No moving backwards for Myanmar

By Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Myanmar

“We must move forward, forward in Myanmar. There is no backwards for us.” These words were spoken to me by a participant in the “8888” uprising in Myanmar who was forced to flee his country. Twenty years after the brief flowering of people power in Myanmar, however, little has improved for the millions of people still suffering under repressive rule.

If the future is to be better, the UN Security Council and Myanmar’s Asian neighbours must cease turning a blind eye to human rights violations in Myanmar and begin to take bold and effective measures toward stopping them.

On 8 August 1988, students took to the streets in Yangon (then still Rangoon) to demand democracy and human rights from their government. Over the next six weeks, the demonstrations grew in number and popular support and spread across the country, before the security forces moved in and violently suppressed the uprising. They killed more than 3,000 people and caused the enforced disappearance of an unknown number of others.

The massacre so shocked the world that many people both inside and outside the country believed that it marked “the end” in Myanmar; human rights violations on such an egregious scale would no longer be tolerated by the international community. Sadly for the people of Myanmar, however, they were wrong.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the main opposition party, Nobel Peace laureate, and icon of the Burmese human rights movement, has been under some form of detention for nearly 13 of the last 19 years. U Win Tin, a senior member of her party and 78 years-old, has been imprisoned for all of those 19 years, the longest-serving prisoner of conscience in Myanmar. Thousands of other political prisoners have been detained since 1988; 137 have died in custody, some from torture or lack of medical attention.

More than 2,000 people are now behind bars, more than a third of whom the government detained during its violent crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations last fall — the third major demonstration since 8888 through which the Burmese have tried, against ruthless and heart-rending odds, to demand their rights. Just days after the crackdown, monks and dissidents on the Thai-Myanmar border told me harrowing accounts of the recent violence and their narrow escape from the country.

Outside of the cities — and the international spotlight — the Myanmar army has continued to wage war over the past twenty years against the country’s ethnic minorities as well, among them the Karen. Campaigns against the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have been relentless since the early 1990s. Three years ago the army commenced another major offensive against the Karen, which continues to this day, though this time the army is actively avoiding the KNLA and instead targeting defenseless villagers.

On a widespread and systematic basis, the army is perpetrating a catalogue of serious human rights violations against the Karen, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, forced labour, crop destruction and confiscation, restrictions on movement, arbitrary levies and fines and anti-personnel land mines.

Another effect of both the 8888 uprising and the ethnic persecution is that hundreds of thousands of people in the past two decades have been forced to flee their homes to seek shelter elsewhere in Myanmar or in neighbouring countries. No fewer than half a million people in a nation of approximately 51 million are internally displaced within Myanmar. As I have witnessed myself, most live in deplorable conditions and constant fear, wondering if the world even knows about them.

Just under half that number are officially recognized as refugees in the surrounding countries, though several times more are not officially recognized and thus have even fewer rights. Many refugees have become some of the world’s most committed and courageous human rights activists — members of Myanmar’s “88 Generation” — as another entire generation of children has been born in exile.

Three months ago, the government wilfully neglected its people when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar. Relief workers, diplomats, journalists, and Burmese survivors told me again and again with horror and disbelief how the government violated its own citizens’ human rights to food, shelter, health, and to life itself on a massive scale.

The government refused to deploy its own much-touted army of 400,000 soldiers to the affected areas and rejected international assistance. Instead, the authorities saw fit to frog-march traumatized, bereaved, and hungry people to “vote” for a new constitution that both fails to protect human rights and codifies impunity for officials who violate them.

The exodus of refugees from Myanmar and the government’s response to the cyclone have generated the kind of human suffering that the UN system was designed to address. The UN has sent numerous official and unofficial missions to Myanmar since 1988 — with two more taking place this month — and has a large humanitarian presence there now, but with little or no impact on human rights.

But the one UN body with real power, the Security Council, has been unable or unwilling to take effective action. It has neither visited Myanmar to obtain first-hand information on the situation on the ground nor imposed a comprehensive mandatory arms embargo on the country. The only resolution condemning Myanmar’s human rights record was vetoed in January 2007 by permanent members China and Russia, while Indonesia, a non-permanent member at the time, abstained.

Since then, the Council has managed only two Presidential Statements on Myanmar, one in October 2007 that “strongly deplored” last fall’s crackdown, and another in May 2008 that “underlin[ed] the need” for Myanmar to ensure inclusiveness and credibility in its constitutional referendum later that month. Stronger language was objected to by, among others, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

While ASEAN’s statements critical of the crackdown last fall and the continued detention of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi have been welcome, the organization—and its member countries—have been inexcusably forgiving of Myanmar’s human rights record over the past twenty years. India, a powerful neighbouring state and the world’s largest democracy, has also been disturbingly compliant.

Just as with the 8888 uprising, many people hope that the government’s response to Cyclone Nargis signals the “the end” of such enormous human rights violations in Myanmar. Whether it really does this time, however, depends not only on the Burmese — whose “88 Generation” continues to courageously lead the way — but on the political will of the UN Security Council and Myanmar’s Asian neighbours as well. Twenty years is a long time, but it is not too late.

This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post in Thailand on 8 August 2008.