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A number of positive developments noted in Burma last year were not sustained in 2003. The increasing latitude granted by the ruling military junta to the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) was withdrawn in dramatic fashion in May, when supporters of the regime violently attacked an NLD convoy in northern Burma, leaving an unknown number of people dead, injured, or missing. Subsequently, party leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a number of NLD officials were placed under indefinite detention, NLD offices were once again shut down, and universities and schools were closed in a bid to suppress wider unrest. Following these setbacks, the tentative process of national reconciliation begun in 2000 has all but collapsed, and the 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, dramatically asserted its power in 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 created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country. The SLORC refused to cede power after it was defeated in a landslide election by the NLD in 1990. 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. 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 from house arrest and was allowed to make several political trips outside the capital, and the NLD was permitted to re-open a number of its branch offices. Nevertheless, press reports continued to note that meaningful discussion between Suu Kyi and the junta over the future restoration of democracy was not forthcoming, leading many analysts to remain doubtful about the regime's intentions.
Suu Kyi's growing popularity and her revitalization of the NLD as a political force during the first half of 2003, especially in the sensitive ethnic minority areas, may have rattled hardliners within the regime. On May 30, a deadly ambush on an NLD convoy in northern Burma by SPDC supporters illustrated the lengths to which the SPDC would go to limit a NLD challenge. Suu Kyi and dozens of other NLD officials and supporters were detained, many in undisclosed locations, for several months following the attack. Suu Kyi's detention and the junta's subsequent crackdown led to international outrage. Japan, the country's largest aid donor, has suspended its aid program until Suu Kyi is released. In July, the U.S. government passed the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act, which bans Burmese imports into the United States, authorizes the president to aid Burmese democracy activists, freezes the regime's financial assets in U.S. banks, and imposes a widened visa ban on Burmese officials attempting to enter the U.S.
A major cabinet reshuffle in August left hardliner Than Shwe as head of state, while the more pragmatic intelligence chief Khin Nyunt was promoted to prime minister. Although the regime then announced a new "roadmap to democracy," it did not provide details of a proposed timetable for its implementation. As talks with ethnic communities and the SPDC have evolved, the NLD has been openly excluded from discussions. In September, Suu Kyi was released into house arrest following a major medical operation, in what some analysts saw as a face-saving move to placate the international community. However, the fact that she remains a prisoner and the continuing crackdowns on the NLD cast doubt on the junta's claim that it remains willing to consider meaningful positive reform.
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 both at the higher and local levels.
Since rejecting the results of the 1990 elections and preventing the elected parliament from convening, the junta has all but paralyzed the victorious NLD party. Authorities have jailed many NLD leaders, pressured thousands of party members and officials to resign, closed party offices, harassed members' families, and periodically detained hundreds of NLD members at a time to block planned party meetings. After being allowed somewhat greater freedoms during 2002, the NLD was subjected to another crackdown in 2003. Besides the NLD, there are more than 20 ethnic political parties that remain suppressed by the junta. According to a report published in May by the International Crisis Group, ethnic minority groups feel that they are denied a role in national political life and do not have a chance to influence policy decisions that affect their lives.
The junta sharply restricts press freedom, owning or tightly controlling all daily newspapers and radio and television stations. It also subjects most private periodicals to prepublication censorship and restricts the importation of foreign news periodicals. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, those caught listening to foreign radio broadcasts can be arrested. Local media were forbidden to report on a banking crisis in February, and coverage of the May 30 disturbances was limited to pro-government propaganda. A number of journalists and writers remained in jail throughout the year as a result of expressing dissident views. Publishers faced additional difficulties when the price of newsprint rose by almost 50 percent following the imposition of U.S. sanctions in July, according to the BBC.
Ordinary Burmese generally can worship relatively freely. However, the junta shows preference for Theravada Buddhism, discriminating against non-Buddhists in the upper levels of the public sector and coercively promoting Buddhism in some ethnic minority areas. The regime has also 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 2002 Human Rights Watch report alleged that the government had failed to protect Muslims from a significant increase in anti-Muslim violence, and that it had imposed restrictions on Muslim religious activities and travel.
Academic freedom is severely limited; teachers are subject to restrictions on freedom of expression and publication and are held accountable for the political activities of their students. Since the 1988 student pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta has sporadically closed universities, limiting higher educational opportunities for a generation of young Burmese. Most campuses were relocated to relatively isolated areas as a measure to disperse the student population. Following the clashes in May, the junta once again closed the country's high schools and universities, fearing student unrest. Two students were killed when the military violently suppressed a student demonstration held on May 31 to protest the attack on Suu Kyi, according to Amnesty International.
Authorities continued to infringe on citizens' privacy rights by arbitrarily searching homes, intercepting mail, and monitoring telephone conversations. Laws and decrees criminalize the possession and use of unregistered electronic devices, including telephones, fax machines, computers, modems, and software. The Internet, which operates in a limited fashion in the cities, is tightly regulated and censored.
Freedoms of association and assembly are restricted. An ordinance prohibits unauthorized outdoor gatherings of more than five people, and authorities regularly use force to break up peaceful demonstrations and prevent pro-democracy activists from organizing events or meetings. However, nearly all public sector employees, as well as other ordinary citizens, are induced to join the pro-junta mass mobilization organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA). Domestic human rights organizations are unable to function independently, and the regime generally dismisses critical scrutiny of its human rights record from international NGOs and journalists, although it did permit Amnesty International to visit for the first time in January. The few nongovernmental groups that are able to work in Burma generally work in health care and other nominally nonpolitical fields.
Independent trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are illegal, and several labor activists are serving long prison terms for their political and labor activities. 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 to "review" their relations with Burma. The ILO and other sources report that soldiers routinely force civilians, including women and children, to work without pay under harsh conditions. Laborers are commandeered to 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 plan drafted jointly by the ILO and the junta during early 2003 that outlined measures to address the problem was tabled after the May 30 attack on the NLD.
The judiciary is not independent; justices are appointed or approved by the junta and adjudicate cases according to the junta's decrees. Administrative detention laws allow people to be held without charge, trial, or access to legal counsel for up to five years if the SPDC feels that they have threatened the state's security or sovereignty. Some basic due process rights are reportedly observed in ordinary criminal cases, but not in political cases, according to the U.S. State Department's annual human rights 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.
A detailed report issued by Amnesty International in July raised a number of concerns regarding the administration of justice in Burma, including laws and practices regarding detention, torture, trial, and conditions of imprisonment. Prisons and labor camps are overcrowded, and inmates lack adequate food and health care. Amnesty International's 2002 annual report noted that torture during interrogation continues to be a problem, and that at least 73 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.
Although the junta announced in late July that 91 people arrested in the aftermath of the May 30 violence had been released, more than 1,300 political prisoners remain incarcerated, according to Amnesty International. Most 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 up to 20 years for aiding activities "which adversely affect the national interest." In September, on the eve of another visit by Amnesty International, a handful of prisoners were released, almost all over the age of 80.
The UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva condemns the regime each year for committing grave human rights abuses. Annual resolutions commonly highlight a systematic pattern of 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. A report issued in May by Refugees International accused the army of practicing the "widespread and systematic" rape of ethnic minority women in a number of states. Soldiers also routinely destroy property and seize livestock, cash, property, food, and other goods from villagers.
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 has forcibly moved the villagers to the sites since the mid-1990s as part of its counterinsurgency operations. Press reports suggested that the army continues to uproot villagers forcibly, and that approximately 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by such tactics. In addition, several million Burmese are estimated to have fled to neighboring countries, according to Refugees International. Thailand continues to host at least 135,000 Karen, Mon, and Karenni in refugee camps near the Burmese border, as well as hundreds of thousands more who have not been granted refugee status.
The junta has committed serious abuses against the Muslim Rohingya minority in northern Arakan state. Because the junta denies them citizenship, the Rohingyas face restrictions on their movement and the right to own land and are barred from secondary education and most civil service jobs. More than 250,000 Rohingyas remain in neighboring 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 UN High Commission for Refugees closed its offices on the border in July but serious problems remain. A number of ethnic minority groups complain of systematic discrimination at the hands of the regime, including a lack of representation in the government and military, economic marginalization, and the suppression of their cultural and religious rights.
The junta continues to face low-grade insurgencies waged by the Karen National Union (KNU) and at least five smaller ethnic-based rebel armies. A number of other rebel groups, however, have reached ceasefire deals with the junta since 1989, under which they have been granted effective administrative authority of the areas under their control. 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 2002 Human Rights Watch report documented the widespread use of child-soldiers by some 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.