Burma’s War on its own People

Most of this information has been available from United Nations sources for over a decade.  The UN Commission on Human Rights appointed Professor Yozo Yokota, a highly competent Japanese law professor as Special Rapporteur.  He made his first report in 1993 after interviewing people both in Burma and in the frontier area of Thailand.  He continued year after year to present a sad picture of repression against individual democrats and reformers and the brutal repression of the ethnic minorities. (I will follow a usual practice of calling the majority population -Burmans – about 60 percent of the population, the non-Burman – Mon, Kachen, Karen, Shan etc – ethnic minorities – about 40 percent – without going into detail as to what is an ethnic group.  All the citizens of Myanmar are Burmese. While the name of the country was changed by the military, they did not change the name of the people living there.)

In addition to the yearly reports of the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, the International Labor Office (ILO) investigated and then acted upon the finding concerning forced labor, especially forced labor imposed by the military on the ethnic minorities to set up military camps, to carry supplies, often to walk in front of the troops to set off any land mines planted. The minority women are often forced to be sexual partners to the soldiers – usually the officers.  The ILO has a convention on forced labor which Burma had ratified in 1955 during the Cold War days when the only forced labor mentioned was that of the gulag camps of the Soviet Union.  The ILO committee has pointed out that not only does forced labor continue but that no soldier has been arrested, tried or convicted for his involvement in this form of human rights violation.

Faced with the fact that the human rights situation showed no signs of improving and that the steady flow of refugees to Thailand and Bangladesh threatened regional stability, the UN Secretary General appointed a Special Envoy to facilitate any efforts which the government might take toward a more open society.  Unfortunately, the Special Envoy has had little positive movement to encourage beyond a few very imprecise statements on the "road to democracy".  When in May 2002, the military government released the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, its official spokesman Lt. Col. Hla Min said " We shall recommit ourselves to allowing all of our citizens to participate freely in the life of our political process, while giving priority to national unity, peace and stability of the country and the region." Peace and stability required a quick end to Aung San Suu Kyi’s ability to leave her home and to the arrest of some of her supporters.

But the priority of ‘national unity’ is the military government’s prime argument for its repressive measures arguing that the country would "fall apart" without the junta’s control.  The soldiers-in-power probably believe their own statements that national security takes precedence over all other obligations and that repression and a ‘divide and rule’ policy is the only way to prevent  the ethnic minorities from breaking up the country into dozens of small states, opening the door to Thai, Chinese, Indian and Bangladesh influence. The military, however, have spent the last 43 years refusing to discuss seriously with the minorities to see if the military nightmare had any grounds in reality.

In 1962, U Nu, the last freely elected Prime Minister, invited all ethnic leaders to Rangoon to enter into talks to find lasting solutions to the political causes of disunity and political unrest which had begun at independence in 1948.  The minority leaders accepted the invitation, but before the talks ended, General Ne Win and the military seized power, jailed the participants and destroyed any chance for a peaceful outcome.

Shortly after the partial change of military leaders in 1988, the younger officers in power, who had fought against the minority insurgencies, adopted a new strategy – no doubt inspired by movies of Mafia bosses.  The ‘deal’ proposed to the militarized insurgency leaders was that they could keep their weapons, have a certain control over their own areas, halt their wars against the military, and divide the income from the export of drugs, gems, wood and the import of goods without custom duties between themselves and the military.

Fourteen groups accepted and technically stopped their wars; five minorities continue their struggle with no end in sight.  Since the ‘deal’ allows certain military officers to make large amounts of illegal money, the only disputes within the system is over who gets what ‘cut’.  The minority military also have ruthless and unchecked control of the areas allotted to them .Some groups such as the Wa, after the cease-fire turned their energies to expanding opium production and fought against the armed forces of Khun Sa, the Shan opium leader and chief rival.  The Wa have now added to the opium trade the production of methamphetamine pills for Burmese youth and that of Yunnan and other border areas of China.

While it’s important to be critical of the Myanmar military government and their repressive policies, we should not idealize the military forces of the ethnic insurgencies.  In 1992-1993, I was involved in getting the National Council of the Union of Burma created by the insurgencies and the democratic Burman who had taken refuge in the ethnic minority zones to sign the Geneva conventions of August 12, 1949 and the additional protocols which provide the basic rules of international humanitarian law in armed conflict.  The Union President, General Saw Bo Mya of the Karen National Union and the three Vice Presidents signed in January 1993.  While the signature is symbolic – only governments may sign the Geneva conventions, the signature was widely noted and led the Myanmar government to sign the Conventions which they had always refused to do until then.  The signature led to a mutual release of war prisoners – but not to an exchange since the two sides in the conflict refused direct contact at that time.

Prior to the signature, I had discussed with officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross and reviewed what was known of battle conditions in Burma where humanitarian law was largely unknown. 

Today, there is still irregular fighting between the army and the ethnic insurgencies, fighting which gives a pretext to destroy villages along the frontier, to push the population into Thailand and to sell the best hardwood trees to Thai merchants – usually acting on behalf of the Thai military. The population under the control of the ethnic military is torn between a small group who benefit from the drug and gem trade and the larger group whose low standard of living has further declined as the government, under the pretext of local autonomy, has withdrawn educational and medical services.  There was never a structured development policy for the frontier areas so that the few teachers or nurses were the only sign that the area was part of the State.

Burma faces two basic and related issues: the installation of democratic government and a constitutional system which allows autonomy to the minority peoples.  Both tasks are difficult.  There is little democratic tradition or ethos upon which to structure a democratic government.  While a federal system would be the most suited for a pluriethnic state, there has been little coordinated political pressure for a federal system. There is little pluriethnic leadership and little ‘national vision’.  What leadership exists both in the military and the insurgencies is often motivated by personal and clanic interests, and leaders recruit allies similarly motivated.  Only peace will allow new leadership to emerge with broader motivations and allow all citizens to participate freely in a renewed political process.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics www.transnational-perspectives.org and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva. Formerly, he was professor and Director of Research of the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, University of Geneva. Photo from Burma.indymedia.org 

In the next article, I will look at some of the possibilities through UN action for positive changes.

For an introduction to the role of the military in Burma see this article https://towardfreedom.org/home/content/view/658/

For an extensive look at the ethnic insurgencies see Martin Smith Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London: ZED Books, 1991, 492pp.). There is a second, updated edition from 1999.

For a more personal and artistic view of the minority areas see the report of an American painter and pro-democracy activist Edith Mirante Burmese Looking Glass
(New York: Grove Press, 1993, 333pp.).