Unsolved Human Rights Issues in Ethnic Mon Areas of Myanmar/Burma during the Democratic Transition

February 9, 2018

 

By Nai Kasauh Mon

ASTRACT

Burma is in a democratic transition having been previously under seven years of semi-military leadership led by U Thein Sein.  After the 2015 democratic elections, Burma’s democratic leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has ruled the country.  During U Thein Sein’s government, he established the Myanmar (Burma) National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) under his political authority.  His government also signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with several Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) government continues the peace process.

Both governments have not solved fundamental issues of human rights in ethnic regions, including Mon State. Political and civil rights have been reluctant and not upheld for ethnic people because of a barrier in the 2008 Constitution, but the governments, even though they have had the opportunity, have not promoted and protected the social, economic, and cultural rights of ethnic people.  In Mon State, land confiscations by the Burma Army during the recent military regime have continued and increased with new land grabs by businesses.  The displaced Mon population in New Mon State Party (NMSP) resettlement areas has faced a lack of both humanitarian and development assistance.  There has been no assistance for health or education in post-conflict zones.  International aid agencies find it difficult to uphold the social and economic rights of ethnic Mon people because the NMSP has not signed the NCA yet. 

There are many international guidelines for countries in a democratic transition to solve the remaining human rights problems in their countries and to uphold those rights.  These guidelines request that governments develop legal and policy frameworks to respect the human rights of ethnic and religious minorities, and to implement effective remedies and redress for the victims of past conflict.  The Burma government has failed to strengthen national human rights institutions, like the MNHRC, and even fulfilling the social, economic, and cultural rights of ethnic people is a challenging issue in Burma.

 

Introduction

During the course of over six decades of civil war in Burma, ethnic nationalities and minorities in different parts of Burma have suffered from a countless number of gross human rights violations.  The Burma Army has used various military campaigns, not only against ethnic armed resistance groups or EAOs, but also to terrorize ethnic civilians. 

The civil war initiated and implemented by the Burma Army resulted in the 1988 Pro-Democracy Uprising led by students and political activists.  After the military coup in the face of pro-democracy demonstrators, many thousands of students who escaped from cities, universities, and colleges took shelter under the protection of ethnic armed groups.  Since then, the International Community has increased their interest in Burma’s civil war and realized how ethnic civilians have been inhumanely treated.

Like many ethnic people in Burma, the Mon have suffered from gross human rights violations by the Burma Army since 1962 and more seriously after 1988. After the 1988 Uprising and the subsequent military coup, human rights violations against ethnic civilians by the Burma Army intensified.  As a result, international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI), and the International Labor Organizations (ILO), have documented human rights abuses in Burma.

In an report by Human Rights Watch in 2001, the situation in Burma was highlighted as below[1]:

Tens of thousands of villagers in the conflict areas of central Shan state, Karenni state, Karen state, Mon state, and eastern Tenasserim division remained in forced relocation sites and faced curfews, looting, and restrictions on movement at the hands of the Burmese army.

The first Mon refugees and displaced persons were the poor villagers who escaped forced labor along the 110 mile Ye-Tavoy railway road.  The Human Rights Foundation of Monland’s (HURFOM) monthly The Mon Forum newsletters are a historical record of the massive conscription of forced labor used by 10 Burmese military battalions.   Over 200,000 people, especially Mon, Karen, and Tavoyan ethnic villagers were forcibly conscripted into labor by the military regime in order to complete the railway road. Additionally, these military battalions also continuously conscripted villagers to build the Yadana Gas Pipeline which links Thailand to offshore natural gas reserves[2]. As a result, approximately 10,000 Mon refugees arrived to Mon refugees camp in Thailand and another 30,000 villagers become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)[3].

The ILO was notified during the 1997 General Conference of the massive use of forced labor and the Commission of Inquiry was formed with senior judges in Geneva.  Subsequently, the International Community pressured Burma’s military regime – the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) – to respect internationally recognized human rights principles[4].  After continued political and economic pressure, military leaders finally decided to undertake partial democratic reform under the 2008 Constitution. 

 

Burma’s National Human Rights Body During Political Transition

In 2010, the military backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won general elections while the main opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted the elections[5].  U Thein Sein, the former General Secretary of the SPDC, become the first elected President in the new political environment.

President U Thein Sein has cleverly handled the political transition and initiated many reforms during his reign, in order to achieve the International Community’s political, economic, and humanitarian support.  He initiated political liberation by releasing almost all political prisoners and let them exercise their political rights, especially allowing the opposition NLD to reform itself and reconstruct the party institution.  He met with the NLD leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in order to build trust and reconciliation.  As a result, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi agreed to participate in an interim election in April 2012 and won a seat[6]

Burma’s human rights records has been condemned for decades.  President U Thein Sein wanted the International Community to lift the political and economic sanctions and he wanted to prove that his government was paying respect to human rights.  On March 28th 2014, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law was passed and the MNHRC – Burma’s independent human rights institution –was created. 

However, the MNHRC has been a body full of the President’s men, lacking genuine independence and the authority to protect citizens against human rights violations by the Burmese Army in ethnic regions, especially in northern Shan and Kachin state.  Ethnic civilians and human rights organizations do not trust the MNHRC, which has never involved itself in the protection of human rights in ethnic regions.  The case of two Kachin teachers who were violently raped and murdered in January 2015 is widely known and efforts to achieve justice have been elusive[7]

Although President Thein Sein introduce media reforms to prove freedom of media and freedom of expression, journalists were still arrested under criminal laws and a few journalists were killed in the line of duty.  For example, freelance journalist, Ko Par Gyi, was killed in October 2014 by the Burmese Army and the perpetrators have been able to operate with impunity[8].  Such killing created fear among journalists and it negatively affected peace journalism. 

Major economic development projects are infringing on people’s economic and social rights,

particularly in ethnic areas. Large mining and hydropower projects, such as the Letpadaung Copper

Mine in Sagaing Region and the Tasang Dam in Shan State, are displacing local communities without

adequate reparation and causing significant negative environmental effects[9].

Although U Thein Sein has attempted calling for a peace dialogue and succeeded in some ceasefire deals, human rights violations in ethnic regions still remain the same.  Ceasefire agreements in Karen State, Mon State, and Karenni State have improved civilian’s freedom of movement.  However religious conflicts have escalated in Arakan State and in central parts of Burma.  In general, the appointing of President’s men in the MNHRC has not practically worked to protect human rights.

 

Gross Human Rights Violations Under the NLD Government

After a landslide victory in 2015, the NLD formed a government and began administrating the country in April 2016.  Soon after coming to power, NLD leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called for a peace dialogue with EAOs under the name of 21st Century Peace Conference.  The first peace conference was held in June 2016 in Naypyidaw with over 2,000 participants.

However, fighting has intensified in Kachin State and northern Shan State after the first Peace Conference.  The Burmese Army launched military operations against EAOs in these areas and human rights violations were rampant in ethnic areas again.  The EAOs in northern Burma have lost their trust in the NLD government after this renewed fighting and human rights abuses against their civilians.  A new wave of displaced persons have fled to the Chinese border[10]

At the same time, journalists were also arrested by the Burmese Army.  One Irrawaddy report and two reporters from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) were arrested in Shan State in June 2017, after returning for piece on the Palaung EAO’s anti-drug campaign in their region.  The journalists were held in custody for three months without a trial for communicating with an illegal organization[11]

The MNHRC has been inactive.  On the other hand, the MNHRC faced public outrage over its handling of a child abuse case.  Instead of meting out punishment to the perpetrators of child abuse – four years of child labor without pay –MNHRC commissioners decided to pursue a financial settlement.  Lawyers, activists, and politicians are calling for commission members to stand down citing their failure to properly conduct their duty[12].

 

Unsolved Human Rights Issues in Mon Areas

  1. Land Confiscation, Land Grabs, and Land Tenure Issue

Under the SPDC, about 8,000 acres of land belonging to Mon farmers in Mon areas were confiscated by the Burmese Army, especially in Ye and Thanbyuzayat townships, in order to deploy troops.  At the same time, the SPDC Administrative Departments confiscated about 12,000 acres of lands to implement mega projects, such as railway construction, small dams, and a gas pipeline project. Following large areas of land confiscation by the army or government administrative departments, there was widespread corruption amongst local village headmen themselves who took community lands and sold them for their own personal gain[13]

The land confiscation by both the State and the Burmese Army was raised in the Union Parliament during President U Thein Sein’s era and a Land Confiscation Inquiry Commission was established to investigate all land confiscations in the country.  The commission was formed with Members of Parliament (MPs) elected from both ethnic regions and more central parts of the country.  The results of the commission’s inquiry detailed that the Burmese Army had forcefully seized about 250,000 acres of farmland from farmers in the entire country.  The commission produced an investigative report and according to this report, the commission received 565 complaints between late July 2012 to January 2013 that allege that the military had forcibly confiscated 247,077 acres (almost 100,000 hectares) of land. These cases occurred across central Burma and the country’s ethnic regions, although the majority occurred in the Irrawaddy Division[14].  However, the military has rejected calls to return the land citing security reasons.

Hence, farmers in Ye Township and Thanbyuzayat townships still did not receive back their land which had been taken by the military between 2000-2003.  Additionally, land continued to be taken by the military, particularly in Yebyu Township, Tenasserim Division where Mon communities resided.  Burma’s Navy Force claimed that about 80,000 acres of land in the coastal region belonged to the army.  However, those lands had been used by Mon and other ethnic villagers to grow rice and rubber plantations for many decades. 

Additionally, while during President U Thein Sein’s era land confiscations by the military decreased, new methods of land grabs emerged. Both domestic and foreign investors became involved in land grabs from farmers for the key purpose of investment.  Land grabs are different from one area to another.  Companies, by collaborating with local authorities, threaten farmers who have no documents or land titles to abandon their lands.  For instance, over 1,000 acres of lands in Pyar Taung area of Kyaikmayaw Township, Mon State, were taken by the Mawlamyine Cement Ltd. (MCL), because most farmers in the area have no land certificates[15].  

In the case of land ownership, there is a contradiction between the Union Parliament regulated land laws and land use policy.  President U Thein Sein’s government issued two land laws: the 2012 Farmland Law and the 2012 Vacant, Fallow, Virgin Land Management Law; as well as the 2012 Foreign Investment Law.  However, these laws never recognized the ethnic people’s customary and traditional land ownership.  These lands laws also make it easy for foreign companies to grab their required lands.  The Mon and Karen, and other ethnic groups alike, have belonged to their lands for centuries, being able to trace their heritage through lands transferred from their ancestors or newly traditionally explored lands.  However, these lands are recognized as belonging to no one in government mapping and records.  As a result, land confiscation and land grabs occurred regularly by both authorities and the companies[16]

In a recent survey conducted by the Mon Region Customary Land Tenure Documentation Committee (MRLTDC), people in local communities said that the lands are owned by them according to traditional belief.  This belief is completely ignored in the 2012 Farmland Law, which describes farmers as having the right to work on this land, but that it is not owned by them.  They believed that the lands are their ancestors’ gift to them and about 90 percent of them said that they want to maintain their land to give to their children[17].

 

2. Refugees and Displaced Persons: No Way to Return Home

Before 1995, the Thai government permitted the Mon refugees to live in Thai camps, and received between 8,000 and 9,000 Mon refugees fleeing from gas pipeline and railway construction in southern Burma. The refugee camps were designed with time limitations and severe restrictions on movement, but international aid organizations were later able to provide food assistance, education, and medical care to Mon resettlement sites on both sides of the border. 

The New Mon State Party (NMSP) signed a ceasefire agreement twice, in 1995 and 2012, however, the government has not provided proper resettlement and rehabilitation assistance to the former returned refugees in number of 10,000 in three resettlement sites.  The NMSP has to take care of both returned refugees and new IDPs.  There are many IDP villages in NMSP areas.  Since 1995, there has been very limited international humanitarian assistance to these refugees and IDPs.  The returned refugees in the three resettlement sites receive a very limited amount of assistance from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  However, at the same time, IDPs cannot decide whether to remain in NMSP area or to return their homes[18]

Even though they decided to stay in NMSP area for their safety, these IDPs need a lot of assistance from international aid agencies.  However, the provision of humanitarian aid, education, and health assistance has been politicized by successive ruling governments.  The key issue is the NMSP did not sign a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), as a result, Mon refugees, IDPs, and other development projects are always rejected by the NLD government in central positions.  In the case of Mon National Education and the operation of Mon Schools, the government must support these schools including salaries for Mon teachers.  Although supporting teachers there has been widely discussed in government meetings, nothing has happened[19].

 

3. Sexual Violence Against Children

Since 2013, the number of reported cases of violence, particularly sexual violence, toward children in Burma has increased dramatically. So too is this the case in Mon State and Mon areas of Burma. HURFOM itself has seen a significant increase in the number of cases of violence toward children received between 2013 and 2016. However, due to the shame and stigma associated with sexual violence, as well as the challenges faced when accessing justice in Burma’s complex, pluralistic legal system, it is likely that the number is much higher than actually documented.

Concern over the widespread nature of violence towards children is becoming increasingly vocal in Mon State and Mon areas of southeast Burma. In Mon State alone, between 2014 and 2016, the Mon State Women and Children Upgrade Committee (MWCUC) — a local organization in Mon State which focuses on the protection and promotion of woman and child rights — recorded over 98 incidents of sexual violence toward under aged children – female. 

Amid protests at the national level over the rising rates of violence toward children, activists in Mon State have begun to put pressure on the state government in Moulmein, calling for an end to sexual violence against children in Mon State and harsher penalties for offenders[20].

 

4. Demands For Transitional Justice

“The victims of the past, those who can’t shatter the shackles of the past, have caused a lot of hindrances in the democratic transition.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, August 2017

Recently, the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM) issued a new report, ‘I Still Remember’, focusing on past human rights violations. Since Burma’s transition from a military government to a nominally civilian-led one beginning in 2010, ‘national reconciliation’ has become a ubiquitous concept amongst politicians and those advocating for peace in Burma after more than 60 years of civil war. With the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) historic electoral win in 2015, hope was further renewed for rebuilding Burma into a genuine democracy and uniting its fragmented society.  Yet, for all its usage by those in power, the rhetoric of ‘national reconciliation’ increasingly rings hollow. As press freedoms are curtailed and armed conflict and human rights violations continue unabated in northern Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states, too little has changed in the intervening years since Burma embarked on its democratic transition. Rather than acknowledging Burma’s history of vast human rights violations, the current administration in Burma seems unwilling or unable to address its violent past, instead resorting to victim blaming when individuals are unable to forget the violence inflicted upon them.

The report shows that the majority of villagers interviewed in Mon State and Mon areas of southeast Burma not only are unable to forget the past, but do desire some form of justice for abuses endured over the past decades. In addition to providing evidence of the widespread and systematic violation of human rights by the Burma Army and Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) since 1995.  The report aims to present the voices of villagers and their desires for justice. In doing so, it counters the Burma government’s narrative that national reconciliation is possible without confronting its violent past and shows that the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms, particularly reparations, are necessary for the country to heal[21]

 

CONCLUSION

Human rights problems remain unsolved and the peace process has been delayed in Burma because of the 2008 Constitution, in which the Burmese Army has too much power in both the administrative and security sectors.  Protection of human rights and respect to human dignity is an important issue in a democratic country, but the NLD government could not move forward since the administrative power or the power in the Ministry of Home Affairs is still in the hands of the military.

Unluckily, although many EAOs initially trusted the NLD government and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu, now many of them doubt the role and capacity of the government to build peace.  The NLD government’s National Reconciliation Program with the military has not been successful, yet at the same time, the military uses ‘national security’ and has continuously fought against ethnic people in Kachin and Shan states. Furthermore, it uses various tactics to break ethnic alliances, like United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), and has created disunity among the EAOs. 

Building peace in Burma is interrelated with respecting human rights and the human dignity of ethnic people in Burma.  The general public, civil society organizations, faith-based organizations, and political parties must now actively push the government and military, and as well as EAOs, to move toward the right direction in order to solve political problems by means of politics. 

 

[1] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2001, in the Section of “Burma” highlight human rights development in Burma (https://www.hrw.org/legacy/wr2k1/asia/burma.html).

[2] HURFOM’s The Mon Forum during 1996 to 1999 described there were about 15 Burmese military battalions involved in systematic conscription of forced labor.

[3]Mon National Relief Committee (MNRC) took responsibility with the permission of Royal Thai Government, to provide sheltering to refugees in Thai refugee camps.  But the refugees were pushed back after the New Mon State Party signed the first ceasefire agreement with regime in the name of State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in 1995. 

[4]The Burma’s military regime, State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) ruled the country until 1997, and it changed a new name as State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), but they are the same regime. 

[5] 2008 Constitution is an undemocratic Constitution, which favoursthe military to have special legislative and administrative power in both Union Parliament and the national government. 

[6] National League for Democracy (NLD) won 43 seats in interim election in April 2012, including many constituencies in Nay PyiDaw area, which was strongholds to the government party, Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the military, Burmese Army. 

[7] Burma Time, one year after Kachin teacher’s death, justice still elusive, on January 16, 2016.

[8] Irrawaddy, Missing reporter killed in the custody of Burma Army, on October 24, 2014

[9] U Thein Sein designated three major Special Economic Zones with foreign companies, and they are: Tavoy SEZ in Taninthayi Division, Kyauk-phu SEZ in Arakan State, and Thilawar SEZ in delta area. 

[10] Burma Time, Thousands of refugees bear the brunt of war in Kachin State, reported on 9 June 2017

[11] Irrawaddy: Three Burma Journalists Charged, Remained in Hsipaw Prison, reported on 28 June 2017

[12] Reuters, Burma Human Rights Commission faces outcry over child abuse case, reported on September 23, 2016

[13] Disputed Territory, Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM), reported October 2013

[14] Relief Web, Military Involved in Massive Land Grabs, Parliamentary Report, dated on 5 March 2013

[15] Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Examining Foreign Investment in Mon State, Burma, reported June 2016

[16] Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Yearning to be heard: Mon farmers continued struggle for acknowledgement and protection their rights, February 2015. 

[17] Mon Region Customary Land Tenure Documentation Committee, The Customary Land Tenure Survey Results,. released in a workshop on January 6-7, 2018

[18] Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Unknown Destination: Hope and doubt Regarding IDP resettlement in Mon State, reported September 2012

[19] Undefined person, the Mon National Education Committee proposed for teachers’ salaries to NLD government, but he said that NLD government rejected it because NMSP is not signature to Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to support on Mon teachers. 

[20] “More than half of rape cases involve children,” Burma Times, 20 August 2015; “Deputy minister notes ‘worrisome’ rise in child rape cases,” Burma Times, 15 December 2016; and “Lifting the lid on child rape,” Democratic Voice of Burma, 15 December 2016.

[21] Human Rights Foundation of Monland, “I STILL REMEMBER”, Desires for Acknowledge and Justice for the Past and on-going human rights violations in Mon Areas of Southern Burma.

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