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World Report Burma 2007
Human Rights Watch - January 11, 2007
Burma’s international isolation deepened during 2006 as the authoritarian military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), continued to restrict basic rights and freedoms and waged brutal counterinsurgency operations against ethnic minorities. The democratic movement inside the country remained suppressed, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other political activists continued to be detained or imprisoned. International efforts to foster change in Burma were thwarted by the SPDC and sympathetic neighboring governments.
These regressions were epitomized by the SPDC’s move in November 2005 to a new “administrative capitol” called Nay Pyi Taw, 300 kilometers north of Rangoon and deep in the interior. The regime relocated key ministries and thousands of public servants to the purpose-built city during 2006, and notified foreign embassies that they could begin voluntary relocation during 2007. No official reason was given for the surprise move, although the main factors appear to include concerns over possible civilian protests in Rangoon, foreign criticism of the SPDC, a fear of a foreign military intervention, and the need to locate the SPDC more centrally to direct its military campaigns against ethnic insurgencies along the eastern border. Forced labor was used in building the capitol, and many public servants were given no choice over moving there.
Lack of Progress on Democracy and Human Rights
There was no progress in 2006 on national reconciliation or the 2003 “road map” for a transition to democracy. In May, National League for Democracy (NLD) leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention was extended by another year despite continuing international calls for her release. This marks her eleventh year under house arrest, where she is held in solitary confinement and denied most visitors, newspapers, telephone, or correspondence.
On September 27 three members of the “88 Students Generation,” Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, and Htay Kywe, were arrested in Rangoon for issuing a statement in support of an impending United Nations Security Council debate on Burma. As of this writing they remain imprisoned. More than 1,200 people are imprisoned for their political beliefs and activities. Most political party offices, including the NLD’s, remain closed or under strict surveillance, and political party activities are generally curtailed.
The protracted National Convention to write a new constitution was suspended again in January, and resumed on October 10 at Nyaunghnapin camp in Hnawby township near Rangoon. The SPDC claimed that 75 percent of the work on the constitution had been completed. This process has involved many legal political parties and ethnic militias with which the government has signed a ceasefire, but many more have been excluded. All of the discussions have been conducted within strict guidelines that deter debate or dissent.
Continued Violence against Ethnic Groups
In the conflict areas, human rights violations such as forced labor for Burmese army units, rape of women and girls, and summary executions continue. Army predation on the civilian population for money, land, and food is widespread.
A large-scale military offensive in northern Karen state during 2006 displaced an estimated 27,000 civilians, and destroyed some 232 villages and their crops and food stocks. Scores of civilians were killed and thousands taken as forced porters to support the operation. Prisoners were used as forced porters, and many of them were summarily executed during operations. Ceasefire talks with factions of the Karen National Union (KNU) broke down in October.
In Shan state, leaders of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) continued to be incarcerated following their arrest in 2005, with one member dying in prison from ill-treatment in 2006. A faction of the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) surrendered to the SPDC in June, but soon broke the agreement and many of its members returned to the SSA-S. The SPDC has pressured ethnic ceasefire militias, including the Wa and Pa-O armies, into attacking the SSA-S. The SPDC uses other ethnic militias as auxiliary forces to suppress the rural population. Many of these militias are thought to be financing themselves through trade in illegal drugs.
The SPDC continues to forcibly recruit children into its armed forces.
Humanitarian Concerns, Internal Displacement, and Refugees
Internal displacement in minority ethnic areas continues to be a serious concern, with over 500,000 civilians deemed to be internally displaced in eastern Burma, and thousands more whose numbers cannot be reliably ascertained, in parts of the country where effective monitoring is impossible. The SPDC restricts the activities of foreign aid agencies generally, and blocks humanitarian aid to areas of ongoing conflict. Untreated cases of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other illnesses have reached serious levels.
In February 2006 the SPDC issued new guidelines setting out the rules for travel, partnerships and project implementation of all international agencies, including the UN. Significant variation between the English and Burmese texts of the guidelines raised fears that there would be disagreements in interpretation between agencies and SPDC authorities. As a result of these restrictions, some aid agencies withdrew from Burma, most notably Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Following the 2005 withdrawal of the multi-sectoral Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Three Disease Fund, which provides funding for treatment, pledged US$100 million over the next five years for health projects. Independent of the SPDC and of the mainly European and Australian donors, this Fund is run by the UN Office for Project Services, and is scheduled to begin work in late 2006.
The Thai army continues to restrict refugees coming into Thailand, although more than 2,000 Karen civilians fleeing the fighting in northern Karen state were permitted into established camps. A small Shan refugee camp was ordered to move back into Burma in April 2006 by Thai authorities, although this order was soon rescinded and the refugees were permitted to stay, but newer Shan refugees are not allowed in. In total there are some 156,000 refugees from Burma in Thailand. In August the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and a senior US State Department official visited a refugee camp in Thailand and pledged more assistance for refugee resettlement to third countries. In a positive development, the US government in May and August issued waivers for many ethnic Karen refugees on the material support condition under Homeland Security guidelines, permitting them to resettle in the United States.
In May 2006 UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari visited the new capital Nay Pyi Taw and spoke with Burmese President Than Shwe and other SPDC leaders, who assured him that national reconciliation efforts were proceeding on schedule. Gambari also visited Aung San Suu Kyi (the visit was two days before her detention was again extended). The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, has not been permitted to visit the country since November 2003. His report to the UN General Assembly in September detailed “continuing impunity” by SPDC officials, which has resulted in “the criminalization of the exercise of fundamental freedoms by political opponents, human rights defenders and victims of human rights abuses.” Razali Ismael resigned as the UN Secretary General special envoy in January 2006 because the SPDC continued to deny him permission to visit since March 2004. He has not been replaced.
In December 2005 and again in May 2006 the UN Security Council (UNSC) held briefings on conditions in Burma to determine whether the country constituted a threat to international peace. On September 29, 2006, the Security Council discussed Burma as part of its formal agenda, but opposition from China and Russia frustrated attempts to pass a resolution.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) called on the SPDC to cease prosecuting Burmese citizens who report incidents of forced labor to the ILO. Two Burmese citizens, Su Su Nway and Aye Myint, had charges against them dropped in June and July respectively, for reporting forced labor to the ILO the previous year. However, civilians continue to be prosecuted for passing information to the organization.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) voiced increasing frustration with the SPDC over its slow pace of reform and limited engagement with international actors. Scheduled visits from ASEAN officials were postponed or curtailed by the SPDC, at the same time that the government asked members of the regional group not to support UNSC action on Burma. Expressing the new approach of ASEAN, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar declared, “ASEAN has reached a stage where it is not possible to defend its member when that member is not making an attempt to cooperate.” However, in August 2006 Thailand’s then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra paid an unscheduled one-day visit to Burma designed to procure business contracts, including gas exploration concessions in Arakan state and a resumption of logging concessions. Over the objections of some Asian and European countries, the SPDC sent representatives to the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Helsinki in September 2006.
China and India continued to provide political and economic support to the SPDC, and failed to fully back international calls for reform. China and Russia continued to sell the SPDC large numbers of weapons, while the United States and European Union maintained sanctions.