Burma > Background on Burma
(Sources: HRW, US Campaign for Burma)
Burma (also known as Myanmar) gained independence from Britain in 1948 and has been ruled by the military in one form or another since that time. The current regime, a military junta led by Senior General Than Shwe, has been in place since September 1988, when armed forces crushed the “8-8-88” pro-democracy uprising and created the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). SLORC, later re-named the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has maintained power and control ever since, suppressing opposition forces, violently quelling protests, and arresting and sometimes torturing pro-democracy and human rights activists.
Following SLORC’s seizure of power in 1988, Burmese citizens saw an opportunity for regime change with statewide elections in 1990. The National League for Democracy (NLD) won with a landslide 82 percent of the vote, yet the regime refused to relinquish power, and instead put NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of Burma’s founding father, Aung San) under house arrest. In 1991, while still under house arrest, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, Suu Kyi has been released for a few short periods of time, but has spent 13 of the past 18 years detained. She remains the world’s only Peace Prize Laureate still under arrest.
In 1993, the junta established a National Convention, with the express goal of drafting a new Burmese constitution. From the outset, participation by political parties, ethnic groups, and other non-military delegates was sharply curtailed and alternative proposals were routinely ignored. Criticism of the Convention was expressly forbidden by law.
In September of 2007, after years of sporadic and haphazard sessions, the National Convention finally concluded. A list of “Detailed Basic Principles” was finalized, which in turn, formed the basis of the national constitution. A national referendum was held in May of 2008, during which the military regime claimed the constitution was approved with 92.4 percent support, despite numerous accounts of false votes, coercion, and threats during the election process. Critics assert that the constitution entrenches military control, restricts citizens’ freedoms and rights, provides the future president with sweeping emergency powers, and prevents NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi from running for office.
In September and October of 2007, widespread protests led by Burmese monks in response to rising gas prices were violently countered by the regime. Varying reports suggest that approximately 50 people were killed and over 3,000 monks were imprisoned. Political dissidents were arrested and remain in detention at unknown locations.
HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD
Human rights violations continue to be widespread in Burma, particularly in ethnic areas of the borderlands. Among the abuses are forced labor, summary executions, sexual violence against women and girls, land confiscations, and the use of landmines to disrupt civilian food production. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that the ongoing military offensive in northern Karen state has displaced an estimated 40,000 civilians since early 2006, and that 43 new Burmese army bases have been built in the area, using convict and forced civilian labor. The use of landmines by the Burmese army and non-state armed groups remains widespread, and Landmine Monitor, the research and monitoring initiative of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), reports that Burma engages in “atrocity de-mining”—forcing civilians to act as human minesweepers.
Recruitment of children into the government armed forces continues, a result of high desertion rates and chronic understaffing. HRW reports that recruiters and civilian brokers use threats and physical force to recruit children as young as 10, and that former soldiers have indicated that in many training camps, children constitute 30 percent or more of new recruits.
In June of 2007, a major report on health and human rights from the University of California-Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health outlined how epidemics of malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and other diseases—many of them developing drug resistant strains—in Burma’s border areas were exacerbated by government healthcare expenditures that remain a fraction of state military expenditures. The report stated that while approximately 40 percent of Burma's annual spending goes to the military, only 3 percent goes to health care. In addition to Aung San Suu Kyi, the SPDC continues to imprison an estimated 2,100 prisoners of conscience, many of whom are subject to torture and several of whom have died while incarcerated.