Analysis of SPDC Human Rights Violations in 2007
December 31, 2007
I. Summary of this report
In 2007, the military junta in Burma was responsible for a huge number of human rights violations throughout the country. The regime, officially called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), used a variety of forces, including army, riot police and groups of government sponsored civilian thugs like the Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) and Swan Ar Shin, to carry out crack downs on protestors and rebel groups, as well as their suspected sympathizers. These crack downs occurred all year long, but reached a high point during large protests that took place across the country in August and September. While the SPDC claims that as few as ten demonstrators died during in the fall crack down, many sources, including media, human rights organizations and citizens report that at least two hundred people were killed.
That regime forces did not hesitate to violently repress people in cities and towns where information could leak to the international community raises questions about how people in more remote areas were treated; ongoing conflict between rebels and Burmese troops in Southern Mon State served as pretense for human rights violations across the region. Civilians faced travel restrictions, enforced with credible threats to their livelihood, and lives, if they attempted to attend to farms or workplaces outside of designated time-blocks. Villagers, even entire villages, were forced to relocate. People throughout Mon State, especially in Yebyu Township and Tenasserim Division, were victims of forced-labor projects and military conscription. In spite of an attempt by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to intervene, villagers were forced to work on road construction and agricultural projects, as well as to guard gas pipelines and attend to any other tasks assigned by the military. Hundreds of villagers were also forced to attend militia training and patrol their native regions in the stead of Burmese Army troops. While the forced labor projects were obviously excruciating, military conscription represented a special kind of pain for many people who did not want to support the army.
The SPDC’s consistent repression of the Burmese people, as well as the militarization of the Burmese countryside, indicates that it is not ready to embrace democratic change. Moreover, the regime shows no signs of halting its violent crack downs or preparing for dialogue with the National League for Democracy (NLD) or ethnic opposition groups.
II. SPDC human rights violations in 2007
A. Summary of the events surrounding the September protests
The SPDC regime increased fuel prices by five hundred percent in the second and third weeks of August. Much to the regime’s surprise, 88 Generation student leaders and their followers responded by taking to the streets. Authorities countered by using the USDA and Swan-ar-shin to disperse the peaceful protestors, attacking demonstrators, arresting them and sending them to unknown detention centers to be kept for unknown spans of time. The public outcry, however, did not cease. Buddhist monks in Pakokhu, in upper Burma, continued demonstrations in early September until police, instructed by the regime to step up the crack down, bound them, openly beat them in public and then whisked them away to detention centers.
The violence treatment of the monks in Pakokhu was felt to be an action against Buddhists throughout the country, and young monks demanded an official apology. The SPDC refused. In response, monks in various cities including Pakokhu, Mandalay, Rangoon and Pegu agreed to boycott the regime, announcing that they would not accept alms from members of the army, police or their families. For members of the army and police who, like the rest of Burma, are largely Buddhist, this was a significant threat because it called into question their very status as Buddhists.
Beginning in the second week of September, monks from various cities of upper Burma, including Rangoon, Pegu and Moulmein took part in peaceful protests, praying for compassion from the regime and better socio-economic circumstances for the people. The reaction of the authorities was swift, and showed no tolerance for dissent. If the monks continued their protests, the government announced, they would forfeit their status as Buddhist monks and face intense repression.
The protests continued. By September 24th, their numbers swelled and began to include civilians. On the streets of Rangoon, over one hundred thousand people took part in non-violent protests, marching and praying for peace. Similarly large number of protestors took part in demonstrations in other cities in Burma.
The protests continued to grow for the next two days, and the SPDC Minister for Religious Affairs officially declared that protestors would face ‘suppression’ if they did not cease and desist. Serious crack downs began on September 26th. Large numbers of troops moved into the cities from rural areas and took up posts on busy streets and intersections as well as at pagodas and monasteries, planning to stop protests before they could start. They also barred monks from praying in Sule and Shwedagon pagodas in Rangoon. On the night of September 27th, SPDC security forces raided the well-known monasteries of Ngwe Kya Yan, Chauk Htet Kyi, Moe Kaung Kin, Min Kin and Thein Pyu because they were believed to be the primary housing for monks taking part in the protests. Those arrested were beaten, before being removed to detention centers for interrogation. During the day, regime security forces and groups of government sponsored civilian thugs began beating protesters and shooting into the unarmed crowds. The bloodshed would continue until the protests ended on September 29th.
B. Human rights violations committed by the SPDC during the September protests
Substantial photographic, video and spoken evidence indicates that regime forces fired into groups of peaceful demonstrators in Rangoon, killing both participants and those simply watching. Perhaps the most widely-known victim was a Japanese photographer, Kenji Nagai, who was shot in close range by a Burmese soldier. While many more people were killed, the exact number is difficult to calculate because the regime strictly controls the flow of information within Burma. Officially, the regime contends that ten people were killed and another eleven were injured. Residents of Rangoon, however, say that the number of victims is much higher. Even the international media estimates that more than two hundred people were shot or beaten to death. Buddhist monks were among the victims, some of whose corpses were seen floating in Rangoon’s Lake Ngamoeyeik.
Arbitrary Arrest, Detention and Imprisonment:
According to a source inside Rangoon, regime forces and supporters began arresting people after demonstrations against high fuel prices began in August. Many student leaders in Rangoon were arrested, both during demonstrations and at their homes. From August until the end of September, 344 students, monks and other activists were arrested and put into detention centers at Kyaik Ka San Field and the Government Technical Institute in Inn-sein Township. The same source calculates that over two thousand people were then arrested during the broader protests in late September. Those arrested were not limited to participants in the protests, and street vendors, people walking on the streets, parents escorting children home from school, high school students and others were detained by the regime as well. Most detainees did not receive trials and do not know how long they will be imprisoned. Families have no way of knowing the fate of their loved ones, and some have even resorted to pleas on foreign radio programs like BBC and RFA. Some detainees have been released. But the majority remains in prison. It is important to note that the number of protestors to have been released is far smaller than that estimated by the international community because the regime has been releasing common criminals and claiming they are political prisoners.
Torture and Mistreatment:
Monks and demonstrators were often beaten as they were arrested. Once imprisoned, detainees were treated inhumanely, deprived of food and sleep as well as subjected to further beatings and torture during interrogation. Torture and inhumane treatment of this sort is frequently used by the regime, and the SPDC explicitly instructs its forces to use ‘torturing methods’ when gathering information.
C. Conscription and forced labor
During late 2006 and 2007, conscription and forced labor by local authorities and the Burmese army continued in Southern Mon State. HURFOM is based on the Thailand-Burma border, and its human rights workers frequently meet with victims fleeing of forced labor. HURFOM interviews indicate that forced labor practices in Mon State are chiefly comprised of the following:
- Bridge and highway construction
- Security for villages, specific areas and gas pipelines
- Recruitment into militia forces
The Burmese army occupies the entirety of Southern Ye Township and while roads and bridges in the area were sufficient for civilian passenger trucks, they could not handle the weight of military vehicles. From the end of January 2007 until April, residents of Khaw-za Sub-township were forced to work as unpaid laborers constructing bridges on the Ye-Tavoy highway. SPDC Infantry Battalion (IB) No. 31, based near Khaw-za Sub Township, also forced villagers in Ye Township to work on bridge construction.
With the cooperation of Ye administrative authorities, the commander of the local LIB coordinated two groups of fifteen unpaid village laborers. The troops also demanded the villagers use cement in the bridge construction without providing enough supplies for the project, forcing village headmen to collect money so additional cement could be purchased.
Providing security for roads and bridges:
From the first week of June 2006 until the end of 2007, Mon and Karen inhabitants of every village between the Alesakan and Mayan-chaung villages in Northern Yebyu Township were forced to provide security along the Ye-Tavoy road. The order was given by LIB No. 409 Lt. Col. Aung Naing Myint. Village headmen from Alesakan, Kyauk-ka-din, Kywe-ta-lin, Yapu and Mayan-chaung villages were required to send eight villagers per day to guard the highway. The order came after armed clashes between Mon rebels and Burmese troops at the end of April left authorities concerned about possible attacks on bridges. Any guards who failed to protect bridges, due to deliberate planning or inadvertent negligence, were subjected to severe beatings.
Providing security for gas pipelines:
From August 2006 until April 2007, IB No. 62 near Kwan-hlar village in Mudon Township forced local inhabitants, including women and young children, to patrol the Kanbauk-Myaingkalay gas pipeline. Villagers from Kwan-hlar, Yaung-daung, Kalort-tort, Hnee-pa-daw and other villages were required to take full responsibility for the safety of the pipeline. Failure to safeguard the pipeline ensured violent reprisals. Effectively protecting the pipelines necessitated standing guard twenty-four hours a day, a task virtually impossible for men who devote all their time to rice cultivation during the rainy season. The burden then fell on women and children, who were forced to build posts every five-hundred meters and guard the pipeline at night, in spite of the dangers.
Conscription into militia forces:
From November 2006 until January 2007 the Burmese army ordered every village headman in Mon State to select thirty-five villagers for militia training, forcing many to abandon their farms and lose their crops. Civilians in Southern Ye Township report being forced to participate in the training, or bribe IB No.31 four-hundred-thousand Kyat ($304 USD). Most people are too poor to afford the bribe and were forced to undergo training in counter-insurgency and anti-demonstration tactics, as well as how to quell internal uprisings or defend against foreign invasion. The men were then subject to military orders and forced to patrol their own village areas and fight rebel groups should they approach.
D. Movement Restrictions against Civilians and Buddhist Monks
Movement restrictions prior to the September protests:
The Burmese army restricted the movement of local villagers in Southern Ye and Yebyu Townships, creating difficulties for farmers whose land lies far from home. Many were unable to both finish their work and return home in the time allotted by the military, causing farmers to lose their crops. After an entire village was burned and its villagers tortured until they relocated, a curfew was put in place on Han-gan and Kaloh villages in Ye Township, as well as the entire Khaw-zar Sub-township.
The curfew was installed by Military Operation Management Command (MOMC) No.19, and anyone outside their homes after nine pm was forbidden from using electric lights and had to instead rely upon candles. The order applies even in times of emergency, when activities like rushing a patient to the hospital demand clear lighting. Villagers who violate the curfew can be dealt with at the discretion of the local Burmese Army battalion, and soldiers have standing permission to shoot on sight.
Command No. 19 also requires villagers to inform their local battalion should they have new information about Mon insurgents. If they do not report information, or if they have none but are suspected of lying, they will be punished, beaten and can be expelled from their township. After troops under the command of MOMC No.19 launched an offensive against Mon insurgents in Southern Ye Township, over three hundred villagers, comprising one hundred households, were forcibly relocated. These villagers had to abandon their crops, and currently live without homes or shelter.
Movement restrictions following the September protests:
Fearing that momentum from the pro-democracy demonstrations in September would spread, people moving around within Burma were subject to exhaustive searches and severe travel restrictions.
SPDC authorities increased the number of police forces and soldiers deployed at check-points controlling entrances to towns and cities in Mon State. Riot police, militia and regular police forces were also posted in every railway and bus station, as well as harbors and ferry sites. Augmenting official forces, the USDA and Swan Ar Shin were instructed to closely monitor Buddhist monks and students from Moulmein University.
On September 22nd, travelers were rigorously checked by SPDC military forces, riot police, regular police and militia at the Ya-khaing-gone check-point, outside Moulmein. According to one HURFOM reporter, a female resident from Mudon Township described soldiers checking bags, purses and even wallets at the town’s gate. Travelers were also required to produce identity cards at checkpoints throughout the country. Failure to do so resulted in immediate revocation of travel permission.
According to one person who has a close relationship with the USDA, the USDA and other regime-backed civilian forces were ordered to hold weekly meetings at village-level offices so they could maintain high-alert status. Militia leaders taught weekly meeting attendees how to disperse groups of people using a variety of violent tactics, including administering beatings with bamboo sticks. The groups were then ordered to stop all protests should they occur, and HURFOM field reporters in Mudon Township report that villagers are still being closely monitored.
The authorities also placed special emphasis on monitoring monks in Moulmein, the capital of Mon State, including at the Sein-mama, Thin-baw-lae, and Thadana 2500 Monastery. USDA members and riot police patrolled monasteries on motorbikes, as well as monitored each quarter in which the monasteries reside. The offices of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were also under obvious watch, as were the homes and offices of other political parties and ceasefire groups. Simply visiting Rangoon, according to one political activist living in Moulmein, meant remaining family members were subject to questioning by regime forces.
A member of the Mon Liaison Office in Moulmein, who contacted HURFOM by phone, reported that members of the New Mon State Party (NMSP) were closely monitored after the group showed support for the September protests:
“After the NMSP declared their support for the monks and protesters we have been under great pressure. They often come around our offices, especially the Mon Liaison Office and the Mon Commercial Office. One army truck and a motorbike purposely came and stopped in front of the office and watched our activities. I think these people are probably local USDA members. This took place a day or two before the protests happened in Moulmein. In our office, we had to warn our members to contact each other wherever they went. We feel restricted staying in Moulmein.”
The SPDC also strictly controlled the flow of goods and information in Southern Mon State. This caused prices of some products to rise, as traders could not easily send or receive goods. Vegetable traders said that moving produce from one place to another had was made impossible. A Yin-Dain villager who teaches at the Mon National School reported that restrictions were related to the protests. In late September, a HURFOM field reporter outlined how LIB No.31, under MOMC 19, was instructed to take special action while the momentum of the protests was high. According to one villager, who was close to LIB No. 587 in Ayu-taung village in Ye Township, the Battalion commander called all available regime forces to an emergency meeting everyday during the second half of September.
E. Torture and inhumane treatment
The SPDC used threats and torture in efforts to cut ties between villagers and Mon resistance groups. In July, during armed conflict between the Burmese army and a Mon rebel group near Han-gan village, HURFOM field reporters reported that regime forces abducted and tortured several villagers accused of having ties to the rebel group. After an armed clash between the army and the rebel group, soldiers from LIB No. 591 arrested suspected rebel-supporters who lived between Koe-mile and Baround villages, Ye Township. According to eye witnesses from Koe-mile village, the soldiers bound each villager and brought them the battalion’s temporary base at Han-gan village. Three local famers, Nai G——— (50 years), Nai K——— G——— (35 years) and Mehm M——— O——— (24 years) (names redacted for safety), were tortured by soldiers during inquiry about a friend who was thought to be member of a Mon resistance group.
In another incident, Burmese troops coerced two villagers into revealing the locations of Mon rebel personnel. Captain Hla Moe of LIB No. 591 asked for information from Nai A-Kyaw (40 years) and Nai Win Oo (about 35 years). When the men refused to cooperate, they were beaten and water was forced down their throats until they lead the troops through the jungle to a rubber plantation where the rebels were based.
HURFOM’s field reporter also documented a case of torture committed by a Sergeant from LIB No. 586 during August 21st and August 24th. The 28 year-old victim, Maung San Oo (name changed for safety) from Toe-thet-ywar-thit Village, was arrested by Sergeant Thet Zaw Oo and his troops at the edge of Koe-Mine Village, where he was attending the funeral of a relative.
“He was beaten on his back and legs with a bamboo pole. His face is covered with black welts from the torture he received. They accused him of being a reporter for a Mon rebel group. They interrogated him and when they were dissatisfied with his answers, they beat him. We can hear him crying in pain, even from far away,” said a witness from Toe-Thet-Ywa-Thit who did not give her name for fear of similar reprisals.
Mg San Oo, who served for two years as a corporal in the Mon National Liberation Army before leaving to care for his parents, is currently seeing a former NMSP medic because he cannot afford hospital fees. He also has had his farmland confiscated and has been supporting his family by clearing other people’s gardens and plantations.
In some cases, regime forces have also targeted the economic well-being of villagers. On August 23, San Win Aung, 23 years-old, and his sister, Ma Myint, 26 years-old, both of Yin-dein Village, were on their way to sell vegetables when they were beaten by Sergeant Myint Zaw and his soldiers. After arguing over prices, the soldiers, from LIB No. 586, slapped May Myint and asked her if she wanted to die, before flipping over and crushing trays of vegetables.
According to villagers in the area, San Win Aung and May Myint are not the only people to face such treatment and the past year has seen a rash of similar economically motivated violence. This is thought to be due to a shortage of army provisions and a subsequent military order instructing soldiers to feed themselves however and wherever they can.
III. Consequences of SPDC human rights violations in 2007
A. Growth of civil society
The combination of inadequate social programs, failed economic policies and political repression of the SPDC regime has pushed the Burmese people to demand peace, as well as political and economic reform. Since the release of the 88 Generation Student Group in January 2007, the growth of civil society and movements toward democracy has become widespread in urban areas and Burman dominated communities. Many political activists and students have begun trying to help people suffering born of regime policy and difficult economic circumstances. In the most high-profile example, well-known actor Kyaw Thu has formed a social organization aimed at providing traditional Buddhist funerals for those who cannot afford them.
Dire economic circumstances have contributed heavily to high rates of HIV/AIDS infection in Burma. Many activists and Buddhist monks have formed organizations designed to help victims in urban areas cope with the disease, as well as provide preventative-education for the public. Unfortunately, monks involved in projects helping HIV/AIDS victims were specially targeted during the September crack downs.
Intense poverty in Burma also results in widespread child-labor. Many children have to abandon education at the primary level and serve as day-laborers; the number of parentless children in urban areas has also grown. In response, many political activists, former students and Buddhist monks have set up education programs, especially monastic education, as well as children’s homes and other orphan care programs.
In addition to combating child-labor practices, civil society groups have worked to protect the rights of adult forced-laborers. In 2005, after the SPDC violated an agreement with the ILO promising to end forced-labor, well-known labor rights activist Su Su Nway brought the issue to court. She was imprisoned soon after. Upon her release in 2006 she began leading protests against abusive labor practices, only to be imprisoned again.
Activists have also formed groups advocating freedom of expression, assistance for political prisoners and student rights. NLD youth activists and members of the 88 Generation have worked to expose information about forced-labor practices, political prisoners and restrictions on freedom of expression, especially for the media. Student leaders have also set up networking projects to help families struggling to cope economically while their loved ones are political prisoners.
These are positive signs that civil society is growing, in Rangoon and other large cities, and in spite of significant obstacles. The SPDC regime, however, does not take such a positive view and fears that they will grow into a broad political movement.
B. Weakening of ceasefire groups like the NMSP
Many ethnic organizations, including the NMSP, declared their support for the September protests and asked the regime to respond in a peaceful manner. The regime, however, ignored the pleas of ethnic political parties and ceasefire groups. After September, when SPDC authorities arranged rallies in opposition to the September protests, regime authorities pressured ethnic ceasefire groups to release statements against the demonstrators and speak at pro-government rallies. NMSP leaders refused.
As the SPDC was pressuring ceasefire groups to support the regime’s policies, the regime’s forces continued to commit human rights violations against ethnic nationalities. While the NMSP has been complying with a ceasefire for over twelve years, the SPDC has demonstrated that it does not respect the ethnic peoples of Burma or human rights in general.
The lands and properties of Mon people have been routinely confiscated in Thanbyuzayat, Ye and Yebyu Township areas. Although the NMSP has requested compensation for the losses, the authorities have refused. While the Southeast Command claims that it allowed Mon farmers whose lands were confiscated in 2002 to harvest their crops, in practice farmers faced threats when they attempted to work on their farms or plantations.
People in Mon areas have also faced conscription or forced labor and when the NMSP has attempted to address the issue, the regime has told party leaders not to interfere in administrative affairs outside the ceasefire area. The NMSP’s failure to win compensation for displaced farmers or protect against conscription has led to dissatisfaction with party leaders, especially in Ye and Yebyu Township areas. Some Mon political analysts feel this is a deliberate strategy to weaken the NMSP and sow dissension among the people.
Since NMSP leaders agreed to a ceasefire with the SPDC, the group has been unable to improve the human rights of Mon people. Mon people in various parts of Mon state have said the ceasefire is not helping them as NMSP leaders promised it would in 1995 and 1996. As a result, Mon people have begun to distance themselves from the NMSP and attempt to solve problems on their own.
NMSP leaders feel that human rights problems and political problems are related; if political problems are not solved protecting human rights is impossible. With this in mind, the NMSP has repeatedly demanded the SPDC arrange for a tripartite political dialogue between ethnic groups, the NLD and the SPDC. The hope was, and is, that such a political dialogue could achieve political reform, put an end to violent conflict and guarantee the autonomous rights of ethnic people. That hope remains unfulfilled.
Burma is in political deadlock. Although the UN Special Mission led by Mr. Gambari following the September protests encouraged political talks between the SPDC and NLD, SPDC leaders have not taken dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD leaders seriously. SPDC leaders also continue to refuse to guarantee the rights of ethnic nationalities within Burma.
It is important to encourage that power be genuinely located within the people of Burma. Human rights should be controlled and defended at the community level. The growth of civil society in urban and ethnic communities needs to be encouraged; people need to be actively involved in social and economic assistance for their neighbors. As these practices grow and develop, so too will the power of the people and the ability to evaluate strategies of political reform. Change in Burma will not come from relying on the political dialogue of elites. Strong democracy must be built on the foundation of strong civil society.