Group 175, Long Beach—Special Interest: Myanmar


Our group counts amongst its members Myanmar country specialist Jim Roberts, who will periodically updates us on human rights issues in Myanmar. Here is his first contribution.

April 2009


MyanmarThe Union of Myanmar is the largest country in area on the mainland of Southeast Asia and has a population of somewhere between 50 and 55 million people. It shares its borders with China, Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh. Formerly a colony of Great Britain it achieved independence in January 1948. Two thirds of its people belong to the Burman (or Bama) ethnic group and reside principally in the country’s centrally located lowlands and river valleys. The balance of its citizens belong to eight principal ethnic minority groups among which are the Karen, Shan and Mon and reside largely in the uplands near the nation’s border areas.

The Burman group is predominantly Buddhist. There are minorities of Christians and Muslims largely among the ethnic minority nationalities.

The country was known as the Union of Burma until 1989 when it changed its name. It has been ruled by various military governments since 1962. The current ruling body is named the State Peace and Development Council. It is made up entirely of military officers and is often referred to by its acronym – the SPDC.

Myanmar has the distinction of being the only country to have a Nobel Peace Prize laureate under arrest. Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has spent 13 of the last 19 years in prison or under house arrest in the city of Yangon. Amnesty International estimates that there are over 2,100 political prisoners in Myanmar. In addition, Amnesty has documented other human rights violations by the government and its armed forces including forced labor, displacement of the populations of towns and villages, extrajudicial executions, torture and other crimes against humanity committed by the armed forces in conjunction with its counter-insurgency operations.

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AI Country Report

The following article appeared in Amnesty International’s Annual Report on Myanmar which is largely a report on human rights conditions there in 2007.

© Amnesty International 2008

2008 news

2008 saw a continuation of arrests and trials of activists, students, monks and bloggers.

The human rights situation in Myanmar deteriorated in September 2007 when authorities staged a five–day crackdown on widespread protests that had begun six weeks earlier. The peaceful protests voiced both economic and political grievances. More than 100 people were believed to have been killed in the crackdown, and a similar number were the victims of enforced disappearance. Several thousands were detained in deplorable conditions. The government began prosecutions under anti–terrorism legislation against many protestors. International response to the crisis included a tightening of sanctions by Western countries. At least 1,150 political prisoners, some arrested decades ago, were in detention as the crisis began. Today that number has increased to 2,123.

A military offensive continued in northern Kayin (formerly Karen) State, with widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. In western Rakhine State, the government continued negotiations on a large–scale Shwe gas pipeline, preparations for which included forced displacement and forced labor of ethnic communities.

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In September 2007, the government completed drafting guidelines for a new Constitution, the second step in their seven–step “Road Map” for moving toward democracy. In December, the government appointed a 54–member commission of military and other officials to draft the Constitution. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the main opposition party, has not participated in this process since the early stages, and legislation criminalizing criticism of the process remained in place.

The government had ceasefires in place with the armies of all but three ethnic groups, but forced displacement, labor, and portering by the military continued in all seven ethnic states.

Following a visit by the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary–General on Myanmar, the Myanmar authorities met with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi toward starting dialogue on national reconciliation, but the NLD party leader remains under house arrest, where she has been for 13 of the past 19 years.

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Freedom of expression

Members of the NLD have been subjected to continued harassment and threats since the election of 1990, forcing many to resign from the party. Campaigners and demonstrators for democracy were arrested throughout the latter part of 2007 and throughout 2008. In particular, the 88 Generation Students group (88G), formed in 2005 by former students active in the pro–democracy uprising in 1988, was targeted and threatened by the authorities.

With the economy already in decline, the government raised fuel prices exponentially in August of 2007, triggering peaceful protests across the country. When a group of demonstrating monks in Pakokku was attacked by the authorities in September, monks began leading the protests nationwide, primarily in Yangon, Mandalay, Sittwe, Pakokku, and Myitkyina. The authorities violently cracked down on protesters between 25 and 29 September. Monasteries were raided and closed down, property was destroyed and confiscated and monks were beaten and detained. Other protesters’ homes and hiding places were raided, usually at night, and authorities took friends or relatives as hostages to put pressure on wanted persons and to discourage further dissent. The All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA), a new group formed by the protests’ religious leaders, became a main target. The authorities took photographs and recorded the demonstrations, later warning the public that they had these records and used them in their raids. The internet throughout Myanmar was cut during the crackdown, and when a small group demonstrated at the one–month anniversary of the crackdown. Journalists were targeted and arrested.

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Killings and excessive use of force

Two members of the Human Rights Defenders and Promoters group were attacked by more than 50 people on 18 April, 2007 in Ayeyarwaddy Division, causing their hospitalization with head injuries. Senior members of the village police and the Secretary of the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA), a state–sponsored social organization, were reportedly present.

Thirty–one people were confirmed killed during the five–day crackdown on protesters in September 2007 although the actual number is likely to be over 100. Rubber bullets and live rounds were fired into crowds of peaceful demonstrators by state security personnel or groups supported by them. The total number of people killed or injured by gunfire was not known. Given eye–witness testimony of shots being fired from atop military trucks and from flyover bridges, as well as the profile of the victims, it is likely that the authorities deliberately targeted real or perceived leaders of the demonstrations.

  • Thet Paing Soe and Maung Tun Lynn Kyaw, students at State High School No. 3 in Yangon, were shot and killed on 27 September.
  • Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot and killed at point–blank range on 27 September.
  • State security personnel and groups supported by them also beat protesters with sticks. Victims included monks as well as men, women and children who were either directly participating in the protests or onlookers. In some cases these beatings were administered indiscriminately, while in other cases the authorities deliberately targeted individuals, chasing them down to beat them.
  • Ko Ko Win, a 22–year–old NLD member, died as a result of injuries sustained when he was beaten near Sule Pagoda in Yangon on 27 September.

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Crimes against humanity

In Kayin State, a military offensive by the tatmadaw (Myanmar army) continues and includes widespread and systematic commission of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law on a scale that amounts to crimes against humanity. Destruction of houses and crops, enforced disappearances, forced labor, displacement and killings of Karen villagers are among the abuses.

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Political imprisonment

Even before the large–scale demonstrations began in August 2007, the authorities arrested many well–known opponents of the government on political grounds, several of whom had only been released from prison several months earlier.

Once the protests were underway but before the 25–29 September crackdown, more arrests of NLD and 88G activists took place—many of which were clearly a pre–emptive measure before the crackdown.

Mass round–ups occurred during the crackdown itself, and the authorities continued to arrest protesters and supporters throughout the year, making use initially of a three–week curfew in October. Between 3,000 and 4,000 political prisoners were detained, including children and pregnant women, 700 of whom were still in detention at the end of 2007. At least 20 were charged and sentenced under anti–terrorism legislation in 2007 in proceedings which did not meet international fair trial standards.

Some of those still detained from 2007 plus some newly arrested in 2008, 410 individuals in all, were given unfair trials and sentences to long periods of imprisonment in 2008 including:

  • Ko Ko Gyi, Min Ko Naing, Min Zeya, Pyone Cho, and Htay Kywe, all 88G leaders, were released from detention without charge the day before the UN Security Council voted on a resolution on Myanmar in January. The first four were detained again on
  • 21 and 22 August for participating in protests, while Htay Kywe – in hiding for about a month – was captured on 13 October.
  • Zarganar, a comedian and former prisoner of conscience, was detained at the start of the crackdown on 25 September. He was released on 17 October, only to be detained again for several hours days later.
  • Mie Mie and Thet Thet Aung, women leaders of the 88G, were arrested on 13 and 19 October, respectively. Both had participated in the demonstrations in August but had been forced into hiding. The latter’s husband was also detained, as had been her mother and mother–in–law as hostages.
  • U Gambira, head of the ABMA and a leader of the September protests, was arrested on 4 November and charged with treason. He was sentenced to 68 years imprisonment in 2008.
  • Su Su Nway, a member of the youth wing of the NLD, released in July 2006 after being detained for reporting forced labour to the International Labour Organization (ILO), was detained on 13 November while putting up anti–government posters.
  • Eight members of the ethnic Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) were arrested on 24 November reportedly on account of the KIO’s refusal to publicly renounce a statement by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi regarding national reconciliation talks.

It is estimated that about 700 more individuals detained for reasons connected to the 2007 protests will go on trial and be sentenced in 2009.

Prisoners of conscience and senior NLD leaders Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, U Tin Oo, Daw May Win Myint and Dr Than Nyein, all held without charge or trial – the latter two since October 1997 – had their detention extended by the maximum term of one year. Senior ethnic leaders, such as U Khun Htun Oo of the Shan National League for Democracy, also remained in detention. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was permitted to meet three times with the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary–General on Myanmar, but was not released from house arrest.

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Enforced disappearances

During and after the September crackdown, there were at least 72 confirmed cases of enforced disappearance.

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Prison conditions

Following a deterioration of prison conditions in 2006, standards fell even further during the crackdown when the authorities detained thousands of people during the five–day period. Large–capacity, informal, secret detention centres were opened which failed to meet international standards on the treatment of prisoners. There was inadequate provision of basic necessities such as food, water, blankets, sleeping space, sanitary facilities, and medical treatment. The International Committee of the Red Cross was denied the opportunity to carry out its core mandate activities in prisons throughout the year.

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Torture and other ill–treatment

During the crackdown, some detainees, including Zarganar, were held in degrading conditions in rooms designed for holding dogs. Torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment including beatings in custody were reported. One detainee was made to kneel bare–legged for long periods on broken bricks and also made to stand on tiptoe in an uncomfortable position for long periods (known as the bicycle–riding position). Monks held in detention were stripped of their robes and purposely fed in the afternoon when their religion forbids them to eat.

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Deaths in custody

An unconfirmed number of prisoners died in detention after the crackdown in September due to their treatment during interrogation.

  • Venerable U Thilavantha, Deputy Abbot of a monastery in Myitkyina, was beaten to death in detention on 26 September, having also been beaten the night before when his monastery was raided.
  • Ko Win Shwe, an NLD member, died in Plate Myot Police Centre near Mandalay on 9 October. Government authorities cremated his body before notifying his family, thereby preventing any confirmation of reports that he died as a result of torture or other ill–treatment.

From 27 to 29 September, a large number of bodies were reportedly burned at the Ye Way municipal crematorium in Yangon during the night. It was reportedly unusual for the crematorium to function at night, and normal employees were instructed to keep away whilst the facility was operated by state security personnel or state supported groups. On at least one night, reports indicate that some of the cremated had shaved heads or signs of serious injury.

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International developments

The UN Security Council voted on a resolution criticizing Myanmar on 12 January, which China and Russia vetoed. On 26 February the Government of Myanmar reached a “Supplementary Understanding” with the International Labour Organization, designed to provide a mechanism to enable victims of forced labour to seek redress without fear of retaliation.

During the crackdown in late September, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a critical statement on Myanmar, but allowed Myanmar to sign its new Charter in November. The UN Human Rights Council called a Special Session on 2 October and passed a resolution strongly deploring the crackdown on protesters. In November, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar visited Myanmar for the first time since 2003. Following this visit, the UN Human Rights Council passed another resolution, based on his report requesting a follow–up mission. The UN Security Council issued a presidential statement in October that strongly deplored the crackdown, while the UN General Assembly strongly condemned the crackdown in a resolution in December.

The Special Advisor to the UN Secretary–General on Myanmar visited Myanmar in October and November. The USA, EU, and other Western nations enacted or tightened sanctions. In December, India reportedly suspended arms sales and transfers to Myanmar.

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Recent News

Suu Kyi’s Right Hand Man

U Win Tin
U Win Tin (Photo: Tom Parry)

In the Irrawaddy, you can read a recent interview of U Win Tin, a senior member of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar who spent 19 years in prison until his release last year.

“Well, my opinion is that when you have to face a military government, you need a little bit of courage, some sort of confrontation, because if you are always timid and afraid and intimidated, they will step on you. Sometimes you have to force yourself to be courageous and outspoken…

Now look at the Aung San Suu Kyi case. They tried to snatch her and send her to prison. And we are making a very loud protest all over the world and also inside the country. Now the military authorities are rethinking it…

The media and those kinds of well-wishers are the only friends we have now.”


Suu Kyi’s Right Hand Man, The Irrawaddy, Friday 28 August 2009. Tom Parry interviews U Win Tin.
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