagers, as well as destroying property.
Tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon states and Tenasserim Division remain in squalid and ill-equipped relocation centers set up by the army. The army forcibly moved the villagers to the sites in the 1990s as part of its counterinsurgency operations. Press reports suggested that the army continued to forcibly uproot villagers in Karen, Shan, and other states, and that an estimated two million people have been internally displaced by such tactics. 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.
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 and are 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 execution, rape, forced labor, and other abuses, according to reports by Human Rights Watch 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.
While army abuses are the most widespread, some rebel groups forcibly conscript civilians, commit extrajudicial killing and rape, and use women and children as porters, according to the U.S. State Department. A report issued in October by Human Rights Watch documented the widespread use of child-soldiers by insurgent groups as well as by the Burmese army.
Criminal gangs have in recent years trafficked thousands of Burmese women and girls, many from ethnic minority groups, to Thailand and other destinations for prostitution, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and other groups. Although Burmese women have traditionally enjoyed high social and economic status, they are underrepresented in the government and civil service.