THE CURRENT HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION IN BURMA Briefing Notes by Kevin Heppner, Karen Human Rights Group


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THE CURRENT HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION IN BURMA Briefing Notes by Kevin Heppner, Karen Human Rights Group

Published date:
Tuesday, September 5, 1995

The Karen Human Rights Group is an independent human rights monitoring and reporting group based in Karen-held areas of Burma. It gathers and reports testimony and information directly from villagers regarding the human rights situation. Our focus is on the southern and eastern regions of Burma, and most of the villagers we deal with are non-Burman, such as Karen and Mon people. However, we also collect firsthand information from Burman and other ethnic groups whenever possible, and have found that a similar climate of systematic and horrendous human rights abuse exists nationwide. This document summarizes some of the current trends in the human rights situation applying throughout Burma.

The Military and Political Situation

Since July 10, the release of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been the main focus of international attention on Burma. Unfortunately, this has made many people ignore other events which are happening there and which have much more direct and profound effects on the lives of the people. As Aung San Suu Kyi herself remarked, "I have been released. That is all. Nothing else has changed." The day after her release, the SLORC (State Law & Order Restoration Council) military junta which rules Burma mounted new and intensified military offensives against the Karenni and Karen peoples. In the Karenni case, the attacks were against areas ceded to the Karenni by SLORC in a ceasefire deal struck only 3 months ago; SLORC has now openly and directly shattered that ceasefire. In the Karen case, the new SLORC attacks are against the Karen National Union’s 4th Brigade headquarters area, part of the SLORC’s campaign of major offensives against the Karen which resumed in January 1995. The Karen headquarters at Manerplaw and a stronghold at Kawmoora fell to SLORC in January and February. Many people overseas have wrongly assumed that this means the KNU no longer has a fighting force. The KNU continues to control extensive territory in its southern 4th Brigade area, as well as areas in 6th Brigade (north of 3 Pagodas Pass) and areas north of Papun. In most Karen areas, fighting is continuing between KNU forces and SLORC.

A major factor allowing the SLORC to succeed in its offensives this year has been the "Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army" (DKBA) formed in December 1994 by controversial Buddhist monk U Thuzana. Since 1993, SLORC units have been inciting Buddhist Karens, who form the majority, to rise up against Christian Karens, who form the KNU leadership. This campaign was successful due to the continuing military stalemate, the suffering of the villagers under SLORC abuses, and the lack of effort by the KNU leadership to address the needs of the villagers. The result was the formation of the DKBA - hundreds of Karen soldiers left their posts to join, and many Buddhist Karen villagers supported the movement. SLORC provided arms, ammunition, uniforms, even written political statements. Karen soldiers who refused to join were disarmed or executed, and as Karen positions weakened SLORC forces quickly moved in to occupy them. The DKBA’s stated ambition was to take over from the KNU - but not being nearly strong enough to do this, they allied themselves with SLORC. SLORC forces could then mount offensives on major KNU positions, using DKBA troops with intimate knowledge of these positions as guides and intelligence operatives. Karen positions quickly fell and were occupied by SLORC troops, while SLORC claimed the offensives and occupations were carried out entirely by DKBA forces. SLORC then used the same tactic in an attempt to rid itself of the embarrassing refugee situation in Thailand. Between February and May, SLORC units together with DKBA forces were sent to invade Thailand and attack and destroy Karen refugee camps. Thousands of refugees were forced to return to Burma at gunpoint or through armed coercion. Thousands more became homeless. The Thai Army were shown in the media "protecting the camps", but in reality they were deployed around Thai towns and did nothing at all to protect the refugees. SLORC, through the DKBA, is now using the threat of further attacks on Thai territory to coerce the Thai government into forcibly repatriating all Karen refugees. The Thai government has now moved at least 20,000 Karen refugees into larger, more controlled camps which they say are soon to be forcibly repatriated to Burma.

At the same time, there are growing signs of rifts between SLORC and the DKBA. DKBA rations have been cut, forcing them to loot villages; some less-than-cooperative DKBA members have been removed or executed; SLORC patrols shadow DKBA units and issue contradictory orders to villages; some DKBA members increasingly talk about fighting SLORC. Most villagers have now turned away from the DKBA, looking on it as a SLORC militia, and most of the Karen soldiers who initially formed the DKBA have now left. The bulk of DKBA troops now are conscripted villagers.

The SLORC’s major offensive against the Mong Tai Army (MTA) in southern Shan State is also continuing, causing the widespread destruction of villages and the taking of thousands of villagers as SLORC munitions porters, many of whom die. Thousands of villagers are attempting to escape to Thailand but are blocked at the border by Thai troops who hand them back to SLORC. The international community gives its tacit consent to this offensive because SLORC claims it is trying to wipe out Khun Sa, a player in the opium and heroin trade. However, most observers feel that SLORC is not attacking the MTA because of the drug trade, but because it represents Shan resistance; in fact, most of the opium and heroin is now produced in areas controlled by SLORC or its state-sanctioned militias and groups such as the Wa who have signed deals with SLORC.

1995 has seen the SLORC largely abandon its rhetoric of ceasefires and return to its attempts to "crush" all forms of resistance through the country. Only when groups have been effectively "crushed" will they be offered surrender terms under the name of a ceasefire. After agreeing a ceasefire with the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), the SLORC announced in its media that the KNPP had surrendered. After the KNPP publicly denounced the SLORC for this, SLORC broke the ceasefire and resumed military attacks. After using Thai pressure to back the New Mon State Party (NMSP) into a corner, the SLORC forced them to accept its "ceasefire" terms in July - but the terms of the deal are more like a surrender, and SLORC refused to negotiate on any points. To date, the SLORC has continued to rebuff the approaches of the KNU for ceasefire talks, most likely because SLORC feels it has not backed the KNU far enough into a corner yet to be able to dictate surrender terms. Therefore, the attacks on the KNU continue.

Whenever SLORC is engaged in particularly ruthless action in some part of the country, it has a history of always trying to divert attention by some seemingly "positive" act in some other region. This is largely why the SLORC has released Aung San Suu Kyi. This year SLORC has faced an increasing threat of international censure and domestic instability due to worsening repression of people nationwide, the further collapse of the economy, and the resumption of major offensives against the ethnic peoples; by suddenly releasing her, they have been fairly successful in diverting attention away from much of what is really going on in the country and focussing it only on her and her colleagues who are still in prison.

The Human Rights Situation

The SLORC Army continues to expand and strengthen its grip over all aspects of life throughout the country. The number of Infantry Battalions is being doubled and trebled in areas all over the country, including areas far from any fighting. Each Battalion confiscates land without compensation for its camps, evicts the farmers, and then forces all the local villages to provide money, materials, and forced labour to construct the camp. Once Battalions are established, every village in the area must send people to do forced labour maintaining the trenches, bunkers and fences, cutting firewood, carrying water, delivering messages, and other duties for the soldiers, as well as acting as munitions and supply porters whenever soldiers go out on patrol. Women are often raped at the camp. Villagers doing this labour are not paid and must bring all their own food. After their shift of 5 days or a week, they are not freed until their replacements arrive. Each village must provide such labour to every Army camp in its area. At the same time, the village must pay "fees" to every camp. This is extortion money which SLORC labels as "porter fees", "sentry fees", "development fund", "railway fees", "pagoda fees", "sports fees", and other meaningless names. The money goes to the pockets of the military officers. Each village has to pay such fees to every Army camp in the area, usually totalling several hundred to several thousand Kyat per family per month. The Karen Human Rights Group recently looked at figures for 28 typical villages in Tenasserim Division ranging from 20 to a few hundred houses per village, and found that these villages were being forced to pay 1,987,000 Kyat per month to SLORC and provide 1,178 forced labourers at all times - not including ad hoc extortion money or labourers rounded up by SLORC patrols. The average subsistence farming family does not have so much money on a monthly basis, and they must gradually sell all their livestock, jewellery and other assets to pay. When all this is gone, they must flee their village because failure to pay results in torture or summary execution of village elders, forced relocation of the entire village to a SLORC labour camp, or burning of the village. The community structure is breaking down throughout Burma because of this. The village is no longer viable as a social unit, because it is too vulnerable to repression and retaliation by the SLORC Army. Villagers everywhere are finding they have no choice but to break up the village, abandon their land and scatter to become migrant day labourers.

Rural subsistence farmers are being forced to hand over increasing quotas of rice and other crops to the military, some of it for nothing and some for less than a quarter of market price. In 1994, record-breaking monsoon rains wiped out rice crops in many areas throughout the country, while increased demands for the forced labour of farmers forced them to neglect their fields. The result was a very small rice crop insufficient to get the farmers through 1995; however, SLORC did not decrease the quotas. As a result, many more farmers had their land confiscated by the military for failure to pay quota, and many were arrested and held under torture, often accused of "giving their rice to insurgents". SLORC Battalions, particularly those in areas where there is no fighting such as the central Burmese plains, are confiscating more and more prime farmland. The farmers are evicted without compensation, then villagers in the area are ordered to do forced labour clearing, planting, weeding and harvesting cash crops, which the military then sells entirely for its own profit. A SLORC military commander from near Toungoo who was notorious for confiscating thousands of hectares of farmland and forcing villagers to dig fishponds for the military has recently been promoted to be SLORC’s Minister for Development of Border Areas and National Races. This Ministry has to date been responsible for mass slave labour projects such as the Loikaw-Aung Ban railway and many slave labour hydro dams. Even so, the Ministry was named in 1992 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as the ideal focus for UN aid, and the same Ministry is now to receive some of the bilateral aid money which Japan has offered to SLORC in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release.

The SLORC is expanding its program of major infrastructure projects using civilian forced labour. Some of these projects are related to "Visit Myanmar Year 1996", such as work on airports, major roads and tourist sites. Others, such as the notorious Ye-Tavoy railway in southern Burma, aim to give the Army better access to outlying regions to strengthen its control. These projects are implemented by sending orders to all villages demanding thousands of labourers on a rotating basis. The villagers must bring all their food and tools for shifts ranging from several days to several weeks. At the worksite they are under guard and must sleep on the ground or under shelters they build themselves. Children as young as 8 and men and women as old as 70 are forced to break rocks and carry dirt. On projects such as the Ye-Tavoy railway and the Rangoon-Pegu highway, pregnant women forced to work have gone into early labour and died giving birth in the dirt with no medical care - other villagers are not even allowed by the guards to leave their work to help them. The same villages that are forced to provide labour are also forced to pay for the projects - fees are usually set by determining how much money a village has each month, and demanding all of it.

Arbitrary arrest and torture, shootings of civilians, summary executions, gang rape with impunity, the enslavement and beating to death of munitions porters, burning of villages and crops, and forced relocation to "satellite towns" or SLORC labour camps, are all continuing without restraint or abatement, whether or not there is fighting in the area concerned. These activities continue to be standard procedure for SLORC troops whenever civilians fail to obey orders or are incapable of paying the money demanded or performing the labour assigned to them. SLORC appears to be trying to create the appearance of improvement in the cities to impress foreign tourists and businesspeople - for example, by removing soldiers from the streets, ordering city dwellers to beautify the exterior of their homes or be evicted, and demanding money in lieu of forced labour from most city dwellers - but the price for these false "improvements" is being borne by the rural villagers who are out of sight of the world community. As fewer city dwellers are demanded for forced labour, more rural people are demanded in their place. Most of the hundreds of millions of Kyat being looted every month from rural villages is being sent by military officers to enrich their families in the cities, creating a false "upper middle class". These military-connected families can then use this capital to open the "civilian" businesses which are giving foreign visitors the impression of economic reform and improvement. However, even these families must have the proper SLORC connections or the money to buy them; anyone in Burma who tries to start a business without paying his dues to SLORC very quickly finds himself shut down and possibly in prison. The "free market" and "economic reform" in Burma are myths.

In this environment, foreign investment only strengthens the SLORC without benefitting the people. All foreign investors must go through SLORC and its front companies such as Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd. or Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, and must establish joint ventures with SLORC officials or civilians connected with them. For the average person in Burma, the only effects of foreign investment he or she sees are spiralling inflation and increased hardship. The gross daily wage of a civil servant is not even enough to buy plain uncooked rice for a family of four for the day, not to mention other foods, clothing, and housing. In Rangoon, hotels being built by foreign companies are taking the water and electricity supply away from the local population - the result could be a serious disease problem among people who have no money to buy black market medicine. In rural areas, there are growing indications that foreign investment and SLORC’s desire to export agricultural goods are leading directly to increased confiscation of farmland by the military to create forced labour farms, and increased crop quotas imposed on subsistence farmers. This is happening in areas where up to 50% of children are suffering malnutrition and where many people are dying from treatable diseases complicated by malnutrition. One example which bears further study is the investment of PepsiCo, which sponsored a SLORC international trade fair in Rangoon in 1994. PepsiCo is now engaged in "countertrade", a system used to repatriate its profits which involves using domestic profits to buy agricultural cash crops such as mung beans. However, the only commercial farms which produce such crops are owned by SLORC, usually using confiscated farmland and forced labour.

Currently, the most clearcut case of the effect of foreign investment is a natural gas pipeline project in southern Burma. The project, a joint venture of French oil company TOTAL, the USA’s Unocal, SLORC’s MOGE, and Thailand’s PTTEP, involves constructing a gas pipeline from offshore deposits in the Martaban Gulf, across southern Burma to power plants in Thailand. Surveying on the route is just about complete and clearing is about to begin. The route passes through populated areas, untouched rainforest, and territory which is partly controlled by the Karen and Mon governments, both of which have vowed to stop the pipeline project. The oil companies have not even attempted to contact these governments, apparently barred from doing so by their contract with SLORC. Instead, SLORC has forcibly relocated at least a dozen villages from the area, flooded the area with at least 12 Light Infantry Battalions and has conducted a major military offensive throughout 1995 to attempt to secure the eastern half of the route. Thousands of villagers from the coastal areas have been rounded up and taken as munitions porters into the jungles, where they are forced to carry 40-kilo loads and starved, then beaten to death when they can no longer carry. The offensive is not yet completed. In the more populated coastal area, TOTAL has established a base camp surrounded by wire and hundreds of SLORC combat troops as guards. The oil company employees only travel together with SLORC combat columns, and often fly in military helicopters. When a SLORC combat column was attacked in March by Karen forces who didn’t know there were pipeline surveyors with the column, SLORC retaliated by demanding 100,000 Kyat from each of 6 villages in the area and threatening to destroy them if they didn’t pay. TOTAL arranged with SLORC to hire labourers for survey work from February to May; however, they left the hiring procedure to SLORC, so only those with SLORC connections or those who paid large bribes were hired. Even then, SLORC troops rounded up civilians as forced labour to do heavy bush clearing work for the pipeline survey. The huge influx of troops to secure the pipeline area near the coast is also causing extensive land confiscation and forced labour to build army camps as well as increased extortion, looting, other abuses and forced labour to support all the new troops. People are already fleeing the area toward the Thai border, and the situation is only likely to worsen as the clearing of the route begins in the 1995-96 dry season.

Thousands of refugees continue to attempt to flee to Thailand from central Burma as well as Mon, Tavoyan, Karen, Karenni, and Shan regions. Refugees from Shan State are being forcibly handed back to SLORC by Thai troops. Mon refugees forcibly repatriated in 1994 are being cut off from cross-border aid from Thailand. The Thai National Security Council is talking about mass forced repatriation (refoulement) of all remaining refugees starting in January 1996. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has indicated that it will probably cooperate in this forced repatriation. The UNHCR argues that the refoulement will occur with or without its involvement, so it may as well cooperate to try to lessen the suffering involved. However, past experience shows that the Thai government is vulnerable to international opinion and has previously stopped some forced repatriations because of international pressure. The UNHCR seems to have no plan to pressure the Thais in any way. Instead, they point to the ongoing forced repatriation of 300,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Burma as a model. UNHCR officials have admitted that the Rohingya are the first case where UNHCR has supported repatriation without any evident change in the home country which the refugees fled in the first place. Detailed studies and surveys by independent Non-Governmental Organizations have shown that most of the refugees feel it is unsafe to return and do not want to go, but they are being kept unaware of their supposed right to refuse and coerced or forced into going by UNHCR and Bangladeshi officials. Those who refuse to go have had their food rations cut off, some have been beaten, and their appeals have been ignored by the UNHCR. UNHCR officials have refused to distribute information to refugees on their right to refuse, and instead of addressing the concerns raised by the independent NGO surveys the UNHCR has resorted to denouncing the surveys as invalid and making veiled threats against the NGOs involved. In June 1995, UNHCR released a propaganda report on the repatriation glossing over the problems and making it out to be a completely voluntary and happy process. Should they attempt the same procedure in Thailand, they may find that the refugees there have access to more outside information than do the Rohingya, and that they will not go without a struggle.

Conclusions and Recommendations

SLORC’s release of Aung San Suu Kyi should only be seen as a positive sign if it is accompanied by other and very significant steps to improve the political and human rights situation in the country. It appears that no such steps are forthcoming. On the contrary, SLORC has noticeably become more hardline over the past year. Major offensives against ethnic peoples have resumed and intensified; several ceasefires have been violated; the human rights situation continues to worsen nationwide; the SLORC has largely abandoned talk of "peace" and "brotherhood" through ceasefires and returned to its rhetoric of 1988-92, speaking of "crushing" all opposition. In the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release SLORC has not made any concessions, but has gone quiet, most likely to monitor the effects of her release and mount a new clampdown should there be any sign of threat to their power.

In these circumstances, it is imperative to maintain and increase international pressure on SLORC. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release itself should be seen as a sign that international pressure can work, but if this pressure stops now no real reforms will occur.

The international community must press SLORC to immediately cease all military offensives and commence round table talks with Burmese pro-democracy groups and political parties, elected Members of Parliament, and legitimate representatives of ethnic opposition groups; to immediately cease all use of forced labour for the military; to immediately begin decreasing the size of its Army and withdrawing most of its troops from most areas; to take steps toward bringing human rights violators to trial; and to take all other necessary steps toward improving the human rights situation and transferring power to an elected civilian government.

In order to effect this pressure, foreign governments, trading blocs and the United Nations must use both diplomatic and economic means. As foreign investment is only worsening the suffering of the people of Burma, economic sanctions such as those in the "Free Burma Act", U.S. Senate Bill S1092, should be supported. National, provincial, state and municipal governments can help by enacting Selective Purchasing legislation to encourage companies to divest from the SLORC economy.


Finally, direct political pressure is urgently needed on the Thai and Bangladeshi governments as well as the UNHCR to stop all ongoing and imminent forced repatriation of refugees to Burma. Neither the Rohingya in Bangladesh nor the refugees in Thailand feel it is safe to return until there are significant changes in Burma, and all evidence supports their view. Immediate pressure must be put on the Thai government to allow civilian refugees from the SLORC’s offensive in southern Shan State to take temporary asylum in Thailand.