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Burma received a downward trend arrow due to increased economic mismanagement and exploitation, including dramatic fuel-price increases in August 2007, and for the violent repression of subsequent protests.
A 500 percent fuel-price increase in August 2007 exacerbated already dire economic conditions in Burma, leading to a series of public protests that culminated in mass marches in Rangoon in late September. Protesters led by Buddhist monks called for greater political rights and better economic management. A violent government response smothered the protests and resulted in thousands of arrests and an unknown number of deaths. Meanwhile, the National Convention, tasked with drafting a new constitution as an ostensible first step toward democracy, concluded in September and issued constitutional guidelines that would guarantee continued military dominance. A government-appointed body is currently composing the final draft of the charter. Separately, severe human rights abuses and mass displacement continued in ethnic minority states during the year.
After occupation 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 that had been buffeted by an economic crisis and a raft of ethnic 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, led by General Than Shwe, dramatically asserted its power in 1988, when the army opened fire on peaceful, student-led, prodemocracy 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. However, the SLORC refused to cede power after it was defeated in a landslide election by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in 1990. The junta jailed dozens of members of the NLD, which had won 392 of the 485 parliamentary seats in Burma’s first free elections in three decades.
In an effort to improve the junta’s international image, Than Shwe and several other leading generals refashioned the SLORC into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997. In late 2000, encouraged by the efforts of UN special envoy Razali Ismail, the government began holding talks with NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which led to an easing of restrictions on the party by mid-2002. Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and allowed to make several political trips outside the capital, and the NLD was permitted to reopen a number of its branch offices.
Suu Kyi’s growing popularity and her revitalization of the NLD during the first half of 2003 apparently rattled hard-liners within the regime. On May 30, a deadly ambush on Suu Kyi’s NLD motorcade by SPDC supporters left an unknown number of people killed or injured. Suu Kyi and dozens of other NLD officials and supporters were detained following the attack, NLD offices were again shut down, and universities and schools were temporarily closed in a bid to suppress wider unrest. Since then, authorities have continually tried to undermine the popularity of the NLD. Suu Kyi was released from prison in September 2003 but remains under house arrest, as do other senior party leaders. Periodic arrests and detentions of political activists, journalists, and students remain the norm.
The junta organized an October 2004 government purge in which Khin Nyunt, the prime minister and head of military intelligence, was removed from office and placed under house arrest. A relative moderate, he had advocated limited dialogue with both the NLD and Burma’s armed ethnic factions. Hard-liner Lieutenant General Soe Win, who has been accused of masterminding the May 2003 attack on Suu Kyi, replaced him. In 2005, authorities began shifting the country’s capital 600 kilometers (370 miles) inland, to a new site called Nay Pyi Taw, near the town of Pyinmana. The city was officially designated the capital in 2006. Foreign embassies remain in Rangoon, however.
The National Convention, which was responsible for drafting principles for a new constitution but had not met since 1996, reconvened in May 2004 as part of a new “road map to democracy.” However, the convention was boycotted by the main political parties, which refused to take part under conditions of extreme political repression. The format and conduct of the proceedings were heavily restricted, as authorities handpicked most of the delegates and limited the scope of permissible debate. Although the convention was reconvened in February 2005 and October 2006 for short sessions, it was again boycotted by the NLD and the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD). The National Convention concluded its 14 years of deliberation in August 2007. The delegates agreed to draft principles that enshrined the military’s role in government, recommending that 25 percent of the seats in any future parliament be reserved for the military, and that the president have “significant” military experience. One article calls “for the Tatmadaw [Burmese security forces] to … participate in the national political leadership role of the state.” A measure preventing individuals with foreign-national spouses from running for parliament effectively bars Suu Kyi from government. In October, the government appointed 54 officials to draft the constitution in line with the convention’s recommendations.
A series of protests in 2007 raised international awareness of the dire economic and political conditions in Burma. At least 30 percent of the Burmese population lives in extreme poverty as a result of years of economic mismanagement and government corruption. Health care and education are extremely poor throughout the country. In February 2007, a rare protest in Rangoon called for lower inflation and better social services. Police briefly detained three journalists and one protester. Another small protest focused on economic conditions took place in April. Protests broke out across the country in August following a 500 percent fuel-price increase. Demonstrations were initially led by students and sought better economic management and greater political freedom. The 88 Generation Students, an emerging group comprised of dissidents active in the 1988 protests, were at the forefront of many protests. Demonstrations continued through September, despite the arrest of 60 activists during the first week of major protests. In mid-September, soldiers fired over the heads of protesting Buddhist monks. Leading monks demanded an apology, and when they failed to receive one, thousands of monks took to the streets on September 17. Many carried prodemocracy banners. They were joined and encouraged by the general populace.
Protests peaked on September 24, when approximately 100,000 demonstrators marched through Rangoon. The scale of the march prompted the government, which had allowed the monk-led protests to proceed generally unmolested, to launch a major crackdown. Warnings were issued against further protests, and a two-month nighttime curfew was announced. Troops flooded Rangoon’s streets and surrounded monasteries. Over the next week, protesters were beaten, arrested, and in some cases killed. The city then became quiet. The government claimed that 10 people died and 3,000 were arrested in the course of the crackdown. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a Burmese news organization, estimates that 138 were killed and 6,000 arrested.
The international community generally condemned the crackdown. In October, the United States and the European Union stepped up sanctions, but China and India, Burma’s key trading partners, did not follow suit. UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari traveled to Burma during the protests and again in November in an attempt to mediate between the junta and opposition leaders. Aung San Su Kyi met with government officials in October and, in November, was allowed to meet with members of the NLD for the first time in three years. However, the junta has rejected a UN mediation plan and shown no sign of deviating from its “roadmap to democracy.”
Burma is not an electoral democracy. The country continues to be governed by one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The SPDC rules by decree; controls all executive, legislative, and judicial powers; 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, as well as key positions in the private sector.
Since rejecting the results of the 1990 elections and preventing the unicameral, 485-seat People’s Assembly 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 supporters at a time to block planned party meetings. Hundreds of NLD members were arrested in the course of the fall 2007 protests, including several members of the central committee. The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a state-sponsored organization, frequently harassed, intimidated, and attacked opposition party members in 2007. Besides the NLD, there are more than 20 ethnic political parties that remain suppressed by the junta.
In a system that lacks both transparency and accountability, official corruption is rampant at both the national and local levels. Transparency International gave Burma, along with Somalia, the worst ranking out of 180 countries surveyed in its 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The junta sharply restricts press freedom and either owns or tightly controls all daily newspapers and broadcast media. Although the market for private publications is growing, the government subjects private periodicals to prepublication censorship and also restricts the importation of foreign news periodicals. Following the publication of a subversive advertisement in a state-run paper in August 2007, the government issued 28 new guidelines designed to tighten censorship of advertising. A Japanese cameraman was killed while covering the fall protests, and the government detained at least 15 other journalists. Rangoon journalists were warned not to cover the protests, and many local publications made no mention of the demonstrations for fear of government reprisal. The internet, which operates in a limited fashion in the cities, is tightly regulated and censored. During the September protests, dissidents used the internet to transmit images and videos to international news agencies, who then broadcasted the media within Burma through the internet or satellite television. In response, the government cut internet access in late September. Access was restored on October 6.
Ordinary Burmese can worship with some freedom. However, the junta shows a 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. Nonetheless, during protests in October 2007, monks were beaten, arrested, and in some cases killed by the Tatmadaw. The government also banned public gatherings by monks and maintained close surveillance on monasteries, many of which have now been abandoned. Many of the thousands of monks arrested in the crackdown were still being held without charge at year’s end. Meanwhile, violence and discrimination against the Muslim and Christian minorities continues to be a problem.
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 prodemocracy demonstrations, the junta has sporadically closed universities, limiting higher education opportunities for a generation of young Burmese. Most campuses have been relocated to relatively isolated areas to disperse the student population.
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 prodemocracy activists from organizing events or meetings. During the fall 2007 protests, the government imposed curfews and beat or arrested thousands of peaceful protesters. Several hundred are estimated to have been killed by the Tatmadaw.
Some public sector employees, as well as other ordinary citizens, are compelled to join the USDA. Domestic human rights organizations are unable to function independently, and the regime generally dismisses critical scrutiny of its human rights record by international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In February 2006, the government released new guidelines that further restricted NGOs, leading Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue to cease activities in Burma. However, many small NGOs provide social services in remote areas.
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 continues to use forced labor despite formally banning the practice in October 2000. Laborers are commandeered to construct roads, clear minefields, porter for the army, or work on military-backed commercial ventures. The practice appears to be most widespread in states populated by ethnic minorities. In February 2007, however, the government pledged to allow victims of forced labor to submit complaints to local offices of the International Labor Organization without fear of retaliation.
The judiciary is not independent. Judges 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 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 2007 human rights report.
Detailed reports issued by Amnesty International have raised a number of concerns about the administration of justice, highlighting laws and practices regarding detention, torture, trial, and conditions of imprisonment. The frequently used Decree 5/96, issued in 1996, authorizes prison terms of up to 20 years for aiding activities “which adversely affect the national interest.” Although the junta released some political prisoners in early 2007, prior to the fall protests there were about 1,150 political prisoners in Burma. Thousands more were arrested in September and October, many of whom remained in custody at year’s end. Political prisoners are frequently held incommunicado in pretrial detention, facilitating the use of torture and other forms of coercion, and are denied access to family members, legal counsel, and medical care. Prisons are often overcrowded, and in 2006 the International Committee for the Red Cross was barred from conducting visits to prison facilities.
Some of the worst human rights abuses take place in the seven states populated by ethnic minorities, who comprise roughly 35 percent of Burma’s overall population. In these border states, the Tatmadaw kill, beat, rape, and arbitrarily detain civilians. The Chin, Karen, and Rohingya minorities are frequent victims of violence and repression. According to a March 2007 report released by the Women’s League of Chinland, Burmese soldiers rape and beat Chin women with impunity and are promised 100,000 kyat ($16,000) for marrying Chin women as part of a strategy of “Burmanization.” A 2006 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news report noted that the vast majority of Rohingya are denied citizenship and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, their right to own land, and their ability to marry. However, in January 2007, some 35,000 identification cards were issued to Rohingya in a first step toward citizenship.
Seventeen rebel groups have reached ceasefire deals with the junta since 1989, under which they have been granted effective administrative authority in the areas under their control and are able to retain their own militias. However, the junta continues to face low-grade insurgencies by the Karen National Liberation Army and at least five other ethnic rebel armies. Some rebel groups have displaced villagers, used forced labor, and recruited child soldiers, according to the U.S. State Department's 2007 human rights report. In November 2005, the army stepped up its attacks in Karen State, leading to a prolonged offensive that has continued through 2007. Several reports have accused the Burmese military of targeting civilians and destroying fields and food supplies. Approximately 40,000 Karen have been displaced as a result of the attacks. Tens of thousands of ethnic minorities in Shan, Karenni, Karen, and Mon states remain in squalid and ill-equipped relocation centers set up by the military. In addition, according to Refugees International, several million Burmese have fled to neighboring countries. Thailand hosts at least 150,000 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. An estimated 26,000 Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Burmese women have traditionally enjoyed high social and economic status, but domestic violence is a growing concern, and women remain underrepresented in the government and civil service. Several 2007 reports by the Women’s League of Burma detailed an ongoing nationwide pattern of sexual violence—including rape, sexual slavery, and forced marriage—against women by SPDC military personnel and other authorities. Violence against women is particularly common in minority states. Criminal gangs have in recent years trafficked thousands of women and girls, many from ethnic minority groups, to Thailand and other destinations for prostitution, according to reports by Human Rights Watch and other organizations.